"I was in all of one spelling bee in my life," confides Myla Goldberg, the author of "Bee Season," who'll read from her stunning debut novel at the Jewish Book Festival this week. The overachiever was in the fourth grade, and she smugly expected to win - until she was asked to spell "tomorrow," her Achilles-heel word. She spelled it "tomarrow."
"I lost immediately," says the 28-year-old author in a telephone interview from the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her underground cartoonist husband, Jason.
Cut to 1997, when the writer went off to "eavesdrop" at the National Spelling Bee and was "simultaneously fascinated and repulsed" by parents and children who were "pathologically" into the bee. Goldberg, who's not a crier, wept whenever kids misspelled and "comfort counselors" came to drag them off the stage. "It was just the absurdity and the fatalism of it all," says the author, who's played accordion in a transsexual vaudeville act called the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. "It was all about losing."
The bee, for Goldberg, became "the perfect metaphor for childhood," for desperately trying to please parents and ultimately realizing you can't.
The result was "Bee Season," the story of a Jewish family's unraveling after the previously unremarkable 9-year-old daughter distinguishes herself as a spelling prodigy. Eliza Naumann's Reconstructionist cantor dad then introduces her to kabbalah; her spurned brother seeks solace with the Hare Krishnas, and her mother descends into mental illness. Newsweek called "Bee Season" (Doubleday, $22.95) a "Jewish 'Ordinary People.'" But it's more like "American Beauty."
Goldberg, who in a promotional photo wears funky striped tights, was, like the fictional Myla, a nerdy misfit who arduously tried to please her father. "I thought that because everyone in my family was a science person, I needed to do that, too," she says (her dad's an engineer; her sister is an engineering doctoral candidate at Stanford). Goldberg did the science fairs and attended the science magnet high school. She tried not to be artsy. "But it didn't work," says the author, who eventually began editing her high school literary magazine.
Soon after attending the '97 National Bee, the Oberlin grad remembered her college fascination with Abraham Abulafia, a 13th century kabbalist who said letters can help you talk to God. As research for "Bee Season," she pored over obscure mystical tracts and trekked to the Brooklyn Hare Krishna temple, where she gave a fake name, pretended she was a lost soul and asked lots of questions.
All the while, she supported herself by working as a reader of TV movies, most of which she loathed. She expected to spend her life working yucky jobs to support her writing habit. Then, like the fictional Myla, she unexpectedly became a star. As Goldberg was preparing herself for rejection letters, Doubleday snatched up "Bee Season"; rave reviews ensued everywhere from Time to The New York Times.
On the surface, her life hasn't changed much: She still writes six hours a day in a corner of her living room, surrounded by obscure, preelectronic items such as a magic lantern. "But I no longer have to have a day job while I write," she says. "And that's really cool." - Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor