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Interview with Eric D. Goodman, author of Setting the Family Free

Happy publication day to Eric D. Goodman.

Eric D. Goodman is the author of four books, including Tracks: A Novel in Stories, which I reviewed back in 2012. His new novel, Setting the Family Free, is about a preserve of exotic animals being released into an Ohio community.

Today we talk with Eric about his new book and his writing.

Setting the Family Free sounds like an unusual and interesting premise. What inspired you to write this novel?

Setting the Family Free was inspired by a real event, although the characters and actions in my book are entirely fictional and the locations have been changed to similar but different places.

There are many times when I read or see or hear an extended news story, especially the ones that unfold over a period of time, and think that it would be a great idea for a novel. Usually I write a few pages of notes and file it away for the future. In this instance, I was inspired to jump on the topic right away.

I spent a good amount of my time in Ohio during early adulthood, so I knew the places well. I’d always wanted to write an “Ohio book” and an “animal book,” and this was an opportunity to do both. I visited the places where the real events happened, and the places where I set my scenes, and I made a point to drop in on a number of zoos and animal reserves during the writing of the book.

Another unique thing about this novel is the way you tell it. Some sections are traditional narrative from main characters, but others sections are news transcripts, newspaper article excerpts, and sound bites from people involved with the events or who knew the people involved. Tell me about that choice.

My main inspiration was to explore the story of why a person would release his dangerous animals into the community and what would happen when he did. But I also found myself interested in how a real news story unfolds and how different people and groups view what transpired differently.

The entire issue of exotic animal ownership was one that conjured many different viewpoints, but adding the personal perspectives of people involved seemed like a great opportunity to experiment not only with multiple perceptions of individuals, but different ways to tell a story.

As happens in real life, I wanted to “break” the story with the sensational headlines and reports, and show how the news was reported differently by different sources with various agendas. In an almost mockumentary way, I wanted to paint a picture of the situation and the main characters involved with sound bites and news clips, and then to delve deeper through the perspectives of the characters involved. Not only the owner of the animals, but his estranged wife, workers, those attacked by the animals, the hunting party with their own varying views—from veterans to veterinarians—and even the animals themselves.

It’s interesting how often we see a news headline or catch a few minutes of a news broadcast and think we already know the story. I wanted to dig deeper and get the story as it existed to those intimately involved.

Did the novel or series, Zoo by James Patterson, influence Setting the Family Free?

It’s funny you should bring that up. To be honest, I have not read the book or watched the movie. I wouldn’t allow myself to, because I didn’t want it to influence my rewrites in any way. I wrote the first draft of Setting the Family Free before I knew Zoo existed.

I wrote the first draft of the book while I was the Fall 2012 writer-in-residence at the Ox-Bow Artist Colony, part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s School of Art. I finished the first draft and felt really good about having an original story unlike anything else. On the way home, I stopped in at an airport book store and what do I see? James Patterson’s Zoo.

I’m sure a lot of writers can relate to this, but it’s not the first time this serendipity has happened to me. I wrote my first draft of Womb: a novel in utero ten years before it was published in 2017. Within the same year, Ian McEwan published a novel in utero, Nutshell.

But more important than the similarities in these novels are the differences that make each story unique. Although I haven’t read or watched Zoo yet, I believe it’s about the animals in zoos across the world changing genetically and attacking people. I think it has a supernatural or science fiction or aspect to it in that way. My book is closer to literary fiction than it is to science fiction; it’s about absolutely normal animals being put in a bad situation—and the people of nearby communities being put in equally bad situations as a result.

Now that Setting the Family Free is out, I’ll look forward to reading Zoo, just as I waited until Womb was published before reading Nutshell.

So, Zoo did not inspire Setting the Family Free. Did you find inspiration from any other books?

Certainly. I found inspiration in the Tim O’Brien novel, In the Lake of the Woods. I really admire O’Brien’s work, and was blown away years ago by the way he told that story with “evidence” chapters and “what if” chapters. In an earlier draft of Setting the Family Free, I actually had some “what if” sections that contemplated different outcomes and motivations, but decided it didn’t work in this book. But the alternate formats and perspectives, I think, made for an interesting way to explore this story.

Also, John Steinbeck would sometimes weave very short and seemingly unrelated chapters between the ongoing story chapters—like a turtle crossing the road—and that inspired some of the animal-POV chapters.

You’ve been writing for a long time. When did you first discover you were a writer?

Sea turtles instinctively know to head for the water after they hatch on the beach. Writing, for me, is like an instinct, or drive, that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I vividly recall an early elementary school assignment that solidified that storytelling instinct. I was in the third grade when our teacher instructed us to write a short story. Most kids came in with two or three pages of scribbling. I came in with an epic romp about a boy creating a good monster to fight off the evil beasts of an apocalyptic world. From that point, I realized that writing was not just something I liked to do—it was something I instinctively needed to do.

What is it about writing that drove you to pursue it as a career?

Although I didn’t understand it at the time, back during that elementary school writing assignment, I believe the desire to bring people together and to promote understanding through common storytelling was what sparked my interest and kept me writing. Even before I realized it, many of the stories I told had common themes at their heart: bringing unlike people together, getting opposites to understand one another, and trying
to see things from multiple perspectives. I remember writing a story that was essentially a retelling of Star Wars from the point of view of a Stormtrooper wising the terrorists (rebels) would stop undermining the laws of the government.

Much of my writing is centered on just trying to tell a good story. But beneath that surface, I do want to create work that people from different walks of life can relate to, and to perhaps help people meet in the middle to look at things in a new way.

How does Setting the Family Free compare to your past books?

Setting the Family Free is similar to my other books because of my empathetic writing style and my effort to look at each individual as a flawed but decent person—not good or bad, but human. It’s similar to Tracks: A Novel in Stories due to my use of multiple perspectives, although Tracks told different stories that intertwined while Setting the Family Free is essentially telling one story from multiple perspectives. Like my previous books, this one character-focused. That is, the characters tend to be more important that the plot.

But Setting the Family Free is very different from anything I’ve written before. Although characters matter most, this book is far more action-driven. The characters grew out of the “what” of the story rather than the other way around. And my storytelling method is something new to me: moving the story forward with the use of broadcasts and quotes from those involved and article excerpts and political tape transcripts—even blending in real quotes with the fictional ones.

The effect, I hope, is a story about the event, but one enriched with multiple perspectives and multiple storytelling methods. And one that will keep readers turning the page.

Is there a connection between the title of the book and the plot?

Setting the Family Free is what Sammy, the owner of the exotic pets, believes he is doing when he releases them into the community. He considers his animals his family. But it also refers to other families in the book: the traditional families that react to the animals, the self-made families or fraternities of people who join together for a common interest or cause, or the family of community, like the sheriff’s team. I try to examine the family unit, which isn’t always as cut and dry as the traditional definition.

Setting the Family Free has earned endorsements from authors like Jacquelyn Mitchard, Juno Diaz, Lucrecia Guerrero, and Rafael Alvarez. If you could get this book into anyone’s hands, who’s would it be?

Besides Oprah and Spielberg? I’d love for Tom O’Brien to read it; I sent a copy to him. But I’m really thankful for the blurbs and reviews I’ve received and feel like the validation from other authors and journals is worth its weight in book sales. Every review and rating on GoodReads or Amazon or anywhere helps, especially for small-press authors.

I think it would be great for the people involved with the real incident or similar incidents to read it. I think and hope they would see that I didn’t demonize or glorify anyone, but instead tried to show everyone involved from different perspectives as well rounded—just as real people tend to be.

Thanks, Eric, for stopping by today to share with us your new book. Please do check out his book launch in Baltimore, Md., if you’re in the area or pick up a copy of the book from your local bookstore or on Amazon.

Loyola University’s Apprentice House Press releases Setting the Family Free by Eric D. Goodman as a hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book on October 1, 2019. The Ivy Bookshop (6080 Falls Road, Baltimore) is hosting the official book launch on Sunday, October 6 at 5 p.m., and animal-themed wine and snacks will be served, along with a reading from the novel.

Mailbox Monday #402

Mailbox Monday, created by Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page, has a permanent home at its own blog.

To check out what everyone has received over the last week, visit the blog and check out the links. Leave yours too.

Also, each week, Leslie, Vicki, and I will share the Books that Caught Our Eye from everyone’s weekly links.

Here’s what I received:

Womb: A Novel in Utero by Eric D. Goodman for review, which will be published in Spring 2017.

What makes Womb most unique is the unusual narrator. Set in the city and suburbs of Baltimore, Womb is narrated from the point of view of a child still in utero. He describes his own reality inside the womb, his connection to the collective consciousness, and also narrates (through his own perspective) the drama of his mother’s life as she deals with her pregnancy, friends, family and work. Womb has been compared to Room by Emma Donoghue in style, as well as The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Womb is due for delivery on Spring 2017.

Shine-a-Light: Secrets of the Rainforest by Carron Brown, Alyssa Nassner — a gift for my daughter from Usborne Books…shhhh

Discover the amazing animals that live in the lush rainforest, with this gorgeously illustrated book of natures hidden habitats. By simply holding the book up to the light, or shining a light behind each page, young children will be able to discover the animals and plants that live in and around a kapok tree, from the colourful parrots in the canopy, to the sleek jaguar on the forest floor. The innovative see-through feature fulfils a similar function to lift-the-flaps books, but has the added interactive dimension of the child being able to see both the surface and the hidden picture at the same time.

A Tale of Two Beasts by Fiona Roberton, another gift for the little one.

A little girl rescues a strange beast in the woods and carries him safely home. But the beast is not happy and escapes! A funny and charming tale about seeing both sides of the story.

What did you receive in your mailbox?

Winners and a Reading

Thanks to all of you who entered the book club giveaway for The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  With the help of Random.org, Anne Berger won a book for each of her club’s 8 members.

Congrats to her and her members, and we hope that you enjoy it.  Hachette Group will mail the books out to you and your book club soon.

 

 

Also Congrats to Margaret who won a copy of Irish Lady by Jeanette Baker from Sourcebooks.

 

I also wanted to update you on the reading I attended at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., which turned out to be a mostly empty room and me as the only woman in the room — other than Wiggles.  The illustrious authors were Eric Goodman, author of Tracks — which I’m sure by now you’ve heard me rave about — and Eric Dezenhall, author of my newly acquired book, The Devil Himself.  Each author took to the reading in a different way, with Eric Goodman reading abridged short stories from his novel in stories, Tracks, and Eric Dezenhall deciding to tell the true story behind his historical fiction novel set during WWII.

Goodman read the Prologue, which is told from the point of view of the conductor, and Prewitt’s story from the beginning of the book.  Both stories are funny in their own quirky ways, and provides the initial set up for the rest of the book.  He also read the story about the poet and his climb on the mountain of sand, which is as true to the life of a poet as any story could be.

Dezenhall began by shying away from reading from the book and told us of how he verified the historical facts in his novel.  Operation Underground began when Naval Intelligence realized that German spies could have been responsible for the sinking of the Normandie near Manhattan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  In order to police the docks and discover the spies, the government made a devil’s pact with the Jewish and Italian mobs that controlled them at the time.  Meyer Lansky, a real life mobster, agreed to help the government in exchange for benefits for Lucky Luciano and other mobsters.  There is a convoluted spy game afoot here, but I’ll not recount it because you must read the book.

Want to learn more about the book, visit Dezenhall’s Website.

There was no formal question-and-answer following the reading, but there was a more informal reception for the readers and the guests, which turned out to be less than a dozen due to the cold weather.  I did not partake of the cheese and beverages, but did have a nice conversation with Goodman about Social Media and the firewall it provides those of us who are more shy in public.  I also got my copy of Tracks signed, and my new book signed by Dezenhall, who seemed to take a shine to Wiggles — I think it was the cheeks.

Here’s a couple of pictures and a really short video since my memory card ran out of space:

Have you been to any great readings in your area?

Interview with Eric D. Goodman, Author of Tracks

Tracks by Eric D. Goodman (my review) is one of the best novel in stories I’ve read in a long time, and it will likely end up on my best of the year list. It not only reads like separate short stories, if you just want to read something satisfying in a short slot of time, but also is a connected story by the train, the conductor, and the mystery/action storyline.  In many ways, I’ve thought about how it reminds me of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, but the reader is the detective.  However, there also are deeper themes at work of feeling stuck and unable to move on or wanting to change, but unable to accomplish that goal because of an inability to take a risk or the inability to let go of the past.  I digress, just go read the review, you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve got a great treat for my readers today, as Eric agreed to an interview about his book and his writing experiences. Please give him a warm welcome.

1. Since Tracks takes place on a train traveling between Baltimore
and Chicago, it is clear that trains are important to you. When did
you first realize that you loved trains and what do they mean to you?

As a child, I think I had a love of trains that many children share:
toy train sets, a need to watch trains as they passed by, an urge to
place coins along the tracks to be warped and smashed by the
locomotives. And there was always a spirit of adventure involved with
coming across a line of tracks and walking along it.

I was probably about six when I took my first trip on Amtrak. It was
exciting, an adventure, and much more fun than the usual cross-country
driving trips my family took. But then there was a long period of no
trains. Unfortunately, trains seem to be underfunded in our country
and, therefore, are sometimes more expensive than planes and certainly
cars and busses.

It was when I was a college student traveling in Russia that I
rekindled my interest in trains. Trains were a popular and
inexpensive way to get around. I took sleeper cars on overnight trips
often while in Russia. Sometimes, that was the most fun part of a
trip.

2. Baltimore is almost like its own character in the book, looming
ominously over some of the characters while anchoring others to a
sense of home. Was it hard to show both the darker and lighter sides
of Baltimore given its reputation as a high-crime city? And how do
you view Baltimore, as a resident and a writer?

Baltimore is a wonderful place to live if you’re a writer or an
artist. The literary community is tight knit and most of the writers
I know are very supportive of their fellow authors. As far as the
crime goes, I think Baltimore is a lot like any other large city:
there are areas with high crime, areas with virtually no crime, and
much of the violent crime exists in its own little sub-culture. I’ve
lived in Ohio, California, Rhode Island and lots of places in between.
I won’t pretend they’re the same, but I will say that I’ve personally
encountered no more crime here than in the other places I’ve lived. In
other words, it exists, but it’s easy to avoid.

Baltimore has a lot of character; it was easy to set certain scenes
from Tracks in rich locations with exciting backdrops.

3. When writing Tracks did you find that one scene or character
surprised you? If so, which one and how so?

My writing tends to be inspired by an idea or theme or some nugget of
conversation that I found interesting. It doesn’t begin with plot;
the idea comes first, then the character, then the plot. So my
characters surprise me often. I know what I want the theme or idea to
be, when I begin writing, but not always exactly what they’re going to
do.

The Conductor, Franklin, sort of surprised me. His two stories were
actually the last two I wrote. In the original manuscript, he didn’t
even have his own stories. He appears in everyone else’s story and
always seems like such a nice, chipper, friendly guy. And he is. But
when I began to dig deeper and write about him in his own stories, I
discovered that he had another side.

4. The conductor and the Amtrak train tie the stories together, but
the stories also could stand on their own. Was there any point in the
process where you thought that 
Tracks should just be a short story
collection and not be a novel in stories? What convinced you to stay
with the novel in stories format?

I had written three stories individually before I decided that I
should make this a collection. Then, as I continued to weave the
stories closer together, I thought it would be nice to create a sort
of hybrid—to write a novel and a set of stories at once. Part of it
was with the goal of both working on a novel and having stories to
submit to journals at the same time. But part of it was just out of
curiosity—could I pull off a “novel in stories?”

Coincidentally, by the time this went to print, there seemed to be a
revival in the format: A Visit from the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge,
Later at the Bar, The Civilized World. But I wasn’t riding a wave; I
was doing my first draft before it started!

5. From first draft to publication, how long did it take to complete
Tracksand find it a home on bookstore shelves? Have you had any
champions behind the book that spurred you to get it published and who
have helped hand-sell (I use this term lightly — noting that social
media and the Internet could help spread the word) copies?

It’s been a long line of track. I think it was back in 2006 when I
wrote the first draft. I tend to write a manuscript, then put it away
for a year or longer, then rewrite it. So although I didn’t spend
time each year working on the manuscript, about five years passed from
first draft to bookshelf. During that time I wrote a couple other
book drafts (one of which is with my agent now) and did a lot of
tinkering and polishing. I had it ready to submit to agents in 2009,
got an agent in 2010, and secured a publisher later that same year.
Then it was released in 2011.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the kind reception Tracks has received from
other writers. Some of the biggest include Madison Smartt Bell,
Thomas Steinbeck, Bathsheba Monk, Jessica Anya Blau, Rebecca Barry,
and Victoria Patterson. I even got notes of congratulations (but not
official blurbs) from Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, T.C. Boyle, and
Junot Diaz! It’s felt good to be noticed, even if sometimes only as
an insect.

Thanks, Eric for answering my questions. If you are in the Washington, D.C., area and interested in reading Goodman’s book, he’ll be reading at the Open Door Series at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., on Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. Register for the event.

 

Additionally, this is a stop on The Literary Road Trip since Eric is a local author in Baltimore, Md.

Tracks by Eric D. Goodman

Tracks by Eric D. Goodman is a expressive and reflective novel told in stories or what some would call a short story collection published by Maryland-based publisher Atticus Books, and unlike other short story collections, there are very few weak stories, if any.  Each protagonist in the story is on the train headed somewhere and each of their lives is in transition, from a young woman on the verge of promotion who must decide between lover and career to a man and woman at the end of their years who must face their fears.  Goodman is adept at ensuring readers care about his characters in just a few pages, and even though the end of each story comes quickly, there is rarely a sense that there was more to the story that was not told.

“The train has a way of transforming a person.  Sometimes passengers become aware of things they didn’t know before boarding.  Something about the stillness on a moving train, being around people and alone at the same time.  They’re neither here not there — in transition.  That frees them up to do things or say things they might not ordinarily do or say.” (from the preface)

The Cardinal that rides between Baltimore, Md., and Chicago, Ill., carries all of these passengers on their way, and some of these passengers have been on the train in both directions, while others have traveled the rails between Chicago and Washington, D.C., and more than once.  It does not matter where these characters come from; what matters is that the rails provide them with hope and a time out from their hustle of their daily lives.  The train and the rails are an escape, a quiet place to contemplate their lives as the undulating sway of the cars lulls them into deep meditation.  Paralleling their actual lives, the trip on the train has each member making contact with strangers, and like the conscience that guides their decision making, the conductor on the train whispers advice and nuggets of observation/wisdom to those with whom he speaks.  Beyond the characters, the city of Baltimore and the rail line itself loom large in the story, almost becoming characters themselves, with the city representing an anchor weighing down certain characters and the rail a symbol of liberation.

“one station, joy; the next, grief
the soul pulled along
by the hope for peace
at the next junction.” (page 198)

Each story is tied together by the people the characters meet on the train, the conductor, and the railway itself.  The rails come to symbolize the journey life takes us on, with some of the moments in our lives speeding by us too quickly for us to pause and reflect, while others gently impress upon us the gravity of their meaning.  Readers spend time with each character, getting to know their reasons for being on the train, the events that have hammered them recently, and how they view their fellow passengers, but Goodman also sprinkles in a bit of mystery and mayhem into the narration with the introduction of Gene Silverman in “Reset” and Charlie in “One Last Hit.”  Several stories also delve into the detrimental effect of war on not only the victims who survive, but also the soldiers called to action.

Tracks by Eric D. Goodman demonstrates how we are all traveling the same line and how we have similar fears and failings, but also similar hopes and dreams.  In spite of that, we all end up in different places.  Even with the characters who seem unsavory or hard to like, they offer a lesson to readers — seize the moment because in the next, it could be gone.  Opportunity arises and disappears just as quickly, and life on the train ride of life is quick and unrelenting.  There’s not much time for reflection and a deeper examination of pros and cons when living life at full tilt, but stepping back for a few hours on a train ride can be enough to reassess and rejoin life’s journey with a new purpose.  Excellent novel in stories with a common theme, setting, and interacting characters tying them together.

About the Author:

Eric D. Goodman has been writing fiction since he was in the third grade, when a story assignment turned him on to the craft more than a quarter century ago. He regularly reads his fiction on Baltimore’s NPR station, WYPR, and at book festivals and literary events. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Writers Weekly, The Potomac, Grub Street, Scribble Magazine, The Arabesques Review, and New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers. Eric is the author of Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. Check out this interview with Eric at Atticus Books.

 

This is my 2nd book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

 

 

 

This is a stop on The Literary Road Trip since a lot of the book Tracks focuses on Baltimore, Md., the author is a regular on Baltimore’s NPR, and the publisher is based in Maryland.

Mailbox Monday #145 and Library Loot #7

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch.  This month our host is Amused by Books.  Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.  Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor for a TLC Book Tour in November.

2.  The Time in Between by Maria Duenas from Shelf Awareness.

3. Kill Me If You Can by James Patterson and Marshall Karp from my mother.

4. I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, which I won from Caribousmom during BBAW.

5. Tracks by Eric D. Goodman, which I received for review from the author.

6. Ladybug Girl Dresses Up! by David Soman and Jacky Davis, which I picked up from Penguin at the National Book Festival — first time books were given away for free.

7. Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner, which I also picked up from Penguin for “Wiggles.”

8. Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Carson Ellis, which is signed by the author and given away to 100 attendees at the Penguin tent.

9. The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa, which I purchased at the National Book Festival and got signed by one of my favorite poets.

Library Loot:

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

1.  Does the Noise in my Head Bother You? by Steven Tyler

What did you get this week?