Rebecca Newberger Goldstein oscillates seamlessly between disciplines; she received a MacArthur genius grant for her philosophical fiction and has written acclaimed biographies of Gödel and Spinoza. Her latest book, “Plato at the Googleplex,” imagines the dialectician in the present day. She lives in Boston with her husband, Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker.
GOING UP: We live in a loft downtown in the Leather District, and my so-called study is a decommissioned freight elevator. It’s really awesome — it’s got gears! However, I don’t really work in it. It’s piled up with books, and I’m so messy when I work that I wanted to be hidden away. My work bleeds into my whole life and into the whole loft. I tend to wander with my laptop, and I work a lot in the living room [because] I hate the feeling of going into my study and doing my work — it’s so confining.
LABOR PAIN: I always have fun. I’m not a disciplined person, not at all; I just like having a good time. Once a project starts, I can work constantly. Before I remarried, that’s what I did. When I was working on a book, I’d work 18 hours a day. I got myself some terrific back problems because I forgot to move. Now that I have something of a life, I can’t do that, but left to my own devices, that’s what I would do, and it’s true whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT: I have two children. They’re grown now, but when they were younger and living at home, it was very difficult. They grew up to be writers themselves; one’s a novelist [Yael Goldstein Love] and one’s a poet [Danielle Blau], and I think I was lucky because they thought it was cool that I was so distracted. Sometimes they’d get annoyed with me, like when I packed their lunch with everything except for the sandwich, and I always forgot the last day of school before summer vacation. It was much harder then. Now I’m responsible for nobody, so it’s much easier to be obsessive.
STUDY BUDDIES: Steve has his office in an open area, and I’m usually sitting on the couch, so we see each other, but we’re not really near each other. I had a visiting professorship at Dartmouth this fall, and Steve was on sabbatical. They gave me this enormous house that was really a mansion on a pond. It was wonderful. There was a little study, and for some reason, Steve and I just stayed a few feet away from each other in the study. When I’m starting a work, I don’t want Steve in the vicinity, but by the time the obsession gets thick, it doesn’t matter; I’m not aware of him.
SPEED RACER: When I wrote my dissertation at Princeton, I held the record of [finishing] the quickest. I wrote it basically in eight weeks. I worked constantly. I remember it was the first time I stopped reading novels, because it was the first experience of complete obsession. It’s pretty much stayed the same for decades.
LETTING GO: I’m an obsessive rewriter. This time, my editor had to wrest the manuscript from me or I’d still be rewriting it . . . [But] with my novels, it’s clear when I’m finished: I cry because I’m sad to see the characters go.