Love and Grief: An Interview with Francisco Goldman

by Sara Franklin
September 28, 2012

Heralded as one of our hemisphere’s finest writers, Francisco Goldman has examined the tides of grief and estrangement experienced by individuals and communities living on the fringes. As a journalist, his tenacity is unmatched; his 2008 The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? was a painstaking work, reported over a decade and published to wide acclaim. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and been a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, The New York Review of Books, The Believer, Outside, and many other publications.
 
In 2011, Goldman published Say Her Name, a “novel” about the sudden death of his young wife, Aura Estrada, in a surfing accident in Mexico. A mix of Goldman’s memories, Estrada’s own diary entries, and an imagined string of past events, Say Her Name revealed a different Goldman: a man strikingly incisive, tender, and wounded. The book is a testament to the way love and grief can render us both raw and transcendent.
 
I met with Goldman in his Brooklyn neighborhood in December of 2011, several weeks before the release of the paperback edition of Say Her Name. He was between trips to Boston to visit family and Paris to write, having adopted a peripatetic lifestyle since the death of his wife. — Sara Franklin for Freerange Nonfiction
 
Sara Franklin: As someone who writes primarily nonfiction, I think a lot about the blurred lines these days between reporting and memoir, and what narrative nonfiction is. I’m curious to know if you ever set out to write out something akin to a memoir—I know you call it a novel—but is that something you had any intention of doing or any interest in doing?
 
Francisco Goldman: Never any interest in doing. There are so many reasons. I think that when I finished Say Her Name, I had no idea what to call it. I had written the book very conscious of forming something—I was obsessed with the form and shape of the book all the time—and it’s up to other people, really, to say what that form and shape means. And yet, I knew that finding the right shape for that book, shaping that book stylistically, structurally, was really somehow the most important part, the most important thing. Because I knew that there was no mystery to me in discovering essentially, fundamentally, what I felt. Love and grief. But how to express it? The key to that was finding its shape, and that’s an intuitive process, and a process that took years. I never wanted to be imprisoned in any notion of “this has to be factual, this is absolutely the truth.” Why would I do that to myself? Probably because I’ve done so much work in journalism, I’m very strict about what I think nonfiction is, and what kind of obligations you take on when you say you’re going to write nonfiction. And to me, memoir means nonfiction; it means you don’t make anything up.
 
How did this book begin? After six months of grief, I was in this sort of, almost primordial, “the world has been destroyed”… my planets had smashed. And I wasn’t thinking, “What should I call it?” And when I finished, it still had never occurred to me. I really wished I didn’t have to call it anything. And I said to my editors, “Why do we have to call it anything, why can’t we just call it a book, or prose?” And of course, that’s exactly why we call it a novel, because, as many other people like myself have said, those are the roots of the novel. The novel is essentially formless.
 
I never understood in this country why [a mix of fact and fiction] was, for some people, controversial. To me, there was a basic sense of trust immediately established between the reader and the writer. Just reading the jacket copy, if the reader had any curiosity—and nowadays, there’s no book that anybody reads that’s somehow separated from the context of the information age; anyone could just type in my name and find out, “yes this is all true.” And I think the reader—I think—intuitively senses, why would I make up Aura? I think you instinctively, almost intuitively, can grasp where you might invent and where you wouldn’t. So you know, to put it plainly, to put it kind of prosaically, the made up things aren’t about Aura.
 
Honestly, I had to use convention a lot in the book in different ways; when I’m writing about Aura’s childhood—one thing the narrator’s doing, which is what I was obsessively doing in my own life, is trying to tell her life story. And what did I have to go on? All I had to go on were fragmentary stories of memories she told me. So I had those, and I had her diaries. So you see the writer trying to piece together what happened. For instance, the story of the day she met her stepfather. And I have this incredible fragment in her diaries where she just wrote, “My mom and this guy just came back and they’re wearing the same clothes they were wearing yesterday!” I mean, she was so sharp and perceptive. And you can just see her at her breakfast table, all worried and agitated about where her mom was. And out of that, I sort of had to make up a real scene. I don’t know if they played tag in the garden. I don’t even know if that’s the day she met her stepsister. So I made up a game, I can imagine. And so would somebody be comfortable calling that a memoir? I don’t know, but I’m not.
 
And I guess another thing —and this is really important—is that there was no way to write that book just in my voice. From the start it always had to be a collaboration between Aura and myself. Even now, when I try to write about Aura only in my voice, I hate it because we were a couple, in a pretty profound sense. And I can’t—there’s no way to write about her, write about us, without trying to bring her voice alive and imagine, as much as you can, her side of things. She’s not here anymore, and she wasn’t here while I was writing the book. So right away, I don’t understand how you could call that anything but fiction.
 
SF: Do you think it’s possible to write nonfiction or truth when you’re deep in grief? Is there even the clarity of mind to do that?
 
FG: That is such a good question. I couldn’t agree more. You know it yourself—you’ve been shattered into a million pieces. You’ve been through it, I take it.
 
SF: I read this as my father was dying, which was right on the heels of my mother dying, both in my early 20s. And it was—keep answering!
 
FG: Yeah, you don’t know who that “I” is anymore. I profoundly had no idea who that “I” was anymore. In a moment my whole life had been taken away. There was no stable “I” to write from. And the whole process is so full of delusions and hallucinations and complete disorientation. I guess superficially that would be something like, suddenly you’re walking somewhere and you don’t know where you are. Really terrifying. And I think the last time that happened to me was only a year ago. It’s the trippiest thing I’ve ever been through.
 
SF: Yeah, it is. Waving between, for me, this very muffled, dulled sense of things and this incredibly lucid high where everything is bright and vivid and overwhelming and your senses are just kind of popping at a level you can’t control.
 
FG: And a wall breaks down between your conscious and your subconscious.
 
SF: Absolutely.
 
SF: You were writing this as you were very much actively grieving your wife. How did that serve you? Or did it?
 
FG: If I was being honest, I think it probably did more harm than good. Because it was really the opposite of letting go. It was immersing myself in the loss and in her life every day. Sort of attaching myself to her even more. Why would I do that? I felt I owed it to her. I knew that she was very, very vivid still, honestly, in my daily life. And I knew that in a few years, even, those memories would be less vivid. And, you know, a big preoccupation in her own life was writing, so something as simple as excavating her childhood, I felt a kind of duty to do it for her. That’s maybe crazy widower madness, but no—I felt that she has to be remembered. And only I can do it. And in that obsession is part of one of the themes of the book—how do you remember somebody? What does it mean to try to remember them? At times it felt like a self-immolation, when all I wanted to do was run away and get out of New York and go somewhere I’d never been before and not tell anybody who I was or what I was going through, but I couldn’t, I had to stay there and do this for her. And it probably complicated things for me. In some ways, this is my first year of—someone said to me, “Your grief is really going to start when you finish the book. Because that’s really when you’re going to have to let go.” And in some ways, it’s been that way. In some ways, that turned out to be true. And I don’t regret it at all.
 
SF: One of the things I find unusual about the book, is that it seems to me in the kind of press and attention it’s received, it sort of holds you and Aura and the reader in that place of grief rather than trying to figure it out circuitously or trying to move beyond it or tell it backwards. Do you think that it’s a distinctly American or Western instinct to— you were saying the writing of the book didn’t allow you to let go, but that instinct not to stay in that place, to have a period of mourning, that sort of blocked off, official recognized period of grieving—is that something we perhaps need to excavate a little bit, or talk about more, because we don’t have a space for it culturally?
 
FG: I don’t know. It’s been interesting to see this flurry of so called “grief” books. I always insist that my book is not a grief book; it’s a love book. And certainly, one thing I don’t do in my book is offer advice or try to make grief manageable. Nobody would ever say to a griever, “Read this book and do what he did.” It could be, and I found when I was on tour, that there is this therapeutic value that people say, “I’m behaving so strangely,” and then they read the book and they realize that people behave this way. I mean, that’s what it can offer. But there’s no “how to get better” prescriptions. And I think that it’s clear that the U.S. is very uncomfortable with death in all forms, especially death when it’s close to you. There was a family member of mine that said, “Don’t you think it’s time to move on?” three weeks after Aura died! You know, even my poor mom who’s Guatemalan was like, “She’s at peace on the side of the Lord.” I think in this country, everything has to get better quickly or there’s something wrong with you. And I think that what I’ve learned is that every single grief is different, they really are. It’s a remarkable journey for every person who undergoes it. And not a nice one, not one you’d wish on anybody. And not necessarily one that makes you stronger. They just simply are remarkably intense experiences. And it’s true when Iris Murdoch says, “The bereaved can only speak to the bereaved,” in the sense that they’ve been through something other people don’t understand.
 
SF: Shifting gears a little bit— you know, you were still a writer in all of this. You were crafting a piece of writing. Did the actual act of writing feel different when you were working on this project than it had previously?
 
FG: It was writing under a lot of pressure because I had to get it right. This sounds corny but it’s true. It was like, “My love, I owe you the best book I can write.” You know, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write the best sentences I’ve ever written in my life. It was a different kind of sentence. This was not that sort of baroque sentence of all my earlier books. This was a very different style for me, which I worked hard at. It’s a style that grows out of the forensic, clean style of The Art of Political Murder humanized. I was working for a voice that would be very transparent; a voice—although it’s my voice—that would never occlude or partially fog over Aura. She always had to be the one that came through in vivid technicolor. I was constantly honing it back, honing it back, honing it back.
 
And then the other thing I haven’t mentioned—I recently came across the first email that I wrote in ’07 in Berlin, announcing that I was working on this book to my agent. I said, “I’m working on a book about Aura. So far, everything is pretty much true except about two thirds of the way through, it’s going to turn totally into a novel.” From the start, the day I began to write it, it was always this idea of trying to think of it as a collaboration between me and Aura. And I had this wacky idea and I wrote towards that. That, at a certain point, Aura’s novel set in that French insane asylum was going to take over, and suddenly you were going to be in Aura’s book, and I was going to be in Aura’s book. And that is the DNA of the book. In that sense, too, no matter how much “true” or “untrue”, it was always headed towards this strange thing where suddenly it was going to turn into this other novel. It ends that way; it’s just not the last third of the book.
 
SF: You published Say Her Name in early 2011, and you were working on quite a few other projects at this point—do you feel like you’ve exhausted writing about Aura? Or are there threads you keep coming back to, shards here and there that show up in your other work?
 
FG: There hasn’t been much other work (laughs). What happened was there were all these projects that got backed up. It felt like my career was totally interrupted by two books that I never expected to have to write that I wrote. Everyone was tearing their hair out, saying, “Why don’t you go choose the least commercial thing you could possibly choose, you know, a book about political murder in Guatemala!” But I felt obligated to do it, I had no choice. Because so much was at stake there, and my friends so needed it, and I was so obsessed with it.
 
SF: Yeah, I mean, it has that same element of sort of monomaniacal obsession.
 
FG: Once I get obsessed with something, forget it. And so I was working on this novel that I set aside first for The Art of Political Murder, and then I started up again the one that was going to be set in New Bedford. Aura and I went to New Bedford. So it’s been a long detour. Now I’m sitting here with like five projects. And I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I have the feeling that as much as I try to pick up an old project, that compulsion to keep writing about what has happened is going to be too much. I’m just different now. And Aura’s death is something that still feels like it keeps happening every day. And I mean I’m interested in different aspects. I’m interested in the possibility of reincorporating this into your life and finding a way to be happy again. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but I’m interested in how that might happen.
 
SF: In looking back through some of your writing, grief—for country, for culture, for loved ones left behind—has been a major theme. Did you realize you were writing about grief so much before Say Her Name? Did those writings in any way prepare you to put words to your grief about Aura?
 
FG: Nope. I knew nothing about grief until I lost Aura. Nothing. I may have thought I did, but I didn’t.
 
SF: You still spend a great deal of time in Latin America—what keeps drawing you back? Why Mexico in particular?
 
FG: I love Mexico City. I’ve been in love with it for almost 20 years. If I didn’t have to earn a living up here, I would live there year round. I’ve written most of all my books there. Most of my friends are there. Much of my emotional life is lived there. Benedict Anderson wrote, reflecting on the origins of national feeling in New World colonialists I think, that the sense of really belonging to a place is born once you’ve buried your dead there, and I guess that’s how I feel about Mexico City now. It’s like something in the air there nourishes me, and I don’t mean the pollution. All sorts of quotidian things that make me feel more alive: the freshness of the mornings, the way everyone says good morning, my neighborhood juice stand, the afternoon rains, the girl who works in the bookstore nearby, the suddenly falling velvety purple evenings. I haven’t been there in a few months and I really miss it.
 
SF: What themes on forms have emerged recently in Latin American literature? Who are the Latin American writers to watch right now?
 
FG: There are so many interesting writers right now. I am not sure that any one thing, apart from the Spanish language, unites them — other than that, of course, none of them practice the sort of writing with which North Americans have been stereotyping Latin Americans since the sixties. I greatly admire the work of my friends Horacio Castellanos Moya, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Martin Solares, Alvaro Enrigue, Alejandro Zambra, José Manuel Prieto, Mario Bellatín and Yuri Herrera, and also, of course, that of the late Daniel Sada. Valeria Luiselli is dazzling, the best very young writer – she’s only 27 or so — that I’ve read. Also Guadalupe Nettle, Samantha Schweblin, Brenda Lozano. Also watch for future books from other young writers such as Gabriela Jauregui and, of course, the first two winners of the Premio Aura Estrada, Susana Iglesias and Majo Ramirez. One thing you’ll notice about that list – and I’m not sure what it means – is that as you descend from writers in their 50s and 40s to those in their 30s and 20s, or maybe I should say ascend from the 50s to the 20s, women begin to predominate.
 
SF: In Henning Mankell’s recent essay in the New York Times on storytelling in Africa — Mozambique in particular— he wrote, “I’m old enough to remember when South American literature emerged in popular consciousness and changed forever our view of the human condition and what it means to be human. Now I think it’s Africa’s turn.” Where, if anywhere, do you see truth in that statement? Is Latin America ‘done’? Is Africa following an easier path because of Latin America, or is their story too different?
 
FG: I don’t agree with statements like that. I don’t really know what that means, that South Americans changed our idea of being human. Maybe it’s a very European way of dividing the world into “literatures” and fixing Rorschach-like political associations to them. Interesting writers and books – many of which deepen our idea of being human in all sorts of particular ways, for sure – come– come from everywhere, all the time. Roberto Bolaño and CesarAira, to take just two recent Latin American examples, are certainly two of the most important, passionately read writers, internationally, of the last decade, so Latin America hasn’t gone anywhere.
 
Goldman’s bestselling novel, Say Her Name, was re-released in paperback by Grove Press in April 2012

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Sara B. Franklin considers herself a storyteller and cook foremost…and then all the rest. A graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, she’s currently in the Food Studies doctoral program at New York University where she is looking at the role of storytelling, oral history, and memory in the ways we produce, consume, and create rituals around food. She is based in Brooklyn, New York. You can read some of her musings at City By Trade, Country By Love

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