Gail Godwin is having a career moment. Fifteen books and 45 years after she first committed to the writer’s life, Random House is publishing her new novel, “Queen of the Underworld,” simultaneously with the first volume of her edited journals, “The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963.”
“I didn’t plan it that way,” says the Southern-born Godwin, who is 69, by phone from her home in Woodstock, N.Y. “It just happened.” And yet, at some point in a writer’s life, she must consider what her legacy will be.
All writers depend on the people around them -- their agents, editors and publishers -- to help shape their careers. Times change, tastes change; in the last 50 years, fiction has wobbled between daring feats of imagination and “domestic” dramas featuring recognizable characters caught in a familiar daily grind. Godwin’s novels, whose female protagonists were working-world pioneers in the 1970s and early 1980s, seem tame to some readers in the harsh light of the new millennium. The noble goals of self-reliance and respect (let’s leave aside equal pay for now) were the battles of another generation. Novels about women’s lives are burdened with different issues than they were 20 years ago.
Godwin is hardly an unknown commodity. Five of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and she’s been nominated for the National Book Award three times. Her most successful books were “A Mother and Two Daughters” (1982) and “The Finishing School” (1984). Since then, though, her readership has fallen off. “We decided it was time for a Gail Godwin moment,” says Nancy Miller, her editor at Random House. “We felt ‘Queen of the Underworld’ was her best book in a while.” It’s a calculated gesture, although hardly inappropriate; as John Hawkins, who has been her agent since the late 1960s, suggests, “It would have been embarrassing to bring out the journals, which are the story of the author’s intellectual journey, if she hadn’t already had a long and successful career.”
“I wish that Godwin was more widely read,” says Marcela Valdes, review editor at Publishers Weekly. “A lot of her subject matter is like the subject matter in chick lit, but Godwin’s characters are worrying about their work, not their weight.” Sure enough, the woman who emerges from “Queen of the Underworld” and “The Making of a Writer” is no demure Southern belle. In the journal especially, she describes a high-wire act of love and work that would send most women running for anti-anxiety medication. Then in her mid-20s, Godwin was, sometimes to her own horror, a wild party girl (coiffed, manicured and loaded for bear), staying out to all hours, fending off gropers and juggling at least two men ( three if you count the one back home in Asheville, N.C.) all at once. She espouses fierce, uncompromising and often strange ideas about fiction. Anyone placing bets on her career at that point might have envisioned rehab, not commercial success.
Godwin was already working on “Queen of the Underworld” when her friend Joyce Carol Oates suggested that she publish her journals in an edited form, something like Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary.” Around the same time, Godwin, who had recently had a pacemaker implanted, was approached by a prospective biographer. Horrified, she decided nothing short of a preemptive strike would do. She began blue-lining the journals and asked her longtime friend and close reader Rob Neufeld to help shape them. Eventually, she tied the first three quarters of her novel and 150 pages of the journal in ribbons and gave them to Miller, who decided overnight, says Godwin, to publish them together.
Many readers and critics refer to Godwin as a female Philip Roth because, like Roth, she has unabashedly written about her life. Her recent novels, such as “The Good Husband” (1994) and “Evensong” (1999), have been about older people, often depressed. The journal and the new novel, though, feature young characters determined to succeed, which Hawkins, Neufeld and Miller agree is a good thing. “She had fun writing this novel,” says Hawkins. “She was energized, on fire; it really caught her.”
“I think that it creates a whole new appeal for the 20-year-old to 40-year-old group,” Neufeld says.
“Queen of the Underworld” tells the story of Emma Gant, a plucky young journalist, fresh out of college, who has escaped her lecherous stepfather and her compromised mother to take a job as a reporter at the Miami Star. It is 1959 and Miami is full of once-wealthy refugees from Castro’s Cuba. Emma intends “to become a crack journalist in the daytime” and “in the evening and on weekends ... slip across the border into fiction, searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest questions.” Allowing herself to be “trapped in the wrong story” is not in Emma’s plans. “A person’s unique and untransferable self could, at any time,” she thinks, “be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces.” Unfortunately, after an unbelievably eventful week, filled with hurricanes, weapon smuggling, the attempted suicide of an ex-madam, Mafia threats and a few ups and downs with her powerful married lover, Emma is transferred to Fort Lauderdale. Her job is in question, but her career as a fiction writer looks good.
“Queen of the Underworld” is the back story to the journals, which begin in 1961. At the time, Godwin had just been fired from her job as a general assignment reporter at the Miami Herald and was divorced after a five-month marriage to Herald photographer Douglas Kennedy. She had published one short story in a North Carolina literary magazine and two newspaper articles, yet she was determined to be a writer.
Taking a job as a waitress at a resort in the mountains of North Carolina, she started saving money. She applied for and got a job at the U.S. Travel Service, which took her first to Copenhagen and then to London. In other words, says Neufeld, “she was no debutante.”
Neufeld divides “The Making of a Writer” into 11 sections that show how Godwin used the journal to think through her writing and her life. He puts many of the entries in a social-historical context as well.
“Up until Gail’s first bestseller, ‘A Mother and Two Daughters’ in 1982, she was considered an edgy writer. Hitting the bestseller list led to her being something else, something more popular. She has a voice that is easy to read, and because of this she is often considered in the same light as Anne Tyler. I think it’s time for her to be edgy again.”
Neufeld reminds the reader that 1962 was the year of Helen Gurley Brown’s groudbreaking book, “Sex and the Single Girl.” “Gail’s generation,” he writes, was “at a key point in the history of male-female relationships, which were undergoing perhaps their first major shift since the medieval invention of courtly love.... Women needed mirrors that reflected more than just their bodies, and they found greater context in books.”
To economize, Godwin lived, for the most part, in charming boardinghouses, which she wryly called “youth brothels.” From 1961 to 1963, she had five boyfriends; most of her friends were, in fact, male. Godwin relies on the journal to figure out her relationships (in terms of subject matter, it’s about 50-50: social life and writing).
“I used the journal as my safe place, my confidant, my inner interlocutor. It provided a continuity,” Godwin says. “Keeping those diaries made the difference between going on and not going on.”
The writer of the journals is almost irrepressible. She believes in herself. “I wouldn’t trade my life with anybody’s,” she declares. Even after rejection, she writes: “Somehow, I know I’ll keep on trying and there won’t be an end to it. The worst thing that can happen is that I will persist and lose. The chances are that I’ll persist and win.”
In the end, though, a question lingers: Will this moment last? For Neufeld, it’s something of a moot point, since Godwin has bigger fish to fry than merely sales. “Her whole career has been an attempt to view her life as one piece,” he says. “There is a very circular feel to her writing. She needs to be able to move backward and forward to navigate as you would in a dream world. She is conscious of her own mortality, and she has many more novels within her. She’s got work to do.” Random House plans to release Volume II of the journals, which go up to 1970, in tandem with Godwin’s next novel, “The Red Nun,” which is about a 14-year-old girl. The publisher has also just reissued her 1978 novel, “Violet Clay,” in paperback.
“I wanted to make a contribution to young writers,” Godwin says about “The Making of a Writer.” “I had Woolf and Dostoevsky, and that was about it.”
Without doubt, her journals are inspiring. Perhaps the most resounding message is: Don’t compromise your ideals. “I want to experiment,” Godwin wrote on Oct. 3, 1962. “I want to write the first things of their kind. I do not want the almosts. I do not want a good imitation that reads smoothly but does not bear up under scrutiny. I want to profit from the writing (not so much to ‘enjoy life,’ per se, but to put back into writing what I gain) -- my own literary stock market, so to speak.”