Makenna Goodman is an editor of fiction and nonfiction, who has developed award-winning and best-selling books on food, agriculture, health, and the environment. The Shame is her debut novel, exploring rural life, capitalism, technology, motherhood, and the search for meaningful art. She lives in Vermont.
Lisa Grgas: Thank you, Makenna, for making time to correspond with me about your debut novel, The Shame. I know this is a difficult time to try to discuss art. Having spent the last month (or more) locked in our homes in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, many of us are feeling the dual effects of the public health crisis and prolonged isolation. Books have always been a comfort to me but, these days, my attention has been fractured. How are you holding up? Has your relationship to the arts changed?
Makenna Goodman: Yes, this really is an unprecedented moment in contemporary history. I am finding my attention fractured, too, juggling full time work from home with homeschooling two children. Our beloved old dog died recently and we adopted a puppy right before the shelter-in-place mandate, so when I’m not dealing with becoming an elementary school teacher overnight, I’m a dog trainer. But darker than anything is the existential dread and sadness about the people who are experiencing the worst of this crisis. And at the same time I am locked, in a new way, in the capitalist trap of focusing on myself and my family “above all,” unable or unwilling to use my energy to address the community or global dilemmas that I might have made time for when life was more “normal.” My relationship with the arts hasn’t really changed, though. I still watch things late at night, I still read books in bed. In fact, after a period of not being able to write, I am also writing again.
LG: Can you expand on the idea of focusing on the self and the family above all else as a capitalist trap? Some may argue this is a form of self care that is entirely warranted in a time of crisis.
MG: Self-care operates in various ways, I think. On the one hand, we have to take care of our families in times of crisis (as well as during “normal” times), and it is a biological drive to protect our kin. This is an instinctive response and is definitely warranted—otherwise how would we survive? But at what point do privileged people look at their situations and say, “Okay, I am safe, my children are safe, I have a stocked fridge and lots of extra toilet paper—how can I redistribute some of it to my neighbors?” When in quarantine, this idea of redistribution becomes harder than normal for those who have excess, and it was already hard. And how well do we even know our neighbors? When we’re in cities, neighbors mean something different than when we’re in rural areas. (All the definitions need redefinition, probably.)
The normally-confused sense of self is even further warped in times of mass crisis. When put into stressful situations, most people seem to automatically regress. Being ordered into quarantine can exacerbate that tendency, especially since it takes a lot of energy to take care of just ourselves when we’re being asked to shoulder a lot of the burdens once provided by other institutions (school, childcare, workplaces, restaurants, etc.). It’s easy to think, “I should stockpile this in case things get worse,” or, at the end of the day, “I just want to watch Netflix and go to sleep.” And the kids will probably be safer emotionally if you wake up not grouchy from hours of activist meetings on Zoom after they’ve gone to bed, yelling at them to make their own goddamn breakfast. Plus, there are great literary events to participate with online, and that industry needs help, too. One can only do so much. It’s paralyzing. It’s so much easier to just focus on the self, and even easier when the self appears to be at greater risk of injury. On top of that, “excess” is hard to define, as it depends on what it’s being compared to. Those who have excess usually compare themselves to people who have even more than they do, and by comparison might see themselves as frugal or even generous.
Self-care has various definitions, too. It could be defined as escaping to rural areas far from contamination. But the poorer people who were already living in those rural places and are now forced to serve those who have come in the interest of self-care might define self-care as, pillaging the stockpiles of the rich because I haven’t used toilet paper in a week.
I’m clearly not referring to the people working on the front lines, of course, whose daily life is about caring for sick people and keeping everyone safe. I’m also not talking about people who have no other choice, for whom self-isolation is a luxury.
LG: I’m interested in the idea that fear triggers a survival instinct that pulls people away from a community mindset. I’m currently quarantining in Hoboken, New Jersey, and have been awed by the community’s response to the pandemic. With a few exceptions, most of my community has made a collective effort to protect ourselves and each other by staying home. And the 7 p.m. celebrations for essential workers—where we clap and sing and generally make a load of noise out our windows—have continued nightly for many weeks. (I had expected folks to burn out on the routine of it by now.) There is a balance, I guess, between what we can and should do for ourselves and what we can and should do for others.
MG: I have heard about these nightly celebrations in cities and I think it’s amazing. We live in the middle of nowhere, so I’m speaking as an already-isolated person, whose main connection to my community was through the public school system, which is now closed. And of course there are many stories from today that defy any kind of generalization, and they deserve a whole other conversation—the beautiful examples of humanity acting against all odds, coming together, making good plans. There are many examples of those who are providing for the community above all else, even at the risk of the self.
I think the trap I am finding myself in is one of unwittingly perpetuating my privilege under an increasing stream of anxiety and uncertainty that feeds a class-wide quest for betterment that’s called “safety and survival.” Yes, we’re being asked to stay away from each other as a collaboration in each other’s safety. But many low-income people are not given this “safe” option, especially as the risk of losing housing and further resources becomes a guarantee. The “safe isolation” makes sense, logically, and that is the trap; even within its logic are the buttresses for entrenched structures that empower an already complacent owning class that will inevitably rise from the ashes of this crisis. I think most privileged people don’t know this is a trap many of us are ensnared in. And if we did know, we would be horrified and disgusted with ourselves. But would we give up our position? I doubt it.
LG: I am heartened by the songs, artwork, videos, and readings being shared online—I’m thinking now of the livestreams offered by Poets House and the “Sadsack in Exile” playlist a poet-friend of mine has curated. I don’t have the stamina to absorb and appreciate all that’s on offer, but have been steadily adding to my bookmarks. Have you discovered anything through these new networks and communities that you’d like to share?
MG: I have mostly stopped reading the news (except for a brief glance at headlines once a day, maybe), and in the same way am feeling overwhelmed by all the new creative content online. There are wonderful things I have seen (a friend’s political puppet theater company’s home show with their daughter playing fiddle, etc.), but I can’t find much time for it, aside from noticing it’s happening and feeling guilty for not taking part. I am stuck in all my old routines after putting the kids to bed, still catching up on episodes of Insecure, working late, talking to my husband, taking the dog out. I have not done any Zoom exercise classes, for example. I did have a Zoom cocktail party with my extended family, which was basically just a lot of people yelling over each other, holding up our dogs, occasionally breaking through the din to discuss how our businesses are going under.
LG: Technology, capitalism, family, and art are major themes in your novel. Could you tell us a bit about the book and why it is a must-read?
MG: The Shame is about a woman who loses herself in a fantasy that begins as liberating and winds up being bad for her. She lives in nature but fantasizes about a richer life, even though hers is already pretty good, and she is conflicted about many things. It is an exploration into isolation—a common feeling that is obviously much more magnified now.
The fantasy of “what’s next” has been burned up, I think, at least for the time being. We no longer wonder what we’ll do tonight; we are focused on getting through the day and then we distract ourselves by connecting online. Still many of us return to our cold beds, often alone. There is a lot of talk about “great books to read during a pandemic,” and there exists an unconscious drive to use the virus-crisis as a way to sell something (and with the economy crumbling, maybe for good reasons). It is a kind of “hashtag effect,” which I also explore—the drive to commodify experience and art. So whether or not my book is a must-read… I would hope that it could shed light on certain realities, and also provide a connection to some form of “truth” by acknowledging we’re in a shared drama that has long been performed.
LG: You describe the narrator, Alma, as having a life that is already pretty good. I guess that is true in a global sense. But, at a granular level, daily life doesn’t seem to bring her much happiness. Am I misreading Alma?
MG: You’re not misreading her. She definitely feels the weight of her choices in a way that brings her down. And living close to the land isn’t easy; you still have to move the sheep in the rain, you have to chase the cows all night when they break through fences, you have to go without carrots when the carrots get moldy. And she struggles with the hardships of motherhood, as most mothers do—the relentlessness of the demands, the inability to think, the feelings of failure and desperation, the guilt about not being good enough. Plus, her husband works all the time and comes home with stories about rooms packed with college kids drooling over his amazing ideas. But she has the ability to opt out. This makes her lucky. Her life happens to appear harder than other people’s because she chose to make it hard. I think of her as a symbol of privilege and its good-intentioned ethical blindness. And yet… I don’t think of her as unlikeable. She’s trying.
LG: The world you have created in The Shame seems to bear some resemblance to your own biography. Alma is a writer and mother pursuing a sustainable lifestyle in Vermont. Am I off-base thinking the characters—or at least Alma—are based on real people and real experiences?
MG: Aren’t all characters based in some sort of reality? Even if I “made everything up,” I’d be drawing from my own well of experience and connections that come from somewhere. I think the lines between truth and falsity have been mostly erased as we live so much more of our lives in an alternate reality (the Internet), anyway. Do we even know what’s true in our own lives? Why do we need to create the distinction in books? I think it’s a way for both the critic and the reader to distance themselves from their own fears about who they really are. We want to identify with good characters and be repulsed by bad ones. We seek to get closer to the good and rebel from the darkness. We want to differentiate between what is real and what is made up. But books are just objects for us to imprint upon. And writers are not gods, just normal people who are given a chance to speak publicly, to throw back the sheet and expose the monster. But yeah, there are some similarities to my own life. The book is an exploration into psyche, and so all the characters are some warped form of my own projections. But I think you could say this about all writers and all books (whether or not the author would admit to it is another thing). But it’s true that I do live on a homestead in Vermont and grow a lot of my own food. And I have kids.
LG: Point taken. I’m interested in how fiction writers draw from their own wells, as you say, to create the falsity of plot. If non-fiction is (hypothetically) well water drunk straight, what’s fiction? I wonder if you see much of a distinction.
MG: I think all writing is inherently biased and informed by the writer’s experience and philosophy. In that way, criticism, too, is a reflection not of an objective opinion but one based on projection and creative desire. But that doesn’t mean I think a book about the events of a battle during World War II is the same as Anne Frank’s diary. I think of the distinction between non-fiction and fiction as the thickness of the lens the writer asks us to look through. The lens is a barrier to the “real event”—we see through it; we are on one side, the event is on the other side.
I believe most non-fiction provides a lens that says, “all of this happened,” and the reader gives up control. By contrast, fiction’s lens says, “none of this happened,” and the reader is taken away on an imaginary journey. But neither lens is telling the truth. How can we ever know what all the real facts were? Writers of non-fiction are attempting to recreate historical events through many lenses of interpretation and collections of facts that have been gathered previously by others. And fiction writers don’t just make things up out of nowhere; they draw from real events and exaggerate them. One might say, no, some events are entirely imagined. But the act of imagining is about engagement with the subconscious, which draws from our experience. My book is a novel, technically, but I’m not even sure what that means. It’s the safest term, maybe, that encapsulates both lies and truths.
LG: Alma describes her fiction-writing process: “In writing I found a much-needed detachment from reality that didn’t come from daydreaming, or gardening, or looking through old photos, or shopping on eBay. I could say anything, be anyone. I could make up whatever I wanted, even if much of it was drawn from my real life. I could exalt an analysis of my own mundanity that felt, in other circumstances, like whining. And I could begin a sentence based in truth and end it with a falsity so obscene I was sure my neighbors, if they ever read it, would think I was some kind of pervert.” Is this true of your own writing process? If so, how does this affect your approach to plot?
MG: In some ways, yes, it is a description of my creative process. I can be aggressive and simplistic when I write, in ways I probably wouldn’t be in life (although it depends who you ask). I can draw lines in the sand and create unappealing binaries, feeling one step removed from their implications as long as they serve a greater purpose to the story. However, at the same time, this quotation is more representative of the narrator’s somewhat misguided attempt to liberate herself from her perversions, as she calls them. She is fleeing, even though she’s calling it art. I think so many of us flee this way: we want to feel vindicated about the bad things we do, and so we give them a “reason” to hide behind in order to validate our bad behavior. Or, we exaggerate our mundanity so we can become closer to gods and live on a pedestal of our own making.
Plot is something more to hide behind, I think. And yet it can also be useful as a prop. Ultimately, the artist or writer is not exempt from the contradictions of the human condition. The narrator in my book thinks that if she writes something good, she will be different, free from suffering. The truth is, though, she’s a taker, who thinks she’s a doer. She has signed a contract with the system, and she can’t run from that. Can any of us?
LG: I empathize with Alma’s loneliness and self-doubt and enjoyed her quirkiness and absurdity. But, at the same time, I recognize in myself a suspicion that she is not a reliable narrator—that she’s interpreting events, not relaying facts. I imagine it was a challenge to develop Alma in such a way that readers would not mistrust or dismiss her story. Can you speak to how you achieved this level of character development?
MG: What is a reliable narrator, though? I’m not trying to be coy; I’m really wondering. To me, reliability is totally subjective. You could ask one sibling, “Tell me the story of your upbringing,” and they’ll tell you, but ask the other sibling and they’ll say, “That never happened.” Our own subjectivity is what’s interesting to me, as is our futile quest for objectivity. As if seeing the world objectively is even possible. I don’t believe it is, at least not completely. If you have objectivism, you have authoritarianism. They are so close on the circle of infinite possibilities, which always comes back around to meet itself. I think Alma considers herself objective, even in her expressions of absurd hypocrisy. I think she is relaying facts. If not her, then who? She is the narrator. She is in control. I wonder if it is a deeply entrenched patriarchal belief that offbeat women narrators are always unreliable. The hysteria thing.
LG: I imagine a reliable narrator is one whose interpretation of events, or relaying of the facts, feels trustworthy to the reader. I hope I am not leaning into patriarchy territory by feeling unsure about Alma! I agree that Alma considers herself objective and that she believes she is relaying facts—but is she in control?
MG: I think achieving reliability is what Alma is struggling with, actually, along with the idea that women are asked to be reliable (read: objective and unemotional) in order to be believable. And women, especially complicated ones, have been disbelieved for centuries. I think Alma is trying to get back control and make sense of her life. She has internalized a belief that her lens is incorrect and, in some ways, it is. But in other ways she sees things more clearly than everyone else. And yet, her choices have isolated her beyond a constructive point.
LG: How did you approach Alma’s husband, Asa? He is almost always presented through Alma’s eyes—and the effect isn’t flattering. I’m thinking of the scene where Asa celebrates an offer Alma received to write a picture book for a toy company. His reaction is supportive, celebratory. But Alma is suspicious and, even though I know she’s biased, I found myself on her side.
MG: I was inspired to write The Shame after reading a book from the 1980s by Robert A. Johnson, a psychoanalyst who proposed that the Eros and Psyche myth is the foundational story of a woman’s coming into awareness. In his interpretation, the woman in question is an amalgamation of all characters in the myth. She’s Psyche, the mortal princess; Eros, the god of love; Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess; her own jealous sisters; the forces of nature that guide her through her trials, etc. Similarly, Alma’s husband is less “Alma’s husband” and more a projection of Alma’s own animus (the Jungian psychoanalytic term for the unconscious masculine side of a woman). He’s both reprehensible and loving, supportive and oppressive, representing the characteristics she’s struggling with in her own unconscious mind. You’re meant to be on her side—she is you, at least in terms of how a reader experiences the first person. But at the same time, her husband makes some good points… He is a voice of reason, whether we like it or not.
LG: I appreciate this context for Asa. I had initially mistaken his role in Alma’s life. I thought he was to blame for her unhappiness and that his motives for her pursuing a commercial writing career were primarily selfish. As the plot progressed, I began to recognize in him that “like-it-or-not” voice of reason. His character creeps up on you.
MG: She thinks Asa is to blame, though, and I think you were right as the reader to feel it, too. In some ways he is at fault—but so is she. Maybe he does want her to sacrifice her larger artistic beliefs for the sake of making money. But it’s just as possible she’s resistant and arrogant. Either way, it’s an important conversation around art-making that he’s shedding light on. Should one make something that will sell as a way to legitimize art as a career? Or, should one make something entirely true to one’s vision, at the risk of being disregarded? And isn’t the latter something only the privileged can do, who already have access to the necessary funds? Finally, what’s wrong with just making money? I am often wondering this, even though every decision I’ve made so far seems to result in not making much.
LG: Alma’s fascination with Celeste, an internet lifestyle personality, steadily grows into obsession as the book moves forward. It’s an obsession, though, that I think many women can relate to—the need to be all things at all times and look great doing it is very real. (I actually felt a pang of guilt writing this because it is 5:30 p.m. and I am still in my pajamas and I think I’ve been wearing the same pair of socks for over a week.) Any thoughts on the professional lifestyle guru you’d like to share?
MG: I’m in the same outfit, don’t worry. I was in it even before the pandemic! Sweatpants tucked into socks. Now there are Internet gurus who are also in sweatpants and socks, only theirs look better, of course. And we can feel bad about how much uglier our ugly outfits are, and we long for them to be less ugly. It doesn’t matter what we’re comparing, in the end, as long as the comparison is there and we can always be the loser. That’s the formula we bought into, right? Because we are players in this game; it’s not like it’s happening to us. We asked for it. We clicked “Agree.”
The Internet gurus who seem fine also feel bad, by the way, comparing themselves to celebrities who feel bad, too, comparing themselves to the simple people who can just go into delis and not be recognized. And the gurus are not one and the same; we all have our own variety of aspirational scab-picking based on projections of our own potential. In my book, Celeste is an Internet “influencer,” but she is also a model that Alma is using for research, who she discovered when she was looking for someone just like herself, only “better.” Maybe that’s all we’re really looking for… Proof that there is a god-like version of us out there somewhere. Maybe then we won’t have to be so afraid of death.
LG: Can you elaborate more on that? What do you mean that we all clicked “Agree?” I may be in denial of our complicity in this game…
MG: Okay, there are plenty of people who don’t care about Internet gurus. But it is increasingly difficult to operate in the world without the Internet. If we want to be a part of the global economy in certain ways, we have to click Agree. And most of us do it blindly, because that need to participate eclipses any form of critique we might have of the Terms of Agreement. Like, are we being videoed while we watch movies at night? Are we okay with that? Most of us click through quickly without reading the fine print so we can get access to nightly entertainment streamed into our bedroom. We allow our identities to be used as data for corporate control through a social contract that we may be unhappy about signing. But still, we sign it.
There’s a powerful myth of information and connection that the Internet (and the capital behind it) perpetuates: that without it one is without information, and therefore without the same power as those who do have access. In order to get that power back, we have to give something in return. Our data. Of course, it’s possible to reject social media entirely (and maybe the Internet, too), but a true Internet outsider is completely invisible in a world that is otherwise very real to most people. (Again, “real” is subjective here, because all of the Internet is a hologram. But if you’re looking at the hologram for a large portion of the day, then it’s your reality, virtual or not.) Often, especially for an artist, there’s a price to pay for that kind of invisibility. Sure, there are artists who claim they don’t buy into the myth and live in complete isolation, without the need for approval. But only those with the privilege of having already been recognized can really exist invisibly, and they are a taxidermied deer on the wall of the Internet, positioned there by adoring fans.
LG: Without Asa’s reassurances, Alma feels invisible. She says, “I didn’t have anything to show for myself except my kids, and the older they got, the more themselves they became, while I grew more and more servile, adhering always to their changing needs.” Alma is accomplished as a homemaker but has all but given up her ambition to become a writer. Can you speak to Alma’s experience a bit more? As a writer and mother, have you faced similar challenges?
MG: My experience of motherhood is a lot about invisibility. For a child to develop into a healthy person, it is important for a mother to support them while also challenging them to practice resilience (and that means a certain amount of benign neglect). This is a tricky dance that I’m not sure anyone has mastered, even those who spend all their time trying. The paradox is that mothers who choose their careers over their domestic “duties” are often seen as bad mothers, and those who sublimate to the home are the virtuous ones, often looked down on by the women who chose the opposite. Nuance is not celebrated (it’s hard to market something undefinable) and neither is imperfection. Anger is also looked down upon, but how can we teach our children about managing their own anger if we don’t explode and then show them how to recover from that explosion? Motherhood as a trope has been commodified in so many ways, and lately it has also been over-discussed, so that people are literally bored of talking about motherhood. But everyone has a mother! Even if they’re men, or missing, or dead.
Sheila Heti writes beautifully about motherhood, and her own mother’s distance (she was a busy doctor) during her childhood. She talks about her father playing the role of “mother.” We need more of this. Because what is “motherhood” anyway? It is not pregnancy, or birth. Those are separate, definable states and actions that can lead to motherhood, which could be better defined as a continual state of caring and attention. Why not let more men take this on, or at least share it more equally? “Motherhood” is another trap—there’s no way for women to do it all; we’re fucked either way, and yet we continue trying to better ourselves. I love being a mother, don’t get me wrong. But raising children can also be deafening.
LG: Aside from The Shame, you also have developed award-winning and best-selling books on food, health, and the environment and are a freelance editor. How did you balance the demands of family life with your writing? What was your writing process like?
MG: I am lucky to have a husband who wants to take on as much “motherhood” as possible, and so whenever I felt the desire to write, he was liberated to do what he loves, which is to take control of the home and kids. Even better if I was hidden somewhere, unable to criticize his approach. He works full time and exists in the world of “fatherhood,” which is its own beast, and someone should write a book about it (maybe they already have). But I wrote mostly at night, by hand, while everyone slept. I would transcribe and edit in short bursts of time during the day while the kids watched movies or when I should have been doing something else. It helps that I don’t go out much.
LG: You mentioned earlier that you’ve begun writing again. Is there a new project in the works or is it too soon to tell?
MG: Yes, I’m working on another novel. There’s not much I can say about it yet, except that it explores all the themes we’ve been discussing here.
LG: There are so many memorable scenes in The Shame. My personal favorite is a cringe-inducing dinner with the president of the college where Asa works. I don’t want to spoil the fun but, truly, the build-up made me sweat. Do you have a favorite scene? One that you are proud to have written or that was most gratifying to write?
MG: I’m glad it made you sweat. I feel like a lot of women live in realities where that scene could easily have happened but miraculously didn’t. The final chapter of the book was also an important scene, one that eluded me for a while. In the end, Alma makes a choice, and I wonder if readers will think it’s the right one. What is the right one? Maybe someone will decide. As far as my favorite scenes, honestly, writing all of it was gratifying, in that I felt it released something in me that can now be put to bed.
LG: The final chapter opens with a story about two animals that have come to life in human form. It seems to serve as a kind of conclusion to Alma’s journey. The conclusive moment of the novel is also surreal. Why was this important?
MG: Nature, like Narcissus’s pool, reflects the desires and egos of the humans who gaze into it. Alma’s interactions with nature centers around taming earthen things—making natural systems work for her, to a certain extent. The sheep need new pasture, the grass needs mowing, and she battles with the confines of each bracing winter. Living close to the land oppresses her as much as it gives her pleasure, but mostly it helps her find meaning in what otherwise seems immaterial. In the end, her psychic journey takes on its own animal shape. And yet one could also read it as the final decision about what she will do with her life.
LG: I was so surprised and heartbroken by the final scene. Without giving too much away, what do you hope readers will take away from Alma’s story?
MG: I don’t know what I hope readers will take away from the story. I guess I hope that people feel connected and can see their own monsters in a new way, through witnessing the monster I have created.
Author photo: Suzanne Opton.