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Myla Goldberg lost her first and only spelling bee in fifth grade with the word tomorrow, but her debut novel, The Bee Season (now available in an Anchor paperback), has been acclaimed as a winner.
A conversation with a friend who had competed in spelling bees inspired the story of Eliza Naumann, whose extraordinary talent for spelling launches her into the world of competition. Goldberg attended the National Spelling Bee in 1997, and "recognized in the kids my own childhood imperative to fulfill expectations."
Goldberg herself defies expectations. At twenty-eight, her writing voice is elegant, inventive and undaunted, while her perky speaking voice seems mismatched for a self-admitted "authority challenger." Her fiction doesn't always follow the rules, and neither does she, obvious from her wardrobe of bright colors, clashing patterns and striped tights.
Her Brooklyn apartment, where she lives with her husband Jason Little, a cartoonist, is filled with eclectic art, books (she's a compulsive reader who doesn't watch TV) and musical instruments (she plays accordion, flute and banjo in a circus band). She collects outdated technology (a manual typewriter and a working gramophone), and "odd mass-produced items" that both fascinate and repel her, like a whistle with a Barbie head that lights up. "I enjoy absurdity," says Goldberg. "I try not to take myself too seriously."
What's not absurd is Goldberg's success. With 50,000 copies of Bee Season in print, and glowing reviews in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, People, and Newsweek, critics have already vaunted her into the league of top American Jewish writers. She calls the praise "a bit premature," but adds that she hopes to "make strides towards getting more women recognized in literary fiction."
Goldberg says she did not intend to write a "Jewish novel": "It's important to write what you know, so it was natural to make the family Jewish." She sets her characters both in conflict and confluence with religious and social convention. Judaism offers higher meaning for Saul, Eliza's father, a Reconstructionist cantor and devotee of Jewish mysticism, but Eliza's brother Aaron rebels against it and turns to Hari Krishna.
Though Bee Season has parallels to Goldberg's life, "it's pretty purely a work of fiction," she says. Raised in an "observant Reconstructionist" home, in Laurel, Maryland, she was a "morbid kid" who wrote ghost stories and took writing classes at summer camp. Her obsession with language mirrors Eliza's fantastic immersion in the alphabet. As Eliza stands out in her family, Goldberg was the only "artsy" member of hers and learned to define herself as different.
An English major at Oberlin College, Goldberg spent a year in Prague, writing and teaching English. Back in the U.S., she found that a freelance job recommending scripts for movies gave her the time to write. Her current novel is set in the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed 40-80 million people worldwide in less than a year.
For Goldberg, writing is the path to the ecstatic. "It's a great drug," she says, "a completely escapist experience. You get to create your own world and everything else disappears."