Interview with Myla Goldberg on the
hardcover release of The False Friend
October 6, 2010
Interviewer, Rob Neufeld
R: What led you to write a book about a repentant bully?
M: It’s always a combination of factors, very few of which I have
any control over. Between ten and fifteen years ago, I suddenly
remembered an elementary school friend of mine I had totally
forgotten about. I remembered that we had been friends, but I had
forgotten the way that our friendship had gone. I’m a very
non-violent person, but all of a sudden, ten or fifteen years ago I
remembered—“That was the time I threw a pair of scissors at my
friend Theresa! Why would I do a thing like that?” It was funny. I
remembered that they hit her and they had drawn a little bit of
blood. They were safety scissors. The thing that stuck in my mind
that I remember is that she didn’t tell on me. It was because we
were best friends, but we kind of tortured each other in little
ways, as girls will often do. That brought that whole period of my
own life back to me. That is an incredibly trivial and small thing
compared to what happens in the book. That’s why fiction’s so
cool—because you can start with something so small and almost
silly-sounding, and that becomes your springboard to delve into
much bigger things.
R: Bullying is a big topic these days. I think this book will get
some extra interest because of that.
M: It could be. It’s funny because people have already said, “Oh,
she’s jumping on the bandwagon because bullying is such a popular
subject. I’m like “No, I’ve been working on this novel for five
years.”…The thing that was so remarkable about this memory that I
had is that I associate myself with the nerdy kid who would get
picked on, so having this memory [in which] I was a bully to
someone else made me realize that it’s possible to be on both sides
of the equation, and that was a fun thing to explore when I was
writing this book.
R: And you had to figure out what was going on psychologically.
M: For me, it always goes back to psychology. I’m fascinated by how
brains work and why people make the choices they make. Our memories
are so fallible, and yet we rely upon them so fully. It’s a funny
relationship because memory can be extremely self-serving and
selfish and yet we trust out memories. We have no choice.
R: I was struck by Jem’s quote about how the way to live life is to
realize you’re always on the precipice of f-ing up, and every
moment you have to fight it—and, he says, “You’re doing it now,
aren’t you, Celia?” What has led you to believe that even the most
seemingly stable people are on the precipice?
M: Well, we all have our surface that we project. But there’s not a
single person alive who doesn’t have some inner conflict, something
they’re trying to work through…You can be really good at hiding it
or keeping it under control, but I think we all have thoughts,
“What if I’d done this instead of that?” Or ideations of, “What if
I just ran out into the street” or “What if I decided to go get
drunk and sleep with a stranger?” There are always these choices
we’re being confronted with.
R: I don’t think a parent would want to convey to a child that
nothing is for sure, that everybody’s got this chemical soup in
them that could lead them to do something off track because of a
false memory. But you’re very happy with that view of life!
M: It’s not that I’m happy with that view. You believe what you
believe. Basically, your world view is your faith. And, yeah, I
think there’s a lot of really difficult stuff and struggles to
life, but to my mind, that’s what gives life its edge and its
excitement…If you’re paying attention you’re never going to get
bored because there are always these sorts of things to think
R: You work in so many interesting details and sub-topics into this
novel. I would like to touch on at least one of them.
M: That would be great. Because one thing that’s really
interesting—obviously, a novel has to be put in a box in some way,
so the bullying thing is what everybody is talking about. That’s a
huge part of the novel, but to my mind, the other stuff that’s in
there is equally if not more important to me than the stuff that’s
touched upon with bullying.
R: Well, that makes me want you to name the topics. What would you
want put forward as equally important topics
M: Well, there’s a bunch of them. The setting of the novel is a big
one for me. My husband grew up in upstate New York, and so I spent
the past ten years getting to know that part of the country, and
it’s fascinating. It’s like the land of fallen empire. These were
towns that were put on the map because the United States used to be
a manufacturing country and the factories made the towns. And they
had it! They had culture, they had sophistication. And then the
factories died, and the towns died with them. When you go back
there now, you see the remnants of those heady days. You see the
opera houses and the beautiful limestone architecture, and the
Victorian buildings. So many of them are empty, and it’s really
fascinating. It’s this beautiful sense of decay. It’s an
intellectually vibrant place for me to get ideas because there’s
such a contrast between the structures of the place and the life of
what’s going on there, living in the shadow of what used to be.
That was a big part of it for me. And then another aspect that was
a big part was the aging process. Our parents age, and we watch
them age. We confront what that’s going to mean for us. And we age,
we see the changes in us. That’s tied into the grownups that
children grow into. And you always have expectations. You’re in
high school with this guy who you’re sure is going to be a big
movie star, and then he turns into a podiatrist. You know like,
“What happened?” That for me is also a big part of this
book—looking back on childhood through adult eyes and
reencountering the major figures in our childhood as adults, and
just seeing what happened in the ways people do or don’t match up
to what you thought was going to happen to them.