I met Makenna Goodman last fall, after moving to a small town in Vermont near the college where I teach. When I say “small town” I mean it: we don’t have a stop light, there’s no restaurant or gas station, and no one really comes here unless they live here. Makenna is my new neighbor, across the road, and she threw me a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party that was the first anyone had ever thrown for me. It was also the last party I attended in someone’s house before quarantine. When Makenna asked me if I wanted to read her debut novel, I said yes, even though I feared the awkwardness that would ensue if I didn’t like it.
Luckily, The Shame is startlingly original, the story of a young woman in Vermont who leaves her husband and children to drive off in the middle of the night for New York, to meet a woman she is obsessed with, a ceramicist she knows only through the internet. Part of its pleasure is in the construction—the recursive loops through the mind of a woman who is breaking down from not making the art she absolutely must make. The structure feels both assured and free—free of so many of the anxieties I’ve seen in so many debuts over the years. I’ve seen a few of the recent reviews address that the narrator is a mother, and say that this is somehow a novel about motherhood, but I think of it as a novel about art and anxiety, and the narrator is a mother. More importantly, this is a novel about how you can feel driven to take risks that don’t matter in order to avoid taking the risks that do matter. How you will drive all night to meet someone you know only from the internet, but won’t sit down and make art. Most importantly, to my mind, it is a novel about the emotional labor of self-sacrifice, a portrait of how the white middle class eats itself, especially by devouring women, who are asked to prepare themselves like a dish to be served—and then to serve it too, as it were.
Makenna’s novel isn’t particularly autobiographical, but it is a bit like talking to her—like her novel, she is blunt and funny, and moves in any direction she wants. It was a pleasure to speak to her about everything from authenticity to social media to “connection.”
I’ve gleaned that you wrote this novel in secret. Is that an accurate statement?
You make it sound so mysterious and exciting. Yes, I wrote it in secret. I was deep in my editing career, I hadn’t been trying to publish anything, I wasn’t a professional writer. So, writing felt like this thing that was just for me, and I didn’t need to tell anybody about it. At a certain point, after I had finished the first draft, I said to Sam, my husband, Oh yeah, I’ve been working on this thing. I don’t know if it’s any good, and he said, Let me read it. We read very different things and have different taste, so I thought, Well, he’s going to hate it and that’ll be good. Because then he’ll tell me he hates it and then it’ll all be over. But then he said I should send it to my agent, whom I hadn’t talked to in years. And I was like, I don’t know, I don’t know. Okay. But I sent it to her and literally four days later, she wrote me back and she said, We’re sending this out. So, it was kind of traumatic.
This is an interesting way to react. Traumatic?
Okay, traumatic is probably too strong a word. Writing was a very personal process, very much about these deeply psychological questions. So to have it go from in my head to the hands of all of these editors was really frightening. And then to wait for their feedback. And then to get their feedback. It didn’t happen in the fairy tale debut-novelist way. I didn’t even realize what I was writing until they were telling me that it wasn’t right for them. To get critical feedback about how a piece of art will sell when you’re still raw from making it—I didn’t realize what a psychological challenge that would be. And also, I was very unconnected to the literary world at that time. Yes, I was an editor in Vermont, but my very small niche was agriculture. I was reading books on soil biology. I wasn’t aware of any literary news, of any trends. I didn’t check my email on the weekend, I had no social media. But still, I felt like, Oh, no, am I allowed to be a writer and an editor? I should be researching regenerative agriculture, not writing about these other things … Eventually these mind-states worked their way into the novel. It became this weird experience of learning how to trust myself. How do you locate the deeper confidence and belief in what you’re doing when the world may not understand it? Then my editor, Joey McGarvey, found me. She had faith in it.
One thing that I think is so difficult about being a debut writer is that nobody ever explains to you that this practice, which was basically like a refuge for you, effectively becomes a public space. And it’s a deeply disorienting feeling.
For me, the writers I’m drawn to are the people who write to an unanswerable space. It’s an existential question that is all about exposing the darkness and the shadows and the risk of being ridiculed and humiliated—these human emotions that feel so singular and individual, when they’re in your head. Like, I’m the only one who feels this alone. And I guess I had to write that way, because it’s how I want to live. And that’s even scarier, because a lot of the book is drawn from emotional experience. The characters aren’t the characters in my life, but still someone might read them that way.
It’s interesting, it’s not really exposing something if it’s not your life, right? It’s more about opening up your life to the possibility of being misapprehended.
Exactly—misinterpreted. And it gives away the power of deciding what’s true or what you meant or what you feel. I think the fear of criticism consumes a lot of people. To publish means you have to kind of put a bubble around yourself. I’ve found that, at least, and it’s ultimately kind of spiritual. But the book explores criticism as it weaves its way into our lives and identities.
I suppose that brings me to, I mean, it is called The Shame. What was the inspiration for you? What got you writing your secret novel?
I read this little book of psychoanalytic theory that was given to me by an astrologer years ago, whom I had seen in one of my prolonged quests for truth. It was written in the early eighties by this psychoanalyst who was talking about feminine, archetypal psychology and the Eros and Psyche myth. He deconstructed the myth as a metaphor for every woman’s coming into awareness. And then he broke down the myth, scene by scene, character by character, explaining it in Jungian psychoanalytic terms. This book somehow made things multidimensional in a way that was compelling. So often the myth is interpreted as a woman desiring a man and then the man rejecting her and then she wins back his favor and they live happily ever after. In this writer’s interpretation, all the characters were the woman. It was all about the layers of psyche and how projection fuels or hinders awakening. And I was just like, Yes, yes. Oh my God. A light bulb went off. I looked at my life as if it were a story. I was like, Okay, well, if I’m Psyche, Eros, the god of love, and her jealous sisters who don’t want her to be happy, and Aphrodite the goddess of love, who is this all-knowing, beautiful temptress who has all the power, if I’m all of these characters, then perhaps I can find the key to my longing?
At the same the time I was really bothered by social media and I talked about it often at dinner parties. I was bothered by how advertising had invaded my friends’ lexicon. Everybody seemed to be selling something to everybody else. Some of them were even paid to sell the thing and were sort of hiding it in quippy narratives (this became the “influencer”). And then the rest were selling things passively by just bragging about the things they had. Of course there is an important component of activism on social media; it is a tool for many things. But at the time I began writing, I was really focused on how it was the epitome of capitalism invading the individual space. I had just had my second child and I would take these long walks up our road, with her asleep in the little sling, and I would talk to myself. And through these conversations with myself came the book.
Which novels do you gravitate toward when you read?
I tend to gravitate toward novels that have been “rediscovered,” and also women in translation. I recently read Nella Larsen’s Passing, which was brilliant. I love Mieko Kawakami. I loved Vigdis Hjorth’s newest novel to be translated into English, Long Live the Post Horn!, which is, in a way, an ode to the postal service. I love everything she’s done. She’s a Norwegian writer, and it feels like I’m reading some back channel of my own mind. Not like, Oh, me and Vigdis Hjorth have so much in common, I can’t wait for us to sit down in Oslo, over coffee. But more like, there’s more of us out there. More of us who think this sort of way. I’ve also been getting into Caryl Churchill’s plays, the British playwright. I’m reading a lot about nonfiction about authoritarianism and anthroposophy. And I really love Annie Ernaux’s work. I came to her very recently. I couldn’t believe I’d never read her. Ernaux is considered a memoirist, although she rejects that. She calls her books novels, but they’re known as memoirs. And Vigdis Hjorth has been accused of writing autofiction.
That must be so annoying.
Isn’t it? She said it’s a novel, guys! Does it make it more titillating and sellable if it’s really true? Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament created such a scandal in Norway that her sister wrote a rebuttal novel, and she isn’t even a novelist. She wrote a novel to dispute the veracity of Vigdis Hjorth’s novelistic fictionalization of their father abusing her. When you could just as easily interpret Will and Testament as a novel about not being listened to, being misinterpreted, and the shame of trauma, which is actually such a universal feeling. Even in the U.S. media, everyone seemed to wonder, Is it Vigdis? Is it Vigdis? Was she abused by her father? But it was a novel! The whole point is that she’s asking us to look deeper into society, not about the facts of her life.
One thing that I think happens with the autobiographical tag, accusing a novel of secretly being a memoir, is that it becomes a really easy way to stop talking about what a book is about. It becomes a game of, Did this really happen to her? Did this really happen? And not, Look at what she’s saying about the culture in the novel. Which is the whole point of writing a novel.
How did you end up editing books? What was the path to becoming an editor at a small publishing house in Vermont?
After college, I lived in New York and I was trying to get a job. I wrote for some independent art magazines and I wrote film reviews. One of these free dailies put me on the rape-revenge-movie beat, which I didn’t even know was a genre. And it was so deeply horrifying to me, but I had to stay until the end of all of the movies because I had to write the fifty-word review. Eventually I thought, If this is writing, I can’t do this. I couldn’t get a job at any restaurant because I didn’t have that much restaurant experience. And I heard from a friend that an editor needed an editorial assistant. I applied and got the job. I worked at a big-five house as an assistant for a year, then I moved over to the agenting side and worked for a literary agent for less than a year. In 2008, I moved to Vermont. I couldn’t work in publishing in New York anymore. I wasn’t competitive. I secretly wanted to be a writer. I didn’t think I had it in me to be an agent. It just seemed so impossible. The hierarchy, everything. Every day I would sit at my desk and I looked the wrong way, I dressed the wrong way. I remember I wore cowboy boots every day. That wasn’t great in corporate publishing.
Oh yeah, totally. All the assistants were like J. Crew catalogues, high heels or flats. They were diminutive and racing around, frightened for their lives. Maybe this was only at the places that I worked. Anyway, I had grown up mostly in Colorado, and I would Google image search the Rocky Mountains all day and just stare at them. But I wasn’t going to quit my job because it was a good job. And finally, I lost my job. I lost my job on a Friday evening and Saturday I had a train ticket to come up to Vermont. I went to a semester program here in high school and one of my teachers had died, so I was coming back for the memorial. And Sam was there. He had built the man’s deck.
We had already met a couple summers before when I worked on a farm here. So now I was in Vermont, I had no plan, I had no money. I had debt. It wasn’t that much debt, but still, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was about to work, finally, at a restaurant! I was going to work at a diner and I was so excited because they had the best cheesecake. And then I saw there was a radical small publisher nearby. They didn’t have a job opening but I reached out, and the publisher hired me anyway. I quickly became an editor and then I stayed for eleven years. And it was a great experience, because we weren’t really connected to the rest of the publishing world. We were an independent house, we were super niche, we were mission-driven. We didn’t offer big advances, and so we didn’t work with a lot of agents. So it didn’t feel like traditional publishing and all of the authors that I was acquiring and working with were all practitioners who all taught me something I wanted to learn. I was learning about soil biochemistry and raising animals while doing the exact same things at the same time on our homestead. It was just this immersive decade where I was reading only about agriculture, growing food, and integrative health. I was completely immersed in agriculture, at home and at work. And I loved it.
We see all these people gardening now, myself included. People have talked a little bit about why they are turning to this during the pandemic and the subsequent collapse of the American government. Do you have any sense of why they would?
That’s a good question. Probably part of it is the fear that we will not be able to procure food in another way and so we better get to gardening and raising our own chickens. We were trying to order chicks in March, and they were all out, which has never happened before. I don’t know if you know this, and maybe the readers don’t know this, but the way that you get chicks is you order them through a hatchery and then they send them through the mail. They send incubated eggs through the mail, and the chicks hatch on the way, and the post office calls you and says, They’re here.
But also gardening is beautiful and spiritual. It’s amazing to work the land and to connect with the earth. Energetically, it’s grounding. Scientifically, it’s literally grounding. Like if you walk barefoot outside, there is a balancing action. The earth has a negative electric charge and when you stand with your feet on the earth, there is energetic harmony. Whereas if you wear flip-flops, the rubber insulates you from that electric charge and so you don’t experience the same connection to the earth.
I did just go outside and stand barefoot on the grass as you were saying that, to see if I could feel it. It’s interesting because the back-to-the-land movement was one of the more recent countercultural movements that lasted long enough to become, I guess, almost even a potentially conservative position, like formerly radical. Is it still radical, do you think?
Oh, that’s such a good question. I’m very interested in the back-to-the-land movements. The one pioneered by the Nearings in the thirties, the early back-to-the-land heroes who wrote a book about how the simple life is where the true answers are, how all you have to do is work hard and then you shall flourish. Then there were hippies in the sixties, intellectuals and educated people who often had means, and yet most of them went back to the cities or where they came from. I’m friends with a lot of the people who did stay. And regardless of where they came from originally, they’ve lived close to nature for many, many years. Even though they live in a kind of bubble, they live intentionally. In the past there has been a rise of young, branded, educated farmers—the ones with really great T-shirts and Instagram accounts. Now, in this moment of capital, farming is considered an okay thing for educated, wealthy people to dabble in. Like, it’s okay for these kids to work a summer on the farm in between high school and college. Their parents are okay with that. In the sixties, it seemed to be more about self-reliance and moving against the oppression of the fifties. People were going to live in the middle of nowhere, away from it all, to learn how to dye their own clothes and bake their own bread. But in this era of late capitalism, people buy up old farms and instantly have a product and a brand. It’s not about self-reliance, but more about operating within and succeeding within the market. And it feels like a little bit of a lie. For example, everyone sees Vermont as this bucolic place, just dotted by small farms. And that’s what it used to be. But now most of those farmers have been completely bankrupted. The farming industry here is mostly self-sustaining home farms or ecotourism. And maybe it’s the image of bucolic bliss, but that’s not the economic reality of agriculture for most people. So I do think the back-to-the-land movement now feels like it’s hiding behind a mask, in a way. Then of course there’s the land grabbing happening post-COVID, where people are buying whatever they can in rural areas right off the internet.
Do you want to say anything about the new book, or—
I’m still in the moment of not one person having read it at all, ever. Not one word of it.
So don’t describe it, then, let it be a secret, too.
I will say that it explores the ethical underpinnings of land and who gets it, who’s gotten it, who receives the fruits of whose labor, and who doesn’t have even access to that labor. And also the idea of escapism and fleeing to the rural parts of the world—who can do that and what that means. I’m interested in class, and the idea of who gets to be in nature. Who gets to “claim” nature.
Alexander Chee is the author of, most recently, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He teaches at Dartmouth College.
Last / Next Article