Letters are the building blocks of language, and among the 26 in the English language a seemingly inexhaustible combination can be assembled to form words. Those words must seem larger than life to the 248 contestants who competed in this week's 73rd annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. For Myla Goldberg, this contest is an epiphany, but not because she's a competitor.
The 28-year-old Laurel native lived, ate and breathed spelling bees for almost two years while writing "Bee Season." Her first novel, released May 4, has generated a buzz in publications as disparate as Publisher's Weekly, People, USA Today and Newsweek. This week she comes full circle with the finals of the bee.
"It's really weird being here, coming back to the origins of the story," says Goldberg, who was last in Washington in 1997. "It's exactly the same, really intense. It still takes me a half an hour to acclimate myself and not feel bad when the kids miss a word."
"Bee Season's" protagonist is 9-year-old Eliza Naumann, long stigmatized "as a student from whom great things should not be expected," but who is stunning everyone, especially her parents, with her newfound gift for stellar spelling. Goldberg, a self-affirmed "language freak," offers a layered narrative of the impact of words on the shifting dynamics of the Naumann family.
"For Eliza, each letter has an identity. It's an aesthetic sense of the word that's entirely divorced from what it means. Each word tells a story," explains Goldberg. The words become characters with pivotal roles as they assume physical form before Eliza's closed eyelids -- appearing as credits would on a movie screen -- to help her win bee after bee.
Goldberg's idea for the book came from a friend who related her experience with spelling bees and its effects on her life and family. "What clicked for me was the realization, on hearing her talk, about people and their expectations. What resonated with me was that ultimately we fail," says Goldberg. She saw in the bee "a larger example, a metaphor, for all our attempts at greatness. It's a great compact version of everyone's childhood."
This vision of childhood is fraught with anxiety as the hopes and dreams of parents are transmitted from the sidelines to their offspring. Words become finite means to win rather than the means by which communication is enhanced. Goldberg's novel illuminates that disconnect, but it also celebrates the essential beauty of language.
"Right off the bat I was impressed by her use of language," says Amy Scheibe, who is Goldberg's editor at Doubleday and was also visiting Washington for the spelling finals. "After being here, I think her depiction is pretty darn accurate. It's absolutely riveting. Having read her book, I feel like I've been here before.
"These children aren't psycho spellers," Scheibe says. "From their bios, they seem well-rounded. There's definite disappointment, but no one's thrown a fit."
This year's winner, in fact, had lost in the national finals twice before. For 12-year-old George Abraham Thampy of Missouri, the third time was the charm when he spelled "demarche" right.
Goldberg's love of language carried her from Laurel and a Greenbelt magnet high school to the American hinterlands. "Growing up, I felt I didn't fit in. I was the nerdy kid with an overactive imagination," she says.
In Ohio, she found a place she could fit in among the eclectic and intellectually curious denizens of Oberlin College. Tucked among rows of cornfields, it's the type of place you might miss if you blinked. Yet it provided her with a fertile environment in which to pursue a variety of interests. It was here that she wrote and directed a one-act play, learned to play steel drums and solidified her resolve to be a writer after taking a course in Jewish mysticism.
"The idea of words having that kind of power was meaningful for me," says Goldberg, who was raised in a religious household, although she admits she's not a religious person. "In Hebrew, when you write the Torah on parchment, it has to be done perfectly. If you make a mistake, you have to throw away what you have and start all over again."
Goldberg still cringes when she sees spellers who know they've misspelled their word but have to continue to the bitter end. "That bell signaling their exit takes on an atomic 1950s sci-fi importance," she says.
After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1993, she spent a year teaching English in Prague before returning to the United States and settling in New York. Unable to eke out a 9-to-5 existence ("I don't play well with others," she says), she sustained herself week to week as a free-lance reader of potential made-for-television movies. This allowed her time to write. Her first attempt at a novel landed her an agent who helped push "Bee Season" to fruition.