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Inverting 'King Lear' In 'Goldberg Variations'

Author Susan Isaacs has written 13 books; 12 of them have been best-sellers. The women who inhabit Isaacs' books are smart, sexy, a little snarky, and filled with some serious chutzpah.

The center of Isaacs' latest novel, Goldberg Variations, is no exception. Gloria Garrison owns a multimillion-dollar makeover business, and she is not exactly an easy lady to get along with.

Isaacs talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about writing strong women and growing up wanting to be a cowgirl.

Interview Highlights

On Gloria Garrison, nee Goldberg, around whom Goldberg Variations revolves

"What drives her is plain-old ambition, a good business sense. She really had a vision of doing realistic things to ordinary women in small cities where there was no fashion. But she's not a good-hearted feminist ... she's a bad-hearted feminist ... Not only is she estranged from her family, but her business colleague who was going to take over the company — Gloria's now 79 — she's so hurt him and insulted him that he's out of the picture. So it kind of becomes a comic inversion of King Lear, where she has this multimillion-dollar kingdom, except nobody wants it."

On the inspiration behind creating a character like Garrison

"When she first came to me, here is this woman ... terribly chic with hollowed cheekbones, and I said, 'I don't want to deal with her, I'm not telling her story' ... I was actually listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations ... And I thought, 'Gee, wouldn't ... that be a great title?' And by the end of it, of course, I just realized that I was stuck with it. Then what happens in all my fiction is that a character comes to me. I don't necessarily have to like that character, but I have to find the character interesting and intriguing ... Gloria, I really had to look for good in her. Why are some people just so perfectly dreadful? And is there any redemption? Can she do anything beyond make superficial changes in her life and perhaps tone it down a little?"

Susan Isaacs is a best-selling author and screenwriter. She was a recipient of the John Steinbeck Award and is the chairman of the board for Poets & Writers.
Deborah Feingold / Scribner
Susan Isaacs is a best-selling author and screenwriter. She was a recipient of the John Steinbeck Award and is the chairman of the board for Poets & Writers.

On Gloria's preoccupation with one's physical appearance, and whether Isaacs agrees with Gloria that people should pay more attention to how they look

"I think Gloria is right to the extent that if you pay a little attention to your appearance, it shows not only an engagement with yourself, but a desire to present yourself nicely and, in a sense, as a courtesy to the outside world. What I found appalling — find appalling — in our culture now is ... how much of it is about looks. And what Gloria is saying, and what I had her say, is that you really should just do the best you can in about five minutes a day ... But I confess that I was also watching these makeover shows — Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ... or makeover of ... houses, where suddenly a creepy basement becomes a delightful media room. It has an enormous fascination to re-create something, to make it better, improve. It's really such an American tendency — that urge to say, I can do this better."

On whether the likable, ambitious women who often play central roles in Isaacs' books are intended to be feminist role models

"That's too lofty, because then I'm taking myself out of the story, out of my imagination, and taking on a political aim. It's not that I'm apolitical ... In my youth, I was a freelance political speechwriter, which taught me a lot about writing fiction, I must add. But I don't want to do that. I want to tell the story ... I came out of an era of the early feminist novels where women went through a grand thrash against usually a lout of a husband, and they wound up having an affair as a way of breaking out. Well, this is fine, but then what? I was blessed, even growing up in the '50s, with a father who, when I said, 'I want to be an airline stewardess,' he said, 'Why not the pilot?' ... He was an amazing guy. But I always wanted women to want something for themselves beyond all the ... womanly things."

On whether assertive female characters are gaining ground in literature and film

"Actually, I wrote a book in 1999, my one work of nonfiction, called Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen. And there I said no, that the Jane Eyres, that the ... Mary Tyler Moores, that the strong women that we used to know have disappeared. And you have women who, if they are strong, they're strong on behalf of defending their families, or — they never seem to want anything that's beyond the traditional roles of women. You know, I wanted them — my women — to fight for something beyond themselves. So what I want to do is just take an ordinary woman, whether she's a CEO or a housewife, but someone who has talent within an area, and then give them an extraordinary circumstance or two."

On Isaacs' childhood ambitions

"I wanted to be a cowgirl ... But, you know, it was pointed out to me that, you know, growing up in Brooklyn, there wasn't much opportunity ... for cowgirlery. So, I decided, I knew I wanted to be something, but I never thought beyond, 'Gee, I hope someone will ask me to marry him.' But, you know, then I was blessed to be living and coming of age in the '60s when the women's movement happened, and I didn't have the self-confidence to say, 'Oh, I can write a novel.' I mean, novels were written by thin women like Joyce Carol Oates and Virginia Woolf. But I ... could at least aspire to be a Semitic Agatha Christie."

On having passion for her work

"There are days where I lose track of time, of place, of everything else, because I've been transported to another universe. And that's such a wonderful trip ... There is part of me that wants to be a cowgirl. Could there be a cowgirl in my future? You know, I never know what character is going to come and tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, tell my story.' So maybe the next one will have boots."

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NPR Staff