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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Goolrick spins small-town tale in 'Heading Out to Wonderful'

WHITE STONE, Va. – Robert Goolrick is having what can only be described as a spectacular second act.

Robert Goolrick, whose debut novel, 'A Reliable Wife,' was a smash in 2010, next tells a tale about life in a small Virginia town, much like White Stone, where he lives. 'Heading Out to Wonderful' is out Tuesday. By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Robert Goolrick, whose debut novel, 'A Reliable Wife,' was a smash in 2010, next tells a tale about life in a small Virginia town, much like White Stone, where he lives. 'Heading Out to Wonderful' is out Tuesday.

By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Robert Goolrick, whose debut novel, 'A Reliable Wife,' was a smash in 2010, next tells a tale about life in a small Virginia town, much like White Stone, where he lives. 'Heading Out to Wonderful' is out Tuesday.

Once a hard-partying New York ad executive who ended up on welfare and in Alcoholics Anonymous, he is now well known as the author of a highly praised, best-selling debut novel, A Reliable Wife, and a blistering tell-all family memoir, The End of the World as We Know It.

Instead of passing wanton nights at New York nightclubs, today he finds himself signing books everywhere from Paris to Los Angeles, all part of a nine-week tour to promote his latest novel, Heading Out to Wonderful (Algonquin, $24.95). It goes on sale Tuesday.

Not bad for a man who admits he once led a "tortured life," until he found "the nerve to write," an endeavor that has, for better or worse, put him on a grueling book tour this summer.

"The problem is I don't know what to pack," he confesses before heading to Europe, in a conversation on the screened porch of his Virginia home, which boasts a fabulous view of the Rappahannock River off in the distance.

But compared with his fast-lane days, when the office receptionist used to sell him cocaine from her desk drawer, the challenges of packing for a book tour seem downright domestic.

Over a lunch of crab and lobster ni?oise salad he has prepared, Goolrick, 63, talks candidly about his ever-evolving life, his writing and his love of his native state. He calls his new novel "a love letter to Virginia."

Robert Goolrick, while a novelist and memoirist, is also an accomplished essayist, musing on everything from the “passion of place” to what twists of fate make a person become homeless. A few of his essays can be found on his website,

One of his most amusing involves his thoughts about Facebook and why he left the social site. His piece ran in The Daily Beast in 2010:

“Facebook to me is the cocktail party of the new millennium. When I joined years ago, it was like a community bulletin board where people you knew would post items of interest or urgency or charm,” he begins. “Now it’s turned into Grand Central Station at rush hour, with everybody bumping into everybody else, and a track announcer droning on and on the list of trains and platforms, echoing in the cavernous halls so that one can’t hear anything or tell what platform the 6:10 to Greenwich will be leaving from. Facebook is a cocktail party thrown in Grand Central at rush hour.”

He was happy with his decision to unfriend the world. His publisher was not.

So is he back now? Yes.

“Algonquin thought it would be a good idea with a new book coming out.”

Not that it's always pretty. Heading Out to Wonderful is filled with the pettiness of small-town life, violence and racism, all common in 1948 rural Virginia. "But the people are my people, who I am," he says, adding that he set his newest novel in summertime for a reason. "I remember the summers so clearly."

Goolrick grew up in Lexington, Va., where his father taught at Virginia Military Institute. Even today, he looks the part of a Southern prep, dressed nattily in a navy blue-and-white-striped blazer from Brooks Brothers, jeans and loafers.

His newest novel is based on a true story he was told long ago while visiting a Greek isle, a tale that stayed with him for 25 years. It involves a small-town love affair gone terribly wrong. So he transported the Greek characters to rural Virginia and made the youngest, a boy named Sam, the narrator. Sixty years later, Sam tells the story of an enigmatic stranger, Charlie Beale, who arrives in town and falls in obsessive love with another man's teenage bride, Sylvan Glass. Trouble brews.

Goolrick recites the novel's first line: "The thing is, all memory is fiction. You have to remember that." And with that, he's off, storytelling the way he did in A Reliable Wife, once again building his tale to a riveting and violent end.

A Reliable Wife (2009) became a huge success and the darling of book clubs. It was on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list for 32 weeks in 2010, reaching No. 6, and has sold just over a million copies in the USA.

Chuck Adams, Goolrick's editor at Algonquin, says that when he first read Wife, "I knew immediately there was an amazing story there, with bigger-than-life characters … and emotions that people can relate to."

He compares the novel to the works of Edna Ferber (Show Boat, Giant, Cimarron) — "big setting, big story." That big story is about to be made into a movie by Columbia Pictures.

Finding his niche

Does Goolrick have stars in mind who could play Catherine Land, the not-so-reliable wife? "I do," he says, chuckling, "but it hardly matters."

Goolrick knows he will be losing control of his now-famous story but hopes Hollywood remains true to the tale of a mail-order wife who shows up at a Wisconsin train station on a cold winter's day in 1907, carrying not only her bags but a scheme: to marry the man who ordered her, kill him, then live out her days as a wealthy widow. But her new husband has plans of his own, too.

A sophomore novel is always a challenge, and Goolrick has a tough act to follow. Publishers Weekly says his newest tale of doomed love — sound familiar? — "resonates like a folk ballad" and packs an "emotional punch." Kirkus Reviews called it "powerful but problematic," however.

Goolrick pays little attention to reviews and is still amused by the fact The New York Times never reviewed A Reliable Wife.

Instead, he just writes, getting down to work early, settling in front of his Apple computer on a worn red velvet armchair at 5 a.m. He says he's happier than he should be when writing: "I'm safe." His friends agree he is finally where he belongs.

Goolrick was fired from his New York advertising job at Grey Advertising when he was 53, something he says often happens to older employers in the advertising world. He had been there nearly 30 years.

But he credits his years writing ad copy — from Kohler faucets to Pantene — for making him a better writer. "It teaches you to cover a lot of information in a short space."

Living hand to mouth after his advertising days, he came to the novel-writing game late, in his mid-50s, but his editor agrees that Goolrick's training served him well. "A Reliable Wife did not read like a first novel," says Adams. "It was very mature."

But it takes Goolrick a long time to get a novel started, because he tells the story to himself over and over again in his head, like he did with the tale he heard back in Greece. "I don't write anything down. The South is an oral culture. I have to be able to tell the story at a dinner party, but when I do write, I do it quite quickly."

Having moved back to Virginia three years ago, he says he's in a good place these days. Goolrick repeats the word "safe" often, saying he's happy living alone (he has had affairs with both men and women but never married) in this rented 1870 farmhouse with his Sussex spaniel, Preacher, whose grandfather won the Westminster dog show.

It's far from the childhood trauma he revealed in his memoir. He alleges sexual abuse at the hands of his father that began when he was only 4 years old. He spent a good portion of his adult life trying to escape the memories through drugs, alcohol, medication and psychiatric sessions. For a time, he was cutting himself with razors.

Not surprisingly, one of the themes in his newest novel is the vulnerability of children. His narrator, young Sam, is witness to more than his share of horrors at the hands of adults.

"Childhood is a dangerous place," says Goolrick. "No one leaves unscarred. It's an important theme. You never hear from the victims. It's what happens after that, later in life, that is so destructive."

His editor Adams says the darkness of Goolrick's childhood "shades everything he writes."

Sober yet 'exotic'

Goolrick says he has never discussed the memoir with anyone, including his sister and brother. His brother did not speak to him for two years after the book came out. His alcoholic parents are both dead.

"It caused all kinds of ruckus," he says, adding that the dust eventually settled. In interviews, he says that people who knew his parents well have called him a liar or accused him of having an "overactive imagination." But he's still happy he wrote the book. "You can't write an honest memoir if you're feeling sorry for yourself."

Goolrick has been sober for 21 years, although he still smokes a pack of Marlboros a day.

He suspects he is looked upon as an "exotic" by the town locals but says he's treated as a regular person, "which is why I moved here." He didn't want to be part of the "literary freak show" in New York, perhaps why his publisher is out of Chapel Hill, N.C., and not Manhattan.

He's working on a novel about a young girl who lives on a commune and flies — "but only at night" — and then he's going to write a prequel to Heading Out to Wonderful, zeroing in on the two suitcases Charlie Beale carries into tiny Brownsburg, Va. One is filled with money, the other knives that he uses in his new job at the local butcher shop.

And the mystery of that suitcase full of money?

"You'll have to read the next book," he says.

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