Sometimes the most repressed memories can be unearthed in the blink of an eye. Or, for Celia Durst, the protagonist of bestselling author Myla Goldberg’s third novel, The False Friend, they occur in the blink of a Volkswagen Bug sighting. As she remembers the popular “punch-buggy” game she used to play with her childhood friend, Djuna (before she was abducted), Celia also remembers a terrible secret about that day she has never told anyone. But when she returns to upstate New York, her childhood home, to unburden herself of what she remembers, no one believes her. Whose story, or memories, are real? Only Myla Goldberg knows for sure, maybe.
One of the themes in The False Friend, the fallibility of memory, really fascinates me because we have evolved into creatures who document our lives in real time, down to what we ate and where we ate it, on Facebook or Twitter, without any real self-awareness or the sense of perspective that is normally gleaned from distance. But you have created this marvelous premise, of a young woman who has repressed a horrible secret that may or may not represent what actually happened, who comes to discover the truth. How did the book come to you, in what pieces?
One day about fifteen years ago, apropos of nothing in particular, I suddenly remembered having thrown a pair of scissors at a friend of mine when we were both in fourth grade, at a time when we were simultaneously each other’s best friends and worst tormentors. My adult self was appalled that I’d ever been a person who would do that sort of thing: as far as I know, throwing those scissors was the first and last time I ever hit anybody with anything. I’d lost touch with this friend ages ago, so I decided to track her down in order to apologize to her, and when I found her (via the magic of the Internet) she had no particular memories of my cruelty. This got me thinking about the peculiarities of memory and the degree to which our adult selves might depend upon what we embrace and what we disown of ourselves as children. Luckily, being a fiction writer, I got to make Celia’s misdeed a lot bigger and juicier than my own.
This book is just as much about the cruelty of children—a friend told me once she wrote “I hate you” in a grade school acquaintance’s yearbook and she really couldn’t explain why, either now or then. Children seen to carry the power and weight of adult emotions but have no idea how to rein them in, and I love these multiple ideas you layer regarding the misconceptions of childhood innocence. What kinds of responses have you received from readers about Celia, a stunted adult who is essentially blind-sided about the nature of her cruelty when she tries to do something she feels is brave and honorable, in setting the past “straight?” To you, is she an amalgamation of all those experiences of childhood?
Celia is a tricky character to have as a main character because while you might start out wanting to like her, the more you learn about her, the harder it becomes to hold on to that initial feeling—though I believe that initial feeling is the right one. Celia is a kind and decent person who had one really bad year a long time ago, when she happened to meet a girl who pressed all her worst buttons. So much of childhood consists of blundering about, bumping into whoever might be in our path, and calling those people friends because they’re the ones who happen to be nearby. Sometimes we luck out, and sometimes we don’t.
Celia’s exploration of her past is definitely a way to look back on the phase of childhood when we’re trying on more complex emotions for the first time and wearing them around and experimenting with cause and effect. At eleven, girls are just starting to define themselves as individuals, and they’re so caught up in that quest that it’s impossible for them to see the effect of their mission on the people around them. A lot of their process involves rejecting what they aren’t—or what they’d prefer not to be—and that generally translates into rejecting the children who represent those things: the funny-looking ones, maybe, or the ones with lamer clothing, or the ones who cry too easily. I think all of us have been on one side—and often both sides—of that situation.
I liked your response in another interview that the book is also about “looking back on childhood through adult eyes and reencountering the major figures in our childhood as adults, and seeing whether people do or don’t match up to what you thought was going to happen to them.” Sometimes it’s not a person’s memory that is faulty or differs, but it’s the perspective, at different points in life, that changes.
Absolutely. For me, part of the book is examining how and why we turn our backs on our earlier selves. Growing up, you think you have a pretty good handle on what the people around you are destined to become—who will be the artist, the writer, the movie star—and it can be shocking how things actually turn out. Pretty much all children are actively engaged with their creative and imaginative potential, but somewhere along the way, it seems that most people lose touch with that. People stop writing, or painting, which is fine, because creativity is a very plastic thing that can be channeled into all sorts of outlets, but I think that force atrophies in a lot of adults, rather than being redirected, and that breaks my heart. Celia is a gifted poet when she’s young, but when she encounters her friends from the past years later, they’re surprised to find out she’s no longer writing. How and why do we lose that creativity identity, that force?
Speaking of identity, there’s an interesting parallel you draw between the mutability of both memory and identity in the character Leanne, the friend that Celia bullies when they are young. Like Celia, she has also changed from the child Celia remembers, albeit in a very surprising way.
Thanks for touching upon that. That scene was one of the most exhilarating and challenging for me to write because I very much wanted Celia’s adult encounter with Leanne to be a moment of discovery for the reader. For that to be successful, it was essential that the scene give out just the right amount of information at just the right time. It’s funny—the scene in which Celia goes back to visit Leanne wound up being one of the first scenes I wrote in The False Friend (that and the scene with Djuna’s mother, Mrs. Pearson). Even before I knew the exact relationship between Celia’s memory and the truth, even before I knew how the book was going to end, I knew these two scenes. They ended up serving as lodestones for the book’s forward momentum. Writing them eased me into the discovery process and prepared me to change along the way. And it was a departure for me to write this way. Bee Season and Wickett’s Remedy were written more linearly.
I like that you tell a few chapters from the perspective of Huck, Celia’s boyfriend. He seems to be a grounding force for the reader.
Definitely. I viewed Huck as essential because the reader’s instinct is to trust the narrator, but one of the main points of this book is that it’s impossible to know who, or what, you can trust. For the reader to know that Celia might be an unreliable narrator, I needed to provide an alternate perspective.
It definitely is a complicated, organic, wonderful story. Once you had the basic premise of the story, how long did it take you to write it?
The story was a five-year process that actually began, I should mention, as song lyrics I wrote for my band, The Walking Hellos. The song, “The Unloved,” is about a girl who is picked on and disappears. When I finished writing that song, I knew I wasn’t finished with that idea.
Wow, moonlighting as a musician—I’m impressed.
Thanks! In the band, I sing and play banjo and accordion.
Did you know you’re the second accordion player I’ve met in the past month? It’s funny that you talk about 80% of adults not using their imagination, and you’re using it in spades. Is your husband, Jason Little, in the band, too?
No, but he’s a cartoonist, which in Brooklyn, at least, is kind of like being in a band.
Your girls are going to rock! Isn’t your oldest nearing the age of Celia and her friends?
My oldest is 7, and the younger girl is 4. As someone who still relates very strongly to my memories of childhood, it’s interesting to start seeing things from the other perspective, as a parent. Just as children learn what they’re capable of¾both wrong and right—by doing, as a parent you constantly have to ask yourself to what degree do you let your children make their own mistakes. Ultimately, we can only protect them from so much.
You can find out more about The False Friend and about Myla Goldberg at her website: www.mylagoldberg.com/