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LYNN NEARY, host:

Murder, madness, unbridled passion. It's the stuff of romance novels. But Robert Goolrick's new book, "A Reliable Wife," is more complex than that. Sure, Goolrick makes good use of some familiar literary types: the lonely wealthy man with dark secrets in his past, the expected arrival of a prim proper woman who will change his life and share his mansion in the middle of nowhere. But the mail order bride, who steps off the train as the book begins, is no Jane Eyre. She is a beauty and a liar with her own dark secrets and her own sinister plans.

In his first novel, Goolrick, who until now has been best known for his memoir, "The End of the World as We Know It," has spun a tale that will keep many a reader turning the pages late at night to find out what happens next. He joins us now from our New York bureau. Good to have you with us, Mr. Goolrick.

Mr. ROBERT GOOLRICK (Author, "A Reliable Wife"): Thank you very much.

NEARY: Now, I know that in writing this book you were inspired by another book, "Wisconsin Death Trip." Can you tell us a little bit more about that book and how did it influence the writing of this one?

Mr. GOOLRICK: "Wisconsin Death Trip" was published 35 years ago. It's by a man named Michael Lesy. It's a collection of photographs and newspaper accounts of the life of a small town in Wisconsin, Black River Falls in 1896. The pictures are of ordinary everyday people. The accounts are in general about people going crazy, people going into states of religious fanaticism, drowning their children, burning their barns, killing their animals. The town was a hotbed of craziness. And here they were locked in the middle of nowhere. We always had this notion that pastoral life at the end of the 19th century was calm and beautiful and serene. And Lesy says it wasn't that way at all.

NEARY: And, of course, one of your characters, Ralph Truitt, lives in a place like this and is himself kind of obsessed with this idea of madness around him.

Mr. GOOLRICK: Well, he lives in a town that bears his name. And all of the people in the town either work for him or don't work at all. He takes on the weight of the lives of the people around him. And of course he's alone. He's an observer. So he has plenty of time to look and take in all the craziness that's going on around him.

NEARY: You know, as I was reading the book and I wondered about all these references to rural madness, you know. And part of me was thinking, well, how can there be so much madness in this sparsely populated place? And I wonder what drew you to this whole idea, what - why you're so fascinated with that concept?

Mr. GOOLRICK: I grew up in the south in the country and one thing you learned was any eccentricities that happened in your own town were kind of okay. They were sort of accepted. Any eccentricities that happened in the big cities were considered evil and immoral. But when it happens to one of our own, then it was kind of endearing. So you grow up with people's foibles in a little town. I wanted in this novel for the characters to be placed in as remote a setting as possible. I wanted them to be totally locked in.

So in this book they are locked in by the weather. They are locked in by the location. And they are also locked in by time. The book takes place in 1907, but it's not an historical novel. It just happens to distance them from us, so that they are even more alone in time than they would be if the novel were contemporary.

NEARY: I wanted you to read a section of the book. And I'd like you to read the section where Ralph Truitt meets Catherine Land, his mail order bride for the first time. He's waiting for her at a train station. And he realizes - he has a photo of her - and he realizes that this woman, Catherine Land, is not the woman in the photo.

Mr. GOOLRICK: But this woman was not expected. He was angry. He was confused. He had read her letter until it fell apart in his hands. He had looked at her picture a thousand times. Now it was clear she wasn't the woman in the photograph. And he had no idea who she might be. His relation to every person in the town rested on the fact that he had complete control over everything that happened to him - now this wild thing, the train late, the blinding snow, this woman. He had wanted a simple honest woman, a quiet life. A life in which everything could be saved and nobody went insane.

NEARY: Now, Catherine Land, the woman at the center of this story probably is the most compelling character in the book, I think. How did you find this woman's voice? How did you get inside her head?

Mr. GOOLRICK: I'm fascinated by the notion of women and property. And what they will do to get it. My mother grew up in a generation in which women took care of things but didn't really own things. And I was always kind of struck by that. And I wanted Catherine to be greedy, yes, but greedy for a substantial reason. She literally has nothing. And she wants something of her own. And the easiest name she can put to it is money. And the less ephemeral name that she puts to it is love. She says she can't live without love or money. And she goes after Ralph because she believes that she can get both of what she - both of these things in one man.

NEARY: And does he know it, do you think, at the moment that he sees her?

Mr. GOOLRICK: No. He's too hopeful. And it says about Ralph that he has spent 20 years being hopeless. And it says you can only be hopeless for so long before you were in fact hopeless. And he is hopeless. And he has suddenly come to want this one thing, a simple honest woman, a quiet life. And he feels foolish in his hope, but nevertheless, hope persists. Even though he knows she is a liar, he wants somehow to make it work. He wants - he believes by a force of will he can make this work.

NEARY: There's a lot in this book about sexual obsession, as well. What pulled you to that as a subject?

Mr. GOOLRICK: There are two reasons. One is I find modern contemporary fiction to be not nearly central enough. It's very cerebral and it's beautifully voiced, but there's very little physicality to it. And I remember hearing Roy Blount, the Southern writer, say once, I'm talking the way it feels good in my mouth. And I wanted to write the way it felt good, not just in my mind, but in my body. So I think it has a kind of physical sense to it, a kind of palpability.

NEARY: It almost has an overwrought kind of feeling at moments.

Mr. GOOLRICK: Well, life is lush. Life is a very sensual thing. In my first book, in my memoir, it says everything is sensual and I believe that - a white T-shirt, a glass of water, an Indian meal. Everything should taste and smell and feel.

NEARY: Well, without giving away the ending, the book ends just as spring is about to come.

Mr. GOOLRICK: Withered the spring, rebirth, redemption. It's a bad redemption.

NEARY: And it is for these characters.

Mr. GOOLRICK: I think that the only thing that matters in life, and I'm not young, and I've had a lot of time to think about this, the only thing that matters is goodness. And I was interested in writing a novel about people who were not good, who were not likeable on the sort of most elemental level and trying to see if they could find some kind of goodness in life, in each other, in the world.

NEARY: Well, and you take readers right to the point where they don't know, they really don't know, whether the characters are going to turn good or bad. I mean, that's the page turning part of it. You're really not quite sure.

Mr. GOOLRICK: I think for all of us that that moment is always constant. We are always capable of doing something terrible. We are always capable of doing something good. In Catherine and Ralph's case, it is almost beyond their control what happened. But they hope, and they try and they struggle for something they can't even put a name to. And I believe that that thing is goodness of the heart.

NEARY: Robert Goolrick, his new novel is "A Reliable Wife." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for coming in, Robert. It was great talking to you.

Mr. GOOLRICK: Thank you for having me.

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