Gail Godwin talks about Grief Cottage
“Grief Cottage” is the story of an orphaned, sensitive, troubled boy, named Marcus, who develops a relationship with a ghost.
Godwin has now published 18 novels, two collections of stories, two works of non-fiction, two volumes of narrative journals, and several libretti. Three novels have been National Book Award finalists; and five, best-sellers.
For the event, I will be having a conversation with Gail. Over the last two decades, I have enjoyed a friendship and working relationship with her, editing her journals and working on the book, “The Art of Becoming: An Appreciation of the Fiction of Gail Godwin.”
The following interview took place on June 3.
THE FULL INTERVIEW
R: In Grief Cottage, how did you find your orphan character, Marcus?
G: I thought of him for a long time, and he didn’t have a name. The ghost part of it evolved. He was staying with some people for the summer and was lonely, and walked down the beach and there was this house, and there was a couple sitting on the porch, and he went to visit them every day, and they were so nice to him. They seemed to have time for him. That was just in my mind.
R: When did the ghost part evolve?
G: In Flora, Helen and Flora are listening to this radio program every Tuesday, which has suspense and some supernatural element. I had one ready because I remembered one from my childhood; and then I had to think of one for the next week. And so I brought out [the boy]—he still didn’t have a name—and this time he was with an aunt who made little gee-gaws at the beach that made her money and she was always talking about how she’d always supported herself. She was kind of a comic character.
And he went off every morning by himself, and there was this house that had burned down and it said, “Keep out. Keep out,” so, of course, he didn’t, and he found this couple living quite well in one of these burnt out rooms. He went back every day and talked with them. And they said they couldn’t leave because they were waiting to see if their son would come back.
Then one day, the town fathers destroyed the beach cottage. An old-timer was talking to this boy, and the boy said, “but there were people living there. I saw them.” He describes them, and the man says, “Well, actually I’m old enough to remember, and they did look like that, but, son, if I were you, I’d just keep that to myself.
R: Wow, that’s a long way from what you eventually did with “Grief Cottage,” in which the aunt is a painter with a repressed past; and there’s only one ghost, a boy, who’s more troubled than Marcus.
G: It is a long way. Probably what brought it to a head is I was staying on an island three summers ago with my sister. We had rented a house together and she had both of her grown sons and her grandson. There were just a lot of boys around. And I saw how all these males were loved, and I thought, “It’s so important how you start off, whether you believe you’re a loved one, or you believe nobody sees you.”
R: So, you needed to create Marcus, an orphan at age 11, unloved, and that led to other things.
G: He thinks he’s more unloved than he is.
G: He is loved, even from the beginning, by his aunt, who’s kind of a cold sort who likes to be alone. But he thinks he’s alone, and also he’s very big on death. In those first weeks I was writing about him, everything on the beach was sending him a message, he thought, and some were good and some weren’t good—as some (individuals) would make it and some wouldn’t—you know, like the shelled creatures trying to dig themselves back into the sand before they got eaten by the birds.
R: We’ve talked about the evolution of ghost presences in your fiction, up to Grief Cottage, in which the ghost is actually seen. How do you make such a ghost part of a psychologically realistic novel?
G: Skill-wise, it took a lot of work because I had to figure out just where on the spectrum it was going to cross over. I wanted it to be a realistic novel… even in the language Marcus uses the few times he sees the ghost or feels him. I studied other works, particularly Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner,” about a man who comes back after living abroad for 30 years and tries to meet the man he would have been if he’d stayed home. It’s basic Henry James, you know. He goes on and on; and it’s very complex and winds itself around. But the choice of language—it’s never “my hair stood on end” writing. It’s just the opposite. I did a lot of work on that.
R: You’re a student of ghost stories.
G: Mine and the ones I admire all are about human beings when they are in a vulnerable place in their lives, either when they’ve transferred to some new place or their psyche is loose from the rest of them. You always have a membrane around you. In those times when things are shaky and you’re on the verge of the supernatural, the membrane is very thin. When Helen goes for that walk and faints, you get near the edge and you go over.
R: I wonder how many people will coming up to you at your programs and telling you their ghost stories.
G: I wish they would. I believe in the ghosts that my people see.
R: You’re made to feel, because of the way Marcus talks and his intelligence that he is mentally healthy, but he himself begins to worry that there’s something psychologically wrong with him.
G: Right. He worries and he’s very diligent about keeping the different worlds separate and saying no no no. At one time, he catches himself and says, “What was I thinking? I was actually thinking I was going to take my bike and show it to the ghost. He wouldn’t have necessarily been happy about that because he couldn’t have had one like that. And, second of all, I’ve crossed over. You can’t cross over and think, “Now I’ll go show this ghost my new bike as you’d show a friend your new bike.
R: I love your blogs. In one [#11], you talk about playing on a “witch’s hat” in a playground and reaching out to one girl from your childhood, saying, “Julia, are you out there?”
G: You still out there?
R: That opens up the blog to new possibilities.
G: It does. And it’s given me the freedom of form that I really needed. I don’t know what it’s going to lead to, but it’s a lot to be with truth. I just can’t bear not to tell the truth after all that’s been happening. I just want to be absolutely candid, if I can. And that’s why I went back and added. In a paragraph, I had put, “I have prayed in pews. I have prayed in the MRI machine.” And then I went back and wrote, “I have prayed in pews, “I have pretended to pray in pews” because I had pretended to pray in pews quite a lot, actually.
R: That opens things up, too, asking, “What is truth here?”
G: Oh, yeah. Samuel Johnson said there is no person that’s ever lived on this earth, however obscure, whose story wouldn’t be fascinating if it were told truly… I actually read the whole biography of Samuel Johnson, and he has this—it’s almost like a novella in his works, it’s this story of an unfortunate man, and it’s riveting.
R: There are so many stories. Marcus narrates his. What does he look like from another’s view?
G: You can tell a little bit. He is aware of how people see him. At the beginning of the summer, the sunburnt man says, “I wouldn’t walk too far till I got in shape,” so he realizes that he’s overweight. Then, he also realizes that Aunt Charlotte has no mirrors that go below the chin, and he’s gone a long time without looking at the rest of himself. When he’s going into the market, he parks his bike and goes in and he sees this teenage boy in good shape with a bicycle helmet on, and he thinks, “Oh, he could he a friend”—and it’s him.
R: So, you made that mirror in order to reinforce that theme.
G: That’s right. And it worked because Aunt Charlotte wouldn’t have a mirror. She’d just have the bathroom mirror.
R: How do make things come together like that?
G: It all comes at once. It’s just “Oh.” “Oh, of course,” he looks in the mirror and there’s only one in the house, and he can’t see the rest of himself, and he’s not sure he would like what he sees if he saw it.
R: Is having these “oh” moments like the prayer you talk about in your blog, opening up to silence?
G: I think not. When I’m writing, I’m in another state of alertness, and following the character from room to room; and it’s different from living in my body and discovering that it’s just a good thing to shut up and try not to think of anything. I’m not a good meditator. I’ve never been patient—but to just float on the silence. There’s so much of it here. You can actually hear it, it’s a humming sound like the humming of your blood when it’s really silent. They’re two different things. The writing one is more like a searchlight at night that goes round and round and round, looking for something. And the other is just closed eyes; dark, dark night.
R: It was impressive when Marcus came to the realization that sleeping in his mom’s bed was not normal.
G: They had just one bed! As he told his friend, the poor sometime sleep four to a bed, facing horizontally. He didn’t know there was any other way. Also, I did a lot of feeling-type research about what it would like to be really poor, and going to get your school pencils and having to choose the ones that don’t have Batman on them because they’re 27 cents cheaper. And how his mother looks at people and she says, “Oh, that hair is a three-color process.” She knows expensive things; she just can’t have them. And also how badly helpless people are treated, as with the landlady, Mrs. Wicket, and her mother, Mrs. Harm—called “Wicked and Harm”—how she (Wicket) takes advantage of them, and says, “Oh, I can take a little off your rent if Marcus will come and sit with my mother till I get home,” and she saves on an extra caregiver. And then she keeps upping the ante. People get taken advantage of when they’re powerless. So, there’s a lot of that in there.
R: There’s always been a lot of empathy for unfortunate people in your journals and your fiction.
G: Yeah, it hasn’t done them much good.
R: Are you saying that the connection between what’s going on in society and what you have to say through fiction and essays is going to be even stronger?
G: I think it’s going to be because I can feel it. When I write something, I think, “Is this true?” I think as Orwell did, how much in the world is unfair [see Blog #8]. And it’s not like “unfair!” in a tweet.
R: What kinds of things do you think you’ll be writing about in your blog?
G: I don’t know; that’s the strange thing. I have a good part of a novel, and my mind is somewhere else. So, I’ll just have to wait and see. And it may be because really, at last, I really am old enough to do what I damn please and to go a different way. I just don’t know what the way is.
R: I’ve always thought that one of your great missions as a writer is being literature’s medium between the conscious and the unconscious.
G: Ah. That’s worth doing.
R: In your work, you show many different ways to bridge that divide, which for you is a thinner membrane than it is for other people, don’t you think?
G: It is, but I think some people have a thinner one and they’ve just gone insane. There are a lot of people who are sensitive and just didn’t make it because they’re too sensitive, they just can’t go on.
R: Well, you have close familiarity with that type. Some have committed suicide.
G: Ohh! Oh, that old thing. I can understand that so well. I can understand someone just saying, “Okay, that’s enough. I’m ashamed enough, I’m tired of being ashamed, so that’s the end of that.”
R: You started “Grief Cottage” with the line, “Once there was a boy.” Why did you start the book off with a fairy tale?
G: I had come back from the beach, and I was sitting on the porch here while the men put in a new microwave, and I was thinking, how am I going to start this book, and I was reading Phillip Pullman’s retelling of Grimm’s fairy tales. I was reading that and read a sentence by him, and he said, “Actually, all you need to say ‘Once upon a time’ and you’re off.” And I thought, okay, I’ll do that!
R: When Marcus gets to know his Aunt Charlotte, he observes, “painting was the closest thing to religion” for her.
G: He’s thinking about it later, and he’s thinking she’s probably the nearest thing I’ve known to a hermit. She didn’t go to church and probably painting was the nearest thing she had to religion.
R: How does your artwork works for you?
G: Well, at the moment it’s just so important. It seems—this is all since the election—it seems that through drawing, I’m able to express rage and contempt and awe and violent emotions. I’m able to tap into raw emotions without the medium of words. It’s a way to get someplace fast.
R: How long does it take you to do one of those artworks?
G: Two or three hours. I work them up. I start off and then I have a kind of an idea of where it should go. I have a draftsman’s eraser; I use it a lot. By the time I put the fine layers on it of pencils, different colors, it’s sometimes two or three hours. And those are hours in which I’m lost.
R: “Grief Cottage” is your second novel from a child’s point of view in a row. Before that, there was “Unfinished Desires,” which featured many young students, along with teachers and parents. How does one enter the mind of a child?
A: Actually, read my piece in today’s “Wall Street Journal.” It’s about children’s minds, and how it (the writing) is done.
(The essay, titled “Gail Godwin on Young Minds,” appeared in the “Five Best” column in the June 3 WSJ.)
R: How does one enter the mind of a child? It seems so remote to most people.
G: If it’s done well, there’s no difference. You just go right into the feeling, and instead of a person who’s four-foot-tall feeling something, it’s a person who’s six-foot-tall feeling something. One is called a child, and one isn’t, but it’s the same feeling of being overlooked or being alone or being wanted or unwanted. You start with those big emotions, not with, “I’m now going to write about a child.” Children, as you know, they don’t go around thinking, “I’m a child.” They go around thinking, “I am it”—I mean, if they’re lucky children.
R: There was a very moving moment in the novel when grown-up Marcus begins to feel the terror he hadn’t felt in a long time. “I hated it when these clusters started to form,” he says.
G: Oh, those. The cluster there is Aunt Charlotte leaving. That’s part of Aunt Charlotte having left in the ambulance (when he was a child), that’s part of Coral Upchurch (another major character from that time) having left in an ambulance, that’s part of his mother leaving to get the pizza (on the night she died). It’s this cluster of things that has bonded together like some kind of chemical, and it’s hard to fight because it’s strong, so you just have to go down into the nucleus of it and wait.
[Photo of Gail Godwin by Dion Ogust]