Exclusive: The Biography That Cat Power Doesn’t Want You to Read

“Chan Marshall does not want you to read this book.” The opening line of A Good Woman says it all. Chan Marshall’s biography, written by Elizabeth Goodman, channels the life of one of the most elusive personalities in contemporary music. Marshall, once infamous for her on-stage breakdowns, shyness and unpredictability, was just as notorious for telling the media very selective truths about her past, which is riddled with alcohol, depression, hallucinations, and loneliness.

Goodman’s initial aim was to commemorate Marshall’s development as a musician and retell the moving story of her shaky childhood in Atlanta. Instead, she met with obstacles and traps, all set by Marshall.

Upon hearing of Goodman’s project, the musician went to great lengths to stop it: She called everyone she remotely knew, demanding that that they keep mum about her past. While Marshall was successful to some extent, she forgot to notify the most key members of her past — her family. Having tracked down multiple sources, Goodman has written a biography that exposes Marshall’s childhood, chronicles the troubling relationship with her schizophrenic mother, and reveals the events that catalyzed Marshall’s own fears onstage. You learn what eventually led to her breakdown, and how she regained her career. But I wanted to know more, so I sat down with Goodman to find out how she tracked down Marshall’s family, why Marshall was resistant to the book, and whether or not she’s actually read it.

Flavorpill: I love how you created a real double-sided Chan Marshall. You really managed to pry apart a very mysterious person.

Elizabeth Goodman: [Laughs] I’m glad you thought I was successful in doing that! Sometimes I wonder, you know? One of the themes in the book is the more you learn about her, the less you know. But, that having been said, I certainly feel I understand her better than I did when I started, which is a good thing, I guess.

FP: Chan went to great lengths to stop your book’s production. How did you manage to track down so many of her family members and one-time confidants?

EG: Well, honestly it just took some good research. Total doggedness, essentially. I mean part of what’s ironic about her resistance was that it forced me to be a better journalist. Because she wasn’t making herself available to me as the primary source on the major events that should have constituted her narrative, she forced me to find people who could be secondary sources. I had to dig and find out who else is around who could really tell her story… which is not to say that I wouldn’t have researched thoroughly had she been a participant in it. I had to go to extra lengths to find people because she wasn’t a participant in the book. Which is ironic (again) because that’s what she feared would happen.

Basically, there’s a lot of information out there. In this country you can find a lot of information about people just on things like, oh, the Internet… and housing records. Wherever we go we leave a virtual paper trail. So that was how I tracked down family members. Also, I’d say that part of the kind of research I’m talking about was showing up in Atlanta. I flew out to Atlanta and spent a little over a week there. I think that’s really the secret in terms of getting all of those people. Just showing up. In Atlanta, I was able to find the house Chan had lived in, in Cabbagetown. So I just went there, was kind of hanging out, and saw this woman who lived across the street. I asked her if she’d ever known Chan, and it turned out of course she’d been Chan’s landlord. That’s the kind of thing you could never have found out without just showing up and being there to find it.

FP: You literally tracked Chan’s youth. You were also able to create a real portrait of Chan’s New York surroundings in the early ’90s, back when the LES wasn’t a mall. How did you manage to do that?

EG: I had this conversation with a friend of mine who is a journalist but is also a fiction writer. I was talking to him about what book I would write next, and he asked if I ever thought about writing fiction. And I was like, “Oh no, I couldn’t write fiction, I’ve always been really interested in writing fact.” And he was like, “Well if you’re interested in fact, you should really write fiction!” We talked some more about it, and it’s really interesting but in fiction writing, you are able to create an entire world that is within your control. If you want to describe something and know that the entire truth is contained within your description, then you should really write fiction. That’s the only way you can know for sure that you’re getting every single detail right… whereas in nonfiction writing, you have to rely on a kind of inherently fractured perspective. Even if you could be your own primary source for a given event.

Take for example the first Cat Power show. Like, say I was there, (which I wasn’t), I still would remember it differently than other people would. There’s no such thing as real, undiluted, pure memory. So, the reason I say that to answer your question is that I kind of let myself pretend that I was there. I had a lot of amazing sources both on and off the record for that period of New York’s history, not to mention current history. I just pretended I was there and tried to kind of feel it: what would the air feel like; what would it smell like; what would I be doing on an average day? My friend told me that story about waiting in line for the Village Voice to come out so he could see what jobs were available. I thought that was really striking because it really wasn’t that long ago, and it’s so different from the way we do things today.

FP: What was the reaction like when the book came out? Did you hear from Chan or her lawyer again?

EG: You know what, I haven’t heard from her, and I haven’t heard from anyone in her camp, so to speak. I work with people at her label on other stuff all of the time… we just don’t really talk about it [laughs]… which is fine, because it was a contentious project for a long time. For reasons that are very clear in the book, that was not my desire. I really didn’t want it to be that way. But one of the things I’m most proud about in the book is the way that I approached it. The approach that I took to writing the book (with the exception of the introduction) was the same approach I would have taken had [Chan] cooperated. I told the story that was there to tell. I talked to everyone I could talk to, and that was my intention from the beginning. And then I wrote what I consider a synthesized version of what they told me. But it’s not like Chan became resistant and it became this total battle. I didn’t want the book to be like that. That’s just not the story.

It occurred to me in some of the more heated moments of her freaking out, that she might be pretty disappointed if she ever read it to discover that there’s really not any “white whale” of her story in the book that she was so afraid would be written. It always made me laugh to think of that. Like, what if Chan actually read it and said “That’s it? Damn! What was I so afraid of?” Which is not to say that her story is uninteresting or that there isn’t a lot for her fans to discover in this book. I think there is. But it’s not like I discovered that she’s secretly a man or something. [Laughs] But yeah, I haven’t heard from them and I don’t really expect to.

My goal with this book was to take this person who is adored by a select group of people already, and kind of reveal her and her story to those who are already interested and those who don’t yet know that they’re interested. I think in a lot of ways her story is even more global and transcendent than her music. Like take someone who wouldn’t be a huge fan of her music: I wanted for them to really get something out of this book. I’ve had a couple of emails that indicate at least for a couple of people, that’s happened. So in that way, it’s really gratifying.

FP: Do you think if Chan had been cooperative you have gone to such lengths to expose her as such a dueling personality?

EG: You know, a lot of people have asked me that question. It’s hard to know, like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. I don’t know what would have happened. But I think what’s clear is her resistance to the book defines it. It is shaped by many factors. It’s shaped by who agreed to talk to me and who didn’t agree to talk to me. It’s shaped by what week I happened to choose go down to Atlanta. It’s shaped by a thousand different tiny choices, that are not really in my control or anyone else’s. And one of the major things it is shaped by is the fact that Chan didn’t cooperate with it. But I don’t think the book would have ultimately been better if she had. There’s an argument to be made that it wouldn’t have been as good if she had. One of the things I really learned about Chan through this process is how expert she is at weaving her own myth. As someone who kind of walked into this project very eager to please her, it’s entirely possible that I would have been pretty willing to write a version of her story as much as anything else. And in this case, that didn’t happen! She chose not to participate in it. What’s true about this book is that it’s not the version of the story she would have scripted. She wasn’t there to do it.

FP: I’d be willing to bet that Chan would or has already read it. She strikes me as someone who cares deeply about the way people see her, regardless of what personality she projects.

EG: It’s possible! I mean, I hope so. I hope she tells everyone she meets that she’s read it! No, I know what you mean and a lot of people have said that. But that’s what’s interesting about her. And that’s one of the major themes in the book. Chan is both an exhibitionist and a pathologically shy personality. The exhibitionist side of her, I mean the star in her, would probably want to read it. And the retiring Southern girl in her who just wants to be a mom would probably be horrified by it. I guess it just depends where she is right now in her own mind. But, I hope she reads it. I hope she likes it. That’s what I mean. I started off wanting to write a book that she would approve of, and although the way that I mean that has changed over the course of writing it, I still mean it. This was never supposed to be an exposé, and I don’t think that it is one. I think that it is an honest portrait of the story that was available to tell.