Goldie Goldbloom‘s first novel, Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders, comes out in February after having won the AWP Prize, one of the biggest literary fiction prizes in America. Actually, one of the most difficult parts of her victory was finding her. Goldbloom, a prolific writer, is not a prolific Internet surfer. She wrote all the drafts of Toads’ Museum by hand. She has published in journals as prestigious as StoryQuarterly and Narrative Magazine, but, until recently, didn’t even have a Facebook account. The contest judges finally tracked her down after Googling her name in a local Chicago Jewish newspaper and contacting the editors — and were as surprised as anything to learn that this broad, sweeping account of rural Australian life circa World War II was written by a quiet Hasidic Jewish homemaker living in in Chicago with eight kids.
Not that I have any experience either as a prisoner of war, an Italian, or a western Australian, but the book, both in tone and in history, feels unshakeably genuine. The narrator, an albino pianist named Gin, is rescued from an asylum by her husband, Toad, a five-foot-tall farmer who’s overprotective, socially awkward, and more than a bit of a terror. They live on Toad’s farm in Wyalcatchem, a remote town several hours outside Perth, with their two surviving children (their oldest daughter, Joan, died very young). Into this confusion, they are assigned two Italian prisoners of war to work as farmhands. The arrangement is anything but straightforward, however. As passions of all kinds are inflamed on everybody’s sides — Antonio, one of the POWs, seems to be falling for Gin; and her husband seems to be falling for the other — World War II seems to pale next to the wars being fought in the Toad household.
We spoke to Goldie Goldbloom about the division between life and fiction, and how it feels for a Jew to write a World War II-era novel without mentioning the Holocaust.
MJL: The subject matter of your novel — a pair of Italian POWs carrying on an unconventional relationship with a married couple in WWII-era — is incredibly specific. Why this time? Why these people?
Goldie Goldbloom: I initially wanted to write about my grandparents, who were pioneer farmers in Western Australia, but for some reason I kept on coming back to the stories about the Italian POWs. My grandparents really did employ prisoners of war on their wheatbelt farm, and I wrote to the [Australian] National Archives to get information about those men.
The documents they sent me included copies of the men’s workbooks which had such personal information as who they were married to, the names of their children, what work they had done before being drafted, and where they lived in Italy.
Suddenly, those men weren’t old stories told around the campfire. They were real people caught up in a war and sent to a country not their own. And yet their real lives, for the most part, remained hidden from the Australians they worked for.
I was fascinated with the disconnect between what was seen and what was not seen, not just with the Italian characters, but, of course, with Gin and Toad, and their children too. In the novel, there is a constant peeling back of external layers that reflects my interest in secrets and hiddenness and internal worlds.
You and I have had a bunch of conversations about blurring the line between truth and fiction — like the story of human-eating octopi off the Australian coast that your editor wanted to take out because it sounded too far-fetched, even though it really happened. Some of the stories that weave the book together, like the loss of an infant daughter, are pretty vivid experiences conveyed in brief, shocking passages. Is it hard to write stuff this personal [Goldbloom is the mother of eight children]?
I think most writers write from their own emotional work and experience. The frame may be imagined or researched but when the writer begins to delve deeply into the emotional lives of the characters, she has to also examine her own emotional life. It seems to me all the talk of “truth” in fiction, is talking about how well the author is able to connect to their own truth. That is not to say that every emotion in a novel comes from the author’s experience. It doesn’t. But I believe the places of greatest emotional depth are arrived at by deep personal reflection.
As far as writing about the death of a child, I remember writing that scene, and being so very cold. Lying in my empty bathtub, late at night, wrapped in a down quilt and crying as I wrote it. It was very vivid to me, and felt very personal, although I have never experienced the death of an older child.
The Toad family is pretty straightforwardly Christian, which was probably strange for you to write as a Jew. On top of that, though, there are folklore customs, like domesticating the supernatural powers associated with a frog’s wishbone. How much of this stuff is true? How do you know about it?
I notice that you seem able to combine a lot of different thoughts into one question here! Ha! Let’s see now…
I didn’t have a problem writing about a Christian family. I went to a private school in Australia that was solidly Christian, and a large percentage of my family are not Jewish either. It was a little strange, because I had to stretch myself well beyond my own level of self-censorship.
What I, as an Orthodox person, might say or think, is most definitely not what Toad might say or think. In order to be true to his character, I had to let myself write what a man of that era and education would say, rather than some sanitized version that might be able to be read at an Orthodox gathering.
Most of the bizarre stuff in the novel is true and historically based. The Cambridgeshire Toadsmen did indeed exist, and they used the bones of a frog to conjure the love of horses. The passing of the boys through trees to guarantee fertility is an old custom I read about while I was sitting in a waiting room in Italy. The world is so full of strange things and I love when they fall into my lap.
Without giving anything away, the ending is pretty much a downer all around. Did you know it had to turn out that way?
I knew that I wanted Antonio’s life to finally have a sense of reality to Gin, and additionally, I knew that I wanted the macrocosm of the novel and the world at that time to reflect the microcosm of Gin’s emotional life, because throughout the novel the reader is caught up in this tiny space; her mind. What does that look like if you open it up and lay it out on a bigger surface?
Also, I researched the history of invasions before I began work, and knew I wanted to structure the novel to have similar patterns, and, in particular, that type of ending.
But probably the true reason I ended it that way is because it was satisfying to me. Happy endings annoy me.
But don’t you ever want to nudge your characters, oh, in the direction of goodness and charitableness and force your story to end with a birthday party instead?
Well, I don’t like to bend my characters in a direction they don’t want to go, and frankly, the thing that interests me about characters is the way in which they are flawed and human and can get up on their high horses and make fools of themselves. I like my characters and other people’s characters most when they are misbehaving. Let Winnie the Pooh have the birthday party.
You also have a story in the upcoming anthology Keep Your Wives Away from Them, about homosexual Orthodox Jews. How did that come about?
For whatever reason, there is this belief among large parts of the Orthodox population that there are no gay or lesbian or transgender Jews who are observant. It’s just not true.
Back in the eighties, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I wrote an article about a young man in the community who had died from the disease. It was basically a plea for education and acceptance. My editor had a screaming hissy fit. She refused to publish it and said that it didn’t apply to the Orthodox world and that even if it did, she would never publish anything about homosexuality.
I have tried for twenty years to get that article published. [It was finally published on Hod, an Israeli site for queer-identified observant Jews.] The subject is still strictly taboo, and every year, young queer kids leave the community because they think there is no place in Orthodoxy for them.
Nevertheless, there is a small number of GLBT-identified people who keep the Orthodox traditions and who remain within the community. I think that anything positive published on this subject is a huge advance and has the potential to change the current stigma associated with being queer that exists in the Orthodox Jewish world. Writing, at its most basic level, is activism. It helps someone who might lead a very sheltered life to step into the shoes of another person for a couple of hours. Bigotry and racism fade with that kind of compassion and understanding.
There are still hate crimes committed against LGBT Jews by Orthodox Jews, especially in Israel, and it is scary to write a story in which I acknowledge that I am queer whilst still living within the community. I fear for my children. I fear for myself. But that is no way to live, and silence certainly hasn’t done anything for queer Jews in the last two thousand years. When I saw the call for submissions to Keep Your Wives Away From Them, I didn’t struggle with it at all. I knew I had to write.
What other projects are you working on? What makes you write about the things you write about?
I have just finished a collection of short stories, and I have a couple of new stories coming out in literary magazines or anthologies. I am working on my MFA at Warren Wilson, which has been a tremendous learning experience and which is the most supportive and fabulous writerly community. There is another novel underway.
My stories are usually a combination of ideas which come to me separately and then — often in the shower! — I begin wondering about what they would look like tangled up together. I have an immense appetite for black humour and I like to see people misbehaving. I like all the ways things can go wrong, and I love, especially, all the quirky ways people are themselves. Endlessly fascinating stuff.