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WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Myla Goldberg is a hard one to pin down. But it's clear she shares some of the traits of her new heroine, Lydia Kilkenny, in the author's much anticipated second novel, "Wickett's Remedy."
Like Lydia, the 33-year-old Brooklyn author is ambitious and hardworking, and appears to hold to her convictions in the face of a world that wants to impose its own beliefs.
But that's where the similarities seem to end. The contrast between author and protagonist is as glaring as the difference between the author's new book and her wildly successful first novel, "Bee Season," which centered on an eccentric Jewish family and its youngest member, who has fallen short of the family's scholarly expectations until she spells her way to the national spelling bee.
The book, published in 2000, was adapted, without any involvement on the author's part, into the current film starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche.
"Before I even knew what I was going to want to write for my second book, I knew I wanted it to be as humanly different from `Bee Season' as possible," Goldberg said during a recent interview. "I think it's really important to push yourself into as many different directions as possible."
In this reader's opinion, Goldberg has done admirably with her ambitious and beautifully written "Wickett's Remedy." Set in Boston during the 1918 influenza epidemic, it follows Lydia, a driven Irish shop girl who finds fleeting stability and higher social standing when she marries Henry Wickett, an awkward medical student from a wealthy Boston family. But Henry has his own ideas, and he drops out of medical school to start a mail-order medicine business.
Wickett's Remedy, as he names it, is not really a pharmaceutical concoction, but rather a prescription for the lonely, in which an innocuous, tasty tonic concocted by Lydia accompanies Henry's moving letters that are a balm for the soul. But the tonic's impotence against real disease is sadly underscored when Henry succumbs to the influenza.
From there, the rest of the book follows Lydia, who lands in the vortex of the epidemic when she takes a job helping with a U.S. Public Health Service study on Gallups Island that uses naval prisoners to investigate how the flu is spread.
Goldberg says she was inspired to write the book five years ago after reading a New York Times article on the outbreak. "The fact that I hadn't heard of the epidemic, and it was listed as one of the five worst, and I was thinking, `If it was that bad, why hadn't I heard of it?'" she recalled. "As I was reading about it and learning what a big deal it was, I became fascinated."
Goldberg, who describes herself as an obsessive reader, worked five years on "Wickett's Remedy." Most of that time was spent at the New York Central Library scouring influenza research and old newspaper clippings from the period.
It's clear that the author's sweeping research paid off. Goldberg paints amazing portraits, from her re-creation of a men's clothing store where Lydia works to Lydia's description of the scene she comes upon at a local hospital, which gives the reader a breathtaking impression of the flu's swift and deadly impact.
Furthermore, Goldberg says, while working on the book, she read only fiction written before 1945 to glean the conservative voice of the time. The work of John Dos Passos had the biggest influence on her style in "Wickett's," particularly the use of various texts and voices throughout the book.
Goldberg scatters re-created clips from period newspapers and current-day dispatches from a corporate newsletter into her book for added context. And using an unusual literary device - which she attributes to Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" - throughout the book's margins, she plants comments from what later turn out to be the dead, remarking on Lydia's recollection of events.
"This whole thing for me was about memory and challenging the primacy of memory," she explained. "The idea of having that happening on a page-to-page level was really exciting to me. Because they're coming from a different realm, so in this way, the page itself shows the division between the living and the dead. Even when there's not necessarily anything going on, the presence is there and being felt. And I really like this idea of them existing side by side."
Reading the novel's more vivid passages, it's hard to believe the author had any difficulty writing the book. Yet the differences between Goldberg and Lydia proved to be most daunting when it came to fleshing her out as a living, breathing character, she explained.
"The big difference between this book and my first book is, while not autobiographical at all, it ("Bee Season") was personal, in that I knew that community," Goldberg said. "I was brought up in a Jewish community, a Jewish family. So writing about a Jewish family was no great stretch. I didn't know the first thing about any of this time. So I derived everything from my research. I derived my characters, my plot, my setting. So the challenge there was to translate this cold, intellectual interest into a story that actually had some degree of warmth and dimensionality to it."
Goldberg says when friends read the 300-page draft, responses were not encouraging, particularly when they related to Lydia's character.
um, this isn't very good,'" she recalled. "And I was like,oh, really.' And I looked at it, and I realized they were right. What was wrong was that the characters weren't alive. What I had to figure out was, even though on the surface I and Lydia are completely different people, we're both women, we're both human beings. I then realized what we shared was the kind of ambition, motivation and curiosity. And so once I realized we had that in common, it gave me a foothold to get inside her. And then try to turn her into something real."
One emotional jumping-off point Goldberg was also able to use from her life was the patriotic fervor she captures in America's entry into World War I against Germany. While writing "Wickett's," that same fanatical patriotism was occurring around her in New York after 9/11 and the U.S.-led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"For a really long time after that, I couldn't write. I stopped writing. It was like, what's the point? How am I helping anything by writing right now? But then we went to war, and I realized
Wow, I writing about a nation going to war and now, we are a nation going to war.' I was looking and seeing this sudden rapid rise of nationalism and rabid patriotism. And I was able to put that in there. I was researching and researching and all of a sudden, I didn't need to research anymore,cause it was all right here happening all around me."
Goldberg, who grew up in Maryland, says for a week after the initial critique, she couldn't look at the novel and spent the time watching movies before she could tackle rewriting the draft.
"I knew it's what I had to do. Never once did I say `I can't write this book.' Never once did I think maybe I should just go with this version and be done with it. For me, (if) it's not going to be written well, it's not worth doing."
(c) 2005, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.