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A Conversation with Judy Goldman

Q: Early Leaving unfolds through the perspective of Kathryne Smallwood, who probes every detail of her son’s past in an effort to uncover what she could have done to save him. She shoulders much of the blame for his actions. Is your book a cautionary tale for parents?

A: I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale. I don’t believe we should write a novel because we think we have something important to say. We write novels because we have questions. Can a mother love her child too much? How much of a role do parents play in how their children “turn out” and how much is due to larger forces? I tell beginning writers to write about what keeps them up at night. These are the questions that can preoccupy me at three A.M. All that protective worry – does it ever go away?

Q: A recent New York Times column by David Brooks discussed how the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers, while acknowledging the horrible crime their son had committed, were still fiercely loyal toward him. Brooks asked a question you confront head-on in EARLY LEAVING: “If your child commits a crime like that, what do you do with the rest of your life?”

How would you respond personally to that? How would Kathryne?

A: What do any parents do with the rest of their lives after their child does something that goes against all of their values? Our children can become disappointingly “other.” They can fall into error, suddenly, a single event irrevocably leading to a new fate

Whether our children are taking their first wobbly steps or walking down the aisle, our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job. We must prepare our children for life without us. And we must prepare ourselves for life without our children. It’s a delicate balance – letting our children know we’re there when they need us and not letting our happiness depend on their happiness.

Near the end of my book, Kathryne’s friend, Joy, tells her, “Well, we all could’ve been better parents. But we have to make sure our guilt over what we did or didn’t do for our children isn’t just allowing us to carry the burden for them...”

My husband used to say this wonderful thing when our children were going through hard times: “It’s okay. Here’s their chance to have a rough go of it and see that they can come out on the other side. It’s how children gain self-confidence.” Kathryne finally decides she must let go because she has no choice. She says she has known the worst and suffered for it, but realizes it’s not too late to turn everything around. Her future is no longer tied to her son’s future, and she can now become an active participant in her own life.

Q: In EARLY LEAVING and your previous novel, The Slow Way Back, you explore the complex themes of love, loyalty, trust and betrayal within a family. What compels you to write about family relationships?

A: What interests me about family are the ways we connect, disconnect, reconnect. I love how resilient families are, how anything is possible, how change can take place, change we never thought could happen in a lifetime – both within individual family members and between family members. My basic feeling about family is hopeful, optimistic.

Q: Before you turned to fiction writing, you were an accomplished poet with two published books of poetry. How does your background in poetry affect the creative process of your novels?

A: It makes writing a novel very slow going! Poets-turned-novelists tend to pick. We look for the rightness of every single word; we study a word or sentence or paragraph a hundred or 200 times as though that huge gorilla of a novel we’re trying to wrestle down is merely a two-stanza poem.

Being a former poet also means I’m page-obsessed. The length and breadth of a novel scare me to death. When I started my first novel, acquaintances would stop me in the grocery store and ask what I was working on. I always said, “I’m writing a 206-page novel.” I had checked the NY Times Book Review several Sundays in a row and found the shortest novel that could still be called a novel was 206 pages. This is how I made a daunting task appear less daunting.

Q: You were born in South Carolina and now live in Charlotte, North Carolina. Do you consider yourself to be a Southern writer? How do you see yourself within the tradition of Southern writing?

A: If it means I’m keeping company with Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Conner, yes, I’m a Southern writer! That’s like being born into a family that’s absolutely stellar and even though you had nothing to do with the facts of your birth, you use that connection for all it’s worth.

Because I have great affection – and nostalgia -- for my hometown, I will make sure at least one character in every novel I write is from Rock Hill. It’s my way of paying tribute to that town in South Carolina where I was born and raised -- which means I get to indulge myself with all those sweet and tender memories of childhood.

I love being Southern. I never want to lose my soft vowels. But I don’t want the fact that I’ve lived here all my life (except for two years after college in NYC) to limit me. Plus, I’m not sure there’s even such a thing as a Southern writer. Isn’t it true that regardless of whether we claim the Carolinas or the Dakotas home, we’re all just writing about what Faulkner called the “human heart in conflict with itself”?

Q: You teach writing workshops all over the country. What advice would you give beginning writers?

A: Each of us has a story. If we’re truly lucky, maybe we even have more than one story. Your job is to find the one only you can tell. Find that story and begin.

Q: What advice would you give people your age?

A: My first novel was published a month before my 58th birthday. I had decided to try writing fiction when I was 53. That’s old! As the years passed and I was still working on that novel, I clung to a quote from the writer, Fred Chappell: “You have to write as though you have all the time in the world.” I remember thinking, Will I be able to take my laptop to the nursing home? Can I still write if I become incontinent?

Here’s what keeps me going: I believe it’s important for all of us as we grow older – but particularly women – to keep taking on new challenges. Whether we’re 33, 53 or 73, we must force ourselves to try new things. We have to decide what we want to do next and try. It’s the trying that counts.

The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of EARLY LEAVING by Judy Goldman.


1. Kathryne’s best friend, Joy, says, “We’re only as happy as our unhappiest child.” Can a mother love her child too much? When does a mother’s normal concern for her child’s well-being become an abnormal dependency on her child’s happiness?

2. What advice would you give Kathryne when Early is a child? When he’s a teen-ager?

3. Kathryne idolizes her mother, although she knows that “some people spend their lives railing against the way they were raised, every action a reaction to their parents, a fierce determination to do the opposite with their own children.” In what ways do you parent like your parents? In what ways are you different? If you do not have children, would you consider your own parents permissive?

4. With whom do you identify more - Kathryne or Peter? How did each of their childhoods contribute to the people they became?

5. How responsible is Peter for Early’s downfall?

6. Kathryne enlarges photographs of Peter and herself, then mounts them on cardboard to use as masks for Joy’s New Year’s Eve Mardi Gras party. Kathryne thinks it “would be funny to use our own faces to create an illusion.” In what ways is Kathryne’s life an illusion? How does this fit with her love of movies?

7. How is Early dependent on Chip? How is Chip dependent on Early?

8. Must we all eventually come to terms with our limits in combating injustice? Do you agree with Peter that “we may want to do the right thing, but sometimes our own self-interest takes over”?

9. Are Kathryne and Phyllis bound to one another? Explain.

10. How inevitable was it that Peter would end up marrying Ann? Is this part of his growth, or evidence of a lack of growth?

11. What is the significance of the title, Early Leaving? In what ways does Early leave his mother? In what ways does Kathryne leave her son?

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