If the past year has taught us anything, it has highlighted the importance of connections. One of my favorite Facebook posters is the amazing author featured this month in the interview. Matthew is a New York Times-bestselling author of four books of nonfiction: The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team; Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World; The Sun and the Moon: Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York; and Jewish Food: The World at Table. A prolific writer, Matthew has published essays, articles, short stories, and reviews in The American Scholar, Harvard Review, Salon, the Village Voice, the Forward, and Bon Appetit. His works have been cited for Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Story anthologies. I’m such a fan and very honored to host him this month.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Matthew. You’re one of the few authors I’ve hosted who primarily writes non-fiction. What propelled you in this direction?
Matthew Goodman: Growing up, I read a ton of fiction – children’s novels, many of which I still have (and occasionally read!) today. I loved fiction, and I was fascinated by novelists, and I always thought that this was the type of writing that I would one day do. At the same time, I was extremely political by nature, active in various campaigns and movements, and also very interested in history, but in terms of writing, I always saw myself as a fiction writer.
So after a few halting and not very good efforts at writing short stories after college, I somehow managed to get into an MFA program for fiction writing. It was in grad school that my writing abilities really blossomed – in large part because it was the first time that I was able to devote myself full time to creative writing – and I got several stories accepted by good literary magazines, and I began work on a novel.
That in itself is a long and convoluted tale, but in any case, I spent many years writing that novel, for which I eventually got a rather distinguished New York agent, and in turn, he spent many years unsuccessfully trying to sell it. And finally, he and I regretfully gave up on it, after nearly ten years combined – essentially all of my thirties – of writing and trying to sell it. By that point, fiction itself had become tainted for me, a site of anxiety and frustration and regret, and though I knew I should be trying to write a second novel, I just found myself blocked – I couldn’t do it. Which itself led to more anxiety and frustration.
I was really stuck. At that time I was also studying Yiddish independently, and I began writing about Yiddish culture for an English-language Jewish newspaper called the Forward. I had also gotten interested in food and cooking, and eventually, I put the two things together and started writing a bimonthly column on Jewish food. After a few years of doing the column, I realized that I had accumulated enough essays and recipes to put together a cookbook – which I did, and which my agent (the same one who had been unable to sell my novel) managed to sell for more money than either of us had been anticipating. For the first time, I contemplated the possibility of supporting myself by writing nonfiction books.
I felt limited, though, by the short format of these food essays, and I wanted to write a full-length narrative. (I still had the narrative yearning that I had as a kid reading those novels.) One day on TV I saw an interview with the writer Simon Winchester, talking about his book The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. This was a full-length book, with characters and a plot, about a real event in history; it was my first encounter with what I now think of as “narrative history.” It was an epiphany for me: I never even knew that you could do that – that you could tell history in a completely accurate way, but at the same time novelistically. Instantly I realized that it was what I wanted to do because it merged my long-time interests in history and politics with my love for, and training in, fiction writing, with its concerns for characterization and narrative structure and authorial voice and all the rest. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
JEI: You have four highly acclaimed books. Which is your favorite? Which was the most challenging to write?
MG: The most challenging book to write is whichever one I’m working on at that moment! That’s a bit of a joke, of course, but in a sense it’s true – I’ve found that each of my books has, in its own way, presented greater challenges than the one before it. Each one has been a bit more ambitious than the previous one. Having said that, I will mention the special challenge that I encountered in working on my second book, The Sun and the Moon, which was published in 2008. It was my first book of narrative history, and so I was inexperienced in this type of research and writing. The topic of the book was the “moon hoax” of 1835 – in which a series of newspaper articles convinced New Yorkers that life had been discovered on the moon – and the main character was the author of the series, an expatriate Englishman by the name of Richard Adams Locke, who at the time was the editor of the New York Sun newspaper. And I will say, it’s a daunting proposition when the adjective most often used to describe your main character in the historical sources is “enigmatic.” There just wasn’t that much known about Richard Adams Locke, even at the time, and of course, he lived nearly two hundred years ago, so there aren’t people around who knew him, or even any descendants left who remember him, nor much in the way of contemporaneous sources.
That was a frightening prospect, to have this hole right in the center of the story. When I would mention it to people, they would often say, “Why don’t you write it as a novel?” The idea being, of course, that I could then just make up whatever it was I didn’t know. But even though I was new to narrative history and didn’t really know what I was doing, I understood that the power of the story would lie in the fact that the reader could be confident that everything in it had really happened – despite how outlandish it all seemed. I would have to persevere and try to find whatever I could.
So that’s what I did. I read everything I could find that Locke had written during the course of his journalistic career, stretching back to his youth in England; and then I traveled to England (I was fortunate that he came from the southwestern English county of Somerset, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen) to do genealogical research; and eventually, I found a reference to an obscure article that Locke himself had written years later, in which he gave his reasons for having concocted the moon hoax, which I managed to uncover in the archives of the New-York Historical Society, and that unlocked a lot of the mystery, and eventually I had enough material that I felt I could tell the story in a way that it hadn’t been told before.
JEI: How do you decide on a subject? Do you begin with an idea or with questions you have about a topic?
MG: For me, the hardest part of the entire process is choosing a subject. It usually takes me a ridiculously long time to land on the next book idea – it took me eighteen months to come up with the idea for The City Game, and over a year for the book on which I’m now working. (And those are agonizing months, by the way, shot through with the conviction that all the good ideas have already been taken, that there are no more fish left in the sea, and that one will have to give up writing and take up another profession entirely.) This is because, for me, I’m going to be spending four or five years with a subject – as long as it takes me to finish a book – and so I have to know that it’s one that’s going to sustain my interest for that length of time; ideally, I’m at least as excited by a story at the end of the process as I was at the beginning. But even beyond that, an idea has to meet several criteria before I consider it workable.
First off, as I mentioned, it’s got to be an idea that I’m interested in, some question that I’m interested in exploring. Since I’m writing narrative history, of course, there has to be a recognizable narrative arc. (Often my books are double narratives – comprising two characters or two sets of characters – in which case they both should follow this basic arc.) I’m really telling a story, after all, rather than just presenting a history, and so there has to be a story at the core. That means that there also have to be compelling characters, ones with whom the reader will want to spend the course of a book. Since I’m interested in politics, I always like it when my stories shed light on larger political themes – the conflict between science and religion in The Sun and the Moon, the changing role of women in Eighty Days, political corruption in The City Game. I want the book to have a larger resonance than just the story itself. And ideally, I want there to be something in the subject matter that challenges me artistically, that I haven’t done before.
Then you get into more mercenary sorts of questions, but also critically important, notably: Is this story going to interest enough readers that a publishing company will want to pay me to write it? And then, of course: Has this story not been told before? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen in love with an idea only to discover that it’s been done before – or even worse, that someone is currently doing it, that they beat me to it by only a short time. I once had an idea that I absolutely loved, and I was thrilled to discover that no one had written about it since the early twentieth century. And then after a few days of research, I discovered that somebody else was currently doing it, and that the book would be coming out later that year. I found the advance publicity for the book, and it proclaimed, “First book on the subject in 75 years!” That was a heartbreaking moment.
So: interesting idea, dramatic story-line, compelling characters, larger political meaning, commercially viable, not previously done before. Needless to say, those ideas are very hard to come by – you can understand why it might take a year and a half to find one.
JEI: You’re a New Yorker. Does the city itself serve as inspiration or distraction?
MG: I am a New Yorker – my kids are fourth-generation Brooklynites – and I find the city sometimes maddening, often inspiring, endlessly interesting. As something of a student of the city, I also know how many fascinating events have taken place here, and so it’s not that surprising that my earlier books have more or less had New York as their backdrop. It’s a fantasy of mine to somehow be able to visit New York in the past, so I guess writing about in 1835 or 1889 or 1950 is about as close as I’ll ever get to that. But I have to say, I work hard to make the city of that time come as fully alive as I possibly can – to give the reader the most vivid possible sense of that particular vanished world. My favorite responses from readers are the ones that say, “I really felt what it was like to be living in New York at that time!” Or in the case of my most recent book, The City Game, set in New York in 1950, from older readers who told me that it brought back beautiful memories; it means a great deal to me that that book resonated so strongly with so many readers, and especially those who lived through those particular events.
JEI: Every writer has a distinctive process. Would you share a little of your writing day with readers?
MG: All writers, I think, have a particular time of day when they’re at their best; it’s important to discover when that is, and ideally, to be sitting at one’s desk working during that time! Now, of course, it’s not always possible to be doing that, for all kinds of reasons. I find that the morning is the best time to write: for me, to wake up early, have a couple of cups of coffee and a bit of breakfast, read the sports section, do the New York Times crossword puzzle, and be at my desk by, say, 8:00 is ideal. Having said that, I have two kids, and there were many years when that was virtually impossible – there were always breakfasts to prepare, lunches to make and pack, kids to walk to school, and all the rest of the stuff that goes into mornings with young kids. But now my kids are older and essentially self-sufficient, so I more or less can get to work untrammeled in the morning. If I can get three hours of work done, I’m pleased; then lunch and a quick nap. (My family is astounded by the brevity of my naps – they’re always less than five minutes, and usually more like two or three minutes, but that does the trick; even thirty seconds is useful!) Then another cup of coffee and another two or three hours of work, often spent revising what I wrote that morning, before it’s time to start making dinner. I should mention that I’m a very slow writer: If I can produce two new pages that aren’t completely terrible – that’s a good day’s work for me.
JEI: What one trait or quality would you tell aspiring writers proves the most valuable in non-fiction writing?
MG: There are so many, of course: persistence, curiosity, patience, respect for truth … But if I had to choose one, I guess I would say the understanding that the quality of the writing matters just as much in nonfiction as it does in fiction. Just because you’re telling a true story doesn’t mean that you can feel satisfied with prose that is lackluster. Make the writing thrilling, infuse it with sensory details to bring it alive – that’s the way to involve the reader in the story you’re trying to tell.
JEI: What projects do you plan to pursue going forward?
MG: I’ve recently begun work on a new book, which I’m very pleased to say is under contract to Ballantine Books, the Penguin Random House imprint that published my previous two books. It’s tentatively entitled The Paris Line, and it’s about the courageous activities of two women, one American and one British, living in Paris in 1940, who aided the escape of scores of British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. There’s a lot that I’m excited about in this story, not least that these two are by no means the sorts of women – young, glamorous Mata Hari types – that are stereotypically thought of in terms of female spies. These women were older (one was in her early sixties and the other in her late fifties, though newspaper accounts of the time routinely referred to them as “elderly”) and were living rather conventional lives – the sort of women who all too often get overlooked in historical accounts. Unexpectedly, though, these two were plunged into brutal circumstances and discovered in themselves a toughness and daring and bravery that they had never imagined.
It is an exciting project, but it also presents a few challenges – as we were discussing above – that I’ve never encountered before. The first is unavoidable: Covid lockdowns have shut libraries and archives that normally I would be using routinely; it’s a strange situation, to say the least, for me to be several months into researching a book without once having set foot inside the New York Public Library. So I’ve been relying on what I can do with online research, and I’m buying more used books than I normally would, which typically I would just be using in the library. But there are scores of old or otherwise rare books, especially books published in France, that aren’t available at a price that I can afford, and so I’m just keeping a list and someday, when the libraries open back up, I’ll have a backlog of books to take notes on.
Another challenge is that this book is set primarily in Paris, a city that I love but which I don’t know nearly as well as New York; and much of the necessary material is in French – and again, I can make my way through a French book, but it’s a slower process than in my native English. And of course, with travel restrictions I’m not able to visit a lot of the places I would normally want to go; I’ve never used researchers in the past, but right now I’ve got six researchers – one in England, one in Italy, and four in France! As soon as the quarantines end and foreign travel is re-established, I’m planning to make research trips to London, Paris, and the south of France – not a bad deal, all things considered.
JEI: I always like to ask a few lighter questions, so here goes. If you weren’t a writer, what would you do?
MG: That first one is a tough question, as I’ve known I would be a writer pretty much since about the second grade and have never seriously considered anything else. Lack of advanced athletic abilities showed me long ago that shortstop for the Mets was out of the consideration; I actually think I would make a pretty fair chef – I can handle myself around the kitchen – but if push comes to shove, I would say that I might be a political campaign operative of some sort. I’ve always been fascinated by politics, and I could see myself getting involved in political campaigns from the inside. To say “speechwriter” is admittedly a cheat, though – it’s still being a writer. (Though I’m a huge fan of Toby Ziegler from The West Wing!) But yes, campaign advisor of some sort.
JEI: What is your favorite comfort food?
MG: As for comfort food, I’m always happy with bagels and lox or a good slice of thin-crust pizza. For favorite, though, I would probably choose Szechuan Chinese. Put some cumin lamb or mapo tofu or dan-dan noodles in front of me, and I’m good – even if I didn’t get the two pages written that day.
JEI: Matt, thank you so much for this wonderful interview. Readers, below are covers for two of Matthew Goodman’s books.
For more information on our April author, visit https://www.matthewgoodmanbooks.com/