Allegra Goodman, SAM

Allegra Goodman, SAM

In this special episode (a live event for the Streicker Center!), Zibby speaks to author Allegra Goodman about Sam, a Read With Jenna pick, and a powerful and endearing coming-of-age story with poignant reflections on class, addiction, sacrifice, parenthood, and love. Zibby and Allegra talk about the protagonist, Sam, analyzing her neurodiversity, her love of climbing, her need for her father’s attention, and the realization that her parents are humans with flaws. Allegra also discusses the process behind her title and cover, how her writing has changed since becoming an empty nester, and the books and writers that have inspired her recently.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Streicker Center. I am Marjorie Shuster, coordinator of our literary events here at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center. I am very pleased today that we are hosting Allegra Goodman, whose work I have been a fan of for a very, very long time. This new novel, Sam, is wonderful. I cannot wait to hear her conversation between Allegra and Zibby Owens. Zibby is back with us. Zibby is — let’s see if I get everything. Zibby is an author and a new bookstore owner and now a publisher. As always, I’d like to thank the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation for their support of this series. At this point, I’m sure everyone knows the drill, please write your questions in the chat feature of Zoom. We will try to get to as many as we can. Welcome, Allegra. Welcome, Zibby. Have a wonderful conversation.

Zibby Owens: Thank you so much. I’m also a podcaster, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” This will eventually live on there as well, so if you want to listen to it again or whatever. Thanks, Allegra. Thanks, Marjorie. Hi.

Allegra Goodman: There you are.

Zibby: I’m here.

Allegra: Hi.

Zibby: I am so excited to talk to you about Sam, which is the Read with Jenna pick. Was that just the most exciting thing? Tell me the story of finding out you were a Read with Jenna pick.

Allegra: Oh, my goodness. She picks them very far in advance, as you probably know. I found out back in May that I was going to be the January pick. It didn’t seem very real at the time, but a flurry of emails and very exciting. I was like, what? Me? My book? What? When I did meet her, she really reads the books. She loves the books that she picks. Her passion is evident. I would say it’s a great experience. It’s very authentic.

Zibby: I’m glad she reads them. I didn’t have any doubt. I’m glad that she loved it, as did so many people. Oh, my gosh, so exciting. Sam, why don’t you tell everybody listening what this book is about? By the way, I love this hot pink on Valentine’s Day. Happy Valentine’s Day to everybody who’s watching tonight and to you, Allegra.

Allegra: Happy Valentine’s Day to all the readers and the booksellers and the people who work so hard to get the word out about books like Sam. The book is a coming-of-age story about a young girl growing up on the North Shore of Massachusetts. I always say the North Shore of Massachusetts because — I grew up in Hawaii. I grew up on Oahu, and the North Shore meant something different on my island. It’s a book about somebody turning into a human being. It starts when she’s a little girl. It shows her heart opening and her mind opening and her becoming aware of the world. It is, in some ways, very simple because it is a coming-of-age story. In some ways, it’s very complex because people are so complicated. The heart is so interesting to explore.

Zibby: I feel like it’s also really about a girl’s search and desperation for her father’s love. That’s such a universal theme, just wanting that attention. Maybe not every dad is as unpredictable as her dad. We can get into that in a second. I do think that’s a big theme, is that longing and coming to terms with the fact that your parents are who they are, which we all have to do at some point, I guess. We don’t have to, but most people do.

Allegra: It tends to happen. When the book starts, Sam is really young. Her dad is magical. He is a magician also. He’s just a magical being. She doesn’t mind even that much that he appears and disappears. Then as she gets older, she begins to see him as a flawed person, just as we all are flawed. He has some challenges in his life. He disappoints her. She has to grapple with that. You’re right. A lot of the book and a lot of growing up is realizing that your parents are human beings and people, not mythical people up there. They’re human. A lot of the book is about her longing for his love and coming to terms with what he is and what he can’t be for her. It’s hard. Some of that is hard.

Zibby: It also really resonated with me that she never gave up. She doesn’t really give up hope. I feel like with parents and parental love, there’s always this benefit of the doubt. Well, maybe this time they’ll come through. Somebody in the comments said, “Who is Jenna Pick?” I wanted to clarity. Jenna Bush Hager is the cohost of the Today Show with Hoda. She has a book club called Read with Jenna. The Read with Jenna book club picks a book every month. This was the January book for Read with Jenna. Just to clarify. I was supposed to not look at the comments, but I looked at the comments and got distracted. Sorry, Marjorie. I wasn’t supposed to do that. One of the big through lines in this story is climbing and trying to attain heights, both figuratively and physically. Tell me about that piece of the narrative. Do you climb rocks? Where did you even come up with this? You’re from Hawaii, and we’re rock climbing in Massachusetts. What the heck? Where did that come from?

Allegra: We have rocks in Hawaii too. I am not much of a climber. I’m sort of like Sam’s first boyfriend who says, “I repelled a little bit in camp.” I have four children. Two of them climb a little bit, but just for fun. Again, not a climber. Definitely, an observer as a writer. I watch people outside. If you go hiking around here with our beautiful New England boulders, you can see people climbing out there in the woods. Of course, climbing is so popular with gyms everywhere. Lots of little kids climb. I was really interested in the sport because it has a side to it that’s sort of privileged. Children are on teams. They’re competing in a gym, which is expensive. There’s a side to it that’s very laid-back and just all about going bouldering outside with your friends. It’s just doing it for yourself. In that respect, it’s a little bit like the surfing that I grew up with. There are competitive surfers, and there are surfers who just hang out on the beach. It’s a whole culture. They’re very mellow. They’re all about, let’s share our food. Let’s have some beer and just enjoy nature. I was interested in those two sides of it.

Sam experiences both in the book. She has a friend who’s from a wealthier family who is involved in a gym. She gets a little bit involved in that competitive culture of climbing. She also gets to know some people who just climb outside for fun. I was interested in the sport in that sense. I was also super interested in the idea that an activity can mean different things to you as you get older. The thing that you were really passionate about when you were ten, you might feel differently about when you’re sixteen and you might come back to when you’re thirty and, again, feel differently about it in that way. The other thing that really fascinated me about climbing is that it’s a sport that requires a lot of strategy and intellect. You have to be smart to climb. You have to think your way through in how you’re going to do something. It’s not about brute strength, necessarily. To me, that says a lot about how you go through life. There’s no route planned out for you. You have to figure it out as you go along. If you make one choice, then that precludes other choices. You put your hand here, and then what do you do with your other foot? I was really interested in that aspect of it as well. She’s smart. She’s smart on the wall. She’s smart physically and spatially.

Zibby: It seems like she has dyslexia or some sort of learning/reading issue that’s never particularly diagnosed. It sounds like her father probably had that as well. Some of the hallmarks of that is having this massive creativity in other areas. I feel like the two of them in particular, the brilliance with the climbing and those scenes in the book where all of a sudden, she just finds a new way — she’s like, oh, I can go this way. It’s so exciting as the reader to be like, yes, you’re going there. I love how you’re showing neurodiversity in its greatest form, in the struggles in school, but also where the strengths come in too.

Allegra: Totally. There’s so many different ways to learn and to grow. You’re right. She says that she hates reading when she’s a little kid. She clearly struggles. She gets extra help in school. She tells her mom she hates books, but she’s very bright. She excels in other ways. Her brother also has his challenges learning and with focus and behavior. I would say, yes, neurodiversity is definitely present. There are many kinds of intelligences. I was just really, really interested in that. She’s smart as a kid without being bookish. One of the things that I was super interested in when I thought about writing a coming-of-age story was writing one in which the protagonist doesn’t become me, the author. A lot of books, they’re growing and they’re growing, and then at the end, they become a novelist. A wonderful film like Girlhood, like Lady Bird — I should say Lady Bird. Lady Bird’s growing up in California. At the end of the book, she comes to New York, and she’s going to become Greta Gerwig. Boyhood, which is the one I was thinking of, at the end of the film, he becomes a photographer. He’s on his way to becoming a filmmaker like Richard Linklater. What is it like to just write a coming-of-age of somebody who’s different from the author? Not the bookish type.

Zibby: I have to tell you, I’m writing a novel now, which is due in two weeks, and that is exactly what happens in the novel. Maybe I need to switch it up.

Allegra: Not that that’s a bad thing. There’s also Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I could give you lots of examples. Jo March in Little Women.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll switch it up. Who knows? Maybe she’ll toss the whole career away. Maybe this is the big breakthrough I’ve been looking for. You talked already a little about the wealth disparity and how that really can affect training. That’s also such a huge issue that does not get discussed enough, I feel like, for all athletes, even track and field athletes today and people who need to train, but then how do they support themselves? How do they do all the therapies they need for rock climbing and all of it? There was one scene where her coach asks her where she’s been, why she had to miss a session or something. She was like, transportation. She just left it at that, which I loved. It’s true, there are so many roadblocks to success as an athlete. Just talk about that for a little bit.

Allegra: Her mom is a single mom who’s working really hard. They have one car and one driver. If her mom can’t take her — it’s far. She doesn’t live in the city. She has to take the bus if her mom can’t take her. That’s over an hour. Things happen. You can be late. You can miss. Her friend , who comes from a comfortably off family, her dad installs a chin-up bar in her doorframe so that she can get strong. When Sam asks her mom — they’re renting an apartment. They can’t do that. She’s like, “No, it’ll damage the door. We can’t do that.” The reality is really different for her.

Zibby: The mom character was fabulous too, all of her day-to-day struggles, the logistics of her life, which were very stressful, and how when just one thing falls out of place, the card tower cascades. Towards the end of the book when she’s thinking about the rest of her life, there was an offhand thing where it said she was thirty-eight years old. I was like, thirty-eight? She’s a baby. I can’t believe that she was this young.

Allegra: You know it intellectually because she dropped out of college to have Sam in college.

Zibby: I know.

Allegra: You don’t think of it. The reason is because it’s all from Sam’s point of view, and she thinks of her mom as her mom, which is another thing that happens when you’re a kid. Your parents are old. Even if they’re young, they’re old because they’re your parents. Even when her mom says, “I’m young. I’ve got my whole life ahead of me. I’m thirty-seven and a half years old,” it sounds like, yeah, right, Mom. She still thinks that’s old because she’s twenty or twenty-one. That perspective on age is very interesting.

Zibby: My son is like — my youngest son. I have four kids also. My youngest is eight. He’s like, “Are you going to be alive for my graduation?” I’m like, “I hope so. Come on.”

Allegra: They don’t have a sense of time.

Zibby: He’s like, “Will you be walking? Are you going to have a cane?” I was like, “What? No.” I actually think your point of view with Sam is so interesting because it almost, for a while, could be a YA novel. It almost could’ve been packaged that way and marketed to that age group more. I wondered if that was a debate you had or if this was firmly an adult book, but you want us to see the coming-of-age of a teen up through past teenage years. Tell me about that.

Allegra: That’s a really astute question. I can tell that you’re very much in the book world.

Zibby: Oh, sorry.

Allegra: No, it’s good. I thought about it when I was writing it. One of the things I do in the book is that the language starts very simple because her perspective is a child’s perspective. Then it gets more sophisticated as she grows up. I was afraid that the first people who read this book were going to open it up and be like, is this a children’s story? Is this a YA? What is this? What category is this? I was happy that my editor thought of it as, really, a book for adults. Of course, there is crossover. Lots of adults read so-called books for children or YA. These are just marketing categories that break down, of course. She saw that it was more sophisticated than it let on at the beginning. She saw that it was really about the process and the growth of this girl. It starts off simple like a children’s story. You’re like, this is this little girl. She’s in school, like Beverly Cleary. What is happening? It takes her, from the inside, through adolescence then to becoming a young woman as well.

Zibby: Once I kept reading and it became all about her relationships and all the — I was like, okay, okay.

Allegra: It’s not Ramona Quimby.

Zibby: It’s not Ramona Quimby, exactly. It was also interesting how you brought in what it’s like to have a family in which there are two different dads — the same mom, two dads — and the effect of the dad on the other siblings when the one would swoop in. Obviously, they had more of a financial relationship with one dad than the other, which you say very early. How to navigate that as a child, what happens if that’s not a particularly positive thing for the family structure?

Allegra: It’s hard. It’s complicated. In that case, what really is shown is what a rock Courtney, the mom, is. She’s the one who holds those children together. The two children are really close even though they are far apart in age and have different fathers. The three of them really are this family unit. It’s really thanks to Courtney because she’s the one who’s there every day. She’s the one who does all the hard, boring things, the difficult things, the not fun things, the not fun part of parenting as well as the fun parts. She’s the one who’s tired all the time.

Zibby: Did you have a mental image of Courtney? Do you have an actress in mind, or an actor? Who is she in your head?

Allegra: That’s a good question. I think of her as, she’s beautiful, but she’s a little bit getting heavy. I have to think about who would be a — somebody real-looking, not a movie star type.

Zibby: This is tough.

Allegra: She loves hair. She’s a hairstylist, so she loves hair. I feel like I have to ask Courtney. They’re so real to me. I’ll have to ask each of the people who would play them.

Zibby: Do you miss hanging out with Courtney all day? Do you feel like talking about her keeps her in the — and Sam, of course, and all the characters. Are you sad when you put down a novel?

Allegra: Yeah. They seem real, sort of caught in amber in my head.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Your career, take us through that. This is not your first book. Take us through the whole thing.

Allegra: Oh, wow. We don’t have a lot of time.

Zibby: Cliff notes.

Allegra: This is the cliff notes. I wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old. I really wanted to be a writer. I started writing seriously all through high school. My first story was published when I was nineteen. I published short stories. I started by writing short stories. I recommend that to people interested in writing. It’s a little bit more bite-size. I then started writing novels. I, again, wrote all through school and just kept publishing. I had four children. Kept writing. What did you say? Mothers don’t have time to read. Mothers make time to read. Mothers can make time to write sometimes. I’ve been writing all through it. My youngest child is in college. My oldest child, who is ten years older than my youngest, is an economist. He actually said to me, “I’ve noticed that your productivity has gone way up since we all left home.” I was like, hmm, you don’t have to be a labor economist to figure that one out. I am writing more now, I would say, than when my children were all little, but I kept working at it steadily. I’ve written eight or nine books. Maybe ten. I’m not sure.

Zibby: You just lose track after a while. You’re that prolific.

Allegra: I don’t focus on that. I work on the thing at hand. I live in the moment.

Zibby: Nice. I like it. Are you writing something new now?

Allegra: Yes. I am doing a couple things. I have a new novel, which is coming out in 2025, I think it’s scheduled for, which seems like tomorrow. I wrote it, a lot of it, when I was writing this book, which is weird. It’s a very, very different book. I wrote them at the same time. I don’t talk about the stuff that I’m in the middle of until it’s done, until it’s really done.

Zibby: Wait, how did you write two books at the same time? Take me through a day of that.

Allegra: Here’s the thing. I like to be one of those writers who chips away at things. I like a little bit at a time. After three hours on something, I get really tired. What I do is a session in the morning on, say, Sam. Then in the afternoon, I do the other project because I’d be done for the day on the first one, if that makes sense. I just like to switch it up. Again, I don’t try to write a huge amount of either of them, but I try to be very consistent. That’s how I did it. Also, I did it because I had to do it. I was just compelled to write this other book.

Zibby: Really? Wow. You didn’t get confused in all the characters or any of that stuff? No?

Allegra: No, they’re very different.

Zibby: That’s amazing.

Allegra: I didn’t do that when I had four little kids at home, I should say. That’s me as the empty nester version of the mom.

Zibby: You still have your ten-year-old at home, right?

Allegra: No, my youngest is in college now.

Zibby: Oh, I thought you said someone was ten.

Allegra: She’s ten years younger than my oldest. I have a ten-year gap between my oldest and my youngest child.

Zibby: I was literally like, how does she have a ten-year-old economist?

Allegra: No, no, no. My oldest is an economist. He’s thirty. I have a twenty-seven-year-old, a twenty-three-year-old, and a twenty-year-old. That’s it.

Zibby: I see. Now the floodgates are open. You’re just writing nonstop. You’ve got nothing to hold you back.

Allegra: I have no one to blame anymore, which is a problem. No one to blame except myself if things don’t go well.

Zibby: That’s another way to look at it. There’s a theme coursing through this book both in Sam’s relationships with the men in her life, including her father and her mom’s other — I don’t even know what to call that guy, her brother’s father, and the relationships that she gets in. I feel like there aren’t a lot of men in here that make you feel really good about men. What was that about? Where did that come from?

Allegra: Let’s defend the boyfriend, Justin. He’s a good one. There are a few good ones.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll give you that.

Allegra: I have to say, although Sam’s dad is — he’s so flawed, but I love him. I love that character. I love him too. Her brother’s dad is more problematic and can be pretty brutal at times. What is going on with that? Again, it’s all from Sam’s point of view. Her point of view evolves as she gets older. If the book continued, it would continue to evolve. At times, this is what she sees around her. She also has a mentor in her life who’s a man, who’s her professor at North Shore Community College. It’s not all bleak. There’s kindness, but I hear what you’re saying. It’s tough. She sees the world through her own eyes and comes to see it through her mom’s eyes, and her mom is a single mom left to do, really, everything.

Zibby: I like how her first relationship, she was just not into the whole thing at all. She’s almost wondering, maybe I’m gay. Maybe this. I don’t know. Not to give anything away. In her second relationship, she was like, oh, this is why people kiss. That was awesome.

Allegra: Thanks.

Zibby: Any experiences in your own life that have informed this novel?

Allegra: Oh, no, I’m not a memoirist. It’s all purely fiction. That’s why I like to write fiction.

Zibby: It is great because you see, in Sam’s development, what she’s looking for. At times, you don’t know what you’re looking for until you know who you are. Those things kind of develop in parallel, I feel like. Did you do that on purpose?

Allegra: Definitely. Her experiences with these guys trying to figure out what she wants, who she is and also what she wants — also, looking back when she’s older, she may have a very different perspective on some of this stuff. She gets involved with somebody who she thinks she’s in love with. She may not think that when she’s forty when she looks back at that experience. I took a little bit of a risk because I really chose to stay with her point of view. I really committed to her point of view even where the reader is like, oh, no, don’t do that. Oh, god, how can you trust him? You’re making a mistake. I just chose to really inhabit her for better and for worse. That’s one of the things that happens when you write fiction. I’m very method.

Zibby: Love it. When it was announced that this was a Read with Jenna book club pick, Jenna also has optioned this, right? Is that right, or did I get that wrong? No, I got it wrong. That’s Maame. Maybe that’s Maame.

Allegra: If she has, I’m the last to know.

Zibby: You know what? I’m mixing it up with her February pick. I’m so sorry. Scratch that. Edit it out of the live feed here.

Allegra: Whoops.

Zibby: That’s okay. It would be a really good movie. It’s almost like Wild where you’re conquering. You could see all of the terrain of the rocks and the building that she climbs. It would be really interesting.

Allegra: It’s very visual. You have to find the right people, like you were saying. You have to cast it well.

Zibby: Yes. Have you seen Free Solo, the rock-climbing movie documentary?

Allegra: Yes. Oh, god.

Zibby: We’ll have to do some collaboration or something. This isn’t quite as intense. When you read for pleasure, which I’m assuming you find time to do, but it’s a big assumption, what writers do you love to read? Have you read anything amazing lately? Who are some of your long-term inspiring authors and current inspiring?

Allegra: One writer I really love is Lily King, who wrote Euphoria and Writers & Lovers, which is set here in Cambridge where I live. She’s just funny and smart and sensitive. She’s a great storyteller. Kevin Wilson, who wrote this amazing book. He has a new book out called Now Is Not the Time to Panic. He wrote Nothing to See Here. He’s got great titles. He is so funny and, again, so smart. His characters are wonderful. He manages to be funny and satirical but also sensitive and character driven at the same time, which is such a tricky thing to do with a light touch. Those are two novelists I love. I also love short stories. I have a friend named Gish Jen who wrote a book recently, I think it’s just out in paperback, called Thank You, Mr. Nixon. It’s stories of China and the Chinese diaspora, of Chinese America. There’s a theme here. She’s also funny and also smart. The cultural issues that she tackles with such a light hand, she does such a good job with it. She’s another one. I do like to try to keep up with fiction if I can. I also read a lot of nonfiction and biography. Just all over the place.

Zibby: Amazing. When you talked about Kevin Wilson having great covers, it brought to mind this current debate, which is, do you think it’s better to have a title like yours, which is one word? The one word versus multiword titles, where do you fall on that? What do you think?

Allegra: I’ve done both. If you write enough books, you can just do all of the above depending on the book. I actually kept trying to think of a good title for this book that was multiword. All of the titles that I came up with sounded so pretentious. I felt like they weren’t working. My working title for the book was Sam. The book is just all her. This book is not a landscape. It’s a portrait. It is her. It’s her face. Not her face, but a photograph of a girl who my editor thought looked like her with her intensity. Her name, that proved to be the best title for this book. I’m all about just, you pick what is appropriate to that project. If you love all different kinds of titles, then just write something else. You’ll find the long title will be appropriate to that.

Zibby: I’m curious, for the people listening, if they have a view, if you find yourself gravitating towards longer titles or shorter titles or if you haven’t even noticed. People in publishing are always asking about this. I’m curious. Also, if there are people who have questions, we can move to incorporating some of the questions as well. I can read some of those. Julie asks, “Do you ever get writing inspiration/ideas when you go on walks with friends?”

Allegra: Hmm. Well, I have a friend named Julie who I walk with all the time. Hi, Julie.

Zibby: Really? Oh, that’s so funny.

Allegra: It’s funny. My friend Julie, who lives in my neighborhood, walks with me. We talk about all kinds of things. She also has four children. It takes us about an hour to discuss all eight of our collective children. My agent is also named Julie. I’ve only once or twice over the years sent the email about carpool to my agent with the autocomplete of the address. I get my ideas from all kinds of places and people.

Zibby: Thank you, Julie, for the self-referential question.

Allegra: If that was the Julie I’m thinking of.

Zibby: It seems like an oddly specific question if it’s not that Julie, so let’s go with it. Judy asks, “Why did you decide to go with Sam and not Samantha?”

Allegra: As I said, I very much inhabit my characters. When I named the character, I thought about what her parents would’ve named her rather than what I would’ve named her, if that makes sense. She is named after somebody named Samantha, but they explain to her that they chose her name, Sam, because they wanted her to be her own person. It was really all her parents, not me.

Zibby: I’m asking one more. Who is this? Who is this girl that you mentioned? Do we know who she is?

Allegra: I don’t know who she is. It is a wonderful photographer. I believe it’s somebody from Croatia or something. It’s sort of an art photographer. They chose this image that she used.

Zibby: Can you imagine? She just walks into a bookstore and is like, oh, my gosh.

Allegra: Hi.

Zibby: Wow, crazy. Susan asks, “What are some –” You just answered this, basically. “What are some of your favorite novels and authors that have inspired you?” Is there anyone you left out that you want to add?

Allegra: I can’t think of it on the fly so much. There are tons.

Zibby: Tamar asked, “Have your books ever been optioned for screen?” Not this one since I — “Who do you see playing these characters?” I know we tried that.

Allegra: They have been optioned, but a lot of books that are optioned aren’t actually made into a movie or made into a TV series. Yes, a couple of them have. I have to think about who would play Sam. It would have to be a very not too girly actress. I think I’d go for real rather than Hollywood-looking if I had the choice.

Zibby: Could we just talk for two seconds about your past books? I’m going to just read the titles here in case there are people who might want to go experience your backlist. In fact, here, I’m going to put it in the chat in case — actually, they’re not letting me do that. I’m putting your website in the chat for people who want to check you out.

Allegra: Thank you. You can see them all there.

Zibby: Which of these has been optioned? Total Immersion, Paradise Park, The Family Markowitz, The Other Side of the Island, The Cookbook Collector, and The Chalk Artist and Speaking of Writing: A Brief Rhetoric.

Allegra: Intuition was optioned. I feel like there was another one, but I can’t remember which one it was. Intuition was optioned for a film and for a television series, all different kinds of things, but didn’t turn into one. All still available, I think.

Zibby: Sorry, I don’t mean to harp on this. That was the question. Gwen asks, “Can you tell us a bit about the two fathers in Sam? Did you write Mitchell to be sympathetic?”

Allegra: Again, I wrote him through Sam’s eyes. Sometimes he seems sympathetic. Sometimes he seems horrible. You just see her love for him and, just as Zibby said, her longing for him and also her heartbreak. To me, he was sympathetic. It’s sort of like you see him colored through her different ages and through her eyes. She changes as time goes on.

Zibby: Nancy asked — oh, this is a good question. “Who are your first readers? How long does it take for you to write a novel?” Yeah, who are your first readers? I’m going to start asking that, Nancy. Thank you for that. No, Gwen. Yeah, Nancy. Thank you.

Allegra: I’ve grown to have fewer and fewer people my stuff at the beginning. When I was younger, it used to be my parents when I was really young. My sister and my parents, they’re great readers. My sister is super smart, super literary, a doctor. She is a great critic. Lately, I just have felt the need to get everything the way I want it before I show — I don’t show chapters as I go as much as I used to. Often, it’ll be my agent, Julie, who reads it first. She often has many thoughts and wonderful ideas and criticisms. Then I take that feedback, and I work on it. Then my editor will be, probably, my second major reader. They’ve become my sounding boards in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Do you have your kids read?

Allegra: My kids, I don’t press it on them. They’re old enough now that if they want to read, they will read it themselves. My oldest son has read quite a bit. My daughter, who the book is dedicated to, she says, “I read the books that are dedicated to me.” It may be a while before she reads another one.

Zibby: To Miranda. I was waiting for a whole long thing, but you got it short and sweet over there. For you, Miranda. Brenda asks, “Can you talk a bit about the theme of dreams in the novel?”

Allegra: Interesting. You means dreams as in, sort of like ambitions, things that you want to do when you get older?

Zibby: She does not specify, so you take that however you want.

Allegra: I would say that Sam’s dad is the real dreamer in the book. He always has a plan. He’s always got a scheme. He’s so creative. He’s the art-y one. He’s the artist. That’s where Sam gets that part of her from. Part of what happens in the book is she starts acknowledging that part of her dad which is sweet and innocent and not so scary and unpredictable and terrible.

Zibby: Michelle asks, “Do you handwrite or type?”

Allegra: I do both. I handwrite a lot of notes. I then compose on the keyboard. Most of my revisions, I do by hand. I’ll print it out, and then I’ll write all over it. I recommend this to people writing novels. I think you can see a lot more on the paper than you can when you’re scrolling on the screen. I think both are really useful. I also think if you get really stuck when you’re in front of your computer and you start freezing up, it can be really good just to take a notebook, go outside, unplug, and write by hand and pretend you’re not writing, or pretend you’re not working. Pretend you’re journaling. Sometimes that can free up the imagination a little bit.

Zibby: Interesting. Janice asks, “Do you know the ending of the story, or does it reveal itself to you as you write?”

Allegra: That’s a great question. It depends on the story and the project. Sometimes I really struggle with the ending. In this book, I had the first half of the book, and then I was like, wait, which direction should Sam go in? I wrote many different possibilities. Unfortunately, this took a long time. Back to the question, how long does it take you to write a book? It takes me a really long time because I make a lot of mistakes. I go down a lot of false paths. I seem to have to write my way into it and out of it again. That takes time. I start exploring different possibilities. Often with a short story, I’ll know where I want it to end. Then in the revision process, which is extensive, sometimes I come up with a better ending. The first impulse is not always the truest and the best. The first impulse could be the more conventional one. It could be something you could improve. Then again, sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just right. A lot of the art of anything, science, fiction, is knowing what’s significant and what is working and what you can discard. That discernment is a lot of the creativity in my work.

Zibby: I like that. I have a random question. What do you like to eat while you’re writing? Do you snack while you go? Do you stop for a nice big lunch? What are some of your go-tos for the course of the writing day?

Allegra: I definitely stop for lunch. I eat breakfast. I never skip a meal. Otherwise, I get very hangry and grumpy. My characters probably devolve. Also, I write a lot of food in my books. If I’m getting hungry, I notice the meals are getting more elaborate. Generally, my go-to snack is black licorice, which nobody in my family likes. They won’t eat it. They don’t eat it before I can get to it, which is true of most of the things that I like.

Zibby: I like it. Amalia asks, “Can you tell us a bit about Total Immersion?”

Allegra: Total Immersion was my very first book of short stories. I wrote it when I was in college. I was really a kid. In the summertime, I’d go home to Hawaii. I’d sit on my bed. I’d write these short stories. I’d read them to my parents and my sister. We’d all laugh. I started publishing them in Commentary. Many of them have Jewish themes and are about Jewish people. Many of them are funny. Some of them are set in Hawaii. Then when I was a junior in college, that’s when an agent called me out of the blue in my dorm room. She said she’d read the stories in the magazine and wondered if I had enough to put together in a book and that she could sell the book. I was like, sure. I sent her what I had. She sold it to what was then Harper & Row — this is many years ago; it’s now HarperCollins — to an editor there. That was published right when I graduated from college. It’s in paperback. You can get it. I noticed that that original hardback book, which nobody really read and few people reviewed, is now a collector’s item. People come to my readings with the original hardcover. They have more copies than I do. Then they ask me to sign them, and they sell them on eBay and stuff. Hold onto your first book. If your first book doesn’t get reviewed or read by anyone, think of it as a collector’s item for when you get better known later.

Zibby: Since this is Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center where we’re talking, can you speak more about the role of Judaism in your life and in your characters’ lives?

Allegra: I definitely especially got my start writing about Jewish characters. Many of my stories, especially my early ones, were centered on Jewish holidays. My first story that I ever wrote, that is included in Total Immersion, is set on Yom Kippur during a Yom Kippur service. There’s a story about a woman who converts to Judaism in that book. There is a story about a seder. I’ve written a lot of stuff like that. I find the American Jewish experience an incredibly rich topic. The community is broad. It’s diverse. There’s so much to write about. My first novel, Kaaterskill Falls, is about a group of extremely observant, sort of separatist German Jews who summer in the Catskills. They live in Washington Heights. Then they drive up to the Catskills and summer there near the beautiful waterfall, Kaaterskill Falls. It’s very much about that community. It’s a deeply Jewish novel about the Jewish experience post-Holocaust. Then in my later work, I’ve written about all kinds of people. It’s sometimes scientists, sometimes tech moguls, teachers, video gamers. I’m really a very curious writer. I’m interested in a lot of different things. Most of my work does have Jewish characters. Some of them are not observant at all or affiliated at all or even identifying as Jewish, and so the Jewish holidays or Jewish milestones are not evident in those works.

Sam’s dad is Jewish. As he says, he’s non-practicing, which is why he doesn’t give her presents for Hanukkah. That’s his excuse. She is the last person who would ever have a bat mitzvah. She’s never set foot in a temple or a synagogue. In those cases, the Jewish content may seem not as evident in the book, but I think of it as underneath. I would say more broadly speaking, I’m really interested in religion. I’m interested in ritual. I’m interested in liturgy. I’m interested in the sacred versus the secular and in the history of the Jewish people. All of those things have fed into my work in different ways, sometimes more overtly and sometimes obliquely, but it’s all there underneath. I should add, although I have a new novel coming out in 2025, I have a book of short stories that I’m completing, which is extremely Jewish. Much like The Family Markowitz, which was a cycle of stories about a Jewish American family named the Markowitzes, this one is also about an extended Jewish family. This one also has a story about a bat mitzvah and a story about a bris — not a lot of good stories about a bris — and a story about a family who is sitting shiva. It has some of those more overtly Jewish themes in it. One of the stories in that cycle is going to be published in The New Yorker in two weeks on the 21st or something like that.

Zibby: That’s really exciting. You’re one of those authors you have to click “follow” so you get notifications about all subsequent — you must have a mailing list or something. Those all sound really wonderful. Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday?

Allegra: I think my favorite Jewish holiday is Shabbat. I observe Shabbat. I don’t write on Shabbat. I don’t write at all, but I read on Shabbat. It’s a great time if you want to unplug and just read a physical book.

Zibby: There was a book by Tiffany Shlain — I don’t know if you ever read it. It was called 24/6. It’s about how she and her whole family take a tech Shabbat every week. No electronics at all.

Allegra: It’s becoming more popular.

Zibby: She’s trying to get laypeople to adopt this as a good reboot. Back to the other questions. Lynn asks, “How do you decide a book is complete?”

Allegra: That’s a really good question. That’s always tricky. I guess Zibby’s trying to figure out whether hers is complete soon.

Zibby: Hers is not done yet. Keep writing.

Allegra: I think it takes time. Sometimes the best way to figure it out is you sort of — one way is, have I said what I want to say? Do I know what I want to say? Have I said it? Do I feel a sense of ground-ness in the ending? Then I would put it away. I would say that’s provisionally done. Then maybe take it up again a few weeks later or a few months later and say, is this really done? Then I think it’s okay to also get feedback from your first readers or listeners or from your editor. Are people satisfied? I would look for a sense of arrival at the end of your book. Has your character arrived? Some books have heavy-duty plots where everything has to be solved. Some books have an emotional payoff where you get to a feeling at the end. That could be your ending. It all depends on the project.

Zibby: I love that. Can you tell us about the Jewish life and community growing up in Hawaii?

Allegra: When I was growing up in Hawaii, the Jewish community was very small. We had no Streicker Center. We did have a Temple Emanu-El, though. We did have a Temple Emanu-El. It was a reform temple, the only physical synagogue there. There were no kosher butchers. My family kept kosher, so we ordered our meat from Long Beach, California. My mom used to drive the station wagon down to the dock to pick up the meat, which we would get six months at a time. She always used to say you have to be there on time because they will unload it on the dock, and it will start melting. It’s hot there. You don’t want your meat to spoil. We had an extra freezer to keep our kosher meat in. It was very, very small, just not a lot of institutional Judaism there. The people who chose to be affiliated and chose to be involved were very involved. It was parents teaching kids. We all knew each other. Hawaii’s so beautiful. It’s such a beautiful place to grow up.

Zibby: Are either of your parents native to Hawaii? How did you end up there?

Allegra: My parents are not native to Hawaii. My dad is from LA. My mom was from Brooklyn. They both were academics who taught at the University of Hawaii. They taught there for twenty-five years. That’s how we ended up there.

Zibby: So cool. Take a stab at this one. Kate asks, “What author do you think was overlooked by the Nobel committee?”

Allegra: I don’t keep track of the Nobel committee. I’m sure many were overlooked. You have to be alive to get the Nobel, for one thing. I’m not sure how they work, so can’t say.

Zibby: Okay, pass. You get a pass. We should do this like you get to call a friend.

Allegra: I think there are authors who feel that they have been overlooked. I feel like Philip Roth felt that he had been overlooked. He won everything else and never got his Nobel Prize. It’s okay. You can’t win them all, Philip.

Zibby: Ruth asks, “What’s your connection to the German Jewish community in Washington Heights?”

Allegra: I don’t have a direct connection to them. As I said, I’m a curious writer who likes to do research. I was really interested in this idea of a remnant of a Jewish community coming from Germany. My grandfather, who died when I was pretty young, made his living as a German teacher. German was his first language. He was an immigrant. What really interested me was this love for German culture even after the Holocaust. He said to me, “I think German is the most beautiful language in the world,” even after he had gotten out of there. That situation interested me. Then I did a lot of research. I also spent a lot of time up in the Catskills where there were people from German Jewish communities summering. As a child, I also had that participant observation mode.

Zibby: Kate said Philip Roth was exactly the answer she was hoping for, by the way. You passed that —

Allegra: — I passed.

Zibby: You passed. Eileen is wondering if you have a Sephardic heritage. Oh, sorry, Marjorie’s coming to cut us off here.

Allegra: No, I don’t have a Sephardic heritage.

Marjorie: You can answer that. I came on because, of course, we’ve been listening, and I came up with a few things that I would like to ask you a little bit about. First of all, I’m very interested in Hawaii. Would you like to expand on that? Do you still have family there? It does sound to grow up.

Allegra: No, I don’t have family there. Only my parents lived there. When they moved away, I was left with no family there, unfortunately. It was an amazing place to grow up. I feel very lucky that I grew up there.

Marjorie: One of the other things I always like to ask an author — I’m sure you grew up with talent. How did you get your first book published? This brings me into talking a bit to Zibby, who’s now a publisher. I’d like to talk about that for a moment.

Allegra: Again, I was very young. It was the dark ages. Literally, editors were typing things on typewriters. If I had a galley from a magazine, it was sent to me. I wrote on it. I sent it back, FedEx, whatever. Now I take pictures of the galley pages with my phone. It’s a different world. Publishing has changed a billion times since then. It’s changed so much in the last five years, let alone in the last thirty years since I started publishing. I think that some things remain the same. That is that if you publish in journals or in magazines, people do read those and notice. You can start small, as I did with short stories, and work your way up. In that sense, the human part of publishing is still intact. That’s still very much there. At the end of the day, there’s that issue of if an editor or somebody loves your book, if they just fall in love with the characters, that’s a constant. That’s the essential ingredient. All the technology and the marketing and everything else can change around that. At the end of the day, it’s the reader and the book.

Marjorie: Did you write as a child? I guess you did.

Allegra: Yes.

Marjorie: Did you get a lot of compliments from your teachers ?

Allegra: Some of them gave me compliments. Some of them thought I was too spacey and I should focus on my math more. I had all of the above.

Marjorie: We’re glad you did not.

Allegra: I had supportive parents.

Marjorie: That brings me to Zibby because Zibby is now a publisher. Same question, if you don’t mind turning to you for a moment. How did you choose the books that you’re publishing, or first writers, etc.?

Zibby: Yes, thank you for this layup question. Our first book just came out. It’s called My What If Year, a memoir about a forty-year-old Latina and Jewish woman who took a year off from her busy life as a CEO to try four internships around the world, Broadway in New York City, in Scotland in hospitality, in the London art world, and then online fitness. That was when I was starting the publishing company in July of 2021. She had written an essay for the magazine that we have called Zibby Mag, which was then called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. I loved it so much. It was about the fitness thing. In the bio she had given us, it said, “She’s at work on a book.” I emailed her out of the blue. I was like, “I loved your essay. What’s going on with this book? Have you sold it?” She said, “No, I haven’t sold it. I have an agent.” I said, “Could you just hold it for a minute? I’m starting a publishing company. Could you just wait for a little bit, please? I want to publish your book.” She was like, “Great.”

Basically, we’re publishing twelve books a year. Sorry for this, Allegra. We’re publishing twelve books a year in fiction and memoir, all contemporary fiction and memoir, all by women so far. We have our schedule through the end of 2024 at this point. All of the books have a strong sense of voice and place, propulsive narrative, and beautiful writing, so Sam would’ve fit right in. We’re excited to bring our books out to readers. We even have a subscription program. You can just join our book club and get one every month. It’s all on Alisha’s book, which came out last week, My What If Year, has been going gangbusters. We’re so excited. CNN, GMA, MSNBC. We have news of another exciting thing Friday. There’s just all sorts of stuff. It’s been incredibly rewarding. Mostly, we want books that make people think and feel and maybe improve their lives a little bit.

Marjorie: We’re going to wind up in a moment or two. For both of you, this is for the publisher and for the author, how much influence do you have on the cover — this will start with the author — the cover, the title, things like that? Then the publisher can answer that.

Allegra: I have a lot of influence on the title. I have some influence on the cover. I think if I really hated the cover, they would have tried something else. In past books, I have vetoed covers. I guess I kind of have veto rights. It’s like, no! Actually, I love this cover. I got really lucky. I’ve had beautiful covers. I would also say that it’s a conversation. The cover’s a conversation, the agent, the editor, the author.

Zibby: For us, we work really closely with all our authors at every stage, from marketing to covers to everything. They give us their wish list of things they like in the cover. Then we take all that into consideration, and what we all think, and make a cover design brief and then get our designs back. If we don’t like the whole first round, we don’t even bother to show it. We have to show something that we all get excited about. Then the author comes and makes changes. We want the author to be super happy. This is your thing. You have to spend all this time holding up and marketing and being like, I love it. This is it. If you hate it, that’s really tough. We want everybody to be happy.

Marjorie: I, for me, feel so lucky that what I do with this — first of all, Allegra, I’ve been reading your books forever. I always loved Kaaterskill Falls as well as everything. When I look to find authors to appear here, I’m very excited when I get to meet my heroes . This has really been wonderful for me. I love listening to you and getting to know you a little bit. Hopefully, in the fall, we’re going to do something in person as well as livestream. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be lucky enough and you’ll come from Boston. You’ll come to New York and be with us in person, which we would love. First of all, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Good luck with this book. It’s a huge hit. It’s all over the place. I think it’s great.

Allegra: Yay, thank you.

Marjorie: I do want to let everybody know, whoever’s watching, next week, we have — I don’t have the book in front me — Ann Leary, The Good — sorry, The Foundling. Her previous was The Good House. Ann Leary’s book, The Foundling, which is also a terrific book. I don’t know if you’ve read it. Thank you very much. Thank you so much, Allegra. Good luck with this book. Zibby, good luck with everything. We’ll talk soon. Thank you all.

Allegra: Thank you.

Marjorie: Buh-bye.

Allegra: Bye.

Allegra Goodman, SAM

SAM by Allegra Goodman

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