Interview with Julia Goldberg and Meg Tuite
Julia Goldberg is a phenomenon both nationally and locally. I walked the streets of Santa Fe and saw her face on the sides of buses. Every writer I know has taken at least one class with Goldberg. Every politician has been interviewed at least twenty times by Goldberg. (Okay, that was a blustering guess with the politicians. It may be closer to a hundred or a thousand. All I know is that she keeps records of all of her exchanges, even from grade school.)
Goldberg is one of those few teachers who are unforgettable and mesmerizing. Having access to her brilliant, hilarious, and captivating wit and knowledge is a gift that keeps on giving.
Before she was teaching exclusively at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, she had a multitude of groupies who saw her name in a catalogue and signed up immediately before her classes filled up. I am absolutely sure that her classes at the U of A & D fill up just as quickly, and she is still the Patti Smith of inspiration, experience, and great stories! I am one of those groupies.
Julia, thank you for being our featured writer in Connotation Press for the July issue! Inside Story Everyone’s Guide to Reporting and Writing Creative Nonfiction is that guide to CNF that needs to be in every writer, teacher, and student’s hands. It is engaging, hilarious, informative, incisive, and a necessary blueprint of how to become a stand-out interviewer, essayist, critic, memoirist, and blogger.
I love the ten rules for a good interview. Can you go over how you came to discover these as necessary components to finding the gold within the dregs of redundancy and bullshit.
Thanks, Meg—it’s a good question. I just finished conducting an interview for a story I’m reporting during which I probably broke every one of my rules several times over. My thinking on interviewing technique definitely has grown out of just conducting so many interviews over the years and having some fail and others succeed and trying to learn from those experiences. Interviewing requires, I guess, some degree of adaptability within a conversation in concert with preparation, and I think my “rules” reflect both ends of the spectrum. The ideal interview is a conversation, but it’s a conversation for which you’ve prepared.
I love that your students are assigned to beat report on a specific topic of their choice. This was your induction into the world of journalism. How did this deepen your knowledge of the art of digging into subject matter and interviewing?
I learned beat reporting in the 1990s when I worked for the Rio Grande SUN. I was assigned to cover education in Española and the Rio Arriba County Commission—neither of which I knew anything about at the time. Beat reporting is sort of like taking bites out of the elephant every day—cultivating sources, attending meetings, following the money, meeting people—all in the service of finding stories on a regular basis. It was a very formative experience—the SUN is a hard-hitting community weekly and I learned a great deal there and had the privilege of working with the late Bob Trapp, who founded the paper and is definitely one of my journalism heroes.
“Voice” is a huge aspect of writing. A writer/editor friend of mine discovered a writer, who had gone undercover as an alias, through his voice. This writer’s voice was singular and when he asked me to check it out, I absolutely agreed with him. You hosted a morning radio show for three hours a day before transitioning to a weekly show. You wrote that you found the experience “both exhilarating and debilitating.” I can’t imagine what it takes to put out that kind of improvisational conversation to keep an interview moving over and over each day! How did you manifest this ‘voice’ of Julia Goldberg on radio vs Goldberg on the page?
I think my voice on the radio and on the page are pretty similar except the former used less profanity because of the FCC. And a student told me my book “sounds like” me, so I guess it’s my voice in the classroom as well. I’ve had an interesting time this year thinking about the way in which writing is performative and an interesting time in the book trying to think through the ways in which voice could be viewed through a performative lens. For me, there’s something a little bit precious and confining in discussions of voice because we all know that writing can often require modulations—depending on the publication, the purpose of the writing, the context etc. With that said, the owner of the radio station one time told me he could tell I spent “a lot of time talking to myself in my head.” And I think that’s sort of what I was like on the radio—instead of setting my thoughts on the page (or, you know, discarding them as many certainly need to be discarded), I just ran my mouth. I would say on my best days, I strive for that voice to be “witty,” but I’m guessing “snarky” is probably a better fit.
Prompts are always a great way to move through writer’s block. You have added some beauties to this guide to nonfiction. Is there one prompt that can shake a writer out of a mind paralysis?
I’m pretty into the whole Oulipo school of writing prompts—lipograms and such. I think having a very tight constraint for a prompt—such as writing without using a certain letter of the alphabet—provides a challenge that kind of pops you out of just thinking about content. There are so many of them, too—there’s a great collection here. The page is in French, so if you’re like me, you’ll need to let Google translate them. Or just search for Oulipo exercises—I’m not sure why math plus writing equals zero writer’s block, but, at least for me, that’s been the case.
How much research and legwork is needed to deal with the political arena?
I think it depends on a lot of different variables: the topic, an individual reporter/writer’s own knowledge base, the type of story. When I was editor at the Reporter, one of my main writing duties was writing all the editorial endorsements. So I interviewed all the candidates and researched the issues in order to make a recommendation to the paper’s readers. That’s a different animal than a reporter who is covering long-term political machinations around a specific issue.
Can you share some of the highlights as a literature teacher and as a writer?
I taught a wonderful Advanced Creative Nonfiction course in the Spring of 2017 at SFUAD. I had a room of really talented and brave writers in that class. Their inventiveness in their own work, as well as their generosity in the critiques of their peers, were both really inspiring. I always looked forward to that class. As a writer, certainly writing this book was a highlight so far—it taught me a lot for sure. I wrote a profile in the late 1990s about a Santa Fe man’s transition from being born a woman. That story won an award but more importantly, it was an early exposure to thinking about gender and identity in new ways. I’ve taught a bit of gender theory since then, and I always think about the man I profiled and how generous he was with his time and story.
This is definitely a book that must be a huge part of curriculum for any type of writing class. I have a belief that fiction and creative non-fiction can be interchangeable when it comes to memory. My sister has told me many times that what I remember of an occasion we were both at is completely different from her’s. What do you think?
Well…you’re not alone in thinking that. I think there are lots of ways in which the boundaries between genres are artificial and territorial in ways that don’t serve writers or readers. But with that said, I hold as a fairly high value the separation of fact and fiction. I delve into some of that in my chapter in Ethics—I think it’s important in nonfiction contexts—at least many of them—that readers feel confident in the veracity of what they are reading.
Can you share some of your inspirations; whether writers, musicians, artists, family, and friends?
Boy, that’s a long list. I guess to be a little brief: From a journalism perspective, in addition to Bob Trapp whom I mentioned earlier, Hunter S. Thompson, Janet Malcolm, John McPhee and Susan Orlean are way up on the list. In the realm of “creative nonfiction,” I love Leslie Jamison’s work, Ander Monson’s writing, Lia Purpura. My friend, author Emily Rapp Black, is a big hero of mine and was generous in talking to me for this book, as was the writer David Stuart MacLean, whom I really admire. Basically, every writer in the book is someone I find inspiring, and that’s a long list. David Bowie, obviously. Beyonce…seriously, watch a Beyonce video when you’re feeling listless; it’s like drinking 10 energy drinks.
Thank you for recommending Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams Essays’. I’m loving it! Tell us about the process of putting together this exceptional ‘writer’s guide’ and how it evolved. How did it change you as a writer?
The process was sort of ‘fits’ of extreme organization coupled with existential despair, often every hour or so. I did a lot of interviewing on the front end, which was super fun and did not feel like work. And then I started transcribing, which is work and pretty much felt like it. I had a clear outline and bits and pieces filled in to almost all the chapters going in, but at some point it became clear to me that I had under-estimated how much work it was going to take. So as a writer, I learned humility, which is probably a good lesson for anyone.
If you had to choose, what would be the most important piece of advice you could convey to a new writer?
Honestly, it’s the same advice I’ve been given and that everyone else has, but I’ll stick with it, which is to write regularly, to seek out any opportunity one can to write, and to read widely.
Many writers ponder whether they should get an MFA or just continue forward without it? What are your thoughts?
I loved graduate school and felt like it was a wonderful opportunity to write more, to hone my understanding of writing, to continue studying literature—all of that. It also has made it possible for me to teach. But, I didn’t go into debt for graduate school and it was a pretty long time ago (cough, old, cough). I’m sure MFA programs aren’t for everyone, and I think it’s important to pick one that will serve the individual writer’s needs, but I also am a pretty big cheerleader for education. It’s hard to see the harm in going to school and continuing to learn if you can swing it.
What are you working on now?
Right this second, I’m reporting a story on an extremely cool scientific/humanism project here in Santa Fe—but I’m not going to say more than that because I’m in a fairly nascent stage with it. I’m also editing an anthology for Stalking Horse Press, called Epistolary, and I’m very excited about that. I’m open to submissions, so anyone who wants can get in touch with me individually to inquire more. Submittable is done, but I’m still on the hunt for some more pieces for it.
Thank you so much, Julia Goldberg, for sharing your brilliance and experiences in this unparalleled guide to the nonfiction craft. Can you give us link so we can purchase a copy of Inside Story: Everyone’s Guide to Reporting and Writing Creative Nonfiction?
Thank you so much for your kind words and for featuring me in the magazine. If you happen to be in Santa Fe, please buy my book locally at Collected Works Bookstore. You can also purchase it online here and almost anywhere that sells books.
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