The Wife Who Came in from the Cold

With his Northern gothic novel A Reliable Wife, acclaimed memoirist Robert Gollrick creates an unforgettable heroine—a mail-order black widow.

03.24.09 7:11 AM ET

With his Northern gothic novel A Reliable Wife, acclaimed memoirist Robert Goolrick creates an unforgettable heroine—a mail-order black widow.

When a grown man goes by the diminutive “Robbie,” you can usually assume he’s a) very in touch with his inner child or b) Southern. And Robert “Robbie” Goolrick, is clearly both. A former ad copywriter originally from Virginia, Goolrick is the author of the much-touted debut novel, A Reliable Wife.

"I like the stories of ordinary lives. I think that the simplicity and the tenderness of the ordinary life is a remarkably sacred thing."

Wife is not Goolrick’s first book—that would be his critically acclaimed 2007 memoir The End of the World as We Know It.In one way, at least, Wife—which was the No. 1 pick of independent book sellers and has been sold in a dozen countries—is very different from The End of the World, a disturbingly calm account of his growing up and being sexually abused by his father in a respectable Virginia family. The new book is a novel, for one thing, and it takes place in Wisconsin in 1907. Still, the story of a powerful man estranged from his grown son, a man who sends away for a wife and gets more than he bargained for, echoes the themes in Goolrick’s memoir and his life.Like World, Goolrick notes, it concerns the relationship between two men and a woman and property.And like World, it springs from Goolrick’s childhood memories and themes, and reads like the kind of dramatic Southern story Goolrick says he grew up hearing from his parents and their friends.

You were an advertising copywriter for most of your adult life. How and when did you decide to become a memoirist/novelist?

I worked in advertising for almost 30 years, a number of places, principally at Grey Advertising. I was brutally fired when I was 53 years old.And when you’re 53 years old in advertising and you’re fired, there is nowhere for you to go, and the people who have called you up and praised you for 25 years just don’t take your calls. I was kind of like that guy in Into Thin Air, I decided I had to save myself.

A Reliable Wife. By Robert Goolrick. 291 pages. Algonquin Books. $23.95.

And I had always had in mind that I would write. One day I sat down and said, "This is it, I have to do this." I actually wrote the novel first but my agent at the time couldn’t sell it: More than 25 publishers turned it down.So then I wrote the memoir in about two months, and she sold that to Algonquin right off the bat.

There are plenty of advertising executives—James Patterson, Augusten Burroughs—who became successful novelists and memoirists.There’s obviously some connection there. . .

I have to say that while I was never very proud of it, advertising does teach you how to write. You have to take a lot of information and condense it into a very small space and a very small number of words. You have to write in a compelling style. . .the style of my own writing is probably more poetic than my style of writing advertising, but it’s not so far away. I really learned how to write in advertising. . . I am very grateful for that. But I think you have to find something to do that is both joyful in the process and satisfying about the product. I didn’t mind the process in advertising, but I don’t have any real admiration for the product. I suppose there are some who do, but I was never one of them.

But obviously, you’re proud of the books.

I love writing books because you have absolute control. If I want those horses to run away and wreck the carriage [as happens in an early scene in A Reliable Wife], that’s what they’re going to do. None of the characters are going to leap off the screen and say mean things to me. . .

To judge from your memoir, and from the way Ralph deals with his son Antonio in the novel, you know from meanness.Was your own relationship with your father ever repaired?

I was 43 when my father died, so he never read either of my books. My brother, on the other hand, didn’t speak to me for two years, though we never discussed any of it, in that Southern way we have.I’ve never discussed it with my sister either.Other people, friends of my parents, old family friends, friends of my parents have brought [the topic of child sexual abuse] up. Either they say I am a liar, or, as one person put it, “I have an overactive imagination.”

But all my life, my relationship with my parents was gothic and complex. I would do literally anything in the hopes of pleasing my parents, including buying them a house. And so for his whole life my father went on living in what was literally my house. And then I went on thinking, in my childish way, that before he died there would be some moment of revelation, that my mother or father would say: “It is not your fault. You are not guilty." But of course that didn’t happen. In a very kind of Carson McCullers twist, my mother and father are both buried in the backyard of that house – and so I continued going down there, but there were certain parts of the house that I would not go into. And finally, I was forced to sell the house two years ago and I did it with enormous regret, but now I don’t regret it at all. It was the best thing, to get rid of it.

Writers often say that writing the truth of their stories – whether in memoir or even in fiction – can be cathartic. Do you find it that way?

No, not really cathartic. I found writing these books is like writing a really honest letter to a close friend.What I got with the memoir – and I guess I won’t get it as much with A Reliable Wife, because it’s a novel and not so obviously about me – were these amazing letters; they often begin with “I’ve never told this to anybody.” Every single person has a story to tell. And I like the stories of ordinary lives. I think that the simplicity and the tenderness of the ordinary life is a remarkably sacred thing.

People have a real need to speak, and that’s great to me. If I could get one father to leave one son untouched, if I can get one person who was abused as a child to feel somewhat better about waking up every morning, then the books have done their jobs.

Did you realize that A Reliable Wife was going to tell your story again, albeit in a different time and setting?

No, it just came to me recently – when I put the books together and saw that this was a pattern.I think that what interests me in human life is the possibility of goodness and I think that both books are in some sense about redemption. With A Reliable Wife, I wanted to make a novel in which troubled people are somehow redeemed by love. . .

I think that most writers really have only one or two things to say in their whole lives. But they can’t get it out, so they construct elaborate memory palaces to house the simple sentence that they’re trying to say. And then, when they finish whatever they’re working on, they say, “No, that wasn’t quite it.”And so they have to write another one. Some writers are concerned with what sells, and they know what sells, but I’m not sure that they even know they have a single sentence. But maybe they do. Maybe their simple sentence is “I want to be rich and famous..”

In my case, the simple sentence is “I want to be safe, and I want to be heard.”

Sara Nelson is the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.