Getting into the head of a fiction writer requires you to understand that she has the uncanny ability to consider her characters to be real. Then you, too, begin to care about them. You get hooked by their humanity. It’s tricky business.
So when New York Times book reviewer Sarah Lyall writes that Gail Godwin is “a forensically skillful examiner of her characters’ motives, thoughts and behavior,” she’s giving the author this godlike quality to have created very human characters – so much so that writing the story becomes a process of hope: hope that they behave themselves and that it all turns out in the end. Hope that some basic truth rings and that readers can relate and become inspired by it. Hope that it’s believable.
Grief Cottage, Godwin’s latest offering, gives readers a glimpse into such a mind. The author genuinely takes responsibility for her characters’ authenticity. She is careful not to abuse them – especially when they are young, as is the case in this novel. Marcus is an orphaned 11-year-old, forced to move in with his dead mother’s alcoholic aunt, a taciturn artist accustomed to being alone.
Exploring the South Carolina island on which she lives, Marcus encounters a mystery in the ghost of an unnamed boy who died in a hurricane 50 years previous. He is compelled to discover who this boy was; his family were renters on the island when the catastrophe struck, and no one remembers their names. Meanwhile, he adjusts to living without a mother, displaying a marked level of self-discipline and resourcefulness.
If early trauma and loss are to be considered character-building, you want your hero to be handled as gently, albeit realistically, as Godwin handles Marcus. His maturity is tempered with just enough youthful abandon that the reader senses she’s not going to torture him. Still, scary things happen, making him question his own sanity, his own ability to carry on.
Godwin has earned numerous literary accolades over the decades: 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 for fiction and libretto writing. This is her 15th, one that she’d just started when I had the honor of interviewing her for her last book, Publishing.
At the time, she had decided that her main character’s great-aunt would sustain an injury, so she experimented with painting with her own non-dominant hand. “Once you do it, even with your non-dominant hand, you get very seduced by it,” she told me. “And it has flowered. At first I tried to paint things that Aunt Charlotte would be painting. Then last November I started drawing seriously. Now I have a blog on my website in which I present these pictures with an attached essay. You might say that writing Grief Cottage brought me into a whole new skill.” She says that, in turning to painting at a point in life in which you find yourself absolutely wordless for one reason or another, you can use shape and colors to express your feelings.
I asked how the possibility that young children have open channels to the supernatural (angels, fairies) helped her to create this 11-year-old sensing the ghost of a long-dead child. In the novel, Godwin quotes D. W. Winnecott, one of the most respected child psychiatrists of the 1940s and ‘50s, who wrote that feelings of hopelessness or futility can cause the psyche to become “loosened,” and that the value of the ghost story lies in its drawing attention to the precariousness of this psyche/soma lack of anchoring.
“I read all of Winnecott when I was writing this book. What really got Marcus going is when my sister invited me to come share a house with her at the beach for two weeks. I went and stayed with her and three young boys. At my age, I’d never watched so many boys in one room. I thought: A) they’re different and B) these particular boys are really secure. Then I started thinking about what it would be like if you weren’t secure. Every morning I walked on the beach and thought about [my late husband] Robert and about death.
“One morning at dawn, I thought, ‘Everything seems to be sending me a message.’ I realized that this could be Marcus thinking. He’s on that borderline, too. Some things are good and some are not so good. He’s skeptical, and he’s death-oriented, but he’s a very kind person. It worries him that nobody misses the long-dead boy. And that nobody is going miss him. Then he feels the spirit and sees the spirit twice. Some time warp, combined with spirit, got them together.”
Godwin’s expertise in setting a scene and moving a plot forward is reflected in her own heritage. Born in Alabama and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, she is adept at creating a very regional texture and pace. Meanwhile, her own pace at 80 may have slowed down, but she has already started a new book. “It’s quite different from this one. I’m sure nobody is going to like it,” she quips. “I’m sure Marcus is my best.”
Then, “I just got home from my two-week book tour, and I’m feeling 100. But this book tour has given me things that were supposed to happen. At my final appearance in Washington DC, “Politics and Prose,” after I’d read, a small woman about my age came up and introduced herself. She went to St. Genovese with me; I’d known her since I was seven. She has become a renowned child psychiatrist and was president of the American Psychiatric Association. She said it seems that Marcus is going to go this way. Children who know how it is to be at danger, at risk, if they’re a certain kind of person and are curious about it, they want to save others. It was a fitting end to that tour. It was like a completion: I wrote about grown people for awhile, and then I wrote about a teenager, and now this story about a child. It’s going back almost to the source. And there was this friend from 1945!”
Braiding multiple thematic strands – the orphaned child, familial alcoholism, the supernatural/psychological element, the threat of demise, childhood relationships – Godwin intertwines them all to tell the story of one young person’s ultimate self-authentication. Grief Cottage is a recapitulation of sorts. It could even be true.