On Pinball, Bee Season and Starting Out as a Writer

Myla Goldberg, professional author and Oberlin alum (’96), has just beaten my ass at pinball—not just once, but three games in a row. Not only that, but she also managed, simultaneously, to playfully reference the smarmy character in her novel Bee Season who introduces the district spelling bee (in a passage she read Thursday night) by quipping, “Pinball isn’t a competition. It’s a celebration.”

Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it can be a ritual. After a while, taking a break from your 200 pages of reading to play a little Johnny Mnemonic can be comforting no matter how well you actually do.

“We had such good pinball games,” Myla Goldberg says, grinning. “The highlights of my four years of pinball when I was at Oberlin were: Doctor Who, which is an awesome game; Funhouse, that’s a really good one too; and Bride of Pinbot. I’m a big pinball fan.”

We sit down for a discussion Friday evening in DeCafé—where, Myla informs me (to my shock) there used to be a smoking section! But while there are some notable differences, Oberlin doesn’t change all that much. “Walking around I’m actually hallucinating friends of mine,” Myla laughs, “I’m seeing people that I swear are the people as I knew them in college. But that could just be a fashion thing.”

College can be comforting because it provides a structure, and like many Obies I find myself apprehensive about the unstructured future that lies on the other side of graduation. As someone who made a remarkably quick transition from college to professional success, I was curious about Myla’s post-Oberlin experience and how this led to the publishing of Bee Season. Her answer was both thorough and inspiring.

“Writing’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, period. I just knew from college onward that I’d want to construct a life where I’d be able to write.” She spent a year in Prague, living cheaply, teaching English to ex-Communist officials, and writing.

“My very first novel—not Bee Season—was written in Prague, and after a year I moved to New York.” She took a series of jobs, but none worked out, and she was eventually fired from the production of a “Steven King horror movie.” It had some unintended benefits, such as placing her on unemployment for six months, a “dreamy period” that allowed her to finish her first novel. “This was a grant as far as I was concerned,” she laughs.

“My first novel, about an Eastern European circus at the dawn of World War Two, got me my agent, who sent it around to publishers. After a year and a half of encouraging rejection letters, we decided there was nowhere else to send it. By then I had already started working on Bee Season.”

After unemployment ended, Myla contacted her old boss when she was interning and got work as a “freelance reader,” which involves reading books and saying whether or not they would make good movies. “I didn’t get to do any of the kind of fancy things you do in New York, but it gave me time to write,” she says. “If you want to write, choose a job that gives you time rather than money. You’re going to have to pick at first. It was with that time that I was able to write my second novel, this one, which became my first published novel.”

What about getting a job as an editorial assistant for some magazine, I ask. Myla is vehement in her reply.

“That’s the worst thing you can possibly do. That’s going to use the exact same energies and the exact same part of your brain that you’re going to need for writing. You can write on weekends, but that’s going to be hard to do if you’ve already used that part of you up. It’s finite. I wanted to try to find a job that required as little of me as possible, that I did not give a shit about, so I could save energy for the thing I did care about, which is writing.”

Then I understand: the trick is to replace one structure with another. Writing becomes something like a ritual, an experience requiring dedication and, it could be said, purity. Writing as Myla describes it has much in common with the rituals Aaron, the son in Bee Season, is attracted to in Hare Krishna.This need for purity, then, suggests why so many writers are bothered by the marketing demands put on successful novelists. Myla seems much more laid-back about it than most, however. After Myla reveals that a Bee Season movie was in the works, I wonder if she was distressed that a novel essentially about religion and ritual was being promoted as a book about spelling bees. Not really, she says.

“I’ll tell you how I wrote the book. I did write it very consciously to get darker and stranger as it continues. I wanted it at first to seem like this sunny, happy, Reader’s Digest kind of read, and to lull people into this sense of complacency and then to hit them over the head. If the spelling bee gets people to read the book, that’s fine with me,” she laughs. But, she says, “there is a difference between how the book is presented and how I’m presented.”

Speaking of how you’re presented, I say, what was going on with that picture in People magazine–the one where Myla sprawls, legs akimbo, on a geometrical canvas chair, flowered tights on her legs and a maniacally goofy smile on her face.

“Oh God, I hated that so much,” she laughs. “So number one, how surreal is it to have a People photographer come to your apartment? He was there for three hours. He told me, ‘I want funny tights.’ He was just doing his job, and he was very nice, but the way he would smile at me a lot—he had this fakey smile. And so, to combat that, I’d give him a fakey smile back in total sarcasm. I also did real smiles, in poses that I thought were more genuine, but I don’t get to pick the picture. He picked me giving him one of my fakey, fuck-off kind of smiles, and I thought, oh man…You have to take a step back. It’s a comedy, and I’m watching it like everyone else,” she laughs. If it’s a comedy, Myla seems to be enjoying it immensely. At the reading Thursday night, she presented Bee Season with real joy and warmth.

Finally, we begin talking about the book. I started off with a question about how the spelling bee fits into the religious themes at the center of the book. I took the bee as a secular ritual, and its emphasis on memorization was not that different from Aaron’s training for his bar mitzvah.

“That works,” Myla says. “The idea of ritual was a very important park of the book. We’re all enacting rituals, conscious and unconscious. Family is a ritual. There are rules that the family follows, spoken and unspoken. I also wanted to show the way that all of these rituals resemble each other in eerie ways. When Eliza is doing her mystical chanting it’s a whole lot like the chanting that Aaron is doing for Hare Krishna. That was very important to me.”

Others have commented on the structure of the book–while Eliza clearly is the main character, Myla gives equal attention and depth to all four members of the family.  “That was always my interest. Often in books you have the one main character and everyone else is peripheral. I think that’s a lot less interesting. I wanted to strive to make everyone as multi-dimensional as possible. The different perspectives and points of view that yields are what make reading interesting.”  Is ritual, then, ultimately just an effective way for helping those who are troubled?  She pauses before replying. “Everyone in the book is looking for something above the banality of daily life. The paths each of them takes are very different. To me, the tragedy of the book is that they don’t realize that they’re all looking for the same thing. If they had, they maybe could have been a family in a real. Ritual can give you a sense of normalcy if you’re talking about day-to-day things: we’re a family, we eat dinner at a certain time, that’s a ritual. The unknown is scary. Structure gives assurance even when there isn’t any there.”

Back, then, to the ramps and loops of the pinball game. As Myla drops another ball in the grid, the machine screams out and MULTIBALL! spews forth. “You can’t aim in mutiball,” she says, “you just try to keep them in play, and don’t worry about where they go.” Nailing the flipper button with her double-jointed finger, she gets the jackpot again and again. I can only smile and watch. 

— 2003 interview, grendel.org