When I first came to town, a friend told me about the famous novelist and short story writer Gail Godwin, who grew up in Asheville and often used local characters and settings in her work.
I was curious to read her, since we were both educated by Catholic nuns, a fact that differentiated us from most other American writers, but also made us spiritual sisters. Alas, upon learning that Ms. Godwin had moved to Woodstock, New York, and thus was no longer a “local,” I put her on my literary back burner.
Flash forward a decade and a half. Attracted by its lovely cover, I “accidentally” discovered one of Godwin’s non-fiction books, Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings (William Morrow, 2001, 328 pp.) It was an extraordinary look at the body’s blood-pumping organ and its symbology through the ages. The audacity of the book’s scope, its depth, and the sheer beauty of its language was mind-blowing. Gail Godwin was again on my radar.
This year Godwin, at age 77, came out with Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. (B&W illustrations by Frances Halsbrand, Bloomsbury, 2015, 209 pp.) In her words, it is about “wanting for a long time to be a published writer and about the condition of living as a writer for a long time after you are published.” She was referring, not to the millions of published words of non-fiction someone like I had accomplished, but to the publication of fiction, of novels, the highest goal of a writer.
The slim volume was interesting to me as a history of what the publishing industry used to be like (writer advances, close relationships with agents and editors, book tours, marketing strategies). That world is long gone, but Godwin’s experiences are relevant to today’s writers.
I arrived at the third and fourth stops in my Godwin odyssey because I’m a big fan of Rob Neufeld, who, among his other accomplishments, is the book reviewer and local history writer for the Asheville Citizen-Times. It turns out that Godwin, long before Julia Cameron had made Morning Pages de rigueur for Asheville’s creative enclave, had been keeping a journal since her years at Chapel Hill in Raleigh.
Urged by her friend Joyce Carol Oates (certainly no slouch in the publication department), Godwin decided to publish these journals. Volume 1 (out in 2007, Random House, 333 pp.) covered years 1961 to 1963 (college, journalism, working in Europe and more). Volume 2 (published four years later in 2011, Random House, 319 pp.) included years 1963 to 1969, ending with the acceptance for publication of her Ph.D. thesis, The Perfectionists, when she was age 31.
Neufeld served as editor of the journals, which means he was “The Great Explainer,” the compiler of numerous footnotes that made the connections from Godwin’s journals to what would become her published work. Without Neufeld’s contribution, the journals would have remained merely the ruminations of a youthful person, albeit one who was more literary than most. “True, time is the villain and we are trapped in him. True, love is sometimes not returned. True, friends are sometimes false. But to be aware of this—all of it—and still want to go on living, that is the triumph. It is the reward.”
The most touching aspect of these journals is Godwin’s relationship with her mother, Kathleen Krahenbuhl Godwin Cole, who always wanted to write more than romance novels, but whose ambitions were thwarted by family responsibilities. The young woman who emerges from Godwin’s journals is someone I wanted to throttle many times, commiserate with at other times, and mostly admired for her passionate insistence to grab life and keep writing. With the help of mentors, such as writer Kurt Vonnegut, and keeping body and soul thanks to an education, Godwin survived personal and professional disappointments that would have squelched a less ambitious writer. “I want to be everybody who is great; I want to create everything that has ever been created.”
Among her many awards and accomplishments, Gail Godwin is the author of fourteen novels. Three were National Book Award finalists, five were New York Times bestsellers. Her most popular novel is A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) which sold millions of copies. Her latest novel is Flora (2013).
By now I’m dying with curiosity a bout Godwin’s life after 1969, especially how she recovered from the many early Mr. Wrongs and found long happiness with composer Robert Starer, who died in 2001. And the time is right, at long last, to seek out Godwin’s fiction. The stack of her novels and short story collections in my living room is over two feet high. In the following months I’ll be sharing with you more steps on my journey to discover Gail Godwin.
Check out her excellent website, www.gailgodwin.com