Goldberg Variation

Photo: Eugene Richards

When Myla Goldberg leaves her new house in Kensington, Brooklyn, to embark on her second-book tour, she hopes to be spared that staple question of bookstore audiences: “Was this autobiographical?”

Five years ago, Goldberg was, like nearly every first novelist, besieged with that very question: Her debut, Bee Season, wherein a family unravels around a shy 11-year-old spelling-bee savant, was assumed to reflect the creator’s quirky sensibility. (The movie adaptation arrives in November.) In contrast, Goldberg’s follow-up, Wickett’s Remedy, deliberately steps off into the past: It’s a beautifully intricate, structurally experimental novel about a working-class South Boston survivor of the 1918 influenza epidemic and her husband, the inventor of a snake-oil tonic. “I wanted to prove to myself that I was a real writer,” she says. “To write something as far from myself as possible.”

In real life, Goldberg’s persona is inescapable: She’s a chirpy exemplar of nerd hip who strolls into a Park Slope tea shop sporting striped shorts, green high-top All Stars, and a WFMU T-shirt featuring a Mexican wrestler. She’s performed with the lit hipsters of One Ring Zero and plays accordion and banjo for a band called the Walking Hellos. She even made spelling bees cool.

It’s a reputation she regards with mixed feelings. “I guess on paper it looks like I’m in the midst of this huge, big bubbling thing,” she says. “But I don’t feel that way.” She was shocked to discover a ditty called “Song for Myla Goldberg,” by rock act the Decemberists. “Perhaps delusionally, I do think of myself as an outsider.”

Goldberg rhapsodizes about the diversity of Kensington, a neighborhood beyond the pale of brownstone Brooklyn, where she switches off work and parenting in half-day shifts with her husband, cartoonist Jason Little. (They have a 1-year-old daughter.) While working on the novel, she read nothing written after 1945. “There is no end to my ambition,” she says. “I was thinking, What would it be like to work on this book 30 years from now?

But then, she also has to write in the here and now, which means facing her own self-consciousness. Goldberg trashed an earlier draft of Wickett’s after nearly three years. “The characters were dead on the page,” she says. “I wasn’t investing them with myself.” So she wound up doing what she’d been dead-set on avoiding: She put a whole lot more Myla Goldberg into it.

Wickett’s Remedy
By Myla Goldberg
Doubleday, September 20 ($24.95).

Goldberg Variation