Author Q&A: Open Book with Allegra Goodman

Author Allegra Goodman has range. Her six novels and two story collections examine, among other subject matter, art, religion and science.

The last of these topics will bring Goodman to the Berkshires. On Thursday, Goodman will read from her 2006 novel, "Intuition," at Williams College (4:15 p.m., Griffin Hall, Room 6). The event is co-sponsored by the school's biology and English departments as well as its neuroscience program and lecture committee.

"Intuition" explores the pressures research laboratories face through the lens of discovery. To his lab directors' delight, Cliff, a young postdoctoral student, appears to have made a significant breakthrough in his cancer treatment experiments. Yet, his girlfriend and fellow postdoc, Robin, is skeptical about his findings. When she raises her doubts, controversy ensues.

"Goodman has written an energetic indictment of high-stakes science, presenting it as a system that makes unreasonable demands on young researchers, promotes cupidity, doesn't tolerate dissent," Sue Halpern writes in a review for The New York Times.

More recently, Goodman published "The Chalk Artist," a novel, and "F.A.Q.s," a short story. Goodman lives in Cambridge these days, though she was born in Brooklyn and raised in Honolulu. She answered some questions by phone on Monday. The interview has been edited for length.

Q What's your favorite science-related work of fiction (doesn't have to be science fiction) you've read recently?

A Probably my favorite novel about science and scientists is "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis, which is not a recent book but a great one. When I was looking for good fiction about science, it was hard to find, and I think that one — Sinclair Lewis isn't read that much anymore, but he won the Nobel Prize back in the day — it's one of his best books. You can still get it, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who wants a really interesting book about scientists and also a really interesting portrait of America during the '20s. [It's about] the training of a young scientist named Arrowsmith, a doctor. It's so different from now. That's my favorite novel about science. [In a subsequent email, Goodman relayed that "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler is a contemporary work of science-related fiction that she enjoyed. "This novel is the funny, sad, and fascinating tale of the family of a behaviorist who raises an ape as one of his children," she wrote.]

Q I know you have a history of writing short stories. What's your favorite short story you've read recently?

A I admire the work of Tessa Hadley. I read a collection of hers recently ["Bad Dreams and Other Stories"] ... I loved [it].

Q What's your favorite novel based in Hawaii?

A I like "The Descendants" [by Kaui Hart Hemmings], which was made into a movie with George Clooney a while back. ... I felt it was very real. It was about Hawaii as a real place rather than a mythical place. The movie actually opens up with a good visual image, which corresponds well to the book. It's a visual image of the traffic in Honolulu, and that's so true if you've ever lived there. It's really about people who are actually living there, the problems of real-life living there. And yet, it's still a magical place, and she gets all of that. I think it's pitch-perfect.

Q What was your favorite book as a child?

A As a small child, probably "The Wizard of Oz" series [by L. Frank Baum]. ... I've read a lot of them. As he got older, other people were writing them. It became a bit of a franchise. But I have at least a dozen [of the books] in my house, and I love them all, from the first one through the adventures of Ozma and the Emerald City ... the whole thing. I loved that.

Q What books are currently on your nightstand?

A Well, I don't read in bed.

Q Metaphorically!

A I shouldn't be too literal about this. OK, currently the book I'm reading is an amazing biography. I should also say I love biography. I read a lot of nonfiction and a lot of biography and history. I'm reading a biography of Jonathan Swift ["Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel"] by John Stubbs. He is a gifted young historian and biographer. He wrote an incredible biography of John Donne ["John Donne: The Reformed Soul"]. I read a lot of poetry also growing up, and John Donne's a real hero. ... This [one] is about Jonathan Swift, famous for "Gulliver's Travels," of course, and a complicated man. So, I'm kind of deep into that book right now.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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