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Interviews & Reviews

 

Interviewed by Peter Biello / The Bookshelf / NHPR

All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.

This week, The Bookshelf features novelist Deena Goldstone. She joined Peter Biello to discuss her book Surprise Me.


 

The novel begins in 1994, when aspiring writer Isabelle Rothman starts her final semester in college. She begins an apprenticeship with the agoraphobic, once-acclaimed novelist Daniel Jablonski. Their relationship begins with awkward and painful exchanges about writing and blooms into one defined by mutual admiration, encouragement, and love. That relationship is sustained for many years by email, while Isabelle raises a family on the west coast and Daniel secludes himself in a small town in New Hampshire.

Tell us a little bit about Isabelle—your protagonist. How did she take shape in your mind?

I wanted a young girl who was just starting out in her life who felt she was ordinary, that she had no gifts at all, and that she was raised in a family that expected her to be responsible and dependable. But in her soul, she was a writer, and it wasn’t until she took a class in college that allowed her to write uninhibited that she could even admit to herself that this was what she wanted to do. So I wanted to start with someone who was young who had a desire, a wish to be a different person, and how that person came to be during the course of her life.

And what about Daniel, the sort of grumpy writer who suffers from agoraphobia and a slump in his career. How would you describe him?

As the novel was taking shape, it became very clear to me that I wanted two people who meet at exactly the right time in their lives. I wanted a counterpoint to Isabelle who was starting her life with great hope. I wanted her to interact with someone who had given up on life. And I wanted to see what happened when the two of them met. And basically my idea for the book was: what happens when two people are in a room together working on something intensely that maters to both of them. How does that dynamic work?

So the beginning of the book is their first months of meeting. The end is their last months of meeting. In between, their lives unspool.

With the connection between them always the lodestar that keeps them going, that affirms to the other that they are worth something, and I thought that a 20-year relationship that didn’t fit any of the categories we usually use—it wasn’t husband, sibling, boyfriend, girlfriend, aunt, uncle—that Isabelle and Daniel form an intense and very important relationship that doesn’t really have a name.

I wanted to ask you about that, because their relationship is not quite romantic but not quite platonic, either. Fiction has had quite a few relationships between older male professors and younger female students but most of those are strictly romantic and lustful. This breaks that mold. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

Absolutely. I made a conscious choice not to have them begin a sexual relationship while she was a student and he was her professor.

Though they came close.

Yes, they came close, but Daniel summons his better angels and steps away. It’s Daniel that steps away. And I wanted them to establish the connection between them that had nothing to do with sex, before they had a sexual relationship. So for me, the sex deepens what was there already and is not the essential ingredient of that relationship. It just brings them closer and cements their love for each other in a way that sex can.

And in a way, they bond over the trouble they have with writing, and I wanted to ask you about the teaching of creative writing, because Daniel Jablonski, this character, leaves a lot of mystery to the process of writing. He gives very cryptic instructions, if you can even call them instructions, to Isabelle, and steps away and lets her figure it out. What do you think about the teaching of creative writing? Do you agree with Daniel? Do you think it can’t be taught?

I don’t think you can teach someone to be a writer. I think you can mentor someone to find their voice, which I think is a very different thing. What Daniel gives Isabelle is the belief that she can do it, and that there is something within her worth writing about. That confidence, that rock-solid confidence he has—that is so for her, allows her to do the work of learning to write.

Did you have a person in your life who gave you that belief?

Yes, I did. When I was a very young screenwriter—because I wrote screenplays first before I started writing books—I had written my second screenplay for a company, a studio. And they had an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who had some kind of arrangement with the company where he would read the first drafts that were submitted and comment on them. And so I was told after I turned in a first draft to go and meet with this man and he would give me an hour of his time and I would get his thoughts about second draft, because when you write a screenplay you’re always writing drafts and drafts and drafts and drafts.

So I went. I was quite nervous. He had won two Academy Awards and not only that, his work was work that I thought was—if I could ever write anywhere close to that, I would be thrilled. It was subtle and powerful and deals with emotional issues and people and I was in awe. And at the end of the hour, I stood up and I thanked him very much, and I said I would think about everything, and he said to me, “Do you think I’m going to let you go home and write this wonderful screenplay and not have anything to do with it? Can you come back next week at this same time?” We worked together for a year. Once a week. He never told me what to write. He just would say to me, “What do you think about this scene here? Do you think that maybe it could be better?” and then we would talk about how we could change the scene. And at the end of the year, I had a screenplay that I was proud of and that was made into a movie. He and I became the person in each other’s lives that we gave our work to. So to this day, and he’s in his late 80s, he sends me his work, and I send him my work, and our relationship is based on the fact that we are writers together and we appreciate each other’s work. So I wanted to write a little bit about that, although he’s nothing like Daniel, and I don’t think I’m much like Isabelle.

– Peter Biello


Interviewed by Cyd Oppenheimer / Book Talk Podcast

 

"Surprise me." These words, from whence the novel takes its title, are what teacher and washed-up novelist Daniel Jablonski tells college senior Isabelle Rothman when she gives him her writing. She doesn't find his words helpful. Their relationship begins as fractious, contentious, and barbed, but it proves to be enduring, girded by a slow-emerging mutual respect. In the years following Isabelle's graduation, the two remain connected by a correspondence that proves important to them both. Through its exploration of their connection, Surprise Me is a meditation on writing, mentorship, and what it is to tell someone else's stories.

Deena Goldstone talks about what surprised her in the writing of this book ("Daniel's son was a revelation to me"), about the morality of mining other people's lives ("Almost everything I write has some germ in something that's happened to me or someone I know . . . but the entity that you create is a thing in and of itself"), and whether it's possible to teach someone to write ("mentorship is [ultimately] about helping someone find their own voice").


Guest readers Emily Moore and Matt Higbee join host Cyd Oppenheimer to discuss gender dynamics, the tension between writing and motherhood, and stalkers and figure skaters.

— Book Talk with Cynd Oppenheimer


Interviewed by Adam Vitcavage / Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 

Deena Goldstone spent the majority of her professional career as a screenwriter until she released a book of short stories in 2014. Now the writer has written Surprise Me, a deeply profound debut novel about the complicated relationship between an aspiring writer and a reclusive mentor. Surprise Me’s synopsis might sound like a typical trope used over and over in literature, but what Goldstone does exceedingly well is use her incredible prose to help make the two main characters – Isabelle and Daniel – resonate long after completing the novel. In this interview, Goldstone revealed what it was like to write scripts for film and television, how much plotting it takes to make a successful novel, and how much she loves writing short story collections.


You have spent a considerable amount of your career writing a handful of screenplays, how is writing a novel similar or different to that experience?

Although I have a handful of produced screenplays, I have been a working screenwriter for over 30 years. In the movie and TV business, there are far more developed screenplays than produced product. That means that for every 10, often times 20, commissioned screenplays – work a screenwriter is hired and paid to do – maybe one is produced. You can see that over a long career, that ratio can get very discouraging. While on the one hand, you as a screenwriter can do good work, earn a comfortable living, be constantly employed, on the other, you can have few completed works to fuel a sense of accomplishment.

Screenwriting and fiction writing are totally different experiences in most every significant way. Screenwriting is a collaborative form – the screenplay is the blueprint for something else. In order for your work to be realized, other people – actors, directors, producers, executives, production designers, cameramen, etc. – have to participate in the creation. When there is a consensus of opinion, that collaboration can be exciting and inspiring. When there is not, then the experience can be painful and destructive.

Fiction writing is a singular experience. One voice, yours, has to be translated onto the page. That freedom, especially for someone who has been used to such a collaborative experience, can be heady and freeing as well as intimidating and lonely.

The other main difference is that screenwriting is a much more restrictive form. Structure dominates screenwriting. Every scene has to, in some way, build the structure. There is no place for digressions or lyricism. There is an acknowledged length – screenplays shouldn’t be longer than 120 pages – because movies usually run about two hours. So in screenwriting the form dictates the writer’s choices.

In fiction, the writer’s vision dictates the form. There is room for the story to grow organically. A novel can evolve as it needs to. I felt so freed when I began to write fiction, as if I could spread my arms out and exhale.

The last major difference is that screenwriting is a visual medium. What you write on the page has to be able to be translated into images on that huge screen. Lovely, descriptive narrative passages are “cheating” because they are for the reader of the screenplay and not the viewer of the finished product. It is through images and behavior of the characters that film communicates.

In fiction, the words matter. And so the way you put sentences, paragraphs, pages together dictates the reader’s experience. For me, after so many years of being terse and minimalistic in my writing, that emphasis on the words themselves is a large part of the pleasure of writing fiction (as well as reading it).

In film, the screenwriter is one of many creative people involved in a communal project – and never, never the most important person. In fiction, the writer is the owner of the work, recognized by everyone else as the prime creator.

Similarly, what about the editing process? With films, I assume the production companies and directors have some authority in how a project forms once the script is purchased. Is that relatable to a book editor?

In film (or TV), by the time the film editor begins to put together the dailies (the film shot each day), the writer is usually long gone. Once shooting starts, it is rare to have the writer still involved with the project. Production is the director’s arena and very few of them want the writer around. (I know that seems strange, but it is true.)

If you mean, how do writers and directors work together on the script before the film is shot, that differs according to the director’s whims. Once a director is signed, he is the captain of the ship. Even if he signed to direct the finished script, most want changes and many don’t want the original writer to do the changes. New (and often multiple) writers are hired and fired according to the likes of the director, actors, producers, etc.

In my experience in the literary world, and I readily admit my experience has been limited and informed by the wonder who is Nan Talese, an editor’s thoughts are suggestions to be considered by the writer. The premise we all start from is that the writer is the creator of the work and the editor’s job is to help the writer realize his or her vision.

This novel uses a well-known backbone to the plot, but there is so much freshness to it. How did the genesis of this project come about?

After I had completed the eight short stories which made up my first book, Tell Me One Thing, and we were waiting to see if anyone would buy it, I started another short story. At that point in my leap into fiction, short stories were all I felt I knew how to do. And I loved writing them – the form suits me – and so I continued on. But when my agent, Marly Rusoff, read the new short story, she was very insistent that it could be the beginning of a novel and that it would help the sale of the short stories if she could say I was now writing a novel. And so I said I’d give it a try.

What is now the first section of Surprise Me was that short story, in a somewhat altered form.

I should also tell you that the transition from writing short stories to writing a novel was not an easy one. I struggled with the expanded form for months and months and months, bemoaning to everyone who would listen that I was completely stupid to attempt a novel and that I should have stuck with the shorter form which felt more natural to me. But about half way through the writing, the novel form began to make sense to me and then I really began to love the freedom I found in writing Surprise Me.

The relationship between Isabelle and Daniel is one a lot of writers may come across – in one way or another, not necessarily this way. Was there some autobiographical undercurrents to this? Or a lot of research with other writers? Or was it complete fabrication?

When I was a beginning screenwriter, writing my second commissioned screenplay and basically floundering, I was mentored by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter. He was at the height of his career and I was just beginning, but he agreed to work with me on that particular screenplay. (He had some sort of arrangement with the production company which had hired me.)

Without ever telling me what to write, he taught me how to write. That experience made me a real writer, a good writer.

However, my screenwriter is nothing at all like Daniel. He was wonderfully successful when I met him. His background couldn’t be more different from Daniel’s. And his personality and life situation couldn’t be more different.

It was the connection we found through the work that I used as the inspiration for the book.

Also, for the past decade, I have been invited each year to mentor young screenwriters at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab up in the mountains of Utah, an intense week of one-on-one meetings. The experience of being a mentor also helped me understand what Daniel gets from his relationship with Isabelle.

When writing a project, how much of the entire story do you have planned out? I have talked to authors who are very meticulous with every plot point, while others prefer to keep an open mind to see where their thoughts take them.

Part of the pleasure of writing fiction is to let the process play out as it will. Maybe it’s the years of screenwriting with its tight rules, but I like to be surprised as I write fiction. I usually start with an idea, not really completely formed, or an image of a scene. For Surprise Me I wanted to write those beginning scenes in Daniel’s office at the college – two people in a room, both lost in their own ways, who end up giving each other something vital. That’s about as much as I started with. But I do make notes to myself – sit down at the computer and write about my characters, stream of consciousness about their backgrounds and personalities, fears, hopes, etc.

For Surprise Me, I knew what I wanted the first section to accomplish and I knew they parted but that was pretty much all I knew. As I wrote, the rest came to me at, often, odd moments, until somewhere in the middle of the writing, I could have told you – Daniel ends up in New Hampshire and begins to write again; Isabelle falls madly in love and has a child and can’t write. They meet again when Daniel writes about her. Broad strokes like that but the particulars come when I sit down and type.

I’m a great believer in trusting the writing process and so I don’t put too many barriers in the way. It’s scarier that way but so much more rewarding.

When you were plotting this novel, did you have a sense that it would be broken into parts for the precise years you were depicting? Or how did that come about?

I knew the book would cover about twenty years. I wanted to see how these two people’s connection with each other informed the rest of their lives. I strongly believe that often the most pivotal people in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones we end up with, those who have a traditional title in our lives – husbands, wives, partners, etc.

The first section seemed pretty self-contained to me – those months in that room. It was the middle section that I had trouble with – how many years should it cover? When should it start? How much do we need to know about each life? How do I resolve Isabelle’s fury at Daniel? The answers evolved as I wrote. I had no outline or game plan for the middle section. But once I had written it, I knew I had to jump forward in years because I wanted the last section to be the two of them again in a room with the roles reversed.

So the idea of exploring a span of years in two people’s lives drove the decision to break the book into sections, otherwise the book would have ended up thousands of pages.

Have you continued to pursue screenwriting, or are you a full-time novelist now?

I won’t say I’ll never write another screenplay but I will say I would be quite happy if all I wrote from now on was fiction.

What’s your next literary adventure? Any details, no matter how small, would be greatly appreciated. I understand if you’re not able to talk in detail about it yet.

Despite all the warnings about how difficult it is to get a short story collection published, how poorly they sell, etc. I am at work on another group of stories. Whether they will all coalesce into a book and whether anyone will be interested in publishing the book, I have no way of knowing. But I want to/need to explore the theme of forgiveness in my next group of stories. One is written. One is in the middle of being finished, and three ideas await.

— Vol. 1 Brooklyn


Tina Says Review from Amazon

 

Deena Goldstone's novel Surprise Me was a pleasant, wonderful surprise. Usually I am racing through books in the summer, but I've been busy with things at home, which means that I've read this one over a span of a few days, and have had time to enjoy every page.

Isabelle Rothman is a senior in college when she begins to write and works with a professor, Daniel Jablonski, who has a less than stellar reputation. Their brief encounters allow Isabelle to feel as though she is a writer, and then all too soon she has graduated and moved on to a life of her own.

Years pass. Isabelle falls in love, has a child and begins to work at a bookstore, but she no longer writes. Daniel changes jobs a few time, eventually settling in a small cottage near his daughter, Alina, who is still angry and bitter at her father for leaving her as a young child.

Daniel and Isabelle correspond infrequently by email, but they continue to have a deep connection to one another.

I originally thought this was a love story between Daniel and Isabelle, and it is, but not the way I originally thought. These two people are connected through their writing, yet much of their lives are spent apart.

Goldstone's writing is perfect. I felt connected to both Isabelle and Daniel and appreciated their flaws and how human she was able to make them. Their relationship was complex, not easily defined, and changed over time as they grew and changed themselves. I loved seeing both of these characters' lives unfold.

This is a debut novel for Goldstone, although she is not new to writing, having published a short story collection, Tell Me One Thing, previously. I wish this novel was getting more attention because I absolutely loved it, and am hoping to hear more from Deena Goldstone.

– Amazon


Lolly K Dandeneau Review from Goodreads

 

Isabelle Rothman’s itch to write gives her the ill advised opportunity to be tutored by a successful novelist, Daniel Jablonski. Ill advised because he is known for his dismissive, disorganized cold manner. In fact, there may be more disturbing said author than strange behavior and a sort of writer's block. Daniel can't get rid of Isabelle so easily, and soon the two bond in ways that will connect them for years to come. This is an 'unconventional' love store, over time their lives fork into different directions and somehow they manage to find each other through words, keeping one toe in each other's lives in spite of partners and children. From a distance the two still inspire each other- Isabelle to take more chances, to live outside her fears and Daniel to engage in life and the people in it.

Isabelle's 'living' includes a lot of heartbreak and loss, realizing that sometimes regardless of how much you love someone, you can't sacrifice your own needs to keep them. That you have to disappoint even parents and the expectations for the neat life they have been forecasting for you. This is certainly not the sort of story where lovers meet and bam, happily ever after. It's years of becoming, growing, gaining, losing and how motherhood even strengthens a woman. It is loving many people and each with a purpose in your life, even if there is still another person on the periphery who is also vital to your being. They change one another, they become who they need to be and love deeply- but sometimes it's not a lifetime spent together that creates the most lasting bond. It is someone showing up at a point in your life that you need direction, but you may just end up being their compass too. Isabelle and Daniel are student and teacher each in their own way- both of them give and take lessons. The novel does have flashbacks that sometimes disrupt the flow, but in the novels I have been reading lately it seems many authors are approaching stories in this manner. It is always interesting how every year certain subjects and styles dominate writer's minds. With that said, it is a realistic love story but much more. Enjoyed it.

– Goodreads


Lynn's Review from Goodreads

 

Isabelle Rothman is closing in on her college graduation, and with a major in English, her parents expect that she will teach. However, Izzy wants to be a writer. So, Izzy signs up for a tutorial with a professor that everyone says is gruff and unfriendly. Daniel Jablonski turns out to be all that and more. He is now bitter. "Writing for him is a mysterious process, and he has no explanation for the fact that it yielded first two books of wondrous reviews and respectable sales, and then two books that fell of the face of the earth". Isabelle shows up at his office for their first meeting, having previously dropped off three chapters of a potential book, and looks expectantly at this curmudgeon. He has trouble finding the sheets in his disheveled office, and it is obvious that he has not read them. "I'll come back next week", says Isabelle. The next week, determined to tell him that she feels she should find someone else for the tutorial, he cites several instances of her writing that he did not anticipate and found refreshing and then says, "I want you to surprise me some more."

And so begins a lifelong relationship between the two that is nothing short of delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and hope I will be surprised by more by this author.

– Goodreads


Deena Goldstone on Writing & Mentorship / Salon.com

 

The day I met the man who would change my life, I was told I had one hour with him and that was all. I was a young writer, struggling to master a very demanding form – screenwriting, and he was a revered screenwriter with awards and spectacularly acclaimed movies in his resume. Just his name conjured up for me the kind of writing I most hoped to emulate – subtle, moving, powerful.

The producers who had hired me had “notes”. In Hollywood, euphemisms are generally employed so instead of saying, “We hate this first draft you’ve turned in,” they usually say “It’s a good start but we have some ‘notes.’” And then they schedule a meeting in which they proceed to tell you everything that could be conceivably wrong with your screenplay. A screenwriter usually leaves those meetings bloodied and beaten down.

This time, however, the notes were to be delivered by the revered writer. He had an advisory position with the company which was employing me and would occasionally comment on scripts as they came in. His office was on the Twentieth Century Fox Studios lot, and I was told the day and time of the meeting and that he would be expecting me.

As I walked the hushed and carpeted second floor hallway of the Executive Office Building at Fox, the only sounds the soft clacking of typewriter keys and the faint ringing of phones behind closed doors, I struggled to damp down my anxiety. Surely this wonderful writer would see all the flaws and every bit of awkwardness in the script I had turned in, only my second assignment as a screenwriter. The first hadn’t gone well at all and I doubted my ability to write this script, a fear I had admitted to no one but which consumed me each morning as I sat down to write.

I found his office door, and gathering my courage, opened it to find the revered screenwriter across the room, sitting behind a heavy wooden desk loaded with stuff – papers, small disparate objects, books, screenplays. I was immediately struck by how attractive he was. About 50 when we first met, he had a New England face composed of angles and planes. His hair was graying and full and unruly. It was his eyes which reassured me though – they were kind and held sadness.

He introduced himself and motioned to a small sofa positioned against a wall. I sat down and watched him rummage through his over laden desk for my screenplay.

“I liked the blackbirds,” he said, his eyes sorting through the mess in front of him. “They were unexpected.” And then he looked up at me, “I always like to be surprised when I read.”

The blackbirds were a detail, a small moment in a hundred and twenty page script about a teenager who is sent to prison for essentially being stupid and drifting along with a boy who was up to no good. In prison she begins an affair with a guard and gives birth to a baby behind bars. It was a true story I had spent months researching — meeting the girl, spending time in each of the three prisons she lived in, traveling the state in which all this had happened. I had made sure to put into the script as many of the real details as I could. I was convinced they made the story authentic and were far better than anything I could conjure up. But the screenwriter glossed over all that to focus on one of the scenes I had invented — “Tell me about the birds.”

I described pulling up outside the first prison set in a vast, flat landscape of marshes and seeing the large birds – they might have been crows — spread out across the empty land, and how I thought to put them in an early scene when the boy and girl first meet. What if I had the boy throw rocks at the birds and the girl stops him and the birds fly up in the air in alarm? Wouldn’t you learn something about those two people?

His eyes never left my face as I spoke. “Okay,” he said, “you need to get that kind of life into the rest of the screenplay.” But how, I wanted to ask but didn’t. The how was my job.

Instead he asked me questions – “Why does this girl go along with this boy when she knows he’s bad news? Why does she start up with the guard who fathers her child? Does she fall in love with him? How does she find the courage to sue the state to keep her child?” I answered the ones I could and told him I’d think about the others.

The hour passed so quickly, and the questions themselves seemed, somehow, to point the way for me. I stood up, mindful that my allotted time was over, and thanked him.

And then he astonished me by saying, “You need to rewrite the beginning, up to those birds, and bring those pages back to me next week.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t ask you to take any more of your time —“

“Do you think I’m going to let you write a wonderful script…”

I am?

“ … and not be part of it?”

What? I was speechless.

“Next week. Does the same time work for you?”

I nodded, dumbfounded by his generosity.

And so I came back the next week and the week after that and the week after that, always with fresh, tentative pages I had struggled over in the intervening days. He would read them and we would talk. He never told me what to write and I never heard a word of criticism, only what he liked or what he wanted to know more about. We worked together for almost a year, just the two of us, in that small office at Fox, in that way. That was the only time we saw each other, the only time we talked. And what we talked about was the work.

There was something very akin to raising a child in what we were doing. We were nurturing this entity, our script, into being; understanding it in ways no one else could, loving it because we were nurturing it. There’s an intimacy to that kind of work.

But there was more, and here it gets even trickier to describe. We fell a little bit in love with each other during that year. But why? What was the particular alchemy which created first interest (why did he agree to work with me?), then trust (why could I willingly give him every meager, hard won page of script every week and know it would be received with care?), and then finally a very particular kind of love between us?

I don’t have a good answer. But isn’t that the way of love? It’s impossible to describe to others but is indisputably known to the participants.

If I had to put a label on the whole process, I would say he had mentored me and I had learned well. He had held a steadfast belief that I would find a way to write something “surprising” and worthy and so I had.

At the end of the year, we had a new screenplay. I turned the script into the company and the movie was eventually made. But that was the least important part of it all. What my screenwriter had given me far outweighed the modest movie which was made from my script.

There was a moment towards the end of our time together when we argued over the necessity of a comma in a line of dialogue. For close to twenty minutes! As we went back and forth, I realized there was more at stake than the comma. I was declaring ownership of the work, because here I was defending the placement of a comma. A comma! That was the moment I finally knew who I was — a writer, a writer who had just produced this script and it was good, just the way it was.

Over the next few years, he got married and then I did. I had my daughter. Both our lives got busier, more crowded, but we knew that we could always reach out to the other. And always, it was about the work.

Our roles changed a bit. He sent me screenplays he was working on to read and talk with him about. I continued to send him my work from time to time, when I was struggling or, sometimes, simply when I was proud. Gratitude became part of our equation, both of us supremely grateful to have the other to call on, to know that despite whatever else happened in our lives, which we rarely talked about, rarely shared, we would be the constant for the other. Over thirty years later, it is still about the work.

I understood that absolutely one night a year or so ago. I had had my first book published, a collection of short stories, and was having a reading in Santa Monica, blocks from his house. Now my revered screenwriter is in his late eighties and lives alone after the death of his wife. I invited him to the reading but didn’t expect him to show up. He didn’t like to leave the house, that I knew. He had read the book and loved the stories. He had communicated all that to me. That was enough.

But as the small crowd filtered into the room, I looked up from the lectern to see a distinguished older man, handsome still, sporting a cane now, and smiling tentatively as he stood at the back of the room. He had come! It had been so many years since I had seen him. Emails had replaced visits and phone calls and then, there he was.

“You came?!” I said as I embraced him. “You surprised me and came!”

He understood immediately the reference – to the blackbirds, to the beginning of our relationship – and his smile broadened.

“Of course I came,” he said as he returned my embrace, “You did such good work.”

— Salon.com


Jacob Hodges Review from Nebula of Books

 

Isabelle is a senior in college and an aspiring writer so when an opportunity to be personally mentored by published author Daniel Jablonski opens up, she jumps on it. Rumored to be crass, distancing, and withdrawn, Isabelle is initially hesitant about their meetings but soon the two warm up to each other once Daniel realizes Isabelle has quite the gift. He helps her pen the first three chapters in her novel but graduation comes around and she moves away and he is laid off from his position at the college. Over time, her life takes many twists and turns, and he bounces from college to college across the country with his son, Stefan, until he ends up in New Hampshire and her in Oakland. They continue to communicate via e-mail over the years but things aren't the same due to time and distance.

If the premise seems rather anticlimactic, trust me, its not. This book is more of a fictional biography than it is about a singular event in someone's life. Beautifully written with patience and urgency, this novel took me completely off guard (which is pretty ironic given the title of the book). Even though this is Goldstone's first novel, she seems like she is in control the entire time.

There wasn't anything about this book that jumped out, no huge twists or turns, but the characters were so likable and believable, that I couldn't put it down. There were a few moments throughout the book where I wanted to reach through the pages and grab Isabelle and ask what in the world is she thinking?!?, but I realized that some of the choices she makes have been made by myself in similar situations. I think that's why this book emanated with me so well is because the characters are simply so believable. Once I finished it, I thought to myself, "Wow, I can't believe I'm done already". And that's the beauty of a good book, to be so enraptured by a tale that outside life has no relevance. Goldstone did just exactly that.

I really enjoyed everything about this book from the opening sequence of her meeting Daniel for the first time all the way to the conclusion. I won't spoil it for you, but the ending was very nicely done. Goldstone provided perfect closure to this part of Isabelle's life. Even the minor characters had a sense of finale to them.

– Nubula of Books


Claludia's Review from Goodreads

 

A bittersweet debut novel, Surprise Me is an unconventional love story about two writers who see more in each other than they see in themselves, and how that faith transforms them.

Daniel is a novelist that after two very successful books and, 2 failed marriages, starts giving tutorials at a college in California. Isabelle is on her senior year and always wanted to be a writer and one of his students. After one semester, they are connected by the love of writing, respect for each other and a very strong connection.

For the next 20 years, even living in different states, they reach out to each other through e-mails, phone calls, and visits.

I couldn’t put this book down, I wanted something different at the end, but, would be too predictable. I cried at the end and I wish Daniel could have a better and happier life.

– Goodreads


Janet St. John review from Booklist

 

Goldstone (Tell Me One Thing, 2014) covers the 20-year friendship and correspondence between a teacher and a student in her first novel. As they meet on a northern California college campus, the settings Goldstone describes initially symbolize the ways curmudgeonly, seemingly washed-up fiction writer Daniel and naïve, apprehensive student Isabelle are both trapped. Daniel is an agoraphobic with failed marriages and two resentful grown children, Isabelle is bound by her parents’ judgments and expectations. At first, Daniel is unimpressed with Isabelle’s writing, but his challenges and her hard work to meet them eventually reveal her talent and reignite his own creativity. A gap in backgrounds, ages, and personalities makes the two unlikely friends, let alone lovers. But through writing they find a common language and intuitive, mutual understanding. Surprise Me is a realistic story of the astonishing ways two people can forever make an imprint on each other’s lives.

– Booklist

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