A dialogue with Gail Godwin.
Our meeting with Godwin took place in a way we could not have expected. When we called her the night before the interview from Woodstock's Grand Union for directions to her house, she invited us to stay in her guest house. In twenty minutes, she appeared at the Millstream Motel, where we had checked in for the night. Thus our dialogue began, not with tape recorder and pen and notebook but out in the open, in the gathering darkness and the chills of an autumn evening. In my nervous excitement, I felt awkward and tentative, but the hearty welcome hug Godwin gave me was more than reassuring. As we rode through the narrow, winding country road, we chatted freely, as if we had met before.
We stopped at the end of the road in front of a cedar house, blessed, Godwin told us, by both an Episcopal priest and a Rabbi. The lights were on, and there was fresh bread, honey, tea, crackers, and English candies on the counter, and milk and jam in the refrigerator. We gathered afterwards that Godwin must have come to the house before she went out to meet us, turning on the heat and getting out the food.
Refreshed by the quiet night in Godwin's cozy guest house and invigorated by the brisk autumn morning air in the woods, we walked up the steep hill to Godwin's house on top of the hill. Both quite out of breath, we entered her capacious living room, full of light and space, charming with elegance and simplicity. Dressed in sweater and pants, Godwin greeted us with genuine delight, her two Siamese cats running around with a cheerful friendliness. We went out to the deck to enjoy a bird's-eye view of the scenery: not much color left in the leaves, yet autumn's fullness and expansiveness stretching ahead freely and endlessly, beyond what eves could see.
The interview began with Godwin speaking of her new novel, Father Melancholy's Daughter, published in March 1991.
Godwin: Father Melancholy's Daughter is the story of Margaret, the daughter of an Episcopal priest. Her mother has run away, and so she and her father have more or less grown up together. Her father is a melancholy person; he suffers from what they would now call depression. But he would rather call it melancholy. He is that kind of man. And Margaret takes very good care of him. She is a caretaker. The story is told from her point of view. Margaret is twenty-two years old, looking back on her life so far. The story opens when Margaret is six years old, the day her mother leaves the rectory. Her mother goes off with an old friend from school, Madelyn Farley, and she never comes back. Age six to age twenty-two of the heroine's life is treated. Chronological time is 1972 until 1988.
Xie: You've mentioned elsewhere you alternate between "major-key" and "minor-key" novels. Last night, I read your most recent interview, in which you talked about this book. From your description, this novel has chapters dealing with the liturgy, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer. It looks like a major-key novel to me.
Godwin: No, it feels like a minor-key novel to me, although it has my "major-key" chapter titles, because the material was so rich, with all the church lore and the liturgy and the hymns of the Episcopal Church. Most chapters also have epigraphs at the beginning, quotes from John Donne, religious poetry, quotes from her father's sermons. But, when I think of minor key, I also mean the musical sense. A minor key is not resolved; it's an off-note, sinister. It has more shadows in it.
Xie: You once used "sinister" to describe The Finishing School.
Godwin: Yes, this is very much like, in terms of tone, The Finishing School in that it's less of a social novel, although there's much about society in it. It's more a novel about the making of a soul, a soul discovering itself, and discovering how other people are components of your own soul. You know, the different people you meet in your life, whether you like them or not, sometimes you don't like them, they represent parts of you, so it's got that element, although it's probably my most simply written novel. This may have something to do with my word processor; it's the first novel I wrote on my word processor. Whatever the reason, Father Melancholy's Daughter is written in a much plainer style than, for instance, A Southern Family, which I was looking at the other night. I found the writing there much denser; you have to sometimes go back and re-read a sentence, and then follow it through once more to get all the threads of it.
Xie: You were speaking of the making of a soul, the components of the self, how you're related to other people . . . These are important ideas in your writing. Can you elucidate on the way they are important to you?
Godwin: I think it's getting less important as I follow it through. That's what this book has shown me. One of the characters in Father Melancholy, the father, is talking to another priest, and he says, you have to first try to figure out who your parents were, and what you were in relation to them, and then what you are in relation to other people and then, he says, this is the difficult part, then you have to go on to discover beyond the who of your self into the what, what you are in the human drama, or the body of God. That's where this book more or less stops - with that question. The daughter is beginning to ask it about herself. After you finish - I mean you never do quite finish - knowing who your parents were and who you are, then you must go on to discover what you are: a seer, a doer, a helper, a savior, an instigator, an explicator, a pollinator, one of those bigger categories of human activity than just the personal who.
Xie: It seems you're using "discovering the soul" in a religious sense here. Is spiritual quest a new direction in your writing? Have you become more interested in the spiritual aspects of life?
Godwin: I have always been interested in spiritual aspects. In this book, I couch it in a religious setting, a formally religious setting. There he is celebrating the masses, lighting the candles, putting the right stuff out, all the symbols and ceremonies. But I continue to be interested in the spiritual; it's just another way to see life. It's a symbolic enactment of the important moments in the human drama. It permeates everything. Maybe as one gets older, it permeates things more. But I'm not sure that I'll continue to write about organized religion. I wanted to do it for this book, I wanted the church setting as microcosm of the human story, with all the people in it, the devout ones, the trouble makers, the gossips, the people who keep things moving, the people who stop things. In each of my books, what people do, their actual jobs, are very important, whether they paint, or practice law, or act, or play the piano, or teach. In my new book, the main woman character is an architect. This book, My Last Protege, will also have to do with the soul's journey in the sense that the field of architecture will be seen as a correlative for ways to co-exist with other people. Making a good building means you must take into consideration what else is around it, what's going to be affected by it, how it will be affected by what surrounds it, how it will interact with its surroundings at different times of the day. And it's the same with human beings - we can, we all have enormous power to influence other people and to change them or to give them new thoughts, or to stifle them. I want to develop this correlative between the kind of building she does as a profession and her evolving relations with the people in her life and her community. So it will be about soul and spirit, and relatedness, the human community. But I'm not sure any major character in this new book will go to church.
Xie: Is your new book going to be major-key, or do you know?
Godwin: it will also be minor-key. And then the one after that, which will have many of the same people in it, will be another major-key, with multiple points of view. My Last Protege will be another first-person narrative. That's the first time I have gone from one first-person narrative straight into another. It's mainly about love. It's about erotic love. She goes to the funeral of a friend, a contemporary. Standing there is a man that she went to high school with. He was once a fat boy, and a strange boy, whom she transformed. She taught him how to be attractive and elusive, and she taught him about sex. And here it is, almost thirty years later, she looks up there and sees this very attractive, rather elusive, man standing there. And it all starts. And so in a way she falls in love with something that she helped to make. And well, there are other questions. [Godwin showed us her scrapbooks, filled with pictures of people, houses, and other things that resemble her mind image of her characters and their surroundings. Scrapbooks, she explained, are an essential part of her writing.] I always do this when I start a new book, you know, I need to find pictures of the characters. I found this chalk-drawing portrait in a book of Georges Seurat done by a friend. He has the face I want my elusive man to have. But I didn't want him to have the beard, so I covered that with a strip of paper. And so, anyway, it's about love, and how far can you take Eros - can you actually marry Eros, can you marry Eros and keep him that way? Or does he turn into something more mundane, (an you actually marry this elusive thing? Or is it perhaps that Eros is just one of those components in the human spirit that awakens and quickens you, gets you ready for whatever you are supposed to do next, then flits away? I think that's what I probably will find, but I'm not going to prejudge.
Xie: One of your interviewers mentioned that every literary academic woman identified with Jane Clifford [in The Odd Woman]. When I read that, I wondered whether I identified with her or not. You see, I am not even an American. I am from a very different culture. But in some sense I do identify with your heroines. I remember thinking a great deal about The Finishing School. One of the things that attracts me most in that book is the idea of constant striving, the struggle to keep growing, to revitalize and redefine yourself. You don't stop somewhere along the way and become . . .
Xie: Right, congealed. Speaking of this striving and growth, I've noticed that most of your major characters are female; men are less important in your fiction. Your fiction so far has been female-centered.
Godwin: Yes, I think so. I didn't set out and say, "I'm going to write female-centered fiction." I just wouldn't say it or even think about it. But naturally being a woman, being born into a woman's body, going through fifty-three years as a woman, I'm going to be more attuned to that kind of character. Whether it's the feminine in a female or the feminine part of a man - there are large amounts of the feminine in men. There is both of us; there is both in all of us, the masculine principle and the feminine principle. The fiction I write calls for much of the feminine treatment, I mean the relatedness, the deep concern with relationships and subtle relations and motives, and why someone is doing that. For instance, Henry James is a man, but he was a very feminine writer. His novels are about very subtle relationships between people and very finely drawn moral attenuation, the kind of things you notice and sit and think about. I think that I often get into this. I feel I have to apologize for having so many women in my novels.
Xie: I don't think you have to.
Godwin: But I often get that feeling, when interviewers say, well, you certainly have a lot of women. And then I think nobody has ever said . . . hey you have a lot of men in your book. It's natural for me to be attracted to the female soul since I've got one. I'm also very attracted to the male, but . . .
Kulikoff: After I read The Odd Woman, and thought about my own life, I said to myself, "That sounded like me!"
Godwin: Oh, thank you!
Kulikoff: I'm very much the odd man, in many of the ways Jane Clifford was an odd woman.
Godwin: Exactly! I think on that level. When I grew up, many books I read had male heroes and I identified with them since that was what I had. I identified with David Copperfield and Bomba the Jungle Boy and Pip. Most of the people who went anywhere and did anything were men in most books. So if I wanted to go anywhere and do anything, I had to identify with them. It's back to soul again. It's the soul that you identify with, the kind of spiritual self that makes up the character. I always feel I should be writing about more men. You know you can only do so much. And I have to take for my material what interests me at the time. So far it seems to have been women.
Xie: You mean when you were writing A Southern Family, you didn't just decide to have more men?
Godwin: No. I knew the structure of that book was tied up with the population of the book. It was about a family, and I wanted to demonstrate in fiction how everybody's viewpoint is so different. It's sometimes a 180-degree difference. I knew that in this book I had to do every family member. Now if there had been fifteen women and one man in the family, I'd have done fifteen women and one man. But there happened to be - one, two, three, four, no, five men, counting Clare's Felix. So there were five of them and they had to be done, and I wanted them to have absolutely the same time and authority as the other characters.
Xie: I have to admit your major-key novels are an acquired taste for me. The first book I read was The Finishing a School. l'm deeply drawn to that kind of psychological intensity. When I read A Mother and Two Daughters for the first time, I felt a little lost, with three major characters, many minor characters and a lot of incidents and episodes. But as I read it, and A Southern Family, again and again trying to understand what you were doing there, I fell in love with the kind of expansiveness you find in these two novels, especially A Southern Family. Can you elucidate on the structure of that novel? It's so different from your other novels, even from A Mother and Two Daughters. It gives you an overwhelming sense of density, diversity, with so many voices competing against each other to the point of chaos. You begin to wonder how anybody can make meaning out of such fragmentariness, when everyone believes in their own truth.
Godwin: That's exactly what I started out thinking and so I gave myself certain limits. I said it all has to take place within the year following Theo's death, and I'll have all their points of view. It still wasn't perfectly symmetrical: one chapter was a hundred and twenty pages, and one chapter was twenty-seven pages. The chapter that was a hundred and twenty pages, the one called "No Saints," has within that chapter, I think, everybody's point of view.
Xie: Almost a microcosm of the entire novel.
Godwin: Yes, that's right. But most of the other chapters are just one point of view.
Xie: You also said that certain characters - Ralph and know - were alien to you, outsiders you didn't particularly want to understand. You had to make a special effort to do them.
Godwin: I did. And it certainly does pay off. I put more into them really, and I think they came off quite well. In terms of just the technical success, Snow's chapter is my favorite. It has a life in it. It has a liveliness that could be the very newness of the Snows of the world. It's fresh, raw, tart, like biting into a radish or something.
Xie: You did extremely well with Snow. She is so different from your other characters, those who live on an intense, imaginative level. Snow just sits there and watches television and takes care of her baby. I can't imagine you approving her way of life. How would you personally respond to her?
Godwin: The Snows of the world fascinate me. In fact, there was a predecessor to Snow in A Mother and Two Daughters.
Xie: Wickie Lee?
Godwin: Yes, and I'm going to have a new one in my new book, called Fern. These girls - so far they've been girls - they fascinate me. It's like looking on something totally different from the way I think and feel. Yet I know there are similarities. It's fascinating to find out. What is it about these girls who really don't particularly think about striving? But they like to have things go their way. They interest me. It could be that sort of situation you get into in which the imaginative person imagines into someone less complex things that the less complex person would never have dreamed of. And yet what difference does it make? If something stimulates your imagination, then maybe something good will come out of it. My, only rule is to follow what's hot. A character in my Father Melancholy book, a woman who is a stage designer - she is the one the mother runs off with - she talks about her "hot wand." She thinks of herself as a magician and she's got this wand and when it gets hot she just follows it and it lands on something, usually it lands on the church. And I have a hot wand, too. I follow what attracts me at any given time. Sometimes . . ., it hasn't happened yet for quite a while, but I have started novels, thinking I was interested in something, and then I realized that the interest was not a sustaining interest; it just passed.
Xie: As a reader, I see how your fiction evolves. For a long time, you wrote about middle-class women with intellectual and cultural concerns, but more recently you seem to take an interest in blacks and poor whites. How would you explain this - moving beyond middle-class female experience?
Godwin: It's just the more I write, and the more characters I make and write about, the more I feel I am enlarging myself and you know, you do finish with something after a while. You do finish with all the corners of the middle class and how they furnish their houses and how they set their tables, what they think about at night and what they dream about. The only trouble is, with what we call the less privileged, the very fact that you're less privileged means you do not have the time or the energy to think and imagine and dream and build great castles in the air. So if you're trying to imagine a deprived person's imaginative life, you may be tempted into some fallacies. You may start putting your own leisured imagination into them. That's something I am aware of. How much imagination can a person who's sleeping outside in the cold have? Maybe a lot, but I would rather doubt. You know that when you're really hungry, when you have the flu or something, you know what it does to your head - you just do not have all your rooms open; you don't feel fully aware.
Kulikoff- Listening to you describe your next two novels, what you didn't say struck me more fully than what you did say.
Godwin: That's always interesting.
Kulikoff: One of the things I found most fascinating in your novels is your sense of place and time. Except for your first two novels, you draw the time and place in a way an historian makes sense of.
Godwin: You say except for the first two novels?
Kulikoff: They occur outside of real place and time. They could take place anywhere. I know you said you're not a Southern novelist, you're not a Faulkner writing about one family for twenty-five years. Still, most of your work has a Southern element. Let me give several examples that are striking to me: your portrait of Charleston after the war in Violet Clay, your portrait of Fredericksburg in the 1950s in The Finishing School, and of course your Asheville (I presume it's Asheville), your Mountain City descriptions in several novels. Where does the South stand? Your later novels in particular seem to take place more in the South, as Southern expatriates remember the South or go back to it. And A Southern Family took place entirely in the South.
Godwin: And this new one is going to be too. And this one I just finished is in the South. I wouldn't like to say the South.
Kulikoff: There're many Souths.
Godwin: Certainly. Asheville. I can sit up here in Woodstock and be totally in something called Asheville, which of course isn't Asheville anymore. But it's a state of mind that I go into, and the state of mind that's most fruitful for me at the moment is a place that's connected in many ways with the Asheville of my childhood and with certain cities that I've visited and known since: Charleston, Pawley's Island, . . . elements of Virginia that you can't get in North Carolina. Virginia's got; a different kind of pride. They're more conscious of themselves as aristocrats, as being there first. North Carolina has a lot of frontier still in its demeanor. It's one thing that frustrates me about Asheville and attracts me about Asheville. Asheville is really an isolationist state of mind. It sits off by itself, and the mountains are all around it, and you can't get in and you can't go out. It's stubborn and ornery. The novel I just finished, although it's set in a place I made up, called Romulus, Virginia, most of the book takes place in the church or around the church or on the corner. The corner itself I simply cut out of Asheville, North Carolina, like a little collage, and stuck it into a place called Romulus.
Kulikoff: I find your statement about your use of childhood memories provocative. And yet some of your novels strike a counterpose, taking place in some long-ago South but full of details of the contemporary South. In A Mother and Two Daughters, today's South, from the Research Triangle Park, to modern Charlotte, to expressways all appear. You seem to superimpose the newest South on your memories.
Godwin: The emotional tone is set in that past, but then the story line - because I do like to write about right now, right now, so I put all those things in, the throughways, the interracial marriage at the end. I don't think I know of a marriage like that, although I'm sure there are some. But I would say that my connection to the real South is an emotional connection, an imaginative connection. But then on top of that I put these overlays of actual, new buildings and current events.
Kulikoff: So, your novels are set in contemporary time, but are shaped by an emotional tone of the earlier Souths of your childhood. This reminds me of a statement by C. Vann Woodward, the dean. of Southern historians, who argued evocatively about white Southerners' omnipresent sense of history, with large components of frustration, failure, and defeat," in part because they lost a great war. It's not simply that your characters have a history. Even when your novels are set in the present, I think that the whole architecture of the novel has a history. I'm wondering if you agree with that, if you could elucidate if you do.
Godwin: You mean the novels have precedents of novels before them?
Kulikoff: No, I mean they seem to be historical in that all the characters go back in time, and come forward in time, and have a personal history in the South. So Julia, the historian in A Southern Family, feels guilt about her husband's slave-holding ancestors and wants to write about the slave family.
Godwin: When I begin a novel, it has these great underpinnings, all these notes I'm doing now; many of them will never appear in any way in the novel, but I have to know who my characters are, certainly the parents and usually a lot more, what materials they are made out of. That can go back quite a way.
Xie: A Southern Family has a long section of Clare researching Southern history.
Godwin: That's right. They're interested in the past too. They're interested in history also in a very deep way. What was this before it was this? But I have a feeling you're asking something I haven't answered.
Kulikoff: I think you've answered it. Historians don't think like novelists.
Godwin: What do you mean?
Kulikoff: All your answers are evocative and come out of the personalities and histories of your characters. I'm superimposing my own historical interests on them. But as an historian, looking at your novels, I envision the history of Southern society, especially broader structures of society like race and class, for example. They're primary and it almost doesn't matter to me that your novels are about white middle-class Southern women. They are embedded in the tragic racial history of the South even if no black character appears. There may have been few blacks historically in Asheville but your Charleston or Fredericksburg is a society where blacks are omnipresent, they're part of it. Maybe I superimpose these structural issues like class and race on your novels when they are not there.
Godwin: I think I'm aware that a character - a character is a human being for me. A human being cannot exist outside of their context. If they do it's the kind of fiction I just hate - you know, this kind of fiction where everyone is wrapped in cotton wool and they go from place to place, and it could be anyplace, like Glass People. That was sort of an awful experiment to see if I could get away from all of this. Because it's handicapping to bring all your truckload of culture with you. It means a lot more research. For instance, in this new book, I'm not just going to research architecture. If she's an architect and if she grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, which is Mountain City, and in a family where the men have been architects, then we're going to have to go back into North Carolina buildings and North Carolina practices and corruption. Why things were built certain ways, and why built out of brick rather than stone or wood rather than something else. The minute you really take a human being seriously, you cannot cut them out of their culture. What you're seeing in my novels, I think, is that I take them so seriously, that I don't cut them out. They come, my people, inextricably from their backgrounds.
Xie: You were saying how you felt about Glass People. I struggled most with it and The Perfectionists. They had interesting themes but I wasn't quite sure of your intentions or my interpretation of your intentions. I couldn't decide what you were trying to do.
Godwin: But I couldn't either! I'm more certain of my own intentions now, too. That second novel, Glass People, though, that was a willed thing. When I wrote Glass People, I was studying for my Ph.D. comprehensives that year. Yet I thought if I were really a good person, a smart person, I would be able to write a novel at the same time. And I did. I had . . . all my books went to my bedroom. It was such an interesting year. I went more and more into bed. And then I had stacks of books everywhere and charts and it all made perfect sense to me.
Xie: Let's come back to your use of place. Your Southern daughters all seem to have an ambiguous relationship with their birthplace. A lot of them leave the South but could not really escape. But Lydia is a different kind of character. As a married woman, she's much more positively drawn than Dane and Francesca.
Xie: She stays in the South and becomes successful, making a positive identity out of her Southern heritage - you know, grace and tact, things most women in your fiction find crippling. Lydia particularly makes me wonder how you feel about the ideal of Southern Womanhood. You once wrote an essay fiercely attacking it, but your Southern characters are in one way or another sympathetic.
Godwin: I was much fiercer than I would be now. I think I myself have drawn so much from it. I have found it an enormous wellspring for me, this whole Southern heritage and Southern womanhood. It can be of great use. I mean just some of the things that I would formerly have made fun of, what I used to accuse my mother of - for instance, I used to call her a tight-rope walker. She was always doing a balancing act, keeping the peace, keeping herself separate but appearing to be part of things. Now I see that, though this type of behavior has a negative side, it can also be very useful. It means becoming aware what you're really doing. If you lie to yourself about it then you're cutting off part of the meaning. So you have to differentiate between when it's being used to cover up and when it's being used to open up.
Xie: Earlier you said one never completely finishes with something, but sometimes you do finish something for a while and go on to something new. Are you finished with married women? After your first two novels, you seem to have deserted them. I can think of only two married characters: Nell and Sonia. Are single women more interesting to you as characters? Or do you think most marriages in today's society are still too constraining for women to maintain a strong sense of self?
Godwin: As you talk, all I'm thinking about is the book I've just begun to write. That book is going to end with a marriage. I know, one of the few things I know for sure is that there's going to be a marriage, although the so-called world will have catty things to say about it. "That woman, she's certainly been used!" All these things are always on several levels and marriage, in the next novel, will not be just about going down to the church or to the registry office. Maybe I'm ready in my development as an artist for the concept of marriage again. For a while, I was not. It was the solitary quest. Now I see that at the end of that, after you go on the solitary quest and find out what you have to find out, if you don't come back to share it and make bonds with other people, it's like you are refusing another mission.
Kulikoff: This brings up a question that gets into artistry and differences between genres. In one of your interviews, you said that you'd love to see a movie of The Finishing School. Have you thought about how you can translate such an introspective book, with such a bang in the end, into a very different genre like film?
Godwin: I wouldn't know how to do it myself. But of all my books, I could best see it as a film. When I wrote the book, I saw the scenes, and I felt the evocative power of them. I could hear the music and I could envision the settings; I could feel the intensity. And I think that if the right person made the movie . . . Did you ever see the movie "My Brilliant Career"? It's an Australian movie by a woman film maker. It's wonderful. You see in the beginning of it this girl sitting at the piano on the outback, I mean it's really rough - pigs and a dust storm going up. She's sitting there playing "Scenes from Childhood." The Finishing School could be done, but I'm quite aware that it could be ruined.
Kulikoff: It could be a wonderful movie. You're dealing with a woman drawn by memories yet living in the present. It would take an awful lot of subtlety, not just flashbacks, to capture that.
Godwin: It would.
Xie: Is it one of your goals to reach a broader audience than you can reach through your novels?
Godwin: No, I don't care. I really don't care, although I can hear certain people telling me that I should never have said that publicly. But I don't care if any of my works are ever made into movies. My basic thing is through the writing. I know how I enjoy reading as opposed to seeing the movie. I'm just rereading The Golden Bowl by Henry James. It's a tough book to read, but it has things in it that could not be done through the medium of a movie. It has something that only writing can do.
Xie: There's something else I'm curious about. You've given a remarkable number of interviews and written many autobiographical essays. One wonders if you'll ever be interested in writing an autobiography.
Godwin: No. I don't think I could possibly tell the truth. You know, because once you tell a story, if you tell a story, then the next time you tell it, you want to tell it a little differently. That's part of the Southern heritage; you don't want to bore people. So I've told the story, the true story, whatever that is, so many times that I would want to change it.
Xie: Have you finished with mothers and daughters? It's so central in your novels.
Godwin: I'm not finished with it yet. That I have to do more of. It's just there. It may come out of the relationship I had with my mother.
Xie: But the book you've just finished is about daughter and father.
Godwin: That's right, and I never grew up with a father. But I feel I have after finishing Father Melancholy's Daughter.
Kulikoff: How do you think father-daughter and mother-daughter relationships differ? Is there fundamental difference in quality?
Godwin: Yes, there is. Margaret is managing her father a lot more than she would have been managing her mother. Men have traditionally given over so much to the woman to, you know, "here, manage this," "take care of that," "see that everybody gets along." And so she manages so much for her father that he never even knows about. It's not that she's keeping it from him, but it's just her way of making his life more bearable. Whereas with the mother-daughter, there would have been many more levels of intuition going on, also identification, and rebellion. You rebel against being your mother, even if you love your mother, whereas a girl is not so terrified of turning into her father. That was the big difference. Yet, in fact, at the end, you could say she is going to become her father, but with a difference.
Xie: You talked about dialogue in essays and interviews, actual dialogues like the one we're having now, and dialogue in the sense of human interaction. What's the role of dialogue in your crafting of the novel?
Godwin: There're all kinds of dialogues, from dialogue between, say, yourself and someone on the telephone to a prayer. A prayer is a dialogue, because if you pray, although nobody talks back to you, you nevertheless begin to talk in a different way; you think you're addressing somebody. So even that is a dialogue. There're many dialogues between selves, between parts of the self. And in the sense that I've been thinking of lately, the dialogues we have with others are also part of becoming a bigger entity. You and I and Allan will never be quite the same after this afternoon. Who knows what's been said that's important. Maybe something that hasn't even been written down, maybe just an intuition we created among us, somehow through what we've said, through the unplanned things, may change one of us, may change all of us. That's why characters have to have all these people in their lives, because if they didn't, they'd be cut-outs. So a dialogue would keep you from being a cut-out. For instance, when you all called last night, I had just received a manuscript from an eighty-year-old priest. He's published many books, but this was a small book. I think it's a beautiful book. I opened it up and I saw he had dedicated it to my mother, who was just killed last year. I was so upset, just crying and grieving, and then I thought I wish someone would call me and comfort me. And I imagined who could call, Robert might, or somebody. So what happened was that you called and you said you were at the Millstream Motel. And in a way that was as good as anything; and it was almost like what they call an objective correlative to where I find pleasure in my art now. There comes a time in your life when you're no longer in the role of just a solitary quester or the child who's going to be comforted. You have to then go out and comfort somebody else. So that was a dialogue of sorts, what happened last night. I don't respond to questions in a responsible . . . ; it's amazing that I have got any degrees at all. It goes around. Allan said that historians and fiction writers respond in such different ways. We do. My mind just seems to go round. But you see, you have to touch down somewhere, if you're going to write anything, for you bring together a great many real things.
Xie: Do you have a favorite among your characters?
Godwin: I have certain people that I'll go on thinking about. I'll go on thinking about Ursula DeVane; I still don't completely understand her. A lot of her is me. That book got started because I was thinking, I was Ursula's age, I was forty-four. There were several young women in my life who I felt adored me much too much in terms of giving me power over them - you know, what should I do and all that. And I thought that if I had not been satisfied in what I needed to do, I might really be damaging to them, because I would need them to satisfy my own ego. Then I started thinking about what if . . . Here's this brilliant woman who had not found outlets in an art, and she's lonely, and here's this young girl, this impressionable thing. What would happen? So I still think about her. And another character who's going to be one of my favorites is the father in the book I just finished. He's almost an anachronism. He's kind of going out of style rapidly, and yet I think I'll always think about him. I like minor characters. I like Roger Jernigan in A Mother and Two Daughters. And in The Odd Woman, I like this old guy called Von Vorst, the villain. Some of the minor characters stick with me the most, because they're still mysteries to me. In A Southern Family, there's a minor character called Freddy Stratton. She's the friend of Clare. It's her funeral that begins the new book I'm just starting now, My Last Protege. And then the book after this, its title is The Very Rich Hours of Freddy Stratton. It's not just about her. It's a Book of Hours type of thing. All the seasons, all the segments of society, seen under the eyes of God. It's going to be a major "major-key" novel, about a place and all its people and how all of them shape one another, almost as seen from an angel's eye view; maybe I'll even have the nerve to do the angel as well. Robertson Davies did it.
Xie: Do you see continuities from novel to novel? In some ways they are all connected.
Godwin: They're getting more that way. For a long time, there were a lot of single women; now there's going to be a married one, someone who gets married after not being married. I don't think she would ever have been married. So at forty-seven she'll meet, or re-meet, her protege, and they'll eventually make a marriage.
From this point on, the interview took an unexpected turn, becoming a different kind of dialogue - personal and autobiographical. Our personal experiences and histories seemed to interest Godwin both on human and imaginative levels. Her questions showed a curiosity for life that makes a human being grow and gives a novelist depth of vision and understanding. I enjoyed immensely that keen interest and the imaginative turn she gave to it. Perhaps she would make creative use of the dialogue we had this afternoon, of the experiences we had shared with her. As we said goodbye to her, I felt myself to be a part of her enlarging world, both fictional and real. Just as Godwin had said earlier, we would not be quite the same after this, for our sense of ourselves, of time, place, and memory, would have yet one more layer to it.
As of October 1992, Godwin is completing her ninth novel, The Good Husband. She recently wrote us: "My Last Protege was not ripe yet. At some later time, it will probably be combined with The Very Rich Hours of Freddy Stratton, for a multi-voiced novel. The Good Husband pounced on me last September, while I was traveling in England, and I chose necessity over possibility. The Good Husband was definitely what had to come next. In fact, I couldn't think about anything else. It's a four-voiced novel, two women and two men, rather than the single point of view. It's about love, both eros and imaginative fellow-feeling, and it's very much about marriage. No character goes to church in this one, but one character, when very young, was in a Roman Catholic seminary when his future wife came to lecture on the visions of poets."
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
|Previous Article:||The Southern Country Editor.|
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