Novel is honest about illegal abortions

Myla Goldberg
Myla Goldberg photo: Courtesy of Goldberg; collage by Kveller

Author Myla Goldberg is back with “Feast Your Eyes,” a beautiful and compelling novel about a female photographer who grapples with being a mom and an artist.

The novel is structured as catalog notes from an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s a retrospective focused on Lillian, a street photographer; the 118 notes describe the photograph and are written from the perspective of her daughter, interwoven with oral histories from Lillian’s friends, lovers and peers.

Set in the 1950s through the early 1970s, “Feast Your Eyes” is, at its core, a story of mothers and daughters. In this fictional world, Lillian shot to infamy for an image of herself and her daughter, Samantha, after Lillian gets an illegal abortion. We won’t dive too much into the plot because you should really read the book yourself. However, Goldberg’s frank address of abortion, particularly the challenges of abortions in pre-Roe v. Wade America, makes “Feast Your Eyes” feel particularly suited for our
current moment.

What inspired you to write about a street photographer?

I lovingly call [the book] my “midlife crisis” novel. It started with [questions] I’ve been grappling with ever since I had children. My oldest is now 15, and ever since I started on the whole process of parenthood, I was always kind of grappling, as we all do, on how to balance the different things in our lives. My artistic ambitions and aspirations are demanding of a certain amount of time and
attention — as are small mammals, who require care and feeding! So this book kind of started with just me asking the question, are there any examples of brilliant artists who are also brilliant parents? Can you be both? That was a starting point.

I knew I wanted to write about a female artist and explore that question through that lens. And then, I can’t draw to save my life, but I’m a very visually oriented person. I’m a very visual thinker, and I’ve always been fascinated by photography. I think because it seems the closest in my grasp; I can’t draw, but I can click a shutter. Like, I can do that, couldn’t I? [Laughs]

The photographs you describe in the book feel so real. How did you conjure up those images? Were you looking at images?

Yeah, I stole pretty much all of those. [Laughs] The great thing about working with images in words is you can take anything. Cause if I’m describing it, it’s not like I’m using the actual photo.

What real-life photographers did you draw inspiration from for Lillian’s work?

In the back of the book, in the acknowledgements, I give a gigantic list. So when I say “steal,” I wasn’t stealing as in anonymous theft. All art is about borrowing and making it your own. And so, I always think it’s really important to credit where credit is due, and to just acknowledge everyone. The two biggies were Vivian Maier and Garry Winogrand. Running a close second would be Louis Faurer and Helen Levitt. And Sally Mann was massive, and Diane Arbus.

How did your relationship with your daughters, and your career, influence Lillian’s story? Can a woman can be a brilliant mom and a brilliant artist?

For me, coming into parenthood, I definitely felt a sense of competition between my time with my kids and my time with my work. And so there was a long state where I thought they were in conflict with one another. I don’t know if it was through the course of writing the book, or me continuing to grow
and learn as a parent, [but] I realized that they actually exist in congress with one another. The parenting I was doing makes me a better human, and also a better artist. When you’re a better human, you’re a better artist.

The photo that causes the most drama in the novel isn’t a “street” photograph but a self-portrait of Lillian just after she had an illegal abortion, and abortion drives much of the plot. What was your research process like learning about abortions in the pre-Roe v. Wade era?

There’s a wonderful, horrible book called “The Choices We Made,” and that was basically the touchstone for my writing on abortions. It’s a collection of personal essays about women talking about their illegal abortions. And they’re all famous, and they’re not anonymous. They’re like: This is me, hi, this is my abortion. It drew a very clear line between being ambitious, being a woman and having an abortion. It was kinda what you did because it was the only way you made sure you didn’t have to give up anything in that era. It was so heartbreaking, but also inspiring. A lot of the information I drew, I drew from that book.

This article originally appeared on Kveller.

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