ON LOVE / LITERATURE
interview by SABINE HELLER
portrait by FRANCES TULK-HART
American novelist David Goodwillie has published only two books, both of which reached immediate acclaim. First, he published his memoir, Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, in which he chronicles the various jobs he’s held — professional baseball player, private investigator, Sotheby’s auction house expert, Internet entrepreneur and hard-nosed investigative journalist who exposes the Italian Mafia’s activities in Manhattan’s garment industry. Then, he wrote his first novel, American Subversive, a literary thriller that doubles as social satire in its clever exploration of revolutionary behavior in an empty age. Goodwillie is in the process of writing his third book, a novel about love’s struggle to sustain itself in a self-obsessed digital age.
SABINE HELLER — Why did you choose to publish a memoir before writing your first novel?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — I think it was a confidence issue. I spent my first seven years in New York running around town calling myself a writer without actually putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys). I didn’t even take a writing class. But I did live some life. I bounced around from crazy job to crazy job just trying to stay afloat, like most everyone else I knew, and when the century turned, I realized I’d come to embody the malaise and general confusion of my generation: the drifting and ironic detachment, the hopeful earnestness, the search for a kind of authenticity. It was something I wanted to explore. I wasn’t ready to write a fictional story from scratch, and anyway had no idea how. But we had entered the golden age of memoir (ushered in by Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and it was a genre that intrigued me. I thought, well, why not give that a shot. It had to be easier than a novel, no? I mean, for better or worse, the narrative was already there. With memoir, it’s not a question of what to put in but what to leave out.
SABINE HELLER — And how did you decide your life was worth documenting?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — I think I came at it backwards. Most people write memoirs or autobiographies because they’ve done something exceptional. I was the opposite. I seemed to specialize in early failure, which was magnified by the dot-com collapse followed closely by 9/11. Everyone was failing. Everyone was unsteady. The arc of my life (if not the sordid particulars) suddenly felt universal. Restlessness and chaos were things I felt I could write about with a certain authority.
SABINE HELLER — When you decided to write your memoir, did you try to tailor your life in order to report it later?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — No, I never did that. I had a vague notion that I might one day write about parts of my life — playing baseball, chasing the Mafia, high society at Sotheby’s, low-lives downtown and, of course, certain people, friends, lovers, and family. What writer doesn’t have that notion?
SABINE HELLER — You open American Subversive with the following Che Guevara quote: “Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
DAVID GOODWILLIE — American Subversive is very much a story about love. First, love for her brother is what steers my character Paige Roderick toward radicalism. Then, love for Aidan is what finally steers her away. Love, be it misguided or not, is at the heart of all extremism, be it in the name of a person, religion or ideology. What better definition of a fanatic then someone who loves too much?
SABINE HELLER — Is Paige really guided by love, or do her actions come as a result of anguish and loss?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between thought and experience — the idea that someone must experience something firsthand in order to truly grasp the truth behind it. A mother coming out against the war only after her son has died. A millionaire funding cancer research after he’s been diagnosed himself. Or the most famous specific example in recent years: Dick Cheney, a man not known for enlightened views, suddenly coming out for marriage equality because his daughter is gay. That it takes being affected personally to get people to think deeply — or even just a little bit — about an issue is partly human nature, of course, but it’s also more than slightly pathetic. With Paige, here she is, working at a Washington D.C. think tank, paralyzed by the Iraq War but unable to do anything about it. Then her beloved brother dies and — once affected personally — she not only faces down hard truths in her life, but sets off to avenge them.
SABINE HELLER — You grew up in a relatively traditional, all-American way. At what point did the idea of rebellion enter your psyche?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — I found my “traditional, all-American” upbringing — which involved suburbs, private schools, conservative parents (my mother did eventually run off with a woman) and a noticeable (and obviously toll-taking) family aversion toward self-examination — to be more than a bit stifling. Pretty quickly, I gravitated toward the “other,” whatever form that took (be it minority friends or political thought). That said, I was never one to storm the barricades myself. Perhaps it’s in this gap — this shame spiral! — between thought and action, apathy and engagement, that the seeds of my writing career — and the theme of my first novel — were sewn.
SABINE HELLER — From your memoir, I know that your life hasn’t been dissimilar to that of Aidan, the male protagonist of American Subversive.
DAVID GOODWILLIE — I certainly share certain geographic and lifestyle similarities (and proclivities) with Aidan, but I think it stops there. I’ve always hated the Internet; Aidan is a blogger. I’m originally a suburban kid; he’s a city-wise New Yorker. Most important, I’ve always been an optimist, someone who believes in possibilities, while Aidan is a seen-it-all cynic (at least until Paige barrels into his life). When I conceived of the two characters — Paige, a woman who cares too much about the world, and Aidan, who doesn’t give a shit about anything — I saw myself somewhere in the middle. But maybe that’s wishful thinking. I’m a guy, after all; I’m not married; I live in downtown Manhattan; I hang out with artists and writers and journalists; and mostly, I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing. So sure, I guess I can relate to his character.
SABINE HELLER — Through Aidan’s perspective you’re able to cleverly criticize the age in which we are living. What makes this moment in time so unique?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — The age of technology is moving too fast to critique with any authority, certainly in novels. But what do stand out are certain emerging truths that seem fascinatingly at odds with prevailing wisdom. Like the relationship between the wired world and loneliness; or busyness and achievement; or social networking and love. So often it seems the technologies and mediums created for one purpose in fact foster the opposite. It’s an idea I wanted to explore in American Subversive. Hence Aidan’s hectic media-saturated life of loneliness and detachment, and at the other extreme, the North Carolina back-to-the-landers, who by eschewing so much of the modern world, have fostered a real community. “Progress” is a tricky concept.
SABINE HELLER — Is American Subersive actually a subversive novel?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — American Subversive is a political novel, and I wrote it partly as a think piece, or rather, not just as entertainment. That said, I never had an overt agenda, and the issues involved are, I think, complex and nuanced enough for all kinds of open debate (to this day I still get emails from both liberal and conservative readers claiming the novel as their own). Ultimately, it’s a book that asks how we should be living in and responding to the world around us, and I wanted readers to think about (and answer) that for themselves.
SABINE HELLER — Aidan also fetishizes Paige. I’m recalling a scene in which Aidan is having sex with his girlfriend, Cressida, but, in order to orgasm, has to think about “the revolutionary uncovered.” Are you drawing a correlation between sexuality and violence?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — Beauty and extremism, sexuality and violence … what odd pairings and yet time and again — especially since World War II and the advent of the advertising/marketing age — they exist in tandem. Certainly Paige is a nod at least in part to the chic, sunglass-wearing revolutionaries of the Sixties/Seventies, be it Ulrike Meinhof of Germany’s Red Army Faction or Bernardine Dohrn of the American Weather Underground. Sex sells, no matter what the product.
SABINE HELLER — Is her character based on someone you know?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — It’s tough to find a good bomb-building revolutionary in America these days (though I spoke with several from yesteryear). The violent side of Paige is most definitely a fictional construct, one that pays a debt to real-life revolutionaries past. That said, the activist side of her, the world-saving part, can be traced to the heroine of Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, my close friend (and high school sweetheart) Emily Edson, a brilliant and beautiful activist who works for the UNHRC in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Emily and I have these amazing Skype talks sometimes, where she’d be in some God-forsaken place, like South Sudan, in a bulletproof jacket and UN blue helmet while the Janjaweed roam around the desert outside her hut, and I’d be sitting in my sunny Chelsea apartment sipping a cup of gourmet coffee. It’s a great way to feel like you’re doing nothing with your life.
SABINE HELLER — What are you writing now?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — The novel’s working title is The Morgan Stop, after the Brooklyn neighborhood where it takes place. In many ways it’s the opposite — at least love-story-wise — of American Subversive in that the 30-something couple at its center is very much in love in the early pages and spends the book fighting to stay that way (the girl has a past that she has lied about). It’s a deep and critical exploration of modern romance centering on a particular couple as they fight to save their relationship against the backdrop of our noisy, modern, instant-gratification world.
SABINE HELLER — So do you believe we are better in pairs than alone?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — The landscape of love and relationships is changing so fast. The failure of the traditional marriage construct has led to a complete reshuffling of needs and priorities — i.e.: more people living exactly how they want, in whatever form that takes. I do think humans have an inclination to “pair off,” but the societal constructs — religious, legal, economic, etc. — that have arisen around this inclination have all but smothered it. Relationships should and will endure, but (eventually) only on their own individual terms.
SABINE HELLER — You’re deeply critical of the “instant-gratification technology culture” in which we live and its relationship to love.
DAVID GOODWILLIE — Between porn and online dating, sexting and cam shows, it’s getting easier to imagine the generations after mine living their love lives essentially virtually. And how could that not affect “IRL” (In Real Life) relations between people? Choice is a tough drug to ignore. But what isn’t changing (much) is the very real and thorny issue of babies and biology, and it’s at this fault line — between technology and nature; what we could do and what we must do — that disaster looms.
SABINE HELLER — The over-simplification of love seems to be a symptom of our modern age. There’s a great deal of pressure for one ill-defined notion to address varied and conflicting human needs. Can love, in fact, conquer all?
DAVID GOODWILLIE — If love exists — and I very much think it does — then we have to believe it can conquer all. What a wonderful notion, that such an unquantifiable impulse or conviction could triumph over everything known. I’ve been in love a few times. I know friends and relatives who’ve been deeply in love for many years. It’s rare, of course, (perhaps even endangered), but if it can happen, then I’ll keep looking for it. Really, what else is there?
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