Twelve novels, two short story collections, a non-fiction book, and one of a two-volume project on Becoming a Writer stand as an honorable reflection of this author’s career. Gail Godwin, a three-time National Book Award nominee, has been writing seriously since 1959 and first became published in 1970. She has worked as a full-time writer since 1974. Her current project, The Red Nun: A Tale of Unfinished Desires is three-quarters complete with release set for 2008, along with the second volume of her apprentice journals. Queen of the Underworld is her most recent release. Gail’s companion of 30 years, composer Robert Starer died in 2001. She has two furry children, Waldo and Zeb, and four not-so-furry god-children. Continue reading to learn more about Gail Godwin and her writing life.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Gail Godwin: I grew up with a writing mother. She was a newspaperwoman and published short stories in pulp magazines and was working on novels throughout her lifetime. I learned to type before I could write. Trying to imitate her at the typewriter. And sent my first story out at the age of 9 to Child Life. It was rejected. As I was/am one of the self-doubters of the world, I did not let myself think of myself as a writer until my first novel was accepted by a publisher (The Perfectionists, 1970)
Moe: What inspires you?
Gail Godwin: When I hear of, or think of, or dream or daydream about, a situation or a group of characters whose plight alerts my imaginative powers. A Mother and Two Daughters evolved directly out of a long letter from an old school friend, telling me about a disastrous fight with her mother and sister six months after her father’s death. I wanted to live in that family–and, of course, make up more details of an affluent, middle-class family with one rebellious daughter. The Finishing School came from a dream in which I was sitting on the threshold of an old ruined stone cottage with a dramatic woman, who suddenly took off into a rainstorm. I woke up with the first sentence: “Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane…” Though the name in the dream was Bertha deVane. Later, when my mother was reading the manuscript, she said, “You can’t call her Bertha. It isn’t enigmatic enough. Also it reminds readers of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife.”
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Gail Godwin: My writing life has changed somewhat during the six years I have been living by myself. I am more likely to wake at 2-3 in the morning and savor that stillness and make notes about what I am writing, or read whatever I am reading or re-reading (my most recent re-reads have been Nicholas Nickleby and Atwood’s Alias Grace.) I begin writing in my study about 9:30-10:00 a.m. and work steadily for about three hours. Then, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I rush off to work out at a gym. On other afternoons I shop for food, go to the bookstore or library, occasionally am invited out to dinner or have people here for dinner. My favorite evenings are the ones when I sit on the sofa with the cats on my legs, making notes in my journal about the day and about my plans for what I will next write in the novel.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Gail Godwin: I go page by page. More like sculpting. Cutting out all I don’t want to say and finding a shape of what most nearly approximates the vision I have. I keep a legal pad to my right, for working out words and concepts. I type fast on my keyboard and see how it looks on the screen. For my last two books, I have formatted the page on the screen as I want it to look as a finished book. Margins, font, type size. Red Nun, for instance, is in Bookman Old Style font, 11 type size; 1.5 spacing; margins: l&r: 2.38, top: 1:88, bottom 2.13. This is a kind of reward in advance for me. I used to hate the look of a manuscript. It looked so… unpublished.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Gail Godwin: I hope this doesn’t sound too introverted, but when I sit down to write I think of satisfying the Reader in Me and finding out the things I still crave to know.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Gail Godwin: I plot some, but it is by no means a straightforward thing. I have to know my characters pretty well before I know which of their strengths and weaknesses could influence the story around them. It has taken me two years of working on the novel before I begin to glimpse exactly what happened and what in the makeup of ALL these people conspired to make it happen–and, beyond that, the larger implications, the cosmic ones.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Gail Godwin: For specific historic or esoteric detail (military prisons in this country in WWII—for “Tony” in Evensong; what Miami court a prostitute in 1953 would be tried in—for “Ginevra” in Queen of the Underworld) I hire a researcher (Dan Starer, Research for Writers). For everything else, I work out of volumes in my library (I needed to know the latitude and longitude of Boston the other day) or sometimes I Google something (I wanted to know more about the Catholic priest Basil Maturin, who died on the Lusitania in 1915, and found a perfect essay written by someone who had known him.)
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Gail Godwin: In The Good Husband, the four main characters are four very different parts of myself. (I talk about this in the readers group guide in the back of the Ballantine trade paperback edition). In The Finishing School, I wanted to write about an unreliable mentor (Ursula DeVane) and I consulted my own shadow: the self I might have become if my artistic desires had been unfulfilled: how might I have presented myself to an impressionable young worshiper ready to believe anything I said? In Queen of the Underworld, I wanted to write a portrait of the artist as an ambitious young woman. I gave her my experience as a cub reporter on the Miami Herald, but she is much brassier and bolder than I was, and all the Cuban exiles she befriends are taken, piece by piece, from exile stories I have read and exiles from many countries whom I have known well.
Here I must say, as is the case with many writers, my characters are fully-imagined. Not one, even when I’m writing a fictional memory piece, ends up being myself. I think it would be hard to write a true portrait of yourself, even if you were trying your best to write an unadulterated autobiography. The storytelling impulse is just too strong. You start making it up. Clipping and tweaking. Elaborating. Adulterating.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Gail Godwin: My writer’s block has never been of the “I… can’t… put… one word… in… front of… of…of…” variety. I can’t imagine that happening, unless I suffered a brain trauma or something. I have always needed to keep putting things down on paper, even if it’s about not being able to write whatever I had wanted to write. (I have an ongoing black notebook called “Unpublished Desperations, in which I rage and rail and vent the occasional malevolence on the villains and villainesses in my life… and have dialogues with the departed… and work out how certain incompatible phrases that come out of my dreams (a recent one was “Holy Viciousness”) can be made into a narrative, or a meditation, so I can understand it better.)
I have–too often–had another kind of block, a “stop this novel, I want to get off,” block. Sometimes I have reached 100 pages (and usually 100 pages is the “whew! It’s a novel!’ home-free point for me) and started sniffing dead manuscript in the room and have to get it out. A few of these poor things are in my archives at the Wilson Library at Chapel Hill: a novel called My Last Protege, being the longest. However, I was able to salvage the architect-heroine of that unfinished work: she became the best friend of Margaret Bonner, the priest in Evensong. And the first draft of a novel called The Villain, a part set in 1905, which died after 75 pages, later became a scene in The Odd Woman, set in the 1970’s when Jane, the heroine, is remembering a cautionary tale of her grandmother’s. So, if you can accept the “mulch” factor of writing, maybe nothing is lost.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read one of your books for the first time?
Gail Godwin: I would hope they come away saying, as a young friend of mine said after she had finished an Iris Murdoch novel: “It had something for all the shelves of my mind!”
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Gail Godwin: That strikes a blank, I wonder why? About five years ago, I did paste a huge commandment on the ledge of the shelf above my computer. It’s in 50-point bold type and it says: YOU MAKE IT UP! Meaning: don’t research or fret, just ride full-tilt at what you don’t know you REALLY know and you’ll be fine.
Oh, here comes another one, this, a recent product as well. As I age, words don’t gush out of the faucet like they once did. The upside of this is that many of the faucet words were approximations and knockoffs. Now I open my trusty thesaurus and I slog until I find… THE ONE.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Gail Godwin: Any story, fictional or true, irresistibly written, about complex humans trying to be as conscious as they dare during the times and places into which they have been deposited by fate. Reading is my number one form of recreation–I have to have a book to read when I’m eating alone and one when I wake up at 3 in the morning. Just skimming off the top of recent reads and re-reads as the titles drop into my mind: The Diaries of Harold Nicholson, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace, James’ Portrait of a Lady, Elizabeth Bowen’s Heat of the Day and The Death of the Heart, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Max Frisch’s Montauk, Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Dickens’s David Copperfield.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Gail Godwin: When I’m not writing, or reading, I enjoy a walk at the nearby reservoir–about three miles of causeway with unrelieved beautiful water and land and clouds, and, recently, families of eagles. I like to draw with colored pencils, scenes from my imagination or past, also characters in works in progress (see Art Work on my web site). I like to sit very still and watch my young Siamese cats, twin brothers, Waldo and Zeb. They are the best show in town. I enjoy cooking and am good at it. And I love to sip drinks and then eat a good dinner with someone with a playful and curious and informed mind. That combination is rare, however.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Gail Godwin: “Follow your hot wand,” as my witchy playwright/choreographer Madelyn Farley advocates–and practices–in Father Melancholy’s Daughter.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Gail Godwin: Let’s see, one has to earn a living here. I would teach literature, not creative writing–I would assign books I could lecture on knowledgeably and entertainingly, and then I would also assign books none of us had read yet and we would spelunk our way through.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Gail Godwin: Well, actually, it is probably something like repast or bedtime. But to be impressive, I will say imagination.
My interview with Gail Godwin was originally published 4/8/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.
Visit Gail Godwin’s official website.