In many ways, Gwen Goodkin’s A Place Remote is about belonging: a dissatisfied optometrist confronts the life choices he’s made; a high school student travels to Germany to find himself; a teen moves back into his childhood bedroom after serving time, only to realize his bed seems “dented for a stranger’s body.” But there’s more to this collection than small town woes of entrapment. What makes this book especially exquisite is how Goodkin presents these narratives without romanticizing escape. Each story aches with a humming possibility that recognizes the changing nature of home, and what it means to leave a place and its people behind.
Below, I speak with the author about quarantine, the experience of promoting her book remotely, and what keeps her writing about Ohio.
Hi, Gwen! Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
Hi, Gauraa, thank you for interviewing me! I am writing from Encinitas, California, which is just north of San Diego. I am holding up pretty well. My daughters have started hybrid, in-person school, which means they’re in school about 2.5 hours, 4 days a week and it’s been a game-changer for everyone. They are much happier, as am I.
How have you been spending your time in quarantine?
Most of my time in quarantine has been spent making sure my girls are coping with school and life. I have been able to write and, in some ways, life has been calmer because my daughters’ activities came to a halt in March, but things are picking up steam again. With the book launch, I’ve spent more time promoting the book and less time writing, but that’s shifting the further we get from the publication date.
What would you say has been keeping you focused and/or creatively motivated during this time?
I can’t exactly say I’ve been focused during this entire experience. I’ve certainly had some non-productive weeks, and yet I managed to finish a few big projects. What kept me focused was what always keeps me focused, which is a drive to push ahead, to keep my head down and continue writing no matter what. My grandma worked on the line in a factory for 35 years and ran her house like a tight ship. It was always clean and organized. She was my model for how to approach a task: work hard and do it well. I approach writing like it’s my job and I have a list of projects to do that never goes away. When I cross an item off the list I add another. Now if I could only run my house like that…
A Place Remote is out now via West Virginia University Press! Congratulations! I know the situation isn’t quite ideal, but how does it feel to have your collection out in the world? Could you tell us a little bit about your experience promoting the book remotely?
Leading up to the book’s release a few people asked me how I felt, if I was excited or ready to celebrate and I had to admit that what I mostly felt was relief. Relief that it was actually happening. Because this is my first experience promoting a book, the positive is: it’s the only experience I’ve had so I don’t have anything to compare it to. I would say the current situation makes it a bit more difficult for writers publishing their first books. For instance, I applied to a couple book festivals that didn’t bring me on for an event and a few festivals were cancelled completely. Because most festivals went online, there just wasn’t as much space for newer, unknown writers. On the bright side, I feel like I’ve been eased into events. It’s a lot easier to read in front of a group of people when you can only see about three or four people at the top of your screen.
Most of the stories in this collection center around the people of Ohio, where you were born and raised. I’m curious: what compels you to continue writing about Ohio?
Even though I’ve lived in California for seventeen years, I started writing this book fifteen years ago, so I wasn’t as far removed from Ohio as I am now. In a certain way, distance helps with clarity. You can view a place from arm’s length and study it, contemplate the various facets of life there and how your experience shaped you, but I do have to say that the more time you spend away from the place, the harder it becomes to access it. On one hand, the places we leave aren’t static – the landscape changes, people leave, a new generation arrives. On the other hand, those of us who leave change, too. We experience different cultures, new people, other landscapes. My inclination to write stories in Ohio was my way of working out exactly what I’d experienced there and who I became because of it.
One of my favorite stories from the collection, “Just Les is Fine”, features interruptions from the author in the form of a character study—or, I guess, you could say—the author interrupted by the character. How would you describe your relationship to your characters? Do you find that you maintain a cautious distance?
My relationship to my characters varies from character to character. Some of them are insistent with their stories, like RJ in “Winnie.” He wanted to work out his story through me, which sounds odd, but is true in how that experience felt. When it came to Les, I knew what he wanted – the reader knows what he wants – and I wasn’t going to give it to him. That’s part of the tension in the interruptions. We’re arguing about who’s in control and what I love about “Just Les is Fine” is that I showed him in a public way that I am the one in command of this story.
As for keeping a distance from my protagonists, that is at the heart of why most of them are men. It’s a way to hold them at arm’s length, especially because all of the stories are first-person. But when I’m writing female protagonists, if they start to approach me or get too close, I make changes – to their backstory, to their current story, where they live, what they do for a living. Then I’ve shifted them away from me again.
How long did it take you to write A Place Remote? When were the first and last stories written? And when did the collection begin to take shape in your mind?
The first story of the collection I wrote was an early version of “How to Hold it All in” called “Twelve Grand Pianos” in 2005 about an elderly woman in the beginning stages of dementia. It was a decent story, but, after going to a few workshops and realizing there were a lot of “woman experiencing dementia” stories, I changed the protagonist to her husband and the story took on a completely different tone and path. The last story I wrote was “As I Lay Living,” which I wrote in late 2018 after a reader of the manuscript suggested it would be a way to round out the connected stories of “The Key” and “Waiver.”
So, start to finish, this book took 15 years to make its way to the world, though I didn’t work on it continuously during those years. It wasn’t until I’d had over half of the stories published that I realized I had enough for a book.
While most of the stories in this collection aren’t interlinked, there are three in particular that are intrinsically connected: “The Key”, “Waiver”, and “As I Lay Living.” Each of these stories is narrated from a different member of the same family, albeit at different stages of their lives. Could you tell us what kept you coming back to Dawn, Jimmy, and their mother? Do you think you’re likely to visit them again?
Although I loved the ending of “The Key,” I wasn’t quite ready to be finished with this family’s story. I thought Jimmy had a story he wanted to tell. “Waiver” ended up being one of my favorite stories of the collection because Jimmy’s story takes place at a moment where he’s between two very different worlds and he’s struggling to figure out where he fits. I’ve been in his shoes more than once and it’s always difficult and, at times, a physically uncomfortable feeling to choose which path you’ll take at a fork in the road. I wrote “As I Lay Living” because I wanted to find out what happened to Jimmy and Dawn. When I started writing that story, I thought it would end a certain way, but as I got further into it, I realized I’d assumed wrong and was surprised at how their stories played out.
I have started working on a film adaptation of their story, so, yes, I will visit them again, but I’m playing with the story dynamics a bit. The film adaptation has some major changes in it.
Do you have a ritual when it comes to writing—a specific time, or day, or perhaps a particular space where you prefer to sit down and write?
I did have a ritual, then Covid happened and my ritual changed! I still write in the mornings, but later than I used to so I can get the kids up and running with virtual learning, though now that’s changed again. When people say they’d like to write but can’t or don’t know how, I just tell them it’s like running a marathon – you have to practice. You wouldn’t head down on race day and run a marathon with never having built up your endurance. Writing is the same. It’s like a muscle you have to train. If you do it often, day after day, month after month, you’ve built up that muscle. But I don’t write every day. I take at least one day off a week, lately two.
What are some books you’ve recently read and loved?
I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous recently and loved it. I also read Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit and really enjoyed how she blurred the edges of fiction and non-fiction and kept the reader guessing.
Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m always working on a variety of projects, but right now, I’m turning my attention back to a comedy feature film I wrote called “Trust Circle,” putting it through one more revision.
Lastly, do you have a favorite independent bookstore you’d like to recommend to our readers?
I recently did an event with Chevalier’s Books in L.A. and will be signing books at Warwick’s in La Jolla on October 18th, so those are my two favorite indie bookstores at the moment!
Thank you so much for your time, Gwen!
A Place Remote is out now via West Virginia University Press, and available wherever books are sold.