Nicola Maye Goldberg’s Nothing Can Hurt You is a literary thriller that revolves around the murder of a young female student by her boyfriend, but rather than investigate the crime, she deftly examines its repercussions on a broad spectrum of people, from those directly affected to a wider society habituated to violence against women.

Sara Morgan was killed in the woods surrounding her liberal arts college in upstate New York in 1997. Her boyfriend Blake Campbell confessed but was acquitted, perhaps wrongly, via a plea of temporary insanity. The novel develops through a succession of voices, each given a single chapter, from young housewife Marianne who discovers Sara’s body to junior reporter Juliet who tries to link the case to convicted local serial killer John Logan; to Blake’s closest friend Sam, who is grappling with his own past; Sara’s numbly grieving ex-flatmate Lizzie and half-sister Luna who, years later, angered by her family’s silence about Blake, seeks out her own form of justice; and teenager Jessica, who Sara used to babysit, who begins corresponding with Logan via a school letter-writing assignment.

Switching between first- and third-person narratives, as well as Jessica and Logan’s stilted letters, and oscillating tonally from teenage recklessness and rebellion to troubled marriage via addiction issues and career missteps, these individual lives are interlinked (with varying degrees of direct crossover) in a satisfying brew of misunderstandings, dissatisfaction, self-absorption and vengefulness.

When you were a student at Bard College, you lived in what was rumoured to be a ‘murder house’, where a male student had killed his girlfriend. What was the truth of that story, and what was it about it that sparked this novel?

To protect the privacy of the victim’s family and friends, I’m not going to reveal anything else about the actual crime. Anyway, if you google “college girl murdered” you’ll find at least a dozen cases that could have served as the inspiration for the novel. It’s not exactly a rare occurrence.

Did you have an interest in true crime before college, or did it creep up on you? How do you typically feed that interest – through books, news outlets or TV shows?

True crime is a relatively new interest of mine. Like a lot of other people, I use it as a kind of coping mechanism, a way to think about the violence I’ve experienced or witnessed. I consume too much murder-related content to list here, but some things I really love are: Last Podcast on the Left, Texas Monthly’s crime reporting, bad slasher movies and Criminal Minds.

Why do you think public interest in true crime has risen in recent years? And what is it specifically about serial killers that grips the imagination?

Violence and entertainment have always been inextricable. 400 years ago, people gathered to watch someone get burned at the stake. Now we listen to podcasts.

Even in the most open-and-shut cases, there is room for doubt and confusion. I didn’t want to offer the reader something that I don’t think actually exists.”

Your book breaks the mould of murder fiction in that the crime and its perpetrator are already established, there is no detective and very little in the way of resolution for any of your characters. Did you set out to show how a single act of violence can interrupt and change the course of people’s lives in many unexpected ways?

Not exactly. In traditional murder fiction, the author plays god, telling the reader with absolute certainty: this is what happened. But that certainty doesn’t exist in real life. Even in the most open-and-shut cases, there is room for doubt and confusion. I didn’t want to offer the reader something that I don’t think actually exists.

Which characters did you begin writing first, and did the next tranche of characters tend to spring from those early chapters, or did you mostly set yourself a theme to explore, then develop a character to fit that theme?

Sam and Lizzie were the first characters I imagined, and originally the novel was going to revolve around the two of them trying to cope with their grief and guilt. But I kept thinking about Sara and Blake’s families, and so the scope of the book kept expanding.

The title is drawn from a poem by Louise Glück about the myth of Persephone and Hades, which tells of male dominance, control and entrapment. On another level, it has the air of a white lie a parent might say to comfort a troubled child. At what point did you choose the title, and what alternatives, if any, did you reject along the way?

I love the Persephone myth, because even though she is the prototypical victim of male violence, she’s also the Queen of Hell. I also love everything Louise Gluck has ever written. I chose the title about a year after starting the book. Before that it was called A Crime, which I thought was pretty good, but no one agreed with me.

It is a novel that centres on gendered violence, told mostly from a female perspective, and the men who are given a voice are generally entitled, creepy and not to be trusted. Did you at any point feel compelled to introduce more male characters, or were Blake and his friend Sam more than enough to be going on with?

Personally, I think Sam is actually a very sympathetic character. It’s so painful to accept that someone you love has done something unforgivable.

For your next project you’ve been researching Santa Cruz in the 1970s, at a time when three serial killers were at large and the sleepy beach town was dubbed “the murder capital of the world”. How do you plan to set about fictionalising those events?

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’m focusing on teenage girls living in Santa Cruz during that weird, violent time.

Who would you count among your favourite literary stylists and heroes?

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston was the first book that made me realize, oh, this is what good writing looks like. I’ve also learned a lot from Anne Carson, James Baldwin, Amy Hempel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sara Gran and Mary Gaitskill.

Finally, as someone who grew up in California, how pleased are you to see Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate in the upcoming election? How do you think the election will play out, and what dirty tricks might Trump have up his sleeve to try to discredit what looks like an eminently reasonable, compassionate, eloquent, egalitarian and morally sound Democratic ticket?

I agree with Emma Goldman: if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.


Nicola Maye Goldberg
is the author of the novella Other Women (Sad Spell Press, 2016) and the chapbook The Doll Factory (Dancing Girl Press, 2017). She lives in New York City. Nothing Can Hurt You is published by Raven Books in hardback and eBook.
Read more

Author portrait © Claire Goldberg

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer and a founding editor of Bookanista.