Gail Godwin reveals publishing world and more
by Rob Neufeld
Gail Godwin’s new book, “Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir,” issues a fascinating stream of stories about her writing life and our publishing culture. It’s a great read. Different critics are putting their fingers on different key aspects of the narration.
That’s because it’s natural to do that. The book pools many currents.
Let’s put our finger on one that will be of special interest to us here, as well as to world-wide Godwin readers: Godwin’s relationship with her mother, the late Asheville native, Kathleen Krahenbuhl Godwin Cole, to whose memory the book is dedicated.
Daughter and mother
“If I wrote about my mother as an archetype,” Godwin told me in a recent interview, “she might make the cut as a new archetype.”
Insights gleaned from “Publishing” add to the mystery of mom.
“In 2050,” Godwin pondered in the interview, “some graduate student is going to be desperate for a subject, and will say, ‘I’m going to write about Gail Godwin and her mother. There hasn’t ever been a book about the intricacies of a woman writer and her mother, where there’s writing from both of them.”
The first chapter in “Publishing” is titled “Publishing Hunger: The Girls Who Wrote,” referring to Gail and Kathleen.
Kathleen had been an ardent and subtle writer who, as a mother and divorcee, made money adapting her fiction to the strictures of popular romance.
Gail had witnessed this concession. She had also grown up in the spell of her mother’s story-making and character-acting games with her.
At Chapel Hill, Gail came away from her first literary rejection—an Alfred A. Knopf scout had deemed Gail’s five pages about an ambitious hotel busboy “not right for us”—with thoughts about her mother’s years at UNC.
“I headed up the quad,” Godwin recalls, writing about journalism class in Bynum Hall. The building was “directly adjacent to the sunny Greek Revival temple which housed the Playmakers Theater, where my mother as a graduate student had written, directed, designed, and acted in her own plays...I walked in my mother’s own footsteps.”
Through mother’s eyes
Frances Halsband contributes an ink drawing of Kathleen’s view of Bynum, one of 19 of her graceful illustrations accompanying Gail’s text. Another drawing is her imagining of Kathleen’s set for her play, “Borrowed of the Night: A Tragedy of Youth.”
The set had included a window looking out on a Manhattan skyline, much like the one on the cover of “Publishing.”
A mini-theme begins to eddy. After graduating, and while working at Mayview Manor in Blowing Rock, Godwin befriended a businessman, who predicted a glowing career for her, and helped her visualize a triumphant Manhattan gala.
The Manhattan and Washington parties that publishers did throw for Godwin never quite equaled the splendor of the Blowing Rock fantasy; but they were high points in her rise to the top of desirability.
Making one’s bed
Now, thematically, you can link to Chapter 7, subtitled, “Skirmishes and Capitulations,” when Godwin’s market value begins to dip because she had been exploring new themes in literature rather than turning out a series of novels in the vein of her #1 Bestseller, “A Mother and Two Daughters.”
She was at her home with her hardcover editor, when a fax arrived with the paperback edition editors’ staggering suggestions. For the first time, paperback people were involved in the hardcover process. It was a low moment.
Godwin traveled to her late mother’s north Asheville condo, which Gail had bought for Kathleen when Kathleen had divorced Gail’s stepfather.
“Her personality still inhabited its rooms,” Gail writes. “I lay in her big bed and looked out at her view of Elk Mountain and watched the light change.”
There’s much to think and feel here. Godwin’s nephew, Justin, spends time with her in the condo, calling up healing memories of Justin’s dad, Tommy Cole, who’d committed suicide. On the day of Tommy’s funeral, Godwin’s mom had said to her, “You will write Tommy’s story.” (It generated Godwin’s novel, “A Southern Family.”)
The shock of the fax moment is one of many bell-tollings, layered throughout the memoir, that relate what is happening in the publishing world.
You get the overview of the industry through the book’s stories, not through pronouncements.
Another of the publishing stories relates the tragedy of Linda Grey, Godwin’s fifth editor.
Grey had risen up the publishing ladder to become president and publisher of Ballantine Books; and was fired when the German company Bertelsmann bought out Random House and decided to spend no more money on Godwin’s novel, “Evensong.”
Godwin recalls her last dinner with Grey, when “Evensong” had just been released. “The story Linda told me about herself that night was to compress itself over the years into a perfect little horror story of thwarted vocation,” Godwin writes.
What triggered Godwin’s recollection, she said in the interview, was re-reading ‘Wings of the Dove,’ which she calls Henry James at his worst. It had been the assignment that Grey had not been able to master, and she’d dropped out of summer school from Yale after having gotten a teaching degree from SUNY Binghamton.
“She said she had a breakdown and went home, and her father wouldn’t speak with her for the rest of the summer,” Godwin said in the interview. The tale became “an artifact which, to me, represented publishing as it had become.”
Grey “called later and said, ‘Gail, I won’t be able to have dinner with you tonight. I’m going home. And, actually, I’m glad this happened. I couldn’t take it anymore because all the graciousness has gone out of publishing.”
One of 13 themes
“Nobody has thought to ask that obvious question yet,” she replied.
Some of her publishing suggestions are nuts and bolts—stop the return policy with sellers, which clothing makers don’t follow; and publish high quality novels first as trade paperbacks. Other observations are in the book, which may be why interviewers have not followed up.
But there’s also the multiple-current aspect of Godwin’s memoir, which makes commentary on it a little like the six blind men and the elephant story.
For the sake of writing a full review, I will enumerate 13 ways to appreciate Gail’s work: how it’s like Bach’s “The Musical Offering,” full of variations, as Godwin says in her foreword; by following its themes—the mother figure, the quality of “holy daring,” the dance with editors and publishers, ghosts, hospitality, and “working on the ending” of a career; by coming to know many vivid characters, including writers and loved ones; and by gaining insight into a writer’s work, the healing role of literature, and, of course, the publishing world.
“Working on the Ending” is, appropriately, the title of Godwin’s third volume of journals, which I have edited and just sent to her. This book will reveal yet another big theme in “Publishing,” which is Godwin’s interest in archetypes, with which she invents dialogues (included in the published journals) that become surprisingly particular in their details.
“Publishing,” riding its title subject through time, exemplifies Godwin’s method—which is to tell stories in a confiding voice, enlarge resonances as much as possible, and care for each character caught up in the current of her tale. Hers is a style that presents material in a way that allows for maximum meditativeness.
Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir by Gail Godwin, drawings by Frances Halsband (Bloomsbury hardcover, Jan. 13, 2015, 224 pages, $25)
Gail Godwin, photo by David Hermon/Bloomsbury Press)