Gail Godwin’s latest crosses a mental boundary
by Rob Neufeld
“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.
he following interview took place on June 3, 2017.
Q: How did you find Marcus?
A: I have 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 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.
Q: When did the ghost part evolve?
A: In Flora (Godwin’s previous novel), Helen (the lead girl) and Flora (her cousin and caretaker) are listening every Tuesday to this radio program, which has suspense and some supernatural element. I had one (tale) 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, and it said, “Keep out. Keep out,” so, of course, he didn’t, and he found this couple living quite well in one of the burnt-out rooms, and he went back every day and talked with them.
They said they couldn’t leave because they were waiting to see if their son would come back. Then one day, the town fathers razed the beach cottage. An old-timer was talking to this boy, and the boy said, “but there were people living there. I saw them,” and he describes them. 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.”
Q: That’s a long way from what you 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.
A: 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.
Q: So, you needed to create Marcus, an orphan at age ten, and that led to other things.
A: 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.
[Photo, below, is by Dion Ogust]
A: 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 that Marcus uses the few times he sees the ghost or feels him. I studied other works, particularly Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner”… It’s never “my hair stood on end” writing. It’s just the opposite.
Q: You’re a student of ghost stories.
A: Mine and the ones I admire all are about human beings when they are in vulnerable places 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.
Q: I wonder how many people will be coming up to you at your programs and telling you their ghost stories.
A: I wish they would… I believe in the ghosts that my people see.
Q: I love your blog, which seems, in part, to be addressing these shaky times and opening new possibilities for you.
A: It does. And it’s given me the freedom of form that I needed. I don’t know what it’s going to lead to, but it’s a lot about being with truth. I just can’t bear not to tell the truth after all that’s been happening.
Q: Doesn’t that open doors, when you say, what is truth here?
A: Oh, yeah. And, you know, 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.
Q: It was impressive when Marcus realized that sleeping in the same bed with his mom was not normal.
A: They had one bed! He didn’t know there was any other way. I did a lot of feeling type research about what it’s 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.
Q: There’s always been a lot of empathy for unfortunate people in your journals and your fiction.
A: Yeah, it hasn’t done them much good.
Q: Are you saying that the connection between what’s going on presently in society and what you have to say through fiction and essays is going to be even stronger?
A: 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. And it’s not like “unfair!” in a tweet.
Q: You started “Grief Cottage” with the line, “Once there was a boy.” Why did you start the book off with a fairy tale?
A: 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 is ‘Once upon a time’ and you’re off.” And I thought, okay, I’ll do that!
Q: Marcus calls his Aunt Charlotte’s vocation of painting her religion.
A: He’s thinking she’s probably the nearest thing he’s known to a hermit. She didn’t go to church and probably painting was the nearest thing she had to religion.
A: Well, at the moment it’s 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.
Q: How long does it take you to do one of those artworks?
A: 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.
Q: “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.)
If it is 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.
Q: 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.
A: 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.
Rob Neufeld is the author of six books and a book review and regional history columnist for the Citizen-Times. Visit his website, “The Read On WNC” at TheReadonWNC.ning.com.” Contact him at RNeufeld@charter.net or 828-505-1973.
See Gail Godwin’s blog and website at www.gailgodwin.com.
“Writer with company,” colored pencil artwork by Gail Godwin.