Gail Godwin’s home on a hillside in Woodstock is a cozy sanctuary filled with natural light. She shares it with her “two boys,” a pair of Siamese cats. “They’re my roommates. Sam is the little one, and this is Waldo. Robert and I had another pair of Siamese boys. Then one died, and Robert died, and the other one died. I went for four months without an animal in the house. I need other consciousnesses. I need to know there are others thinking and doing things besides me in this space. They can even open drawers. They both go in and come out, and I say, ‘Aren’t you clever?’” She loads another log onto the fire.
Amassing numerous literary accolades over the years – National Book Award nominations, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts – Godwin has enjoyed more than four decades of being a published writer. With two story collections and 14 novels under her authorial belt, five of which were New York Times best-sellers, she now has a perspective of the long view: a young person’s hunger to be published, the struggle to achieve that goal and the persistence to continue through years of upheaval in the industry.
Her latest work of non-fiction, Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir, is the story of one writer’s experience, beginning with her discovery that stories could simply be made up (a realization that she came to by watching her mother at the typewriter), to her current playful attitude about the practice of writing. Born in Alabama in 1937, Godwin was raised in Asheville, North Carolina. In Publishing, Godwin reflects on her time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her sojourns in London and Miami, her studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with magnanimous teachers Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Coover and her first success: a book in print.
Godwin’s prolific career includes musical works created in collaboration with her late longtime companion, composer Robert Starer. Having entered the publishing fray at a period of transition from privately owned businesses to corporate entities, Godwin has always had to work to maintain a temporary sense of balance. She refers to it as “a dance.”
Before this shift, writers could focus on their craft and operate under the guidance of a team of people – agent, editor, publisher – who had their individual success in mind. By the time Godwin’s first novel hit the presses, such personal cosseting was becoming a thing of the past. “I kept losing my dance partners,” she says, meaning publishing associates Linda Grey and John Hawkins, plus David Segal, Robert Gottlieb, Alan Williams, Harvey Ginsberg, Jennifer Hershey and Nancy Miller. “He or she would simply get swept off the floor, or even die.”
Almanac Weekly’s Ann Hutton recently sat down with Godwin to talk about Publishing.
Looking back on an illustrious career and your whole experience of being published, can you say why someone might set out to write stories at all? Why do you do this?
I can’t not do it. It’s a way to organize my life, to have another life, to go into territory I’d be too cowardly to go into on my own. I’m just coming into my freedom now; I have observed so much life and studied human behavior that I can now really create a character and have them be believable. I’m proud of this book. It’s the kind of book I would have wanted to have when I was hungry. It’s from my point of view, my arc – and not only about publishing: It’s a meditation on writers who really want to write and want to publish. And then, being published for a very long time, so many changes happen in the writer, too. You have your career, the point where you’re most ambitious. Now all I want is to finish my novel. That’s all that’s important: When you get to this time of life, you want to finish the things that interest you.
You draw from your own life; when writers start out, there’s always somebody in the book a lot like them. Then you have to…it’s a mixture of taking from what you have and who you are, and observing so you can transmigrate into other personalities. A teacher in London – she’s in the book – said, “I want you to write a story from the point of view of somebody totally unlike yourself.” I wrote about an English vicar.
When I came to consciousness at about age 3 or 4 during World War II, my mother, who had that publishing hunger, was working on the Asheville newspaper and writing pulp stories. She was very successful doing that. I was fascinated with the way she went about it: to just sit by somebody and have pages come out with a story.
When I went into journalism I was being practical, because you have to make a living. It was not my first love; in fact, I was not temperamentally suited. I’m shy on the telephone, for a start. That other thing was always there underneath. If I’d had a different mother, I might have turned to art. I find that it’s very satisfying in a visceral way that writing isn’t. It’s more hands-on.
The novel I’m writing now – there’s an artist in it who breaks her hand. Someone suggests she try fingerpainting with her less dominant hand. So I tried it myself. I bought some surgical gloves (there are famous fingerpainters, you know, and they usually use gloves), and once you do it, even with your non-dominant hand, you get very seduced by it. I think my writing is naturally visual, and I’ve had to work at the audio part. I’ve had to learn to listen to take in the way people talk and the way they use language.
That’s interesting, because language is auditory – except that the written word, as you say, is very visual. And you paint pictures with written words. So let’s go back: What prompted you to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
I had come back from London when I was 29 years old and had to start from scratch. I got a job in New York as a fact-checker at the Saturday Evening Post. A relative left me a small legacy. And I knew someone at Iowa. I sent her some manuscripts, and she took them to the person who let you in or didn’t. He said, “Your friend has some kinks, but we can knock ’em out of her.”
That’s what I wanted: I wanted to get serious about my writing. And everybody else there wanted what I wanted. There was also that sense of competition. We were always talking about writing, so I was where I should be. Even then I was thinking about how to make a living. So I went into the PhD program in English, which has been useful; I got to read things I hadn’t read and learned a lot about writing.