Nicola Maye Goldberg’s new book, Other Women, is a delicate, feminine bildungsroman that follows a young woman from New York City to Berlin and back again. The protagonist — nameless, sensitive, brilliant — wanders in a ghostly fashion through the city streets, reflecting on her life and the decisions she has made. Other Women is a brilliant little novel (little in physicality and length at 164 pages), brimming with obsession, vulnerability, and heartbreak. It is at once dark and bright — morbid without being turgid, specific without being pretentious.
Take, for example, this moment during an exchange between the protagonist and another character:
I often heard girls, especially my old roommate Kathy, complaining that while the question between men and women has once been “how long do we date before we have sex?” it was now “how often do we have sex before we date?” An unfortunate casualty of the sexual revolution, it seemed, was that guys no longer needed to buy us dinner, or even really talk to us at all, in order to sleep with us. We had no bargaining power.
Goldberg and both I attended Bard College where we both studied creative writing. I was aware of her in the way that you have to be when you attend a liberal arts school as small as Bard, but our paths never really crossed. Reading Other Women made me long for the type of friendship with Goldberg that can only really exist when you are young and full of ideas in school, swapping stories and loaning one another your favorite books.
Goldberg is currently finishing up her MFA at Columbia University, and has a forthcoming collection of poetry, The Doll Factory, which will be published by dancing girl press this spring.
SOPHIE BROWNER: Was this a story that you had been wanting to tell for a long time? I find that’s often the case with the first novel — that you’ve been writing it long before you actually put pen to paper.
NICOLA MAYE GOLDBERG: I don’t know. I definitely envisioned a much different book. At the time I started it, I was really obsessed with Anna Kavan, Artaud, Sarah Kane, all those great, insane artists. But it ended up being more about love, and specifically heterosexual love, which I think is the weirdest thing on earth. Men and women are raised so differently, taught to socialize differently, taught to value different things, and then we’re supposed to know how to love each other? It’s bizarre. Being a woman is a fucking nightmare, honestly. In my next life, I’m going to be a Labradoodle.
Your book began as your senior project in college. You’re currently an MFA candidate. What’s the temperature like in your MFA workshops? Do you get the sense that there’s a “professionalization” of writing going on (which seems to be the main criticism of MFA programs) or has that not been your experience?
The Columbia program is pretty big as far as MFAs go, which I think helps. There’s a variety of styles and concerns, so we’re not all copying each other. The professionalization of writing is tricky because, like all artists, writers want to have it both ways. We want to be avant-garde and rebellious and to reject bourgeois notions of a career, but we also want health insurance. I think the whole MFA thing is a symptom of that conflict, but not the cause.
In the novel you write, “… there’s a certain appeal to being a Sad Girl, a Fucked-Up Girl. There are plenty of guys that are into that.” Can you talk a little bit more about this?
Emotional fragility can be a useful tool of seduction. Men like to feel superior to women. I was going to say, “some men like to feel superior to women,” but honestly, whatever. It’s tricky to write about young women, because it’s tricky to be a young woman. When I’m writing, and when I’m living, I’m super aware of a cacophony of voices saying, “oh just shut up and take your Prozac.” Giving my narrator that self-awareness is an attempt to protect her. She criticizes herself before the reader can do it.
The protagonist of the story is similar in age to you and also a writer. Did you ever fear readers conflating you with her?
Yes, I am very afraid of that. Women’s artistic output is almost always understood as autobiographical, whether it is or not. I think that’s a way of undermining it, of ignoring craft and creativity. I do it to myself. I’ve joked about Other Women being a book about my feelings, but it isn’t. I didn’t just type up my diary and send it off into the world.
The protagonist isn’t me. She’s more like my child. I’m very protective of her. During my thesis board, my professors were like, “why does this girl drink so much?” and I was so hurt!
Your characters all seem to be paralyzed by what they feel they should be doing and what they are actually doing. Especially the female characters, who all seem to be grappling with this idea of feminine performance. The object of our heroine’s desire describes her as a “porcelain doll.” At the same time, there seems to be a kind of seduction in executing this performance. She’s very self-aware.
There’s a beautiful passage by Margaret Atwood:
Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.
I think about that a lot, especially when I’m trying to put on makeup. It’s a concept that has bothered and fascinated me pretty much since adolescence. I went to an all-girls school for seven years, so I was really protected from that, and I still can’t get used to it, the feeling of being watched by men. It drives me nuts. I just watched a fantastic horror movie called Girlhouse, which is all about that.
I love the scene in which the protagonist and her love interest are listening to Etta James and he’s criticizing the music, saying, “These torch songs, they’re just lullabies for ugly girls […] They make it seem like not being loved is just as romantic as being loved.” She’s not so sure about this. This seems to be a larger conundrum that exists within the book and in art in general. No one wants to read about requited love. Love ballads are almost always about heartbreak.
There’s this wonderful interview with Amy Winehouse, where she’s comparing her music to a lot of other pop songs. And she says something like, a lot of music now is “you don’t know me, I don’t need you,” and hers is more “I’ll rip my heart out and give it to you on a plate.” I love that. It’s not a sustainable way to live your life, but artistically I find it much more interesting. I listened to a lot of music while writing this book, to try to stay in that register. Bessie Smith’s “Send Me to the Electric Chair” is one of the songs I listened to the most, and “I Don’t Smoke” by Mitski, and “Your Love is Killing Me” by Sharon van Etten. And “Back to Black,” of course.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a fictionalized account of a murder that happened at Bard College in the ’90s. I’ve been a true crime junkie for a while now. It’s letting me explore a lot of the stuff I’m interested in right now: violence, retribution, redemption, missing white girl syndrome, the prison industrial complex … all that fun stuff! It’s definitely a lot darker than Other Women, but I’m having fun writing it.