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From the National Book Foundation Archives
Interview with Gail Godwin

This interview was conducted by Diane Osen, Director of Special Projects for the National Book Foundation on July 15, 1993.

Born on June 18, 1937 in Birmingham, Alabama, Gail Godwin was raised in Asheville, North Carolina by her mother -- a reporter, creative writing teacher and author -- and her grandmother. Reflecting on her unconventional upbringing, she later wrote, "Already at five I had allied myself with the typewriter rather than with the stove. The person at the stove had the thankless task of fueling. Whereas, if you were faithful to your vision at the typewriter, by lunchtime you could make two more characters happy -- even if you weren't so happy yourself." She wrote her first stories as a child, and after graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1959, worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald before moving to London to work in the U.S. Travel Service. After returning to the U.S., she taught at the University of Iowa while earning her Ph.D. and completing her first novel, The Perfectionists, published in 1970. She is the author of ten additional novels, including National Book Award Finalists The Odd Woman (1975), Violet Clay (1980) and A Mother and Two Daughters (1983). Of that novel she wrote, "When we as writers create characters, we are in the process stretching our own identities. We begin each new character with the warm clay of sympathy, some feeling in common, and before we know it, we are that character."

In addition to novels, Ms. Godwin is the author of two collections of short stories and four librettos for musical works composed by Robert Starer. A recipient of the 1981 Award in Literature from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, she is the author of numerous essays and articles. Ms. Godwin resides in upstate New York.

How did you become a writer?
One of my first perceptions was of my mother as a writer, because she was writing stories when I was very little and I would watch her type them up and send them out. Then she'd get a check back, and we'd go out and spend it. I saw she got a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of making up stories, and she would discuss them with me all the time, asking what I thought should happen next, so I felt very involved from the first. She was also a newspaper reporter, at the Asheville Citizen Times, and I just assumed that writing was what I would do, too.

What were some of your early subjects?
My first story was about a man who was henpecked by his wife, told from his point of view. No man lived in our house -- it was my mother, my grandmother and me -- so I don't know where I got that. Another early story, also not close to home, was about a little rich boy who lived in a mansion surrounded by a big fence. He was lonely and wanted to have friends. I think these stories were disguised autobiography, my first forays into characters who had something in common with me and interested me. In the case of the little boy, for example, I suppose I also felt lonely and behind a fence.

How did you come to write A Mother and Two Daughters?
That is probably the clearest example of someone just handing me a package that became a novel; I wish it could happen that way every time. An old friend from childhood had written me a New Year's letter and said, "This year didn't go as planned. My father died and six months later, my mother, my sister and I went on a trip. We got into such a fight over various versions of our family history that I left the trip and came home by myself." For some reason that just sparked my imagination. I thought, "What were the various versions of that history?" I first tried to write it as a story, but then I got interested in the three women -- they had such different styles of dealing with the world, and such different ideas about what a family is -- that it became a major undertaking.

How did those three characters spring to life?
I was most interested in "Cate". She's a rebel, and so smart and alert and angry -- and so touchingly vulnerable at the same time. She was the first character. Then I got very fond of Nell; for the first time, I was attracted to the characteristic of being sensible, moderate, modulating. Lydia was my least favorite at first, and I had to work hard to understand where she was coming from. But then I appreciated her desire to be proper and at the same time overcome her conventionality when it was necessary. I have a half-sister who was born when I was 15, so she was like a baby to me for a long time; we never had any of those rivalries that sisters have. I wanted an opportunity to explore those things, and also to explore a family that had a father in it. One of the early titles of the novel was In My Father's House. It seemed a real strange treat to me to write about a house in which there was a father who came home every night and listened to opera and was quiet and dependable and soft-spoken. It was a fantasy for me. I finally satisfied myself completely by writing a novel about a father and his daughter, Father Melancholy's Daughter.

What about the character of "Roger Jernigan"? When I read the novel, I picture him in my mind's eye as Ross Perot.
I think "Roger Jernigan" was the inspiration for Ross Perot! He was based on no one I know, a thoroughly self-made man who can be extremely overbearing -- and yet there's something intensely American about him. I knew he and "Cate" couldn't marry, but I wanted them to. She couldn't give up her idea of herself at that point, but of course I put in an epilogue, so he may win her yet.

What was the most difficult aspect of creating these characters?
In the case of "Jernigan", I had to give him a believable job, but I also wanted him to do something that would give "Cate" moral trouble, and go against her idea of the way the world should be. I had to do a lot of research into pesticides, and got so far into it that I started studying bugs and reading entomological journals. After the book came out, in fact, someone from one of these entomological journals wrote me to say they had presented their president with a copy of my book.

What do you see as the relationship between the structure of the novel and its theme?
The structure was determined as soon as I realized that I wanted to give the three women equal time -- I knew the chapters would have to alternate among their points of view. That was the first of my novels that did that, actually, and it's something I'm tending to do now with my bigger books. Here, I wanted the reader to see that in these three women there was one ideal woman. In another kind of book, like The Finishing School, you want just one intense point of view. Doing a book in that mode gives me the most pleasure.

The nearest I can get to the theme is expressed by "Cate", when her mother is about to host a meeting of the Book Club on The Scarlet Letter. She says that the main thing to remember about that book is that it asks a very crucial question: Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live? Paradoxically, the more completely you develop your own character, the more useful you are to society. But you can't just be a free spirit; you have to give and blend and become part of a whole that's larger than yourself.

What is the place of A Mother and Two Daughters in your writing life?
In terms of skills and methods, it was breakthrough for me in that I was able to take on a larger population of characters. In terms of career, it was the first book of mine that was a bestseller, and the only one to reach number one on the bestseller list. It also marked the beginning of my financial independence; from that point on, I was able to stay home and write.

What, finally, are the chief pleasures of the writing life for you?
One of the reasons I love to write novels is because it's like getting to meet hidden aspects of yourself. For example, in the novel I'm finishing (The Good Husband), one of the four main characters is a house-husband, who cooks and irons and cleans and plans his daily life with his wife. To create him I had to take away all my preconceptions of what a man like that would be -- and I fell in love with him myself. But in creating him I've also become better acquainted with some of my own caretaking aspects, which have been very much in the background. And that's the paradox; a character may embody an aspect of yourself, but it's a totally different being with a totally different perspective on the world. My biggest pleasure of all is what I can discover about life, about people and about myself through the writing of a book.

Readers who want to learn more about Gail Godwin are encouraged to seek out novels written by some of the authors who have shaped her writing life: George Eliot
Jane Austen
Henry James
D.H. Lawrence
Ford Madox Ford
Charles Dickens

Books by Gail Godwin:
The Perfectionists 1970
Glass People 1972
The Odd Woman 1974
Dream Children 1976
Violet Clay 1978
A Mother and Two Daughters 1982
Mr. Bedford and the Muses 1983
The Finishing School 1985
A Southern Family 1987
Father Melancholy's Daughter 1991
The Good Husband 1994

The board of Directors of the National Book Foundation gratefully acknowledges the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund for generous and ongoing support of "The Writing Life" program. The National Book Foundation also wishes to thank the Federation of State Humanities Councils for the strength of its institutional partnership.

-- Interview by Diane Osen





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