Meeting Banana Rose
''It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, Natalie Goldberg says about what it was like to write her first novel, Banana Rose (Bantam, 273 pp., $21.95). Harder, she says, than any of the extensive practice she's undertaken in Zen Buddhism. It took Goldberg eight years to write the novel, during which she also published Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life and Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, a reflection on studying Zen and a tribute to her teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi. Her very first book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, sparked the readership that has made her a best-selling author. Together, her three nonfiction books have sold nearly 500,000 copies. It was in New Mexico in the 1980s that Goldberg's novel first came to her. "I was turning a corner on Don Cubero Street in Santa Fe," she writes in Wild Mind, "when I thought of the hippie name for the main character, Banana Rose. Somehow, having the name, I knew I could write the book." In Banana Rose, the title character gives a first-person account as she pursues her desires, both amorous and artistic, in Taos, Boulder and Minneapolis. Living in these different places during the waxing and waning of the hippie years, Banana Rose, born Nell Schwartz, struggles to discover what she wants out of life as a woman and as a painter. While the novel's early chapters reflect the easy-going, free-spiritedness of commune life in its heyday, the preface flash-forwards to the cremation of Nell's friend, Anna, and Nell's journey is ultimately not an easy one. However, as Anna once said of her, "You always act on your pain. It gets you moving." As Nell and her boyfriend Gauguin's passionate love folds into the more mundane bonds of marriage and urban responsibilities, they each attempt to realize their dreams of being artists. While Nell paints, Gauguin struggles as a would-be musician and song writer. The conflicts start out small-should she pick a fight with him or paint? - but ultimately Nell must choose between the ever-more conservative Gauguin and the life she wants to lead. Her relationship with Anna, a loner and a writer, proves crucial to the decisions she makes. Banana Rose is peopled with many other characters whose paths cross Nell's. At the commune and around Taos, there's Blue, Sam, Neon and Cassandra. There are glimpses of Nell's irresponsible sister, Rita, and her grandparents. Later scenes bring in Gauguin's divorced parents, Rip and Alice, and Nell's own parents, Edith and Irving. Interacting with them helps Nell know what connects her still to her Jewish roots in Brooklyn and to the spiritual and physical beauty of Taos. In that, readers of Goldberg's nonfiction might see something familiar. Goldberg says, "Banana Rose started out as an autobiographical novel. Anna and Nell are two aspects of myself." She notes that scenes that include the two women were often the "parts that unfolded pretty clearly." Goldberg continues, "I wanted Nell to be Jewish and to explore that, but I'm not that intentional. Nell grew, she developed. She ended up being a painter. And I didn't want the ending that happened. It wasn't a happy ending, yet she survives." Goldberg also points out, "Anna is kind of a mystery. Indeed, it is as much through her presence as her absence that Anna seems to affect Nell." The hardest parts of writing the novel, Goldberg says, "were to give the characters their own life and to give the novel structure." In Wild Mind, she tells how a friend read the first draft of the novel in the 80s and said, "'Natalie, there's no plot." "Nonfiction," Goldberg says, "is following the movement of the mind." But with Banana Rose she "wanted to learn the form of a novel. I felt it would stretch me - I'm a writing teacher so writing practice is my commitment. Nell was doing writing practice but I had to learn the form." Goldberg's other writing projects delayed revision of the novel. However, she says, "I had a compulsion to start work again on Banana Rose within 24 hours of completing Long Quiet Highway." When she answered the phone for this interview, Goldberg was washing spinach. This seems entirely appropriate, for food is everywhere in Banana Rose. The novel is replete with green and red chiles, enchiladas, posole, grilled cheese sandwiches, challah, hamburgers, pastrami sandwiches and chocolate - Kit Kats, bonbons, shakes and a three-tier wedding cake. At one point, Nell reveals, "I broke down crying again, a dry hard cry like corn flakes without milk." Of the calorie-laden prose, Goldberg says, "I'm embarrassed to say I wasn't aware of it at first. My editor told me, 'Natalie, the whole world doesn't revolve around food." With no ill-intent, she gave the manuscript to a friend whose mouth was wired shut after an accident. "She said it was like torture to read," Goldberg says. "My mouth is very alert. My family was very into food." When asked how her family or others have reacted to the semi-autobiographical book, Goldberg says simply, "I had to deal with it. I was more worried than anyone else. My business is to put down what I know to be true." Truth, especially of personal experience, is what Goldberg encourages her students to get at in their own writing through the exercises in Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones. "The past exists no place but inside," Goldberg says. "Everyone has their own rendition." After completing the final draft of Banana Rose a year and a half ago, Goldberg says she felt "psychotic." "I had held a world inside me. I gave my past to Gauguin and to Nell, and now I have entered the second half of my life." That second half includes a return to teaching after a two-year hiatus. "Writing Banana Rose has changed my teaching methods," Goldberg says. "I can't teach students how to go from writing practice to how to build it up into form in just a week. I need three." Although Goldberg has decided to limit her workshops to a few locations in New Mexico, students come to work with her from all over the country, as well as England and Australia. She also participates in one out-of-state workshop annually. This year she's already gone to a Los Angeles workshop, where she joined such writers as Allan Ginsberg and Ellen Gilchrist. But Goldberg's commitment to stay in New Mexico isn't surprising, considering how often she depicts the Taos landscape in Banana Rose. The visual is also key to Goldberg's work-in-progress, Living Color: A Writer's Vision. She discloses, "I have secretly painted for as long as I have written and meditated. The book talks about writers who paint and painters who write, why people have a second art form." Living Color will include photographs of 40-60 of Goldberg's own paintings. Goldberg also has an idea for another novel. "The main character is a loner, but I have a feeling she's going to become a big-mouth," she says, laughing.