A Conversation with Judy Goldman
William Morrow, October 1, 2004

Q: Early Leaving is the story of a tragedy that befalls a well-to-do family. Eighteen-year-old Early Smallwood, a bright, popular honors student, murders a young black man, and his family is left to ponder how such a horrific event could have occurred. What inspired you to tell this story?

A: Six years ago my mother’s best friend’s grandson shot two fellow teen-agers at point-blank range, tossed their bodies in a car trunk and set the car ablaze. That young man was from a gentle, close-knit family. The news grieved me — and terrified me. If something like this could happen in their family, it could happen in any family; it could even happen in mine.

I did not tell this family’s story. I invented a family and let them tell their own story. But sorrow over what happened to the wonderful people I once knew is what fueled the writing of my book.

Q: The story unfolds through the perspective of Kathryne Smallwood, Early’s mother, who probes every detail of her son’s past in an effort to uncover what she could have done to save her son. She shoulders much of the blame for his actions. Do you consider her to be at fault? Is your book a cautionary tale for parents?

A: There is no such thing as a perfect parent. But it’s the nature of parenting to wish we’d done certain things differently. Because mothers are obviously responsible for the physical safety of our infants, it’s natural for us to go one step further and assume we’re also responsible for their emotional health, their superior intelligence, their success in life, their perfection. We work very hard to give our children the right kind of love — not critical love or selfish love, but fully-attuned love.

Of course, our children make choices and have experiences that are well beyond our control. It’s the long-running nature vs. nurture debate. How much of a role do we play in how our children “turn out” — and how much is due to larger forces?

I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale. I don’t believe we should write books because we think we have something important to say. I wrote this novel to ask questions. What might’ve happened in my family if I’d let myself be an over-protective mother? Kathryne Smallwood is obsession in the extreme — my own worst nightmare of myself. I wanted to explore those tendencies in myself. I hope the emotions will be recognizable to other women.

Q: A recent New York Times column by David Brooks discussed how the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, while acknowledging the horrible crime their son had committed, were still fiercely loyal toward him. Brooks asked a question you confront head-on in EARLY LEAVING: “If your child commits a crime like that, what do you do with the rest of your life?”

How would you respond personally to that? How would Kathryne?

A: My heart aches for the Klebolds. I would never want to trivialize the crime Dylan Klebold committed or the profound sadness his parents feel by what I’m about to say — but what do any parents do with the rest of their lives after their child does something that goes against all of their values? How suddenly our children can fall into error and how irrevocably a single event can lead to a
new fate.

Near the end of my book, Kathryne’s friend, Joy, tells her, “Well, we all could’ve been better parents. But we have to make sure our guilt over what we did or didn’t do for our children isn’t just allowing us to carry the burden for them…” Kathryne finally decides she must let go because she has no choice. She has known the worst and suffered for it, but she comes to the realization that it’s not too late for her to accept that her life is not tied to her son’s future. It’s not too late for her to become an active
participant in her own life.

Q: In EARLY LEAVING and your previous novel, The Slow Way Back, you explore the complex themes of love, loyalty, trust and betrayal within a family. What compels you to write about family relationships?

A: What interests me about family are the ways we connect, disconnect, then reconnect. I love how resilient families are, how anything is possible, how change can take place — change we never thought could happen in a lifetime. The relationship between two sisters that has never ever been smooth eases up. The brother who’s been stiff and distant his whole life softens. Parents and grown children become peers with a million things in common.

I happen to have two wonderful, grown, married children and a fine daughter-in-law and son-in-law. My relationship with my daughter, for example, since she gave birth to identical twin girls, has become even closer than ever. I tell her about my experiences when I was a new mother like her, and she laughs and says how funny it is to hear me refer to “the baby” when it was she who was that baby!

Q: Before you turned to fiction writing, you were an accomplished poet with two published books of poetry. How does your background in poetry affect the creative process of your novels?

A: It makes writing a novel very slow going! Poets-turned-novelists tend to pick. We look for the rightness of every single word; we study a word or sentence or paragraph a hundred or 200 times as though that huge gorilla of a novel we’re trying to wrestle down is only a two-stanza poem.

Being a former poet also means I’m page-obsessed. The length and breadth of a novel scares me to death. When I started my first novel, friends would stop me in the grocery store and ask what I was working on. I always answered, “I’m writing a 206-page novel.” I had checked the NY Times Book Review several Sundays in a row and found the shortest novel that could still be called a novel was 206 pages. That’s how I made a daunting task less daunting.

Q: You were born in South Carolina and now live in Charlotte, North Carolina. Do you consider yourself to be a Southern writer? How do you see yourself within the tradition of Southern writing?

A: If it means I’m keeping company with Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, yes, I’m a Southern writer! That’s like being born into a family that’s absolutely stellar and even though you had nothing to do with the facts of your birth, you use that connection for all it’s worth.

Because I have great affection — and nostalgia — for my hometown, I will always have at least one character in every novel either be from or live in Rock Hill. It’s my way of paying tribute to that town in South Carolina where I was born and raised. I love being Southern. I never want to lose my soft vowels. But I don’t want the fact that I’ve lived here all my life (except for two years after college in NYC) to limit me. Plus, I’m not sure there’s even such a thing as a Southern writer. Isn’t it true that regardless of whether we call the Carolinas or the Dakotas home, we’re all just writing about what Faulkner called the “human heart in conflict with itself”?

Q: You teach writing workshops across the country. What advice would you give beginning writers?

A: My advice can be put into two words: Show up! This is what separates the real writer from that person you sit next to at a dinner party who says he’s going to write a book some day. It’s all about perseverance. Plenty of people have a talent for writing; some even wear black turtlenecks and tweed jackets; most don’t stick around for the work a book takes.

What should you write about? Write about what keeps you up at night. Write out of your obsessions. You’ll need that passion to see you through all the revisions necessary to transform your first draft into a polished piece. Each of us has a story — if we’re truly lucky, maybe we even have more than one story. Your job is to find the one only you can tell. Find that story and begin.

Q: What advice would you give people your age?

A. My first novel was published one month before my 58th birthday. I had decided to try writing fiction when I was 53. As the years passed and I was still working on that novel, I clung to a quote from the writer, Fred Chappell: “Write as though you have all the time in the world.” I remember thinking, Will I be able to take my laptop to the nursing home? Can I still write if I become incontinent? Here’s what keeps me going: I believe it’s important for all of us as we grow older — but particularly women — to keep taking on new challenges. Whether we’re 33 or 53 or 73, we must force ourselves to try new things. We have to decide what we want to do next and try. It’s the trying that counts.