“The desire to work has to be fierce.” In conversation with Peyton Marshall
I had a wonderful time interviewing Peyton Marshall about her book, Goodhouse, about the writing process, and about staying sane throughout the cycles of a book. Here’s a passage that I think paints well the constant contrast between beauty and violence in the book:
I went silent then, feeling as if I had invoked some sort of forbidden magic in this place, crossed some line. The entire building was quiet, and I realized I’d sung as if my body itself were a pipe joining the surge of the church organ, pushing to surpass the little orchestra, to reach the back row, where our headmaster sat. I was shaking. I had been there. In the chapel, that dead life was still going on inside me, playing and replaying.
“Jesus,” Tuck said. “You’re like some kind of fucked-up bird.” And then the lights went out and I heard a clicking noise. The locks on our doors had automatically retracted. Deep silence suddenly gave way to a collective roar. Footsteps pounded through the hallway. Tuck pulled me over to the door. He opened it wider and we stood behind the slab. It was so dark I couldn’t see, but Tuck seemed to have a grasp of where everything was. He made a low shushing noise, just barely audible, and then I heard someone enter the room with shuffling steps. I tried to breathe quietly, but my heart was hammering. The blackness was like a thick, suffocating soup. I stifled the urge to lash out. Tuck’s hand gripped my arm, sensing some change, though I hadn’t moved.
–Excerpt from Goodhouse (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
BEN PARZYBOK: In Goodhouse, there’s a wonderfully subtle internal war between what the characters know they need to do to pass off in the system, and the fight against that system. To receive good marks, to raise to a ‘level 1’ — indeed, their existence is, in modern parlance, ‘gameified’ — they need to do injury to others. A sort of tattletale reward system. The system itself seems to be engineered to destroy empathy, which is a trait I think vital to the creation of a civil society. This seems like apt political commentary considering the work our own prison system does. I’d love to hear you talk about how politics influenced your work. Did you set out with a set of points you wanted to speak to, or did they manifest as you worked?
PEYTON MARSHALL: I set out to portray the Goodhouse system in a way that I thought accurately mirrored our own reform/penal system. I read a number of memoirs written by boys incarcerated in reform schools throughout the 20th century and I really wanted to capture the isolation and fear that defined their experience.
In San Francisco, in the 1880s, the municipal government would round up homeless boys and send them to San Quentin—to an adult prison. And so the idea of building a reformatory to prepare children to be productive members of society grew out of this environment, an environment where anything was an improvement. But the gap between what was intended and what was created was quite large. And of course incarceration continues to be a problem for our society. Some would argue that it is the greatest threat to American civil liberty.
In 1894, the State of California constructed The Preston School of Industry, in Ione. Preston was a monolithic red sandstone castle built outside of a dying gold rush town. This is where Goodhouse is set.
Much of how Goodhouse is run is pulled directly from the memoirs I read, from the way that the Preston School functioned. I didn’t have to fictionalize very much. It all really happened: the class leader system, the use of isolation and lengthy solitary confinement, the extreme punishment, the “gameified” system of reward. Even the reference to boys taking out their own teeth, and then throwing them to the floor of their cells in the darkness of solitary confinement—just so that they could have something to look for, something to mark the time and help them retain their humanity—that was real. It actually happened.
The environment, as a whole, was quite draconian. It didn’t take much fictionalization to pinpoint its sense of horror.
BP: Goodhouse is richly imagined, with very detailed future-technology and science. Some of the ideas were really wonderful. I especially loved how you took the current fad of wearable technology and ominously extrapolated it. For example, all of the Goodhouse students/inmates have chips that monitor their heart rates and report that data to the system. Elevated heart rates trigger alarms that can implicate them in things they shouldn’t be doing. One of your main characters is also a hacker. In reading through your bio, I don’t see, like with many (but certainly not all) who have written science fiction, a background of technology. Tell me about the building of that world. Was it something that came naturally or did you do a lot of research?
PM: It’s funny—I really wanted the world-building and technology to take a backseat to the story, itself. I wanted the reader to learn the rules of Goodhouse and the terminology while attending to other parts of the story. I felt that this would more closely mirror James’ experience of the school.
All the technology that’s in the book came out of reading historical accounts of juvenile jails and reform schools—and then imagining what would be advantageous or practical for the administration of a future school.
So, I didn’t pull my ideas from a technology background. But I do have a computer hacker brother, Fielding, who has fueled my imagination with his almost-magical abilities. In the 1980’s he actually reprogrammed our ColecoVision Pac-Man console so that the ghosts stayed inside the box. Which was good since—as a kid—I found Pac-Man to be quite stressful and vaguely upsetting.
BP: One of my favorite parts of the book is when Bethany, a sort of saucy and sickly rich kid, who takes many risks (mostly with the lives of others), transforms into a fantastic and interesting heroine who is directly endangering herself. She’s gotten ahold of some information that activates her politically, and it’s implied she goes on to become a sort of Edward Snowden-esque whistle-blower + action hero. Similarly, your main character, James, is full of surprises. Just when we think salvation is at hand, he reverses course, or just when we expect him to hew to the storyline he surprises us. I’d love to hear your thoughts on creating a heroic arc for a character. How do you engineer a hairpin turn in the middle of a character’s life? How important to the work is that turn?
PM: I always find it interesting in fiction when characters are put under pressure—when they are forced to make uncomfortable choices, to step outside of habit, outside of what they think they are allowed to do, or are capable of. In real life people surprise me in the best and worst ways—so I think having characters reverse course can feel very true.
As a writer I’m always struggling to get to action that feels “surprising but inevitable” – to have the characters make decisions that the reader can feel and anticipate a sentence or two before the character commits to an action. And I think these reversals, these moments of change, are important for giving a story a sense of motion, for giving the characters a sense of multidimensionality.
I never thought about James or Bethany as having particularly heroic arcs but I did want to capture their feelings of risk and confusion—the sense that they were making decisions while the outcome of these decisions was still unknown. That felt truer to life.
BP: One thing I’ve really come to learn during the publishing process is how *not* universal books are. I think this was a surprise to me — how two readers might leave with absolutely polarized reactions. My first book, especially, seemed to create those reactions, and it took some time before I was able to weather those rough seas. The other thing that I find emotionally tolling is how, with a book out, you suddenly become a public persona. You spend years in quiet and solitude in the industry of a thing, and then, in my mind, there’s a sense of having your face plastered to the side of a blimp. For probably the first time in one’s life, complete strangers are writing wonderfully flattering, or injuring, things about you. I’d love to hear how you’re doing in emotionally balancing yourself, and if you have any strategies you’ve learned that you could impart to other writers.
PM: I don’t read reviews. I don’t go onto Goodreads or Amazon. I get too wound up, for better and worse. My husband, Pauls, will send me anything I need to know. But it is really weird to have the book moving from a very private realm where you keep your thoughts and aspirations, your feelings, some deep part of yourself—onto the internet where it is passed around like a naked photo and critiqued. Fun! But not for me.
BP: I remember at readings, before having published books, sighing with disgust at the stereotypical questions where some fellow writer-wannabe asks: “Do you write by hand or with a computer? Do you work in the mornings or night?” etc. I asked many of those questions myself! And yet, after all this time, in which I’ve (somewhat) gotten a handle on the routine, I still think a writer’s process is totally magical and inscrutable. Your partner, [the novelist Pauls Toutonghi] sometimes posts his unadorned word-count in posts on Facebook… there’s an alluring wizardry at work there; I’m a fan. And like me, you’re at work with two kids and a partner who is also a writer/artist. Another Portland writer, Cari Luna, runs a blog series called “Writers, with kids” — which, you know, sometimes feels like saying: “Swimmer, no sea” or “Painter, sans eyesight”. I’d love to hear you demystify (though such a thing is surely impossible) your process, talk about what it’s like having another writer in the house, and how you both manage time/kids/each other’s aspirations.
PM: If you want to get writing done, pay a babysitter $13 an hour while you work. It doesn’t matter if you have kids or not—because you will write like your chair is on fire. Well, maybe that’s a bad metaphor—the fiery chair. What I mean to say is: productively will go up!
I love having another writer in the house. Pauls is brilliant. I couldn’t have finished Goodhouse without the conversations we had about craft and plot. We often drive from Portland to Seattle to visit Pauls’ family and traditionally that trip is a three-hour period of time in which we can talk more deeply about our projects.
At one point—about a year ago—I realized our twins had been listening to us talk for years about James Goodhouse, about incarceration and violent fundamentalism of various sorts. Not once had we mentioned to the kids that we were discussing a story. That we weren’t just picking out a summer camp for them, or something. Like the time we forgot to tell our daughter that dragons weren’t real. We read that book—Dragons Love Tacos. And so, for a few months, our daughter would get fearful whenever we ate Mexican food. It took a while for us to figure that one out.
Anyway. My ideal writing time is in the morning when I’m fresh, in a café with some espresso machine whirring and people bustling in and out and going places. Some place with big windows letting in lots of grey Portland sky.
Little children are chaos machines, and so there is a sense of pandemonium in our house always. The desire to work has to be fierce and it has to be respected.
BP: What’s next? I know that for myself, I tend to feel a sort of mood with a book. In starting a new one, I carefully steer myself away from the mood of the last book (largely, I think, to keep myself interested/entertained). Are you at work on something new, and what are the similarities and differences, emotionally, from Goodhouse? Do you feel like you can tell us the premise?
PM: Yes, the desire to write something else—something different—is really strong. I want to meet new people, see new parts of the world. Writing Goodhouse was so claustrophobic. I want to eat better imaginary food. I want set something in Tuscany, maybe. Or the Levant.
I do find myself imagining another book around James and Bethany; I couldn’t stop imagining what happens to them, next. But that’s not my immediate plan.
I’m moving to Morocco in a few weeks, actually, and I will be there through June. I’m thinking of setting a new book there—but, you know, in the 15th century. Because that would be really easy to write. Why not set the bar low?
Find a copy of Goodhouse on IndieBound
PEYTON MARSHALL is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Blackbird, Etiqueta Negra, FiveChapters, and Best New American Voices 2004. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Goodhouse is her first novel. (Author photo by Mike Palmieri.)
BENJAMIN PARZYBOK is the author of the novels Sherwood Nation and Couch. He has been the creator/co-creator of many other projects, including Gumball Poetry, the Black Magic Insurance Agency, and Project Hamad. He lives in Portland with the artist Laura Moulton and their two kids. He blogs at secret.ideacog.net.