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No happy ‘End’ for Robert Goolrick –only faith in goodness and grace.

November 17, 2010

Robert Goolrick

Robert Goolrick provided a living illustration of the contemporary writer’s plight at the Miami Book Fair last night. Despite the support of a veteran agent, his first novel could not find a publisher. So he wrote a memoir about being raped by his father. It sold in a week.

“When I turned in the novel my agent said she’d have it sold in no time,” Goolrick said. “After awhile she came back and said there aren’t any publishers left and they aren’t buying fiction. But while first novels are almost impossible to get published, the market for memoirs is somewhat better.”

The memoir, The End of the World as We Know It became a critically lauded bestseller in 2007. Eventually Goolrick pursuaded the publisher, Algonguin, to take another look at his novel, The Reliable Wife.

After some judicious editing — the deletion of 75 pages — it too was published. And likewise became a critical darling, and a bestseller.

And there you have it: a retrenching industry, buffeted by winds of technological change, is no longer open to unknown fiction writers, no matter how good they may be. Goolrick, alas, is the rare exception who found the side door marked “memoir.”

On stage Goolrick bore the burden of lifelong suffering –he was molested by his drunken father when he was 4– with a light but serious grace. “Something happened to me that’s inexplicable” he said. “I have felt since the age of four completely unprotected in the world.”

On the one hand, he said, revealing the family secret in The End cost him his family. “A lot of people I love told other people I love that I’m a liar,” he said.

On the other hand, says Goolrick, who grew up in a small Virginia college town and worked for a New York advertising agency until his 50s, the memoir enabled patient friends to make sense of his life. “They saw I wasn’t just in a bad mood,” he said of the years of alcohol abuse, depression, nervous breakdowns.

Contrary to popular perception, Goolrick did not find writing his personal horror story in anyway cathartic.  “What’s cathartic,” he said, “is getting it published and walking into a bookstore, and there it is, the book you made.

“The book is over there and you are over here and you are okay. And it can be picked up by others and maybe make a difference in their lives.”

Goolrick said one in eight boys under the age of 16 are subjected to sexual abuse. He’s receives dozens of letters, most from men, that begin, “I’ve never told anyone this story before…”

“What’s awful about this is not what happens when you are 4, 5 or 6,” Goolrick says, “but what happens when you are 30.”

Despite having his losses, Goolrick professes a belief in human goodness, and the possibility of redemption.

“I’m never going to have a great many of the things I’d hoped to have when I was young,” says Goolrick, who lives in rural Virginia today, a dog his only companion. “What I can have is optimism and a sense of grace even if bad things happen.”

Goolrick read a long passage of ferocious sexual tension from The Reliable Wife, a story of lust, betrayal and bad intent in 1907 Wisconsin. Then he read the last chapter of The End, a prickly meditation on forgiveness and survival. The lyricism of Goolrick’s writing style extended to the extemporaneous remarks he made from the podium.

As the audience shuffled out at the end, a woman at my left turned to me and said, “I feel like I’ve been through a therapy session.” At my right, a tall middle-aged man, his eyes blazing with something close to rapture, said, “That was beautiful! He’s like a poet!”

They were both right.

Miami Book Fair International continues tonight at 8 p.m. with a sharp change of pace. Camp filmmaker and social critic John Waters will talk about his Baltimore-based movies and his new collection of essays, Role Models. Tickets are sold out, but, as my colleague Connie Ogle reports at the Miami Herald, there will be a standby line. For more info, see http://www.miamibookfair.com/.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 17, 2010 12:05 pm

    Goolrick sounds like a nice person. A real person. I have never felt any cartharsis from recording personal traumas either. I like his attitude about humans’ basic goodness. I like that his only companion is his dog. Where in rural Virginia does he live?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 17, 2010 1:36 pm

      He grew up in Lexington, but I don’t know if that’s where he lives today or not.

  2. Bobbi permalink
    November 17, 2010 12:37 pm

    Memoirs are doing better than novels. “Reality” TV is overshadowing scripted programs. Seems like we’re losing our appreciation of fiction. Of the truth that one can find in good fiction.😦

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 17, 2010 1:37 pm

      It’s been trending this direction for two decades, but the crisis in the publishing business has greatly accelerated the process, and made it less likely the pendulum will swing back in the other direction.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 17, 2010 4:29 pm

    Still love my fiction!

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