NPR

Inverting 'King Lear' In 'Goldberg Variations'

Author Susan Isaacs has written 13 books; 12 of them have been best-sellers. The women who inhabit Isaacs' books are smart, sexy, a little snarky, and filled with some serious chutzpah.

The center of Isaacs' latest novel, Goldberg Variations, is no exception. Gloria Garrison owns a multimillion-dollar makeover business, and she is not exactly an easy lady to get along with.

Isaacs talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about writing strong women and growing up wanting to be a cowgirl.


Interview Highlights

On Gloria Garrison, nee Goldberg, around whom Goldberg Variations revolves

"What drives her is plain-old ambition, a good business sense. She really had a vision of doing realistic things to ordinary women in small cities where there was no fashion. But she's not a good-hearted feminist ... she's a bad-hearted feminist ... Not only is she estranged from her family, but her business colleague who was going to take over the company — Gloria's now 79 — she's so hurt him and insulted him that he's out of the picture. So it kind of becomes a comic inversion of King Lear, where she has this multimillion-dollar kingdom, except nobody wants it."

On the inspiration behind creating a character like Garrison

"When she first came to me, here is this woman ... terribly chic with hollowed cheekbones, and I said, 'I don't want to deal with her, I'm not telling her story' ... I was actually listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations ... And I thought, 'Gee, wouldn't ... that be a great title?' And by the end of it, of course, I just realized that I was stuck with it. Then what happens in all my fiction is that a character comes to me. I don't necessarily have to like that character, but I have to find the character interesting and intriguing ... Gloria, I really had to look for good in her. Why are some people just so perfectly dreadful? And is there any redemption? Can she do anything beyond make superficial changes in her life and perhaps tone it down a little?"

On Gloria's preoccupation with one's physical appearance, and whether Isaacs agrees with Gloria that people should pay more attention to how they look

"I think Gloria is right to the extent that if you pay a little attention to your appearance, it shows not only an engagement with yourself, but a desire to present yourself nicely and, in a sense, as a courtesy to the outside world. What I found appalling — find appalling — in our culture now is ... how much of it is about looks. And what Gloria is saying, and what I had her say, is that you really should just do the best you can in about five minutes a day ... But I confess that I was also watching these makeover shows — Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ... or makeover of ... houses, where suddenly a creepy basement becomes a delightful media room. It has an enormous fascination to re-create something, to make it better, improve. It's really such an American tendency — that urge to say, I can do this better."

On whether the likable, ambitious women who often play central roles in Isaacs' books are intended to be feminist role models

"That's too lofty, because then I'm taking myself out of the story, out of my imagination, and taking on a political aim. It's not that I'm apolitical ... In my youth, I was a freelance political speechwriter, which taught me a lot about writing fiction, I must add. But I don't want to do that. I want to tell the story ... I came out of an era of the early feminist novels where women went through a grand thrash against usually a lout of a husband, and they wound up having an affair as a way of breaking out. Well, this is fine, but then what? I was blessed, even growing up in the '50s, with a father who, when I said, 'I want to be an airline stewardess,' he said, 'Why not the pilot?' ... He was an amazing guy. But I always wanted women to want something for themselves beyond all the ... womanly things."

On whether assertive female characters are gaining ground in literature and film

"Actually, I wrote a book in 1999, my one work of nonfiction, called Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen. And there I said no, that the Jane Eyres, that the ... Mary Tyler Moores, that the strong women that we used to know have disappeared. And you have women who, if they are strong, they're strong on behalf of defending their families, or — they never seem to want anything that's beyond the traditional roles of women. You know, I wanted them — my women — to fight for something beyond themselves. So what I want to do is just take an ordinary woman, whether she's a CEO or a housewife, but someone who has talent within an area, and then give them an extraordinary circumstance or two."

On Isaacs' childhood ambitions

"I wanted to be a cowgirl ... But, you know, it was pointed out to me that, you know, growing up in Brooklyn, there wasn't much opportunity ... for cowgirlery. So, I decided, I knew I wanted to be something, but I never thought beyond, 'Gee, I hope someone will ask me to marry him.' But, you know, then I was blessed to be living and coming of age in the '60s when the women's movement happened, and I didn't have the self-confidence to say, 'Oh, I can write a novel.' I mean, novels were written by thin women like Joyce Carol Oates and Virginia Woolf. But I ... could at least aspire to be a Semitic Agatha Christie."

On having passion for her work

"There are days where I lose track of time, of place, of everything else, because I've been transported to another universe. And that's such a wonderful trip ... There is part of me that wants to be a cowgirl. Could there be a cowgirl in my future? You know, I never know what character is going to come and tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, tell my story.' So maybe the next one will have boots."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The author Susan Isaacs has written a few books - 13 to be exact, 12 of them best-sellers. A few have been turned into popular films, like "Compromising Positions" or "Shining Through." The women who inhabit Isaac's books are smart, sexy, a little snarky and filled with some serious chutzpah. Susan Isaacs's latest novel is called "Goldberg Variations." She spoke to us from our New York bureau and described the gutsy, hard-edged woman at the center of the book.

SUSAN ISAACS: She is Gloria Garrison nee Goldberg. What drives her plain old ambition, a good business sense. She really had a vision of doing realistic things to ordinary women in small cities where there was no fashion. But she's not a good-hearted feministic.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's kind.

ISAACS: She's a bad-hearted feminist who has not only - is she estranged from her family but her business colleague, who is going to take over the company - Gloria's now 79 - she's so hurt him and insulted him that he's out of the picture. So, it kind of becomes a comic inversion of "King Lear," where she has this multimillion-dollar kingdom except nobody wants it.

MARTIN: That's the rub essentially. She invites these three grandchildren...

ISAACS: Right.

MARTIN: ...she intends to give this kingdom to them and they're kind of not so into it.

ISAACS: Exactly.

MARTIN: Is there something liberating about writing a character like that?

ISAACS: Oh, it's wonderful. When she first came to me, here is this woman with - terribly shaped with hollow cheekbones. And I said I don't want to deal with her. I'm not telling her story.

MARTIN: What do you mean she just came to you? You just got kind of an image?

ISAACS: Well, yeah. I was actually listening to Bach's "Goldberg Variations." And I thought, gee...

MARTIN: Ah, the title of the book.

ISAACS: ...wouldn't that be a great title. And by the end of it, of course, you know, I just realized I was stuck with it. Then what happens in all my fiction is that a character comes to me. I don't necessarily have to like that character but I have to find the character interesting and intriguing. And Gloria I really had to look for good in her.

MARTIN: There is a lot in this book about a person's physical appearance. I mean...

ISAACS: Right.

MARTIN: ...as we've mentioned, Gloria owns this makeover business. She does makeovers for women. And she makes the case that women - and men for that matter - don't pay nearly enough attention to their outward appearance. And I read this and still came away wondering where you come down. Where does Susan Isaacs stand on this personally? Is this kind of a frivolous notion to be so preoccupied with one's physical appearance, or is Gloria right?

ISAACS: I think Gloria is right to the extent that if you pay a little attention to your appearance it shows not only an engagement with yourself but a desire to present yourself nicely and in a sense is a courtesy to the outside world. But I confess that I was also watching these makeover shows - "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" - or makeover of the houses to recreate something, to make it better, improve. It's really such an American tendency, that urge to say I can do this better.

MARTIN: It's hard not to see your body of work as particularly feminist. I mean, these are a lot of very likeable suburban matrons. The women are often smarter than the men they're around, they're making lives and careers for themselves. Do you think of these women as role models for women in the real world, or is that too lofty?

ISAACS: That's too lofty because it's not that I'm apolitical. I used to, in my youth, I was a freelance political speechwriter, which taught me a lot about writing fiction, I must add. But I came out of an era of the early feminist novels where women went through a grand thrash against usually a lout of a husband and they wound up having an affair as a way of breaking out. Well, this is fine but then what? I was blessed, even growing up in the '50s with a father who when I said I want to be an airline stewardess he said why not the pilot? So...

MARTIN: Really?

ISAACS: Yeah. Oh, he was an amazing guy. But I always wanted women to want something for themselves beyond all the womanly things.

MARTIN: So, do you think this is changed in literature? I mean, are you seeing more assertive women instead of the women who saw escape from stagnation or misery as being, you know, you have to have an affair to get out of that? Are you seeing changes? Are assertive women gaining ground on the page or on the screen even?

ISAACS: Actually, I wrote a book in 1999 - my one work of nonfiction - called "Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen." And there I said, no, that the Jane Eyres, that the Mary Tyler Moores, that the strong women that we used to know have disappeared. And you have women who, if they are strong, they're strong on behalf of defending their families, or they never seem to want anything that's beyond the traditional roles of women. You know, I wanted them - my women - to fight for something beyond themselves. So, what I want to do is just take an ordinary woman, whether she's a CEO or a housewife, but someone who has talent within an area and then give them an extraordinary circumstance or two.

MARTIN: Did you always want to write novels?

ISAACS: No, I wanted to be a cowgirl.

MARTIN: A cowgirl. A stewardess and a cowgirl.

ISAACS: Yes. Well, first a cowgirl but, you know, it was pointed out to me that growing up in Brooklyn there wasn't much opportunity. So...

MARTIN: For cowgirllery(ph).

ISAACS: For cowgirls - for cowgirllery. But, you know, then I was blessed to be living and coming of age in the '60s when the women's movement happened. And I didn't have the self-confidence to say, oh, I can write a novel. I mean, novels were written by thin women like Joyce Carol Oates and Virginia Wolfe. But I could at least aspire to be a Semitic Agatha Christie.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You talked about Gloria as having this passion for work. As we said, this is your 13th novel.

ISAACS: Right.

MARTIN: Do you share that with that character, that passion for work?

ISAACS: Yes. I really - there are days where I lose track of time, of place, of everything else because I've been transported to another universe. And that's such a wonderful trip.

MARTIN: I wonder if there's a part of you that still longs to be a cowgirl? Can we anticipate some kind of cowgirl character in an upcoming Susan Isaacs's book?

(LAUGHTER)

ISAACS: There is part of me that wants to be a cowgirl. Could there be a cowgirl in my future? You know, I never know what character is going to come and tap me on the shoulder and say, hey, tell my story. So, maybe the next one will have boots.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The book is called "Goldberg Variations." It's the latest novel by the author Isaacs. Thanks so much for talking with us, Susan.

ISAACS: Oh, thank you. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular