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  • Joan Schweighardt

Spotlight Interview with Allegra Goodman

I was thrilled when I first came across Allegra Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector, not only because it was a great read but because when I went to check out her website, I discovered that she’d written lots of books, and all of them sounded wonderful. I’ve since read two more novels, including her newest work, Sam, and I plan to keep going. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to conduct this spotlight interview with Allegra about the scope and range of her work to date and what we can expect in the future.

A still life of ripe fruit against a leafy background; cover of Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector

In The Cookbook Collector (2011) you write about the tension between a group of characters who are pre-9/11 internet startup entrepreneurs and a group that includes bibliophiles and tree huggers. In The Chalk Artist (2017), the tension is between tech moguls whose online games provide the least connected among us with ever more captivating virtual realities and street artists who create for-the-moment masterpieces. The details you provide about IPOs and “lurking sleeper bugs” that can have a domino effect on a hacked program in the first title and virtual reality landscapes in the second are totally compelling. The reader can see clearly why people would be seduced by them. Both books left me eager to know how you think about the real world conflicts between art and technology.

You’re right that in both of these books, technology is seductive, even addictive. I’m interested in the pull of shiny new things, virtual worlds, and instant connectivity—or the illusion of connection that technology can provide. What interests me even more is what draws us to social media, role-playing games, or high-speed, quick-fix sound bites. Because of this, I’d say that The Cookbook Collector is less about the internet boom and bust than it is about desire and greed. By the same token, The Chalk Artist is less about gaming than it is about loneliness. In the age of AI, my subject is still going to be emotion. In the age of social networks, my subject is our desire to connect.

Chalked images of leaves and actual leaves against a black background; cover of Allegra Goodman's The Chalk Artist

The Cookbook Collector and The Chalk Artist are both populated not only with the characters central to each story but also with their friends, neighbors, and relatives. And there are subplots to accompany many of these peripheral players. Sam, your newest novel (2023), is a quiet book by comparison. Can you tell us about your decision to focus on a single character and the people closest to her?

I took a chance with Sam as I focused a whole book on one young girl. As a novelist I enjoy developing many characters and playing with multiple points of view. There is just one point of view in Sam and one story, which is that of a young girl growing up. At times I worried that my book would seem simple or childish or too quiet. At one point I experimented with opening up the book, adding more incidents, more voices, enlarging the novel. However, these experiments did not pan out. Sam herself resisted. My material did not want opening. My plot did not want more complexity. I decided that if I was going to write Sam’s story, I would commit fully. The novel would be intimate. We would feel what Sam does and see what she sees. I would give up a panoramic view and develop my portrait close-up. I knew that by many standards the novel would be small, but I decided to embrace that. As I did so, I began to question what small means. One girl’s life is small, but it is also big. The perspective in this book is limited, and also rich. The question I ask in this book is simple and at the same time of huge consequence. How does a girl grow up?

We meet Sam when she is seven years old and follow her until she is twenty. Even though you chose to write in third person rather than first, we clearly see the world and other people in it through her eyes, which necessarily means that our vision expands as hers does, as she ages. How challenging was it to be in Sam’s head for so many of her years? Was it hard to leave her?

Once I was in Sam’s point of view, I committed fully. The challenge for me was to trust her point of view and keep writing her story without adding other perspectives. Sam was so real to me that I found her frustrating at times. I was not always happy with her choices. Of course I was making those choices for Sam as her author, but she was so real to me that my relationship to her felt more like parent-child. I had brought her into the world, but she was living her own life. It was not hard to leave Sam once I had figured out her direction. When I finished the book, I felt that I had said what I had to say.

A young woman's face, partially obscured by shadow; cover of Allegra Goodman's Sam

Many of your books touch on the subject of magic in some shape or form. Sam’s father is a magician—when he is even working. Can you talk about the effect a man like Mitchell can have on a child like Sam?

Mitchell not only practices magic—but is magic for Sam when she is little. He is a source of art, poetry, and adventure. I was interested in the way Sam’s perception of her father changes. His magic tricks become just that for her as she grows older. Tricks and illusions. His wonderful ideas no longer seem trustworthy.

Sam is a climber. Heights are nothing to her. In The Cookbook Collector, the character Jess wants to be a climber because she is part of a save-the-trees organization and is expected at some point to spend time protesting from a platform on a redwood. Is it fair to say that Jess’s fears got worked out through Sam’s ambitions books (and years) later?

That’s an interesting connection! I don’t think I was consciously working out those fears from one character to another. I am not a climber—but I’m not afraid of heights either. I think what really interests me is the way Jess and Sam search for new perspectives. They do not stay earthbound.

Can you talk about what you will write next?

I have a new novel coming out in 2025. I’m not talking much about it yet, but I’ll say this. It’s about a young woman who is tested physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I have also completed a book about a Jewish American family, and that will come next—I believe in 2027.

Brown-haired woman smiling; she wears a straw hat and a red gingham dress; photo of the author Allegra Goodman, © Miranda Karger

Allegra Goodman’s novels include Sam (a Read With Jenna Book Club selection), The Chalk Artist (winner of the Massachusetts Book Award), Intuition, The Cookbook Collector, Paradise Park, and Kaaterskill Falls (a National Book Award finalist). Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary, and Ploughshares and has been anthologized in The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She has written two collections of short stories, The Family Markowitz and Total Immersion, and a novel for younger readers, The Other Side of the Island. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The American Scholar. Raised in Honolulu, Goodman studied English and philosophy at Harvard and received a PhD in English literature from Stanford. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Salon Award for Fiction, and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Mass., where she is writing a new novel. Find out more about her books at

Photograph of Allegra Goodman © Miranda Karger.

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