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‘Bee Season’ author explores the wages of guilt
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‘Bee Season’ author explores the wages of guilt

It was on Yom Kippur, while contemplating the idea of asking forgiveness of others, that author Myla Goldberg remembered a suppressed memory from her childhood.

“I suddenly had the memory of throwing a pair of scissors at this other little girl and hitting her when we were in the third, fourth, or fifth grade,” recalled Goldberg. “She wasn’t badly hurt; she only got a little cut. But, the whole idea on Yom Kippur is you’re supposed to apologize for those wrongs.

“So I tracked her down to apologize. It turned out she didn’t even remember the incident.”

However, the idea of atoning for a perceived injustice from childhood became the basis of her latest novel, The False Friend, which was published in 2010. Its plot revolves around a woman who suddenly remembers a long-ago incident involving the disappearance of another little girl.

On June 6, Goldberg will speak at the second annual Jewish Middlesex Reads book and author event of the Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.

She will be interviewed on stage by Jennifer Altmann, an editor at Princeton Alumni Weekly magazine, who is cochairing the program with fellow East Brunswick resident Ruth Bash.

Altmann described Goldberg as “kind of quirky and fun.”

“My interview will cover her writing career — her first of her four other novels, Bee Season, came out when she was 28 — and her more recent novels, as well as her music,” said Altmann, adding that the author is a member of a band in Brooklyn. “There’s even a song about her by the band the Decemberists called ‘Song for Myla Goldberg.’ It should be an interesting evening.”

When not researching and writing those novels, Goldberg told NJJN in a phone interview, she plays banjo and accordion and sings in New York clubs with her “indie art punk” band The Walking Hellos.

“I am not planning to sing in East Brunswick,” said a laughing Goldberg. “I try to keep those two identities as separate as possible.”

As for the inspiration behind Decemberists member Colin Meloy’s ode to her, Goldberg remains a little baffled, although she has some suspicions.

“When I was touring for Bee Season, I went to Portland, Oregon, where the band is from, and Colin had been a media escort, so I think we spent the day together,” said Goldberg. “Or possibly he attended a reading I gave in Portland.”

The False Friend was not the first time Goldberg had been inspired by a facet of Judaism. The bestselling Bee Season has its roots in a college class in Jewish mysticism through which she became enthralled with the 13th-century kabalist Abraham Abulafia.

Several days after attending the National Spelling Bee, Goldberg recalled that college class and Abulafia’s belief that “the way to achieve transcendence is by learning to spell words perfectly letter by letter.”

Although their cultural experiences as Jews have influenced Jewish authors for centuries, most of those writings reflected the insular world in which they were forced to live.

“Until recently Jews were excluded as a group from their neighbors so we needed to turn inward, but I am of the first generation that didn’t have that experience,” said the 40-year-old Goldberg, who was raised in the Washington suburb of Laurel, Md. “Traditionally Jews have written about family or overtly Jewish subjects, and while my writing has been influenced by Jewish culture, my experience has been influenced by a broad spectrum of the world, so my writing naturally reflects that.”

In The False Friend, two young girls — Celia and Djuna — are the ringleaders of a highly competitive quintet of girls “caught in an escalating cycle of test, reward, and punishment that peaked the afternoon they all walked home along a forbidden woodland road.”

Town residents believed that Djuna, who was never heard from again, was abducted that day. However, when Celia’s repressed memory resurfaces 20 years later, she returns to her hometown, forced to confront the role she played in her friend’s disappearance.

“No one remembers it like she remembers it, and over the course of the book we learn who is right and who is wrong,” said Goldberg. “As a writer I am fascinated with this concept of righting a wrong and the fallibility of memory.”

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