|Eric D. Goodman, photo by Nataliya A. Goodman|
Eric D. Goodman is the author of the new novel Setting the Family Free. His other books include Womb: a novel in utero and Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and Writers Weekly. He lives in Baltimore.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Setting the Family Free?
A: Although the novel is entirely fictional, it was inspired by a real incident. In 2011, a man in rural Ohio released dozens of exotic animals from his private reserve into the neighboring community.
When the story broke, I was fascinated by the idea of these animals—not really wild but certainly not tame—being released into a community and what it would be like to have predatory animals put on even footing with people. Humans have done such a complete job of isolating ourselves from nature, but what if the barriers were removed?
At one point I had considered doing narrative nonfiction, but realized that fictionalizing the story would allow me a lot more freedom to turn it into something more exciting and interesting.
Fiction allowed me to remove the constraints and to explore a lot of “what if” scenarios: what if the animals did kill some people; how would different people react to seeing these animals on their normally safe turf; how would different people and organizations react; why did the owner of the animals do what he did? Those questions and others made for some interesting exploration.
Q: The novel includes many different techniques, including sections consisting of various quotes from characters in the book. How did you decide on the writing style you employed in this novel?
A: Part of what interested me about this story was the concept of how such stories exist differently for different people based on perception.
For example, with breaking news stories like this, oftentimes people feel like they have an understanding of what happened and who was at fault after just a few minutes of viewing the news or reading a news summary. But there’s that sensationalized version of what happened, and the reality of the situation from the perspectives of those closer to the story.
I wanted to explore how a story—real or fictional—can be different to different people. The reporter looking for a headline, the reporter looking for a deeper understanding, those attacked, those who knew the owner of the animals, and the owner himself.
I also liked the related concept of who some of the people are and how that depends on who is telling the story.
For example, the owner of the animals is everything from a deranged criminal to a misunderstood veteran to a loving man, depending on who you ask. Using interview sound bites and news stories and different points of view allowed me to explore that, and to show the situation and the characters in a more rounded way.
I looked to Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods for inspiration and direction here. In that novel, O’Brien is a master at telling parts of the story and applying depth to multifaceted characters through “evidence” chapters that include quotes and items to imply things not said in the narrative. I tried to do something similar in some of the sections of Setting the Family Free.
Q: The story takes place in southern Ohio. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: Setting often plays a central role in my writing. Tracks: A Novel in Stories took place on a train traveling from Baltimore to Chicago, but many of the scenes took place in real Baltimore and Chicago places. Womb: a novel in utero also took place in Baltimore.
Setting is another thing that attracted me to this story. I lived in Ohio for several years in the 1990s, including in Columbus and Portsmouth. Columbus is about an hour from Zanesville, where the incident happened.
I wanted to change the location a bit since I fictionalized the story, so it wouldn’t look like I was trying to relay the true events. But Chillicothe—another city I was familiar with—is also only an hour or so from Columbus, so it made the perfect setting for the book.
Another fun detail is that I was able to set some scenes of the book in places where I studied and worked and lived since they were close enough to Chillicothe for the animals to reach them: downtown Columbus and the Shawnee State University campus in Portsmouth. This book offered a way for me to revisit places that were also a part of my past.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: First and foremost, I hope readers are entertained by the events and can empathize with the characters. Not agree with all of them, but understand them. I’ve always felt that part of the reason I write is to be understood or to promote understanding; to make a certain idea or feeling relatable. I hope people can understand and relate to the characters even when they make poor or difficult choices.
And I’d like readers to see that none of the characters exist as one true thing—they’re all composites of how others seem them in different ways. In a sense, once you get outside of your own way of thinking, that’s sort of true in real life, too—at least from a certain point of view.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing up some final revisions on a thriller called The Color of Jadeite. It follows a retired government investigator turned private eye as he ventures to China in search of an artifact from the Ming dynasty. It’s my first novel of this sort, and in some ways it was my first “novel in settings” since I take the main characters from exotic location to exotic location.
I also have a few other draft manuscripts that I’ll pick back up soon, one of them being a continuation of a story I wrote back when the cicadas came out in the early 2000s. I may try to finish that in time for the return of the cicadas in 2021.
And I’m toying with the idea of a collection of stories centered around dogs, after noticing that I have a few somewhat related stories with pet dogs at their hearts.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Loyola University’s Apprentice House Press has been great to work with, and I’m excited that Setting the Family Free is coming out as a hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook at the same time, on Oct. 1, 2019.
My book launch will be at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore on Sunday, Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. and should be a fun event. I’ll have other events lined up soon, and look forward to sharing a professional book trailer shortly.
I'm also thrilled at some of the endorsements Setting the Family Free has been getting for the book, from authors like Jacquelyn Mitchard, Rafael Alvarez, and Lucrecia Guerrero.
Thank you, Deborah, for taking the time to read Setting the Family Free and to interview me; I appreciate it!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eric D. Goodman.