NEA Big Read Author Goldie Goldbloom on Bullying, Writing in the Bathtub, and Books

By Amy Stolls, NEA Director of Literature
Collage of Goldie Goldbloom's author photo with bookcover of The Paperbark Show
Photo of Goldie Goldbloom by Brian McConkey. Book Cover courtesy of Picador
Goldie Goldbloom—NEA Creative Writing Fellow and new NEA Big Read author—grew up in Western Australia. On her family farm in the country’s rural outback, her grandparents hosted Italian prisoners of war during World War II, which inspired Goldbloom to write her award-winning novel, The Paperbark Shoe. It tells the story of Gin Toad, a woman with albinism and a troubled past who lives with her family on a farm out in the Australian bush and falls in love with one of the POWs who come to work on the farm. We asked Goldbloom to reflect on her love of art and writing, and what it means to be part of the NEA Big Read. NEA: What’s something we’d be surprised to know about you and/or your writing? GOLDIE GOLDBLOOM: Though I’d love to be the kind of writer who gets pages written every day, my life as mother of eight doesn’t always allow for that. Several of my books have been written in crazy sit-downs where I glued myself to my chair and did not get up until the novel was done. I’ve written over three hundred pages in three weeks and over two hundred pages in one crazy ten-day period. Of course, that manuscript is not what a reader gets in their hands at the bookshop. There are a lot of steps in between the raw, first draft and the prettied-up book you buy. (If you pass my house and the lights are still on at 3 am, that’s why…) Also, I might have lied when I said I glue myself to the chair, because my favorite places to write (in this order) are: My bathtub (when it’s empty) My bed under the covers (on cold days) In the grass under a tree in rural Wisconsin (on hot days) NEA: What are some artistic endeavors (in addition to writing) that you enjoy? GOLDBLOOM: I enjoy doing a lot of different things with my hands. Back in the day (when I did not creak when getting out of the car), I illustrated two well-received children’s books using pen and ink. Drawing is still something I get a lot of pleasure from, and so are what I think of as natural out-growths of drawing: linocut printing, watercolour painting, silkscreening, embroidery. But I only enjoy these things when I am creating things I’ve imagined, rather than following someone else’s design or pattern. All of my children are very creative, so my home is full of dance, figure skating moves, music, photography, art, gardening, theatrics, poetry and some super-athletic parkour. One of my favourite memories comes from after my youngest son, at four years old, saw an early Project Runway video somehow. He was standing in my long hallway, pretending to be Tim Gunn, shouting “Make it work!” and he had directed the entire family to come up with costumes representing his favourite toy, a stuffed otter. I’ve also taught sewing and drafting for many years and am sort of notorious for my extremely elaborate costumes I make for my family on Purim. Each year, I choose one costume that will be very difficult to sew, and work on it for many weeks or months, learning new techniques along the way. This year, I’m planning on making the mushroom from Alice in Wonderland, using handpainted silks and with three-dimensional gills underneath the cap. Like Gin in The Paperbark Shoe, I get really stroppy if someone takes my scissors. Unlike Gin, however, I don’t throw my scissors at my loved ones. NEA: Is there a theme that you keep returning to in your writing? GOLDBLOOM: In my case, [it] might best be described as what happens when women are oppressed in some way or denied their rights or blockages are placed in their way when they want access to health care or education or equitable wages or a loving partner. That’s a subject that I am interested in. But I don’t really think writers choose subjects to write about. Writers write best about emotions. So if I was thinking about which emotion I go back to again and again, it might be that powerful and very human yearning for connection that is sometimes called love, and sometimes called lust, and sometimes simply called loneliness. As a person, I am very busy and a bit shy and don’t get to spend a lot of time with anyone besides my children. Sometimes, driving home after a late carpool or when I have especially good news (like my novel being placed on the NEA Big Read list), or when I am putting myself to bed at 3 am, all stiff and sore from writing in the bathtub (see above), I have a momentary flash, a brief wish that I had a friend who lived nearby, someone that I could pop in on and have a glass of seltzer with, someone dear and close who would magically understand my need for solitude but be there right at the moment when I wanted to connect. That is the kind of yearning that fuels my writing life. I was also a child who was cruelly bullied at school because I was different than everyone else. I have a very distinct memory of swinging down from the monkey bars in grade one and seeing all of the little girls in my class snickering and murmuring about the wonderful purple bloomers my mother had sewn for me. I remember looking at those girls and the tight hot feeling in my chest of wanting to be friends with them. And then they turned away and I turned away and pretended it didn’t matter, but of course it did, and isn’t that the story of so many people in the world? That wish, that deep desire, to be liked, to be loved, to be appreciated, to be heard? NEA: As a new NEA Big Read author, which aspect(s) of the program are you most excited about? GOLDBLOOM: Can I say “Everything”? I’ve been involved with literacy efforts for over thirty years and I get very excited when I see programs like this, in which people are encouraged to really live with a book for a while, to imagine it in a big way, and to engage with other people who are also imagining in big (but different) ways. Even when I wrote The Paperbark Shoe, I was imagining fun things that could spring from engagement with the book. I made a playlist of all of the classical music in the novel and I gave it out to my friends, secretly hoping that someone would suggest an opera luncheon with scones and lamb chops and mint jelly and tea. This fantastic Australian playwright, Hellie Turner, contacted me about making the book into a play that would travel around to small rural communities, and my agent asked me which actress I wanted to play Gin. (Tilda Swinton!). My kids did a reading where they voiced some of the characters with deeply bad and totally over-the-top Australian accents and it cracked me up. In Australia, the farmers’ association in Wyalkatchem invited me to come up to the town and meet the locals and it was an absolute blast. They brought out an elderly gentleman who had apparently been the town police officer during World War Two, and his name was serendipitously very similar to the name I gave the policeman in my book. The organizers shouted in his ear, “This lady wrote that book you read!” And he said, in a wonderfully wobbly voice, “You wrote a book about me, and it was bloody good!” And yeah, they served scones and tea. At another event that happened in Australia, a man got up in the audience and he said, “I’ve lived my whole life in Wyalkatchem and I have to tell you, I reckon you got the flowers and the trees a bit off. I think you’re talking about ______ “ and here he named the actual place where my family’s farm is. I’d promised my family I wouldn’t put that placename in the book, but it’s very close to Wyalkatchem. This bloke was an amateur botanist and he knew the outer limits of every wildflower and every bush. I just had to laugh and say he’d caught me out! One of the things that I’ve most enjoyed is just sitting with groups of people who have read the book and letting them ask all the questions they want. My God! If only I could sit with Katherine Dunn or Kelly Link or Kevin Brockmeier or Peter Carey and ask all the questions I have about the wild worlds in their novels! NEA: Which books would you recommend from the NEA Big Read booklist? GOLDBLOOM: To be honest, I think all of the books on the list are ridiculously good. Some are classics that I’ve been familiar with for a long time, and others I read just this year. At one point or another I’ve recommended them all to someone, but I have a special soft spot (as I mentioned above) for Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link because her writing goes in such unexpected directions. And I read Roz Chast’s memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? when it first came out and fell in laugh with it. I hadn’t read Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl when the list was announced, but I got a copy and man, that was such a great read! I have studied botany and worked as a botanist and I felt like she was playing the piano of me as I read, note after note chiming and ringing in my mind, my whole body doing a Molly Bloomesque yes I said yes I will yes. NEA: Fill in the blank: If a reader likes ____________, they might also like The Paperbark Shoe. GOLDBLOOM: What a great question! I was a librarian for a lot of years and one of my favourite questions has always been, “Could you recommend a book I’d like?” The thing is, I sort of set out, when writing The Paperbark Shoe, to break the mold in some ways, so I might be able to point a reader in one of the directions the book takes, but perhaps not all of them at once. If you wanted to read serious rural stories, you couldn’t go wrong with these books: Jim, the Boy by Tony Early The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker The Sun on the Stubble by Colin Thiele Dirt Music by Tim Winton Stoner by John Williams Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (it’s hilarious. Bonus!) More stories with really quirky main characters: The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (a distant relative. Bonus!) Geek Love by Katherine Dunn I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson Basically everything Kelly Link writes (She fans herself.) Quirky characters on sheep farms: Independent People by Halldor Laxness Quirky characters on sheep farms who throw scissors and eat moths and also really really like Italian POWs: I’m sorry. You’re stuck with The Paperbark Shoe. Find more information about Goldie Goldbloom and The Paperbark Shoe, as well as discussion questions about the novel, here. Find more information about our other NEA Big Read titles here. For more information about applying for an NEA Big Read grant, click here