“Esto es tu culpa,” Francisco Goldman was told by his mother-in-law, as his wife, Aura Estrada, lay dying in a Mexico City hospital. This is your fault. Goldman and Estrada had been vacationing on the Pacific Coast when Estrada was fatally injured by a freak wave. She was thirty years old, a writer on the brink of a promising career. Goldman is also a writer; his latest novel, Say Her Name, centers on Estrada’s death. The narrator, also named Francisco Goldman, is grappling with his mother-in-law’s accusation of murder. The book is part mystery, part biography, part meditation on grief, and, finally—mostly—a love story. Goldman’s writing has astonished me in the past (notably his underread 2004 novel The Divine Husband), but Say Her Name is powerful and surprising and even funny in ways that feel unique. He has, in a sense, invented a form. Goldman met me for drinks recently at a bar not far from the Brooklyn apartment he and Estrada shared. This is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.
How long after Aura’s death did you start working on the book?
I started working on the book in December. She died in July. Those ensuing months after Aura’s death were so horrible and I was probably drunk for almost all of it. In December—I was dreading being alone in our apartment over the holidays—Chloe Aridjis, the writer from Mexico City who was living in Berlin, offered me her apartment. It was this very literary apartment with a very nice writing desk, and it was good to be someplace where I didn’t know anybody. And the city itself—it seemed cold, gray, a rainy drizzle coming down every day that almost made nighttime seem like daytime—it somehow matched my mood perfectly. I started it there, and in a way the book accompanied me through my mourning. It was like my indispensable other self.
Throughout the book you go back and forth between addressing the reader and addressing her—were you having a dialogue with her as you were writing?
Back then I was always writing her e-mails, and I still talk to her in my head all the time. I was trying to keep some kind of communication open. I was especially always asking her, “What do you want me to do about your mother? Is there anything I can do? What should I do?” Her mother tried to do some rather rash things that caused a lot of problems, and it really turned my mourning into something altogether different from what it might have been. How do you ask somebody who is not there if she blames you? I really got to know Aura in a whole new way. I tried to understand everything in her life that leads to that moment where she throws herself into that wave to ride it. And, honestly, that’s Aura’s entire personality, activated in that split instant.
You call this book a novel, but obviously many of the fundamental elements of the story are true. Could you talk a little about what you see as the relationship between fact and fiction in this book?
I made things up in order to be able to tell the truth. I have never liked the memoir form because I tend to think that memory fictionalizes anyway. Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction. I am not claiming that there is not some other side to Aura that I missed. And there is the way I portray myself: a factual account of the kind of widower I was would give a completely different impression. I was a really superb widower. I honored her every day. I founded the Aura Estrada Prize [which gives a large stipend to Latin American women who are thirty-five and under and write in Spanish]. We have enough money for the next twenty years. I worked. I got her book published. But, really, that wasn’t emotional truth. The emotional truth was that I was in complete chaos. I was lost. I couldn’t have been more lost.
For me the most important thing was that she had to get all the good lines. I thought, well what would she have said? What might she have said? I would trade back and forth, so there were things in the novel that I thought of or said that I would give to her, which is what the essence of love is anyway, why love is so important, because for once in your life you leave yourself and all your yearning and all your imagination. You’re trying to enter the other person and think of what they feel, of what they want, of how they are experiencing it. That is very rare; at least, it was very rare in my life.
You write about the disorienting sensation of realizing that you are “no longer a husband, no longer a man who goes to the fish store to buy dinner for himself and his wife.” And that is one of the things that is the hardest about losing someone, that you are no longer defined in your relationship to that person.
It is horrendous. I don’t know if God is in the details, but love is certainly in the details. I wanted to fill the book with an effusion of all of those little details of everyday life. It’s really what makes relationships, it is what is transformative about a relationship, and to lose them is falling into a void, you can’t believe it. To this day I haven’t gone back into the fish store.
You hold off on describing Aura’s death until the very end of the novel, and as a reader I almost had the sense of you working up the nerve to get there.
I think that it had to go at the end because, if you think of it as a criminal case, you are trying to study everything that led to the moment in question. Was it a crime or not?
But I have never done anything harder than write those last pages, her death scene. I wrote that at the American Academy, back in Berlin. I didn’t leave my room for about six weeks. And then finally I had to write that scene, and I wrote it in two days. I have never felt anything like that. I have never cried while I’ve been writing, and had to write through tears. I had a knot in my stomach, a stomachache, I was exhausted, and I remember I wrote until about ten at night and I just wanted to go to bed. And I said, “If you go to bed you are never going to go back and finish this.” I pushed through, and at about three in the morning I finished, and I had a bottle of my favorite Mexican mescal in my room, and I went down to this lake by the Academy, drank half of it, and then—this was on May 4, and my fellowship ran until the end of May—I didn’t do another thing for the rest of the month.
What is it like for you to be in Mexico now?
It is sacred ground to me now. Is it Benedict Anderson? The guy who writes about the roots of nationalism and how nations form? I think he was talking about the settling of North America, and he says people don’t really feel that a country is theirs until they’ve buried someone there. And burying Aura in Mexico has made it really sacred to me. I can’t imagine cutting myself off from it.
What do you think the experience is going to be like of doing all this publicity and touring?
It is going to be difficult. It is a hard thing to talk about. You kind of write the book and think, Well, here it is, this is what I want to say. But in our modern literary culture now you have to go out and verbally define it. This book was in no way written as a self-help book. I don’t know that I would say to any griever, “Read this book and act like I did. Get drunk and get run over by a car and be promiscuous and be out of your mind.” But I hope that, if there are other grievers out there who are as blown away as I was, they will identify. And I hope more people read it as a book about love than as a book about death.
Why don’t you ask me what my influences were?
What were you influences?
None. I really felt totally alone writing this book.
I cast around to see what other novelist lost his wife when she was young. There was Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he wasn’t a novelist. And I get so angry sometimes when I see the elder Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted instead of the younger Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later in life, Emerson lost one of his numerous sons and he wrote, “The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is.” But go and look at the younger Ralph Waldo Emerson, when his beloved first wife dies. Everybody was afraid for his health and sanity. He was out of his mind for two years. I don’t think that second cool reaction is remotely possible without the devastation he went through the first time.
It gets back to what we were just talking about in terms of the loss of identity. When he lost his wife he ceased to be a husband, but when he lost his son he didn’t cease to be a father.
That’s a really good point, yes. I was reading Alcestis, Euripides’s tragedy. That play is so screwy because it is a grief play, but King Alcestis himself sends his wife to die because he doesn’t want to die. And it is Herakles who goes back to Hades and brings her out. There is a wonderful lament that says exactly that: You will no longer be the man you were. In a weird way, in my book, I am both characters, the narrator is both characters. He is the husband, who loses everything, and Herakles, who goes and brings her out of Hades. Which, yeah, that is kind of what I intended.