In Goldie Goldbloom's novel, The Paperbark Shoe, it's 1943 and Gin Toad, an albino former pianist, is living with her children and their dwarfish father—known as Toady—on a farm in the Australian outback. World War II is remote, but when a pair of Italian POWs, Antonio and John, are sent to work on the farm, the Toads' curious but settled lives become unsettled and more curious.
First published in Australia, the book won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs prize for novels in 2008 and came out in the States two years later under the title Toads' Museum of Freaks and Wonders (New Issues Poetry & Prose). It's just been reissued by Picador with its original title.
Goldbloom, who has eight children, describes herself as a queer Lubavitcher Hasid. We met at her home in West Rogers Park.
What's with the dueling titles?
It was published originally as The Paperbark Shoe. The title that I had was something totally different and everyone hated it. I'm not good with titles, so my editor in Australia came up with The Paperbark Shoe, and I loved it. I was like, "That's the title that I really love." In the United States, the publisher here—the original publisher—said nobody's going to know what that means. They'll think it means the paperback shoe.
What does "the paperbark shoe" mean?
There's a tree in Australia, a fairly common tree called the paperbark tree. The bark feels like tissue paper and it falls apart in your hand. It's really soft, soft, soft stuff. And a character in the book makes little shoes out of paperbark.
Do you feel like The Paperbark Shoe is more indicative of the content?
Yes. The Paperbark Shoe is far more indicative of the content. The totem that Antonio makes for Gin is a paperbark shoe. And the story is Gin's story. The name kind of encompasses that it's her story, and also that it's about somebody who's a bit different. Toads' Museum of Freaks and Wonders indicates that it's really Toad's story, and it sort of focuses on the more freakish stuff, of which there is some element. This is more focusing on the internal character.
Why did you want to write this story?
Well, I guess I've always wondered about the Italian prisoners of war in western Australia because that's a family story, in my family. And I have this sort of historical interest in farming in the wheat belt, which I've been slowly pursuing over time. I initially thought that I'd write a nonfiction account of my grandparents' pioneer farm in western Australia. Then, as I began that, not very far into it all, I thought, "No, I can't do that. I'm way more interested in stuff that I don't know about than in the stuff that I do know about. So, this is going to have to be fictional." And so then I took all the characters and made sure they didn't look like anybody that I knew. But it is based on historical events, it's based on things that actually occurred.
The bio line that always stops me in my tracks is, "She lives in Chicago with her eight children." How do you find time to write?
It's busy. I have this calendar thing here and I just write in stuff. The truth is I just try to squish writing in during funny times of the day. I have paper with me in my car and I'll drive my kids to school and while I'm waiting for them to get out of the car I'll write a line, another line, another line. We'll drive someplace else and I'm waiting someplace else and I'll write some more. I'll drive to an appointment or I'm waiting in the doctor's office—some more, a little bit, little bits, little bits. And I write very late at night. I stay up till about two o'clock in the morning.
How old are the kids?
My youngest is eight and my oldest is 21. They all live here.
It doesn't seem like you're writing for money or fame.
No, I'm really not! That's really funny.
What drives you to write?
I write, as I've always written my entire life, because a certain thought or a certain story or a certain image or a certain collection of those things comes to me in such a way that I have to write it. I get to a certain point where I'm just like, "Oh! I have to do this right now! I can't wait! I must, must write this!" I can't tell when it's going to happen, but when it happens I just sit down and write. And it might be really inconvenient, but I'll sit down and I'll write it.
When did you move from Australia?
In my early 20s.
Well, I didn't move to Chicago. I moved to New York City. I had a twofold reason to move. One was because I went to see a spiritual leader in New York and subsequently studied at a theological seminary there, and the other reason is because I went there to follow a romantic interest.
Then how to Chicago?
We moved to Chicago for work. I've been here for about 18 years now.
You like it here then.
I do like Chicago, actually. Yeah, I really like Chicago. Chicago's one of the first places that I've ever had a group of friends and that feels good to me. It's a pleasant city.
Your descriptions of Australia's flora and fauna are so vivid that it seems as if you wrote them while looking out your window. But you wrote the whole book here.
Well, I traveled to Australia twice while I was writing the book. And I keep sensory records. Like I'll sit outside and I might spend an entire day just recording what's around.
And you traveled to Italy to research that part of your book.
Yeah, I love Italy. I'd retire there in two seconds.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel, also set in Australia. It's about a Jewish hippie commune, and it's the story of one of the characters that lives in that commune. It's also the story of what happens to a very pristine natural place.
Was there really a Jewish hippie commune?
There wasn't really a Jewish hippie commune, but there is a historical underpinning to it, as I like there to be. There was this project, the Kimberley Plan, which was this idea to settle the displaced Jews of Europe into a place in western Australia. It was going to be the new Jewish homeland, but it isn't! [laughs] But that's the underpinning for why they came to that place. It's sort of the story of what happens when the founder of that commune dies, and the government comes in and says, "We're taking that land to develop for commercial interests." And it's a battle right now in Australia, about what's going to happen to that land, because it's one of the last places that doesn't have a gazillion fancy buildings there. The government's very determined to turn it into this fancy place where they can get all these tourism dollars, and the populace is pretty much saying, "What? Now? It's our western Australia, we don't want that to happen." And that pleases me greatly.
You didn't know anything about the Association of Writers & Writing Programs award when you won it.
I was just about to quit writing when I learned of it. I can use other skills. I can mow lawns or cook for other people or do gardening. And I had a list of what I was going to try to do to make a living and earn money. That morning, after I had stayed up most of the night making that list, I got the e-mail from AWP that I had won the prize. And I looked at it and I was like, "What the heck is AWP?" And I called them up and the lady was really nice and she said, "You won this prize," and dadada, and I was like, "Really? Wow, that's great. Is it great? Is it a good thing?"
How has the Lubavitcher community responded to the book?
There have been some unpleasant comments from community members about me and my writing, but it didn't get very much publicity when it first came out and, since I didn't talk about it, it didn't really become a subject of conversation. On the other hand, some community members went out of their way to come to readings and to buy the book, and that was a wonderful surprise. One of my favorite people in the community, a spiritual leader, has asked repeatedly to read my book. I just can't picture it, so I begged off and told her that it's not for her. She asked me to give her three pages, and, honestly, it's hard to find three consecutive pages that I'd feel comfortable giving such an innocent soul. Badass writer, yes. Cranky despoiler of innocent souls, no.
Any final words for Reader readers?
Keep on reading. Don't let the libraries go out of business. Buy your books from independent bookstores.