Setting the Family Free: An Interview with Eric D. Goodman by Ruut DeMeo

Eric D. Goodman is the author of Womb: a novel in utero (Merge Publishing, 2017) and Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus Books, 2011), winner of the 2012 Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the Mid-Atlantic Region from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. He’s also author of Flightless Goose (Writer’s Lair Books, 2008), a storybook for children. More than a hundred of his stories and travelogues have been published in magazines, journals, and periodicals. He’s curator and co-founder of the popular Lit and Art Reading Series and has read frequently from his fiction on Baltimore’s NPR station, at book festivals and at literary events. Eric lives in Baltimore where he writes about wombs, trains, travel, and animals gone wild, among other things.

Ruut DeMeo: Thanks so much for the opportunity to interview you and I want to commend you on writing such a gripping book! Congrats on publishing Setting the Family Free. It was quite a ride – I really enjoyed it. I think there was a good balance of thrill and drama without being sentimental. The occasional humor was also well-placed. Can you share a little bit about the publisher and how your book ended up there?

 Eric D. Goodman: Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you about my new book. Setting the Family Free isn’t your typical A-to-B novel, so I knew finding a publisher would be a bit of a challenge. Several friends in the writing community have had books published by Loyola University’s Apprentice House Press, and they were pleased with the experience. Looking over their catalog of books, they seem interested in publishing books they feel passionate about—everything from poetry to fiction to nonfiction. Where else will you find a book of poetry about William Byron Jennings and an examination of letters related to Charm City? An interesting aspect of Apprentice House is that the work is handled by university students under the supervision of the faculty director—so you have youthful, passionate editors, designers, and marketeers working on projects they feel passionate about. Apprentice House has gotten a lot of publicity for being the first student-operated press in the country. Ten years on, they seem to be doing a great job.

 RD: I’m guessing there will be mention of this narrative being based on a true story in the back matter. I googled the event and was reminded of the shocking nature of that story. It was 8 years ago. But just like your characters predict, it seems to have been forgotten about pretty quickly. Tell us what made you decide to retell this story?

EG: Quite often, unusual events in the news prompt me to write a few paragraphs or pages of notes for a related story or book idea. Then, I file it away. I’m not sure exactly why, but when this animal massacre happened, I was inspired to write about it immediately. I even asked my agent whether I should drop the novel I was working on (Womb) to write my “animal book” while it was still fresh. I think the concept of dangerous animals being released into a community just seemed unusual and exciting enough to make me want to tell a “what if” story. There really were signs along the highway that said “Danger: Exotic Animals,” which just seems surreal.

The more I learned about the actual animal owner and those who knew him, the less villainous and more misunderstood he seemed. I’ve always loved stories that look at things from multiple perspectives, and this seemed like a great story to tell from different points of view.

As you mentioned, this was such huge story when it broke, but seemed all but forgotten within a year or so. That aspect of the news cycle and how big events fall into forgotten history also interested me. I hope the book reminds readers of something familiar but forgotten, which may spark renewed interest.

 RD: More about writing a novel based on an actual event… How did you handle your story being so closely aligned to the real one? Were there any intimidating and daunting aspects to that process? Can you tell us what the process of fictionalizing names, characters and plot-lines was like?

EG: When I originally set out to write Setting the Family Free, I considered writing it as narrative nonfiction. But I soon realized that would be a daunting task, to get so many versions of what happened reported in a way that would be “true” to everyone. I quickly decided to make it fiction, not “based on” so much as “inspired by” true events. For a writer, that choice frees you up to make it your own and take the story and characters in whatever directions you want.

That was a good choice because it allowed me to intensify the story, and to take the animals to some interesting places. It was no longer “they could have made it to the city,” but “they did made it to the city—and they attacked.”

I read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles about the incident, interviews with neighbors and the hunting party and animal activists, so I got a well-rounded view of what people thought of what happened and what they thought of each other.

RD: Another pretty remarkable aspect of this novel was the switching around of POV’s. Every chapter was from a new character’s perspective, including the animals. There seemed to be somewhat of a pattern: main character, sub-plot, animal, an omniscient viewpoint into the mind of Sammy Johnson, and then a section of either related quotations or some sort of interview on TV, etc. The variety kept the pages turning for sure. I never knew what was coming next! How did you decide on that fluctuating form? Share about the process of how you kept it all organized.

EG: The idea of using the news and quotes and articles to tell parts of the story came from the way the real news story unfolded. As I went from catching the breaking news to reading more in-depth articles, it made me think about our relationship to such stories. For example, when big news breaks, within a few minutes of watching, we tend to have an opinion or think we know what the story is and who the players are. In some ways, it’s like the characters are fleshed out by gossip and other people’s thoughts on the matter. But to the person in the story, to the people around that person, the story is much deeper and different.

So I knew I wanted the book to start with the breaking news and interviews that painted the animal owner as something between a misunderstood loner or a terrible criminal, and to focus on the sensationalism of these escaped animals and the hunt. And the admiration of and hatred toward the hunters who had to take care of the animals. But I wanted to deepen the story with a look not only at these same hunters as people, but at the owner of the animals and those around him. The story is very different when looked at from these different perspectives.

I was also inspired by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, which used “evidence” chapters to tell part of the story. I loved that format, and wanted to tell parts of this story in a similar way.

RD: I like how you gave each character some small backstory. It made it easier to follow the multiple POV’s. Seems like you thought of every possible character that would be involved in a situation like this. Did you ever worry about having too many points of view?

EG: That’s always a concern with a novel—you don’t want to have so many characters that it’s confusing or redundant. But I think it depends on how you introduce each character and how much time you spend getting to know them.

The novel-in-stories format, which I used for Tracks, helped me look at the “too many characters” situation in a new way. In Tracks, each chapter is the story of a different character on a train, and each story stands alone. Since each story focuses on a character, and the others are just side characters within that chapter, you get to know each one well.

I guess writing a novel in stories made me understand that what matters more than the number of characters is how you introduce them and how much time you spend with each one. If you get an entire chapter from the Sheriff’s point of view, you know and recognize him when he’s in another chapter coming from the POV of the animal activist working at his side.

I bring up the novel-in-stories format because, although I consider Setting the Family Free to be a straight novel, I approached the narrative chapters with a novel-in-stories mindset so that the chapters almost stand alone as individual stories would.

RD: You’ve said that you enjoy writing unusual voices. In some interviews about Womb: a novel in utero, you said you were specifically looking for an unorthodox voice to tell that story. The animals in Setting the Family Free aren’t personified, but you obviously wanted the reader to enter their minds for a few pages. Is this something you are passionate about, and can we expect this POV experimentation from you again in the future?

EG: Yes, looking at things from multiple and unusual perspectives is something I’ve always been interested in—even before I was consciously aware of it. Even as a kid, I would imagine books and movies from the POV of side characters. I love seeing the same characters from different perspectives, which is something I tried to explore in Setting the Family Free.

There’s the animal owner, Sammy Johnson, as seen by a number of different people in their narratives and sound bite quotes—he’s different things to different people. One of the animal advocates is seen in a positive light in some chapters and a somewhat negative light in others, depending on who’s head we’re in. The story itself is sensationalized by some reporters and humanized by others. I think the same situation perceived by different people is interesting.

The most unusual perspectives in the book are the short chapters as seen by the animals. Of course, you have to use words to tell the story, but the animal chapters are all told in the present tense and rely heavily on the senses and less on thought. It was important to put them in the story not only as objects, but as characters.

RD: Besides finding the actual story and fictionalizing it, was there any other aspect of the account that inspired you, (e.g. pet-hoarding, animal rights)?

EG: I’ve always loved animals and had in my mind that one day I’d like to write an animal-related book. But mainly, it was the news story and the exciting, suspenseful idea of these dangerous but innocent animals being put on even footing with people that fascinated and inspired me.

To expand on that, one thing that captivated me about these animals being released into a community is that we, as humans, have managed to place ourselves outside nature like no other animal has (other than those we’ve domesticated). In a natural world, we should be looking over our shoulders and sleeping with one eye open, dodging the attacks of predators. But we’ve managed to isolate ourselves, as a society, from nature. Throwing the animals back on equal footing is an interesting idea.

Pet hoarding isn’t something I’d thought about before, but came across in my research for this book. I found it intriguing.

I do think we mistreat animals, both directly through industrialized farming and slaughter, and indirectly through agriculture and our overbearing presence across the globe. These ideas are touched upon in the book, but not at its center.

And I find the moral question interesting: considering human overpopulation and the near extinction of some of these animals, is human life more sacred than that of a species we’ve nearly killed off? Of course, we put human lives above all others, but I think it’s an interesting thought.

RD: How did you choose the setting?

EG: Setting often plays a large role in my writing. For example, the “now” of Tracks was on a train traveling from Baltimore to Chicago, but many of the scenes took place in those two cities and it was described by some as a “love letter to Baltimore” because of my detailed descriptions of Baltimore settings. Womb was also set in Baltimore.

Setting was a big motivation for writing this book. I lived in Ohio for several years in the 1990s, in Cincinnati, Portsmouth, and Columbus. So this was an opportunity to set a novel in some places I’ve been before and knew well.

The actual event took place in Zanesville, about an hour east of Columbus. I wanted to change the location since I was fictionalizing the story and didn’t want it to look like I was attempting to capture the real deal exactly. So I wanted a location that was similar to Zanesville and close to Columbus.

Chillicothe, where I’d visited occasionally when I lived in Ohio, was perfect because it’s south of Columbus by about the same distance, which means the animals could reach Columbus just as they could have from Zanesville. The bonus was, from Chillicothe, they could also just as easily reach Portsmouth, where I also lived and went to college at Shawnee State University. So the Chillicothe setting allowed me to release the animals into a rural Ohio town and to allow them to venture to Columbus and Portsmouth.

There are scenes in this book that take place on the SSU campus in Portsmouth and in the areas where I used to live and work in Columbus, which was fun to include.

RD: What kind of research did you do, and how long did it take until you felt ready to commence writing?

EG: I tend to submerge myself in a subject when I’m working on a novel like this. Although I was probably doing some form of research on this book over the course of an entire year, I lived and breathed animal stories and facts for a few months—reading books and articles about animals and animal attacks, watching documentaries and shows about animals, and even visiting the places in the book and the places where some of the events really happened. But much of it doesn’t feel like work because the discovery is fun.

RD: Do you know what you’ll be working on next?

EG: The next project that will probably see the light of day is a thriller called The Color of Jadeite. It’s a sort of treasure hunt adventure that follows a retired government investigator and current private detective as he journeys across China in search of an artifact from the Ming dynasty. I’ve already written several drafts and revised it, so it’s almost ready for prime time.

Since I tend to write first drafts quickly and then put them away to ferment before coming back to do the harder work of rewriting, I have several manuscripts I could pick back up as well as fresh ideas I might tackle. One novel draft I’m working on is actually a continuation of a short story I wrote the last time the 17-year cicadas emerged, so I might try to do something with that in time for the 2021 swarm. And, after noticing that I have a few stories with dogs at their center, I’ve been toying with the idea of a dog-themed collection of short fiction. Maybe that would be a way to bring my animal book and my novel in stories full circle.

Ruut DeMeo studied children’s literature at Johns Hopkins University and creative writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. In 2018, her short story and poetry were published in Fine Print Literary Magazine, and in the same year she contributed to a non-fiction memoir collection called Finnish Women Abroad which was published by Otava in Finland. Ruut’s research into Nordic Folklore has been supported by the Mellon and Finlandia Foundations, and in 2019 she received the Kratz Writing Fellowship to work on her second novel — a YA adaptation of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala.

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