Judy Goldman, CHILD

Judy Goldman, CHILD

Zibby is joined by award-winning author Judy Goldman to talk about her latest memoir, Child, which she didn’t feel ready to write until her eighties. Judy shares how she processed and portrayed the sensitive nature of her personal history growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South, as well as why she felt called to write this memoir in the first place. The two discuss the benefits of launching a writing career later in life, what Judy hopes readers don’t take away from this story, and the significance of her upcoming project.


Zibby Owens: Hello.

Judy Goldman: Hey.

Zibby: How are you?

Judy: I feel like I’m meeting a blind date.

Zibby: It is kind of like that. It’s funny.

Judy: Isn’t it? Can I start off before anything and say just one sentence that I am dying to say to you? You are really something. I’m telling you. We need so many more Zibbys in this world.

Zibby: Thank you.

Judy: It’s the truth.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Judy: I got to say what I wanted to say. This has been in my head all morning. That Zibby. That Zibby. Are you feeling better, or what?

Zibby: I am. I’m feeling better. I’m not a hundred percent, but I’m close.

Judy: Is this time worse than the last time or not as bad?

Zibby: Much better. This is much better.

Judy: That’s good, at least.

Zibby: That’s true.

Judy: I can’t wait to get my Princess book. I got a notice that it’s on its way.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for getting one. That’s so nice. I’m excited to talk to you about Child. I only have this copy still. I got a very early reader. Very exciting. We’ll just jump right into it. Judy, I got to know you — didn’t I reach out to you randomly, or did you reach out to me after I read your book about your husband?

Judy: You reached out to me.

Zibby: I did, right?

Judy: That was like this. That was the highlight of that year for me.

Zibby: Oh, stop it.

Judy: Really, out of the clear-blue sky, you reached out to me. Then I was afraid that when I saw that mostly, you interview people who have a book coming out, not one that’s already been out, I thought, that’s not really fair to them because my book’s already been out. I wrote to Chelsea and said, “Wouldn’t you rather wait until my new book is coming out rather than my old book?” Then I was sorry I did that. Anyway, it all turned out fine, as things do.

Zibby: To be honest, when I started my podcast, I was asking people who I’d always wanted to talk to, authors who I’d admired for a long time. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t want to talk unless they had a book coming out. I found that to be the craziest response when I would get in touch with their publicists. I’m like, “Can I interview so-and-so?” They’re like, “Their next book’s not due out until blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, what does that have to do with anything?

Judy: That’s why I was so mad at myself. It wasn’t that I wanted to wait. I was afraid that I was deceiving you somehow, that I was making you think that that book was new when it wasn’t. That’s what I explained to Chelsea. It didn’t matter to me, but I thought, everybody she’s interviewing has a book forthcoming. I thought, she thinks that my book is forthcoming.

Zibby: No, I knew. I found it in a bookstore. I was like, oh, this looks great. I started reading it. I was like, I’d love to talk to her. From my perspective, I like talking to authors about their books. I don’t care when the books come out, but I have found on the author side, and now actually as an author, it’s so helpful to do things around the release of a book, as you well know. That’s been where this podcast has gone, but I never intended it to be a pub-day podcast.

Judy: That’s interesting. I understand that. I’m happy to talk about any book. It doesn’t matter to me.

Zibby: Let’s talk about Child first because it’s coming. What is the pub day?

Judy: Pub date is May 5th, so coming up.

Zibby: Very exciting. Coming up. Judy, in the book you say, “I’m eighty years old. If I’m not going to tell this story now, when am I going to tell it?” which is really impressive on so many fronts because it would be so easy, obviously, just not to tell it. I see why, obviously now having read it, why it’s such a compelling story, why this relationship was so important to you, this story, what you discovered at the end or what you put two and two together and realized, and all this stuff. Why had it been — haunting is the wrong word. Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what Child is about, Child: A Memoir? Then why did it swirl around in your head for so long? Why now? All that good stuff. That was a lot of questions.

Judy: Good. First, I’ll tell what it’s about. It’s the story of Mattie Culp, the black woman who worked for my family, lived in — that was the term then — helped raise me, the unconscionable scaffolding on which that relationship was built, and the deep love. It’s also the story of Mattie’s child who was left behind to be raised by someone else. I think that when you know what the book is about, you can understand what a risky subject that is. Here I am, a privileged white woman writing about her black maid. Who in the world would do that? I’d have to be crazy to write a book about that subject. It is so tricky right now. My hope is that I’ve examined the subject, that I’ve explored how it’s a lovely relationship in an unlovely context. Why am I writing it now? Turning eighty, that big number — it’s gigantic to me, but whatever age you are is gigantic to you because it’s the oldest you’ve ever been. find it pretty stunning.

When I was approaching eighty, I thought, if I don’t tell it now, I’m not going to tell it. I really want to write a book about Mattie. I want to honor her in that way. That’s what it feels like to me. Also, I have to say another thing. I am such a slow learner and a late bloomer. I did not learn until I was working on my second memoir — I mean, my sixth book, so I should’ve learned it before then. I’m not trying to impress you with that. I’m trying to say, look how long it took me to learn something. I learned how important reflection is in memoir, interpreting those memoirs. My agent really is the one who helped me learn that with my last memoir, Together, that you mentioned to me earlier. Once I learned about reflection, once I learned about analyzing memories — what do I know now that I didn’t know then when I was a child? — then I felt I could write this story because I could give it its due.

Zibby: Interesting. One of the pieces of the story that I found really interesting was the relationship between Mattie and your mom. You say many times, yes, of course, Mattie was working for your mom, but they were also roommates. They shared so much. They shared such a deep love for you, which kind of makes people family, people who just mutually love the same person like that and who share a life. They shared a whole life and a shorthand for everything. That image you had of the two of them sitting at the table — I feel like you had some image or that they would talk about things. Maybe I made that up. I think you had an image, right?

Judy: I think you’re right. What I love that you just said — I just want to say it to myself so I can remember it. You just called them roommates. That is so perfect. I’m going to use that.

Zibby: Go for it. Take it.

Judy: It was an interesting relationship. Mother called Mattie, Mattie. Mattie called my mother Miss Peggy. It’s not even. My mother paid Mattie to work for her. It was a financial arrangement. I say that they were best friends because that’s what they said, but it throws a little light on that relationship to ask the question, would they have been best friends if Mattie were not working for my mother, employed by her?

Zibby: Would they have met?

Judy: Would they have even met? Not then. Not in the 1940s, no.

Zibby: The town where you were living, I couldn’t believe how many segregated places you remember. For me, this is ancient history. It’s in the history book, this level of — I know logically it wasn’t that long ago.

Judy: That is so interesting, what you’re saying. It is history to people your age. It absolutely is history.

Zibby: I’m not that young. I’m forty-five.

Judy: You’re forty-five? You’re the age of my two children. It was what we accepted as normal, but it was not normal. First of all, Mattie was this wonderful cook. She was famous for fried chicken, fried flounder, squash casserole, biscuits, her invented recipe of pineapple pie. I don’t know anybody who makes pineapple pie. She would make these wonderful meals. My family, my father, my mother, my brother and sister and I would sit around the table eating that food. Where was Mattie? She was in the kitchen at the little round table next to the windows eating her dinner alone. That was okay.

Zibby: You also say how later, you would beg her to sit with you, and she would refuse and say, no, no, no. There was nothing you could do to convince her otherwise.

Judy: Exactly. I think I mention this in the book. We don’t even understand how deep separation goes and how deeply those of us who are separated hold onto that separation as a pattern, as something familiar. We know it. It’s okay. It’s what we do. Mattie felt comfortable with that because it’s what she knew, but that wasn’t fair for her to feel comfortable with that.

Zibby: I’m still processing what you wrote in the book and what we were just saying now about loving someone who works for you. We’re all people underneath our jobs. I very much love people who have worked for my family. I love some of the people on my team right now. I really do. I love them. Maybe they don’t love me. I certainly love them. Maybe it doesn’t go both ways. I feel like I’ve loved people I’ve worked for also. I don’t know if you can separate it just because of the payment structure. I don’t know. It’s complicated.

Judy: It’s very complicated. Here’s the difference. The people who work for you, Zibby, the people on your team choose that life. Mattie had no choices. A young black woman in the 1940s, uneducated, very little was open to her. She had no choices. I think living with my family and working for my family, that did not give Mattie choices, really, but it gave Mattie choices for her child. It meant that her child could go to college. It meant that her child could get a degree from college and then a master’s. It meant that Mattie’s granddaughters, all three of them, could go to college and get masters. Those were choices that employment gave her in a world of no choices in that segregated Jim Crow world of the South, which is so foreign to somebody your age. Did you grow up in New York?

Zibby: Yep.

Judy: To someone who grew up in New York, that was so not your life, the life that I led.

Zibby: I feel like there are a lot of people who grew up that way who are not open to reexamining those relationships or find nothing wrong with it at this stage. People are all across the board on this stuff.

Judy: Exactly. I can feel what you just said inside myself because that’s my biggest fear with this book. I just figured it out. What about this book scares me so much? I just figured it out the other day. You sort of touched on it just now. I’m so afraid that other white Southern women my age who grew up like me will think I’m on their team. They’ll say to me, oh, we had a Fannie Mae. We had a woman. Even the wording of it… They’ll think we’re partners in this. I so want to make sure that I’m not only glorifying Mattie, which I really want to do — I wanted to write this book. I wanted to tell the world about the wonderfulness of Mattie Culp. I don’t just want to glorify. I also want to vilify. I want to vilify the segregated world that she and I lived in. Do you see what I’m saying about my fear? I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings because they say to me, oh, we had a maid, and we treated her like family. I don’t want to insult them because that’s their context. That’s their experience. That’s their perception. I do want to separate myself from that unexamined life. Makes me exhausted to think about it. I could lie down and take a nap right this minute.

Zibby: This is what writers have to do. You have to write the story that you need to tell. Whether or not the right people read it or if they don’t examine it properly or if you get criticized in some way for — the book, it is a dance to artfully describe these relationships and your thoughts and feeling about it, about a cultural institution that was of a time and place. You brought, almost, a compassionate, objective view of something that you were just born into but you didn’t take for granted. Aside from you being a different person altogether, there’s not much more you could really do aside from not be you, which you are. If people are going to be mad at you for being you and being in your family and whatever, you can’t do anything about that.

Judy: You’re absolutely right. When I teach writing workshops, the line that I always make sure to say is, you have to write about what keeps you up at night. You write out of your obsession. If the subject doesn’t scare you, then I don’t think you’re doing it right. You’re not revealing. You’re not unmasking. You’re not laying bare what there is to lay bare. It has to scare you. I take it as part of the package, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Oh, look, we have a guest.

Zibby: Sorry, this is my dog. She just barges her way in whenever. Sorry, this is Nya.

Judy: What’s your dog’s name?

Zibby: Her name is Nya.

Judy: What is it?

Zibby: Nya, N-Y-A.

Judy: Nya, what a pretty name. Hey, Nya.

Zibby: Wait, so how did you get into writing to begin with? Six books, where did it start? What was the first project like? What was that? Tell me a little more about your getting into it and how you’ve ended up here.

Judy: First of all, I started so late. I really did. I like to say that because I think it gives other people encouragement to start late. It’s okay. You don’t have to start writing when you’re twenty. You can start when you’re forty, which is when I started. I started out in poetry. I love poetry. I had written poetry since I was in the third grade. I saw myself as a poet from the time I was eight years old on. Both of my parents were going through the process of dying when I was in my thirties. There was really no template for me to follow there. I say I take to my typewriter instead of taking to my bed, but I could’ve taken to my bed. It was such a terrible time.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Judy: I started writing poetry. That was what saved me. Once I turned forty, both of my parents and my husband’s mother had died, three of them all together. I suddenly was free of all that sadness and all that loss. I still felt the loss, which is what propelled my poetry, but I was free from all that suffering. I started writing poetry and had two books of poetry published. Zibby, this is the worst strategy. Nobody should follow my strategy. As soon as I started learning something about poetry, then I switched to fiction. Then I had two novels published. Just as I was beginning to learn something about writing fiction, I switched to memoir. Then now this is my third memoir coming up. It’s where I’m staying. Memoir is what I was meant to write. At least, it’s what I like to write. That’s my history. It’s skewed because it started in my forties rather than in my twenties when it starts for most people.

Zibby: I was just talking to somebody today. I can’t remember. Anyway, I was just talking about how I feel like most people I interview are forty and up. Actually, it was Susan Cain who wrote Bittersweet. She was asking, is that because those are the books that I’m drawn to by authors of that age? I was like, I really don’t think so. Think about some of these best-seller lists. Obviously, there are young people, but I just feel like there’s so many more people who start writing in their forties. I was saying, and I believe, there’s something that gets fully baked by then. There’s some perspective that’s gained that makes the writing that much richer. Something happens in your forties. I’m going to write an article. “Welcome to Your Forties: You might have reading glasses, but on the other hand, you’ll probably sell your first book.”

Judy: The thing is, forties, it is sort of sacred in my family. My whole life I heard from my mother, the forties are the best years of your life. All my life, I heard that.

Zibby: My mother said that too.

Judy: Did she really?

Zibby: Yes.

Judy: That is so interesting. I was a ten-year-old kid waiting to turn forty. I just thought, oh, I can’t wait to be forty and go through what my mother’s saying. She’s right. It is a particular time in your life. The other thing is, my first novel was published when I was fifty-eight. I think that gives us all hope that we just pursue what we want to pursue. Those of us who get to write, we’re just lucky because we spend our days doing what we love doing. How great is that?

Zibby: Pretty great. Tell me about your teaching.

Judy: I teach memoir-writing workshops, really. I just teach randomly, not on a regular basis, not on a college or university. There’s a wonderful organization in Charlotte called Charlotte Lit. They’re everything. They’re sort of like the Loft in Minneapolis. It’s that type of organization. They just are everything for writers. I teach a lot for them. That’s where I was teaching last night. It’s always exciting to talk to a room full of people who are writing memoir. There’s something shiny about that for me because we start at a deeper level together.

Zibby: You’re already geared up to share as opposed to the boundaries so many people put up right away.

Judy: Yes, it’s not a cocktail party at all. No.

Zibby: What’s your next memoir about? Are you writing one already?

Judy: I am. I’m working on something. Of course, I have no idea whether it’s going to work or not. I have no idea. Talk about writing about what keeps you up at night. I’m writing about turning eighty. I’m writing about aging. I have this theory. I don’t know whether it’s original or cliché. I’m not sure which it is. My theory is that I’m still the twenty-five-year-old newly married woman with my adorable, handsome husband trying to decide, can we afford to buy a house, or do we rent another apartment? Housing, living, where are we going to live? is so important at that stage. Here I am eighty. What do all my friends talk about? Where do we live next? Do we move into a retirement community? Do we stay in our homes? Housing is the subject again. What I do in my book about aging is, I’m comparing stages of life and showing the parallel between those stages and where I am right now.

Zibby: I love that.

Judy: We’ll see. I love writing it. I gave it to my son and daughter to read. My son just called me yesterday after having read it. He’s forty-nine. He said, “Mom, your first memoir was about your sister. Your second memoir was about your husband. Your third memoir was about Mattie. This memoir is about you. I think it’s your gift to us.”

Zibby: Aw, that is so nice.

Judy: I think it’s worthwhile to write.

Zibby: I want to read it. It sounds amazing.

Judy: Thank you.

Zibby: Not to reference Susan Cain again, this book Bittersweet, which you should read — it’s really interesting, about sorrow and joy and loss and all this great stuff. There’s a quiz in it. One of the questions is, do you get goosebumps at least twice a day? How much do you agree with that? Originally, I was like, oh, no, I don’t get goosebumps twice a day. Maybe I get them twice a week. Since I took the quiz, I’m like, I’m going to keep track. I got goosebumps twice just from you talking about that book.

Judy: Really?

Zibby: Yeah. I’ve had goosebumps today four times.

Judy: I just wrote down Bittersweet. Has it already come out?

Zibby: Yes, it did.

Judy: I’ll check anyway. I love books about loss. That’s my subject. One of the women in my poetry group used to call me the high priestess of loss. It’s a subject I’m interested in.

Zibby: Me too. I think we’re all, on some level. Maybe not we’re all. I am, though. You are, so that’s good.

Judy: I cannot believe the loss that you and Kyle experienced during COVID. That just kills me. Every time I see something about that when you mention it and you showed — is her name Susan, your mother-in-law?

Zibby: Yep.

Judy: That’s the impression it made on me, that I remember her name from your post. When you posted her photograph, she was darling. She was a dream mother-in-law.

Zibby: Yeah. I didn’t even have her as a mother-in-law for that long because I only met Kyle — we’ve been married now five years. It was only a three-year term, but she was really special.

Judy: That’s as long as you need with somebody like that to establish that kind of connection, probably.

Zibby: Oh, we didn’t even need that long.

Judy: You and her, definitely.

Zibby: Judy, thank you. Oh, I should ask, what’s your advice for aspiring authors?

Judy: What’s my advice? There’s so much that I want to say. I guess it’s just Woody Allen’s two words. That’s a little tricky too, coming to him. Show up. We just have to show up. We just have to do it. We can’t wait for an invitation to write. Nobody is going to say to us, hurry up, Judy, write that book. I’m dying to publish it. I’m dying to review it. I’m dying to…fill in the blank. None of us, or most of us, don’t have that invitation waiting out there, so we just have to take the bull by the horns and do it. Show up. Write and read. How many of your authors have said read?

Zibby: A lot. When I first started interviewing people, I was like, huh, interesting, I’ve never really associated my reading with my writing. Now I’m like, oh, my gosh, I’ve learned so much. I’ve read all these books. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for waiting. I’m so excited we finally got to discuss Child. Although, I feel like we barely got to scratch the surface. I just think it’s so neat that now I know this woman, Mattie, really well. I know her, her family. Her life is now a part of my consciousness. That’s the magic of writing. Thank you.

Judy: That’s exactly the magic of writing. Thank you, Zibby. I really, really thank you. This was such a highlight for me. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you too.

Judy: Take care of yourself. Feel better.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. Buh-bye.

Judy: Bye.

Judy Goldman, CHILD

CHILD by Judy Goldman

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