Meeting young adult author Beth Goobie is a little like reading a Beth Goobie novel: somewhat disorienting at first.
I agree to interview Goobie in a coffee shop because she does not want me to know where she lives. The mercury on this January day has sunk to –40, and the air over Saskatoon is frosty with ice crystals. “I did some work clearing my chakras before I came here,” she announces.
Chakras are part of an ancient Eastern belief that the body has seven primary energy points, each one assigned a colour, from red at the base of the spine to violet at the top of the head. Goobie seems to be testing my knowledge – and my willingness to accept what she tells me. Over the course of our conversation she says many things that require an explanation.
“Basically, you are clearing your auric field,” she says. “Your auric field is an energy field that you carry around you that contains all your thoughts and all your memories. It contains your past tense, your present tense, and your future tense. When you sit down to write, you need to learn how to clear that field so you have a space that will let you move into your story. I found that it gave me much more clarity and focus and really improved my writing abilities. It was very tangible.”
Almost all of Goobie’s novels involve unusual theories about the human psyche. It is why some publishers have turned down her work, and why she is so grateful for the acceptance and encouragement she receives from her current publisher, Orca Book Publishers in Victoria.
“They don’t believe it so they won’t publish it,” she says of those other publishers. “They say, ‘We like the story, we like the characters, but we don’t like the psychic element. If you take it out we’ll publish it.’ Well, I don’t care if you’re the biggest publisher in the world, I’m not going to do that for you.”
Goobie’s protagonists are outsiders, cast into “special” roles by no wish of their own. They are typically on the cusp of great change – both physically and emotionally. They learn that it is more important to be self-aware than to be understood. They are not cute. Their stories are both unfamiliar and unsettling.
I ask how a 44-year-old woman with no children gets so close to her teenage characters, how she gets the dialogue so right and the angst so true. Her response raises still more questions.
She tells me that because of a traumatic childhood, she developed a “fragmented” psyche. She stored memories on different “levels,” and many of those levels she simply lost. It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that she began to remember those childhood fragments. “It’s like you’re a series of infinite parallel universes and on each one of them your personalities are vibrating at different rates. As they integrate, you learn to absorb that vibrating rate, that frequency rate, and your consciousness expands,” she says.
“I gradually started to remember, and as I did, I began to encounter all those child and teenage parts of myself. The voice, the way teenagers talk to each other, the internal monologue. If [the characters] are accurate it’s because of that memory work, and the connection I made with my own internal voices.”
Much of the turmoil in Goobie’s life has been laid bare in two books for adult readers, Scars of Light, which is autobiographical poetry, and The Only-Good Heart, a book of short stories. Both are built on the theme of cults, abuse, and emotional torture. They were, she says, both therapeutic for herself and a warning to others.
Goobie is best known for her quirky and dark young adult novels. She’s published several of them, beginning in 1994. Her novel Before Wings won the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Book Award in 2000, and was chosen by young readers for the Best Books list of the American Library Association.
After high school, Goobie moved to Manitoba to study at the University of Winnipeg and the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and completed degrees in English literature and religious studies. She moved to Edmonton to work with abused children and teens in the child welfare system.
At the age of 30, she collapsed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Recovering at home, she began her first novel. Too weak to sit at a typewriter and suffering blurred vision, she dictated the story a few minutes at a time into a tape recorder. It was about a girl who decides to stop shaving her legs (as Goobie had at that time) and enter a beauty pageant. The result, Mission Impossible, won an award from the Writers Guild of Alberta and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for children’s literature.
Goobie moved to Saskatoon in 1996, but won’t say why. While she speaks freely of childhood horrors and recovered memories, she is fiercely protective of her current private life. She volunteers very little information, and she forbids her publisher from using her photograph on her books: “It’s rare to want to be private these days, but I am.”
It has been written that Goobie produces two or three novels a year – a statement she flatly denies. She says her writing style is “little bit by little bit.” She writes in longhand and later transfers it to the computer. She doesn’t have a TV or use e-mail, and she likes it that way.
Goobie’s latest novel is Flux, the story of a 12-year-old girl who is able to slip into other parallel levels of existence, where she encounters a double for everything, including herself (it was reviewed by Kenneth Oppel in Q&Q’s April issue). Goobie says that once Flux was finished, she read a book on quantum physics and was surprised to find validation for her story of parallel universes and vibratory states. “One of the messages that I’m trying to give teenagers more than anything is the need for self-love and self-trust. How infinitely valuable every individual is,” she says.
She shares a memory from her own youth in Guelph, Ontario. Stephen Lewis, then leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, came to speak at her school. His talk was interrupted by a streaker, a buck-naked senior student with a paper bag over his head. The whole auditorium erupted in hysterics.
When Lewis finally stepped to the microphone again he quipped, “Reminds me of my youth.” Goobie was impressed. “He gave us a sense that he wasn’t scolding, he didn’t withdraw. It was funny and he enjoyed us. That always stuck with me.” She wants her readers to feel that same sense of acceptance.
“I think there are a lot of negative messages given to children and teenagers in our society, and I try to reverse that as much as possible in my books. We don’t give them much space for individuation. You don’t get a good mark in school because you disagree with the teacher. You get along as a kid if you’re obedient and comply.
“If you want to keep everybody in line, you have to somehow program them to obey. I think that’s what childhood is mostly about – programming us to keep us in line so that as adults we stay in line. I try to encourage kids to see beyond that.”