Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Janet Goldberg

Image is the book cover for THE PROPRIETOR'S SONG by Janet Goldberg; title card for the new interview with Joanne Furio.


At her Berkeley kitchen table, Janet Goldberg runs her finger over mapped roads in the Sierras that lead to a region she has hiked for decades, terrain that forms the backdrop of her debut novel, The Proprietor’s Song. The setting spans a geologically diverse region of Eastern California that ranges from the alpine forests of sleepy Sierra towns like Bridgeport and Lee Vining to wild places with foreboding names like Death Valley and its Devil’s Cornfield. The moonlike landscapes of Mono Lake and the Ubehebe Crater, and The Racetrack Playa, where boulders move on their own, add to the otherworldly atmosphere.

In the novel, Goldberg explores grief in its cruelest form—following the death of a loved one caused by mysterious circumstances. Such grief is conveyed through two alternating narratives: that of Stanley Uribe, the owner of a cheap motel in the Sierras who tries to unravel the circumstances behind his sister Lorna’s perplexing death; and that of Grace and Elwood Fisher, whose son, Jared, disappears in the wilderness on spring break. Stanley is one of the last people to have seen Jared alive, a fact which forms the intersection of these seemingly disparate narratives.

Goldberg has direct personal experience with the novel’s psychological terrain. She suffered from devastating grief after the initially inexplicable death of her younger sister at age thirty-six, a tragedy that took her years to unravel. Goldberg’s handling of the subject matter works on a deeply psychological level, making the book a literary thriller. The storytelling is at once dystopian and dreamlike, with the already tightly wound tension ratcheted up by the emotional restraint and precise language.

In The Proprietor’s Song, Stanley and the Fishers wander the landscape as they search for clues to explain the inexplicable. They suffer from nightmares, the constant rehashing of the past, and a veiled hyperreality that leads them to parse meaning out of every image, news headline, and encounter. The characters’ stumbling toward hope reminds us that life can be as frightening as a horror story. The unknown awaits as soon as we step off the trail. Yet we must, like Janet Goldberg herself, hike on.

—Joanne Furio


Joanne Furio: Your process intrigues me: you wrote most of the novel by hand when commuting by BART to San Francisco for a college teaching gig. You also write poetry, so is writing by hand your preferred point of entry? If so, what benefits do you think such a process brings? And when do you transfer the work onto a computer?

Janet Goldberg: I love legal pads. I usually start out on one no matter the genre. In fact, when I set out to write, I often start by just doodling in the margins, usually flower petals, as something about this shape I find aesthetically pleasing or soothing. In writing classes, I promote doodling as a brainstorming technique—that language isn’t necessary to get a writing project started. You simply must move your hand across paper—or the keyboard if that’s where you prefer to start. And I do spend good money on nice pens. For me, the pen is just as important as the keyboard.


JF: You generally write poetry and short stories. What was the impetus for delving into the long form?

JG: It was an accident. I would never intentionally set out to write a novel. I don’t think I’ve written a short story longer than fifteen pages. When I started writing The Proprietor’s Song, I just assumed I was writing a short story. But then the story got longer and longer, and I realized to my horror that I was writing a novel. I knew that it would have to be in the two-hundred-page range to be published. I just told myself that I would just write as much as possible; I wouldn’t try to compress or condense as is required in poetry and short story. I’d let it fly.


JF: Why was it “to your horror” that you were writing a novel? Were you intimidated by the length, or…?

JG: Writing anything beyond fifteen pages (other than an academic research paper) scared me. Both poets and short story writers need to compress time. For me, the novel form requires the ability to sustain a plot through time, whether that time be one hour or ten years. A novel needs to be forward-moving, though there can be flashbacks, but I don’t think the flashbacks can dominate. Getting to or close to the two-hundred-page mark was intimidating for me. The most difficult part of revising the novel was taking scenes told in flashback and having them happen in present time. So again the forward momentum of the novel is hard to sustain for fear of boring the reader. The greatest sin. I always worried that I couldn’t get readers to turn all those pages!


JF: Your bio on the publisher’s website quickly mentions that the novel was inspired by the death of your younger sister. Could you share some of her story?

JG: In age my sister and I are nine years apart, but we were quite close. Because both my parents became chronically ill during my sister’s formative years, I often felt I was as much a mother as a sister to her. Her sudden death devastated me.

What happens to the character Lorna in the novel is similar to what happened to my sister. My sister had no known prior medical condition that could explain her sudden death. Initially the medical examiner wanted to list “natural causes” as the cause of death, but my family and I had to fight to get more extensive testing. That battle isn’t in the novel. My own journey and Stanley Uribe’s are different in some ways, and of course Stanley Uribe is a fictional character, though much of the emotional turmoil he feels reflects my own after my sister’s death.


JF: Writing fiction that’s based on fact requires discernment. What kinds of details from your sister’s story did you decide to leave out and which did you include?

 JG: In fiction, you can’t be bound by real life, and much of real life, even surrounding dramatic events, can be tedious. Finally, and more importantly, Stanley is his own man, with his own story, and I didn’t want to stifle his development by imposing my own experience on him or his sister Lorna. I think the best fiction can be borne out of the writer’s own experiences but at the same time shouldn’t be limited by them.


JF: In terms of genre, why did you choose to not write a memoir or scathing exposé and instead use your experience to tell the story through a novel?

JG: It never occurred to me to write a memoir. I didn’t want to be bound by fact and then worry about whether I got the facts right. Also, in fiction, characters take on lives of their own. This is the fun part of writing, bringing people who don’t exist to life and letting them live their lives on the page. Really you never know what’s going to happen. In no way did I plot out The Proprietor’s Song. It was the second draft of the novel that got picked up for publication.


JF: The novel braids together two narratives that play off one another. The characters couldn’t be any more different: the Fishers are a married, middle-class couple from the Bay Area suburbs and Uribe is separated and a loner. To Stanley, the Fishers become “the only guests [Stanley] really cares about.” Part of the tension in the narrative is that they are trudging through the same psychological landscape, yet only intersect once. Could you talk about how you came to that decision?

JG: The novel describes Grace and Elwood’s third year retracing their son’s footsteps, the driving route he took up to Death Valley, Grace and Elwood staying overnight at the same place—Stanley’s motel—their son had stayed before driving into Death Valley the next day. This means, in theory, they’ve had prior contact with Stanley, but the novel doesn’t say what this encounter really entails, just suggests, I think, that Grace Fisher is troubled by Stanley, one of the last people to see Jared alive, and thinks Stanley might know more than he’s saying. But Stanley and Grace are alike emotionally, both on a quest to solve a mystery, to find out what happened to their loved ones.


JF: References to death and violence appear on practically every page: children disappear, as well as an entire German family; coyotes pick off tied-up dogs at campgrounds; road runners beat their food to death before swallowing it; a woman is killed in Sonora; and two old men Stanley encounters call themselves “the living dead.” Mono Lake is described as “a lovely place to die.” To me these events feel like the true experience of deep mourning, when the bereaved can only see the nonsensical nature of death reflected everywhere they turn. Was conveying this feeling your intent?

JG: We’re surrounded by death, much of it random, seemingly pointless, and, yes, I do think when you’re traumatized or in the throes of grief you do notice death everywhere on every scale as a constant, bizarre event—from the Tate-LaBianca murders Grace reads about to the tiny spider Stanley’s cat flattens and eats. When images like these are all you notice, that becomes unhealthy, a kind of fixation. Perhaps that’s the kind of world The Proprietor’s Song paints.


JF: In her yearly return to the scene of her son’s disappearance, Grace retraces her son’s steps and at one point makes a potentially dangerous decision she later regrets at the Ubehebe Crater. She sees how one bad decision in pursuit of a new experience could be fatal. “Here, in the stormy backcountry though, where Jared had disappeared, she somehow felt protected and began to understand why people climbed vertical rock, jumped from airplanes, how easy it was to be pulled out, around just one more corner, how it was nobody’s fault.” This moment felt like a turning point in her grieving process.

JG: Absolutely. Perhaps for Grace the turning point starts at the Racetrack Playa, where her son disappeared. There, on the tour, she has the opportunity to take the place in, its surreal Spartan beauty, and of course the scattered rocks, the ones that move on their own, leaving imprints of their trails, what draws people to the site. But as you suggest I think her understanding deepens more at the Ubehebe Crater when she agrees that they should get out, walk to the edge when she well knows how vicious the wind is there, how it could push them over the edge. Maybe Grace accepts why people take risks, why Jared, curious, might have ventured too far out on the playa and lost his way—if that’s what happened.


JF: Frankenstein, Dracula, Dante’s Inferno, the writings of Carlos Castenada, and an entire James Wright poem are referenced in the novel. I feel as if I’m glimpsing a bit of the English professor here—are these some of your favorite works? I can see why some of these references were included, but I’m stumped by the monsters. Can you shed some light on them?

JG: Tough question! I do think both Dracula and Frankenstein are wonderful novels, and I’ve always been a fan of the horror genre. The Proprietor’s Song is more of a literary thriller.

It takes on what it means to be human, to be born into this world and to eventually exit it, and all the monstrous things that can happen in between. In Frankenstein, the creature, who’s ironically depicted as a monster, though he’s made up of human parts, is treated monstrously. He didn’t ask to be born and is rejected by his father and the broader society, essentially an outcast, escaping into the wilderness. Perhaps the same could be said of Stanley and Grace, both feeling like outcasts, finding solace in the wilderness, though neither lashes out as a result of their alienation.

At the end of Dracula and The Proprietor’s Song, both Dracula and Stanley are reborn. After Dracula is finally killed, he turns to dust as any human being would and hence could be said to become human. He is essentially freed. At the end of The Proprietor’s Song, when Stanley emerges from Mono Lake ghostlike and covered in salt, he has essentially come back to life. Whether someone is evil or not, perhaps redemption is always possible.


JF: At a gift shop at a roadside rest stop, Grace is assaulted by “endless wood-mounted wall hangings” with bromides such as “Don’t just count your blessings. Share them,” and “Despair is the enemy of happiness,” and “God will keep you.” Such expressions feel like you are editorializing. It reminds me of the “tiresome chestnuts” David Sedaris heard after his father died. What are people not understanding when they resort to such aphorisms?

JG: That moving on isn’t that simple, that grief never ends. There are voices that you’ll never hear again; your world only gets smaller, quieter.


JF: As a writer I know that writing can heal or at least assist in the grieving process. Did the book, ultimately, help you work through some aspect of that process in your own life?

JG: Certainly. The Proprietor’s Song enabled me to voice thoughts that had been swirling inside my head about expectations surrounding grieving, and perhaps that aspect was therapeutic. The novel also forced me to deal directly with my sister’s death, something I’d avoided for many years. Oddly, though, its publication served to traumatize me further.


JF: This was your first book, at age sixty. What are the benefits of having many miles behind you in the rearview mirror?

JG: Well, for many years I honed my skills writing poetry and short story before I wrote The Proprietor’s Song. However, publishing a first book is an especially nerve-wracking experience. In some ways it might have been easier to have gone through it when I was much younger and more oblivious.


JF: Is another novel in the works? And will it be inspired by places you’ve hiked? 

JG: No novel in the works. But I am reading and editing manuscripts for the 2024 summer edition of Deep Wild, the literary journal where I edit fiction. After that, I’ll be doing final edits for my forthcoming short story collection, Like Human, which will come out in the fall of 2025, by Cornerstone Press. So I’m back in my comfort zone—working on short stories, though not all of them take place in the wilderness.


JANET GOLDBERG’s novel The Proprietor’s Song was released last summer by Regal House. The University of Wisconsin’s Cornerstone Press will release her short story collection Like Human in Fall 2025. She serves as the fiction editor for Deep Wild, a journal devoted to wilderness experiences.

JOANNE FURIO is a writer of creative nonfiction whose work has appeared in The Believer, Juked, Panoply, Evening Street Review, and the Cumberland River Review, among other publications. She is also a longtime journalist who writes about books at Berkeleyside, a news platform in Berkeley, California.