When the acclaimed author of short stories and novels, Allegra Goodman, came to the South End library in May, she pointed to a list of 20 names at the beginning of her latest novel, The Chalk Artist. "These are all my teachers," she said. "The first one was Dana Izumi, my Kindergarten teacher; the last, Stephen Orgel, was my dissertation advisor at Stanford." Listing them wasn't just because she ran out of relatives to thank, she joked: "Think of who was your best teacher: probably the one who was toughest on you," she said. "I was not a good student. I was left-handed. I had terrible handwriting. Miss Izumi used her blue pencil freely but she never gave up on me. Actually, I was in love with her. She had a page haircut. She was beautiful."
Now a prize-winning author whose Kaaterskill Falls novel about a reclusive Orthodox-Jewish community summering in upstate New York was a finalist for the National Book Award, Goodman's research for The Chalk Artist took her to public high schools in Boston, where she found classrooms that were chaotic and problematic with overwhelmed teachers. She saw the demoralization of the teachers, which was also reflected in the students. "No one wanted to be there," she commented. One of the characters in the novel, a young teacher from a wealthy family who wanted "to give back" finds herself having to teach students obsessed by gaming, lured away from 'real life.' To explore that angle of The Chalk Artist, Goodman studied gaming, even creating her own graphics for invented games. As a traditionalist who, when interviewed by The Boston Globe, said her favorite app is a book, and, no, she doesn't text, she was an unlikely person to dive into that world. She concluded that gaming is more social than anything, with a massive audience and multi-game players. "Gamers look for community on-line and engage in elaborate role-playing on-line," she observed. "My book is not about 'literature is good and screen time is bad," she added, "but about the importance of imagination and the push and pull between words and images."
Goodman grew up in Hawaii, in a conservative Jewish family of academics who taught at the University of Hawaii. She attended the same exclusive school as did President Obama, though at a different time. Her early stories about intricate family dynamics were published as The Family Markowitz. Her recent ones, Apple Cake and F.A.Q.s came out in The New Yorker, as she focuses her attention on different members of the fictional Rubinstein family of Boston, in clear-eyed but compassionate and often hilarious descriptions of long-buried grudges and unexplored conflicts that can surface unexpectedly at inconvenient times.
How belief systems are challenged by life's changes is the recurring theme in Goodman's books. Her earlier novel, Intuition, delves into the world of cancer researchers whose particular belief systems are challenged by the 'professional betrayal' of a post-doc whose girlfriend thinks his data are too good to be true. "The book came about when I was considering the various aspects of marital betrayal and began to wonder, 'what about professional betrayal'?" she explained.
Goodman described herself as an American Jewish woman writer, but elaborated that "we all own the language we share." She pointed to George Eliot wrote about doctors and Jews but was neither. "It's true that you need to know what you write about," she said "but you need to expand what you know."
A resident of Cambridge whose fourth child is about to leave the parental home, Goodman is about finished with another novel. A textbook she co-wrote with a colleague about the craft of writing will be published in the next year. Charmed by the South End where she now takes her youngest child to dance lessons, she promised to be back with her new book.