Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2019.
In Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes, Lillian Preston moves to New York City as a teenager in 1953, determined to be a photographer. After an unexpected pregnancy, Lillian must balance her ambition with raising her daughter, Samantha. Set in a time when women were rarely expected to do more than care for their families, and evoking the work of Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, and others, Feast Your Eyes is an examination of the tensions between artistic drive and motherhood, and the unexpected consequences that making art can have on one’s closest relationships.
How did you come up with the idea for Feast Your Eyes?
MG: For me, the book started with a question: Is it possible to be both an excellent artist and an excellent parent, or to be one of those, do you have to kick the other to the curb? And so, everything kind of grew out from there. I started looking for role models among women who’d been artists and mothers. I was just reading biographies, hoping to find good examples…and not finding them. It was an extremely discouraging search.
But I did find a fascinating spectrum of responses to that question. At the one extreme you had Dorothea Lange, the seminal WPA photographer. In order to do her canonical work, she actually paid someone to take her kids and raise them for her. And then on the other end of the spectrum you had Sally Mann who, not wanting to make the separation, combined her family and her art. In 1992 she published a collection of photos of her children called Immediate Family. And this was right when the whole Robert Mapplethorpe thing was going down and you had Jesse Helms railing about NEA money going to perverts and blah blah blah. So then these naked and semi-nude photos of her children appeared and they were very sensual and beautiful, and it led to all sorts of negative repercussions for her and her family that they had not anticipated.
The book takes the form of a photo exhibition catalogue that is put together by Lillian’s daughter Samantha after Lillian has died. You’ve said that you got the idea for the form from a Steven Millhauser novella. What was the most fun part about using this form? What was most challenging?
MG: I love using weirdo forms, so all of it was fun. I mean, there are no images in the book because I wanted the reader to create the images for themselves, but in order to accomplish that, I was deeply immersed in the work of several street photographers as I wrote, and I loved using the photographs as jumping off points. I’d been working on my book for about a year and a half when Vivian Maier’s work was discovered. And when I first saw her photos, it felt like this gift the world had given me, and her photography became a big part of the work I was doing.
Because I’m a very visual thinker and I’m a visually oriented person, being able to work so deeply with this medium was incredibly rewarding. But yeah, it was really hard. The biggest challenge was making sure the photos actually seemed to matter and that the descriptions didn’t feel extraneous, so that each catalogue entry felt necessary, because there were so many things I needed to do all at once. The challenge was not to have anything feel like it was shoehorned in. I wanted it all to feel organic.
Lillian gets pregnant at nineteen and chooses to have her daughter Samantha because she has no access to safe, legal abortion. The central photo in the story, Mommy is Sick, is an image of six-year-old Samantha bringing Lillian a glass of milk after Lillian has had an illegal abortion. Years later, Samantha gets pregnant at twenty and has access to a legal procedure. Why did you choose to make this a central topic in the book?
MG: I was beginning to do my period research, and in the course of that I read a book called The Choices We Made, the first half of which is a series of personal essays by women who had illegal abortions in the pre Roe v. Wade era. I’m a post Roe v. Wade kid, so intellectually I knew that, pre-Roe, a woman could not get an abortion, but I had no appreciation for what that actually meant. Reading those essays, my mind was blown. The things I learned were so soul crushing and horrific and sad. That’s when I realized I wanted to make it an important part of the book. And so the book started for me with Mommy is Sick. From the beginning, that was the central photo.
The most current, widely reported statistic is that one in four women has had an abortion. That’s a lot of women. Now try to name books or stories that talk about abortion. I can’t even fill one hand off the top of my head. That’s a weird disconnect. Abortion has been a legal procedure in this country for almost fifty years, and it’s still so shameful and so secret that we do not talk about it. We do not write about it. And so, we’re repeating history in large part because we were never able to make it a conversation.
It’s funny because I started this book one presidential administration ago, and I thought I was writing historical fiction. But with the way things are currently going, it’s not history anymore. As much as it sickens me to say it, I think that Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned. I think it’s going to become a state issue again because of the makeup of the Supreme Court. You’re already seeing, in the southeastern states, the kind of state legislation that mirrors the circumstances women faced pre-Roe v. Wade. If we, as a country, are to have any hope of preventing history from repeating itself, we need to start talking about abortion. It’s not a matter of agreeing with each other. It’s a matter of all of us — men and women — having conversations about our experiences so we can see it from all sides, because abortion isn’t a women’s issue: it’s a human issue and a family issue. So yeah, it was super important to me to address it.
Samantha’s best friend Kaja has a white mother and a black father. What gave you the idea to include Kaja, Grete, and Paul?
MG: Well, again, it stemmed from the era. What I do for creative research is I read a lot of memoirs of people living through that time, and I found two amazing memoirs that are basically inadvertent companion pieces. Diane di Prima and Hettie Jones were both poets who were active in the Lower East Side in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Hettie Jones was married to LeRoi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka. At the same time, LeRoi and Diane had an affair while they were running a poetry journal together. And so while LeRoi and Hettie were married, Diane became pregnant with LeRoi’s child, and one eventual result is these two memoirs by these two white female poets talking about their creative lives, their personal lives and their overlapping relationships with this black male writer at a time of great cultural and political ferment.
And so, reading those memoirs got my mind really going. I wanted to explore the tension and the changes of that era, and reading those books suggested a way for me to do it, drawing upon historical material but framing it on my own terms.
How did you approach writing a character of a different race than you?
MG: I feel like right now in particular, it’s so important for writers to speak to the importance of taking those kinds of imaginative and empathetic leaps because we’re living in such a fearful, fearful time. There’s this horrible expression, “Stay in your lane,” which within certain circumstances has utility, but within the creative community is so destructive. The whole project of being human is to understand other humans, and the only way to understand other humans is to try to get inside their heads and see the world through their eyes. To tell an artist “Stay in your lane,” is to police their imagination and to institute a form of creative segregation that will only reinforce barriers and erect new ones. Building walls is not the way to progress as a culture or a planet.
But there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. If you are taking on a milieu or a culture or a gender or a socioeconomic bracket or a race or ethnicity or sexuality that is not your own, you’ve got to do your research and do your due diligence and have lots of people read it who know a lot more than you do, and then you need to listen very closely to what those people have to say. You need to be prepared to do a really poor job of it at first and then keep working and working and working to make it better. And you might not ever get the work to a point where the larger world should read what you’ve written, but maybe you will. Either way, it behooves you to try. The moment an artist stops following their imagination, wherever it may lead, is when they stop being an artist.
So you started with a question about being both a mom and an artist. How do you feel about that question now?
MG: My kids were four and seven when I first started this book, and it was definitely a time of turmoil for me. I felt constantly at war with myself because when I was doing family stuff, I was thinking the writing was suffering, and when I was doing writing stuff, I was like, oh my gosh, I’m not being there for my kids.
Part of this book was just trying to work through that. And one thing that happened during this time was that I went to see the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Guggenheim. I don’t know whether I brought this to the work or whether the work brought it to me, but as I was going through the Bourgeois exhibit, there was this flurry of work in the early part of the show, and then all of a sudden the work got super sparse. I was like, oh, what’s going on here? And when I looked at her biography and did the math, I realized that the sparse period corresponded to the time when her three sons were all quite young.
Then, at a certain later point in the exhibition, the work came back. Not only was she producing a lot again, but it was better than anything that had come before. More complex, more interesting, the stuff she’s known for. And when I looked at the years again, I was like, oh, her sons are older now. The official art history take on this is that her work changed after her father died because she had these all issues with her father, but I’d like to submit that another huge piece of that puzzle is the parenting. For me, it really was an epiphany. Looking at that exhibit, I realized that being an artist and being a parent are not at odds. These two forces are not doing battle: they’re part of a larger process. To be a parent, I have to learn to empathize and caretake and love in new and unprecedented ways, and that makes me a better human being. And anything that makes me a better human being makes me a better artist. It wasn’t just a platitude. Louise Bourgeois was the proof. Going through that exhibit at the Guggenheim, I saw it playing out.
That’s when I realized I just had to make my peace with the fact that yes, I’m going to work slower for a while, but I’m going to work deeper and richer as a result.
Myla Goldberg is the bestselling author of Feast Your Eyes, The False Friend, Wickett’s Remedy, and Bee Season, which was a New York Times Notable Book, a winner of the Borders New Voices Prize, a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and was adapted to film and widely translated.
Hayleigh Santra is a student in The New School’s MFA Creative Writing program for fiction. She lives in Brooklyn.