Several months back I was approached for an interview by a writer from New York named Elizabeth Goodman who was working on a biography about Cat Power singer/songwriter Chan Marshall. Shortly before our interview Goodman had learned that Marshall wasn't very happy about the book being written and had sent out a word-of-mouth kibosh of sorts.
After that, many of the people who were close to Marshall clammed up and reluctant to tell their stories about Chan when she was still living in Atlanta, on her way up as a musician. This kind of resistance seems like it would have killed the book where it stood, but in April, Goodman's Cat Power A Good Woman appeared on book store walls across the country.
Chad Radford: Is this your first book?
Elizabeth Goodman: Yeah, its my first book and its a good feeling to have it done. You only write your first book once, so its a great feeling to have it out and see it right there in front of you.
How have the reviewers been treating you?
Reviews have been great so far and I feel fortunate that it has been so well received. The Kirkus review in particular was really great because the guy who wrote it was really into the stuff about New York in the 90s and was excited to get a sound, sense, taste and smell of that era. Its hard to bring that to life. It's especially hard when I think about it in terms of Atlanta and Cabbagetown. Not only was I not there, but I cant go back to it. Its not just about visiting the place, its about capturing a time. That's true for the New York section as well, and I wasnt here then either, so its nice to hear that I was able to bring that back to life as well.
Any harsh criticisms yet?
Im sure thats coming. I havent heard anything yet, but I suspect that those who have those kinds of opinions about the book are less inclined to share them with me. Unless theyre out to wound. Im sure that there are people who arent madly crushed out on the book, and my only hope is that there are significantly fewer of them than the ones who are enjoying it.
Glen Thrasher read it before me and told me that I was quoted trashing Cat Power. He later reneged, but in the meantime I looked it up and I like my quotes that you used.
I thought you sounded quite sophisticated and savvy.
Thanks! Obviously the first line, Chan Marshall doesnt want you to read this book grabs your attention.
Yeah, the introduction speaks for itself.
Even when I met you the book was in a much different place in terms of her objection to it. The objection became more and more vocal as the writing went on. Initially, if I had known that she was going to be as opposed to it Well, I cant really know what I would have done had I known how she felt about it, but I would have changed my take on writing it in the first place. But I didnt, and I feel like the introduction to the book is a good opportunity to get a sense of how the story came together from beginning to end. I know that shes opposed to it and for a long time that was really upsetting to me, but I know that I wrote the same book that I would have in terms of telling her actual story, that I would have if I had her on my speed dial or if she was really upset with me. The story itself isnt all that changed by her objections other than there are some people that I wasnt able to talk to. Beyond that, the introduction is the only place where that is addressed.
The introduction is the most compelling part of the book, because youre hitting really close to the nerve. Did you worry about it coming off as stalkerish?
There are plenty of Chan stalkers out there, but no. Im a journalist. I feel confident in that the methods that I used to research and report this book are the same methods that I use to research and report stories for all of the magazines for which Ive written, and they are honest, the quotes are accurate and everything was done by the book.
The concerns that I have with the introduction were more present before I wrote it. It was the last thing that I wrote and I didnt want it to be like this. I spent a lot of time over compensating for the resistance I was getting, like some sort of abused wife syndrome or something. It was like I was saying its okay that this is happening, and it doesnt mean anything when it comes to her story, it's just the back story of how the book is coming together.
In the end I realized that a lot of the pieces about the writing of the book were really revealing about her character, which is ultimately what a biography is all about, and giving fans and people who love this persons work a look at who they are. Im sure it will horrify her, but the way that she approached the writing of this book did tell me things about who she is, and the writing of the introduction was a way of telling a more accurate version of the story.
Before I wrote the introduction I felt uneasy about the whole thing, like something wasnt right, I wasnt getting it, I wasnt telling the whole story yet, or that there was a piece missing. But after I wrote it I thought yeah, this is it. This is the book, so I think that made it more accurate.
Any feedback from Chan since the book came out?
No, and I dont expect to hear from her, but thats fine. It goes without saying that it troubled me that she was as upset by this as she was, and one of the things that concerned me when I first wrote the introduction was that people were going to think that there was this really wild and scathing story being told here, and there isnt. This is the story of what happened to me when I was writing this book, but I dont want people to think its some sort of expose of the secret dark side of this artist. The book is the biography that I researched and reported with the interviews that I was able to get by going to Atlanta and South Carolina and being here in New York. Thats the story. If people are expecting a dark and aggressively exploitative telling of her tale, theyre going to be disappointed. The thing that I wonder about most is what it is that she really finds so threatening about whats now in print and in book stores.
Part of what we are so fascinated with when it comes to Cat Power and Chan Marshall is the mystery. There is a quote from Greil Marcus in the book that says her music exists behind a scrim. That really resonated with me and I think it carries over into her personality, and from what I have gleaned it seems to have carried over into her interpersonal relationships with other people. There is a sense of a mystery that needs protecting. In many ways that is way more interesting than whatever is actually behind the curtain.
Throughout the book, you refer to her by her first name, but everyone else is referred to by their last name. Why did you make that choice?
When youre dealing with people who have the same last name, like talking about her father, for example, its Marshall this and Marshall that. I was talking about them both in several instances and on multiple pages I thought why dont I just call her Chan. Its about her, shes the main character,' and this is a way of distinguishing her as one step removed. It wasnt a calculated move, it was just a way of distinguishing between her and her dad in certain paragraphs.
It also goes without saying that his is an artist who has really made her career out of a deep, almost uncomfortably vulnerable sense of intimacy between her and her fans and when you talk to fans about her, they call her Chan, and thats not a weird thing. They feel very close to her and I know that this is part of what shes troubled by. In many ways Im empathetic to her situation. People do feel abnormally close to her and there is that kind of real deep intimacy that her music inspires. The point is that a lot of people who are reading this book are already in love with her or her music and are already inspired by her life, so it seemed to fit to refer to her by her first name.
Dave Matthews fans refer to him as Dave
There you go. Dave and Chan, who knew that they had so much in common
Are you going to do a book tour?
I dont know. Its a small book. Its a modest enterprise and the audience is very specific. The reason I wanted to write this book is not just because I love Cat Powers music. Her story transcends the bounds of her art, and I hope this comes across. There are so many Cat Power fans out there and if they read this and get something out of it, that would be fantastic. But I also hope that people who arent fanatical about her or her music are able to read it and get something out of it. For me her story is really moving and compelling. So even though Im saying I dont know about the book tour, I really am hoping that its reach goes beyond music bio.
Have you ever picked up a music bio and been completely moved or inspired by it?
God, thats a really good question. The Peter Guralnik Elvis bio is pretty frakin' moving. I think that book is like a great novel, and thats what you aim for. Its hard to make someones life story go beyond why they are famous. I certainly have read music bios and found the characters within to be more inspiring than the music.
I have had people read the book and tell me that it made them feel really sad, and at first I thought, gosh, Im sorry. But then I thought no, thats good! An emotional reaction is a good reaction.
I read a lot about her uncle and the Christmas Carols that they used to sing, but really, I dont even know some of my own family members, or their stories as well as I know Chans uncle after reading your book.
One thing that I learned from writing this book is that you tell the story thats available to you. I made choices in what I used and in who I even perused to talk to for the book. There were a lot of limitations, some imposed by her and some imposed by circumstance. There are some people that you can talk to and some that you cant, and it doesnt even really matter why, but the story that you tell is the one that is there after 50-some interviews, and you look at it all and make the choice of what gets told. I put a lot of emphasis on Chans childhood because I think thats the part we know the least about. Even when youre talking about New York in the 90s there were people who knew her, and it was documented. But when it comes to what Chan was like when she was a little girl, and what her bedroom looked like and what kind of music she liked, it is something that a very limited number of people have access to. She has been the only one who is kind of telling that story. In fact, that was one of the things that Myra [Chan's mother] really wanted to talk about before she decided that she was very displeased with me. Her eagerness to talk before she spoke with Chan, was that Chan is the only one who gets to talk about her childhood. Myra expressed to me that she would like to tell her stories too. For me it was a no-brainer. This is the part about her life that no one really knows anything about, so this is what I want to focus on. In terms of her uncle specifically, any of the people who arent her immediate parents, I wanted a sense of what she was like as a teenager, and I wanted to get as complete a picture of that as I could. Her dad, who I talked to extensively, didnt live with her for many of those years, so there were some holes in that part of her life that he couldnt fill in.
Any word from Myra?
She did tell you that she reads everything thats written about Chan.
Yes she did. You know, the book is accurately reported and its complete to the extent that it tells the story that was made available to me, both through my own efforts and the efforts of the subject. I feel pretty confident about that and I would love to hear what Myra thinks about the book. But based on the conversations that weve had so far, Im not expecting to hear from her, and if I do, Im not expecting to hear overly positive things, but so it goes.
Childhood aside I have to imagine that it was hard for you to delve into her time in Atlanta and Cabbagetown. Not only were you receiving staunch opposition, but that era wasnt very well documented.
Yeah, it was intimidating. Obviously the Cabbagetown scene was more insular and less documented than New York in the 1990s, but that was difficult as well. Im sure there are people who feel that there are things that I missed; certain details, or maybe I missed something about its character. But the way I feel about that is, again, this is the story that was made available to me. Again, I came to Atlanta and the people who had the front row seats to that era were given the opportunity to speak for the book. Those who chose to became important voices in articulating that time and bringing it to a larger audience who wasnt there. Those who chose not to, arent. I think in some cases thats to the detriment of the story. The whole Cabbagetown thing is worthy of its own book.
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