Synopses & Reviews
Here at last is the eagerly awaited new novel from New York Times
bestselling author Gail Godwin. Queen of the Underworld
is sweeping and sultry literary fiction, featuring a memorable young heroine and engaging characters whose intimate dramas interconnect with hers.
In the summer of 1959, as Castro clamps down on Cuba and its first wave of exiles flees to the States to wait out what they hope to be his short-lived reign, Emma Gant, fresh out of college, begins her career as a reporter. Her fierce ambition and belief in herself are set against the stories swirling around her, both at the newspaper office and in her downtown Miami hotel, which is filling up with refugees.
Emma's avid curiosity about life thrives amid the tropical charms and intrigues of Miami. While toiling at the news desk, she plans the fictional stories she will write in her spare time. She spends her nights getting to know the Cuban families in her hotel and rendezvousing with her married lover, Paul Nightingale, owner of a private Miami Beach club.
As Emma experiences the historical events enveloping the city, she trains her perceptive eye on the people surrounding her: a newfound Cuban friend who joins the covert anti-Castro training brigade, a gambling racketeer who poses a grave threat to Paul, and a former madam, still in her twenties, who becomes both Emma's obsession and her alter ego. Emma's life, like a complicated dance that keeps sweeping her off her balance, is suddenly filled with divided loyalties, shady dealings, romantic and professional setbacks, and, throughout, her adamant determination to avoid usurpation by others and remain the protagonist of her own quest.
"Though our protagonist's Southern accent varies in thickness from one chapter to another, Zimbalist generally gives a professional reading of this scantily clad autobiographical novel set in 1950s Miami. Recent college grad Emma Gant escapes her nasty stepfather and follows her married lover to Miami, where she begins work on the Miami Star. Here we encounter a host of eccentrics: the miserable Queen of the Underworld (a serially suicidal one-time madam) the married boyfriend and his wife; a Jewish Mafioso;, a personalized perfume scent entrepreneur; and Cuban exiles exporting munitions as 'dental equipment.' Zimbalist handles Spanish well, distinguishing between the anti-Castro Cubans and Emma's own awkward attempts at the language. But there are so many oddball characters that we are sometimes aware of her straining to give each a distinctive voice and flavor. Despite her efforts, the plot is too rambling and the characters too disparate to finally gel into a novel. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 10, 2005). (Jan.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"It takes courage for an author to lay bare the grandiosity and recklessness of her young self, even from a remove of so many years...early on, Godwin told a friend that if she could have one wish, it would be 'to get it all down.' In Queen of the Underworld, she has lightly cloaked a few days in fantasy." New York Times
"Here is the irresistibly readable Godwin voice, tender and sardonic, warmly romantic and unflinchingly funny." Joyce Carol Oates
"Gail Godwin's excellent new novel seems to me to be a muted tragedy about a soul inside the body of a modern woman navigating through the terra incognita of modern times." Kurt Vonnegut
"Here is a wonderfully engaging story that explores the growth of a young woman beginning her career as a journalist. The inner workings of Emma' s life are gracefully presented and marvelously mingled with the workings of the outer world; the combination provides a universe in which the reader is glad to reside." Elizabeth Strout
"Godwin writes great dialogue. She can give you a complete person in a single speech or reel off chatty conversations that go on for pages." Seattle Times
"[A] good read with the bonus of an enlightening slice of history." San Antonio Express-News
In 1959, as the first wave of Cuban exiles arrives in the United States, Emma Gant, finally free of her stifling family and bullying stepfather, embarks on a career as a reporter for The Miami Star and begins to thrive in the sultry world of Miami, confronting conflicting loyalties, shady dealings, and personal and professional setbacks as she pursues her goals. Reader's Guide included. Reprint. 30,000 first printing.
About the Author
Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee and the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels.
Reading Group Guide
An Afterword from Gail Godwin
Once upon a time, I found myself on the verge of being thirty, with not much to show for having lived to that symbolic age. I had traveled and worked abroad, plunged into many adventures, committed my share of wince-worthy mistakes, and chalked up some memorable failures. And now it was 1967 and I was back in the USA, working in Manhattan as a fact checker at the Saturday Evening Post. All around me are writers, but my humble job was only to check their facts, even in their ﬁction. If a cow in a short story had six udders, I had to phone the Farmers Federation to make sure that number was correct.
Then an uncle in Texas died and left me a small legacy, just enough to pay for tuition and expenses at the Iowa Writers Workshop (if I could get in), and I had sense enough to see this gift for what it was: a “soon or never” push to be the writer Id wanted to be since age ﬁve. I was accepted by the workshop, on the basis of a story written in London several years earlier about a vicar who stumbles upon God on a rainy day, writes a book about it, goes on a transatlantic book tour, and loses his vision.
Off I ﬂew to Iowa City, landing in a snowstorm. The airline lost my luggage: symbols abounding here. Then there I was, in Kurt Vonneguts workshop-he had agreed to teach two sections in the spring of 1967, because so many people wanted to study with him. Under his benign tutelage I wrote the ﬁrst draft of what would become my ﬁrst published novel, The Perfectionists (1970).
The Chilean novelist José Donoso was a visiting lecturer in the workshop that spring, and I signed up for his Apprentice-Novel Seminar (also bulging at the seams to accommodate all those who wanted in.) Multilingual, passionate about literature, and with a sweeping knowledge of the history of the novel and its possibilities, José (or “Pepe,” as his intimates called him) gave us a book list as rich as it was daunting. All were apprentice novels about artists: what literary handbooks call künstlerromans, or “artist-novels.”
In artist-novels, the protagonists are struggling toward an understanding of how they will fulﬁll their creative missions. Donoso was particularly attracted to this topic because he himself had just written an apprentice novel, Este Domingo, or This Sunday.
Here is Donosos reading list (in English translations, where necessary):
- Goethes Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship (1795): the original apprentice novel; chronicles Wilhelms progress from a naive, excitable youth to responsible manhood. He dreams of becoming a playwright and actor, but gradually comes to accept a more modest view of himself. (In a second novel, which we did not read, Wilhelm Meister travels, thinks, and ultimately becomes a surgeon.)
- Robert Musils Young Törless (1906): an adolescent enclave of boys at a Bohemian military boarding school: a mystic, a future writer, a victim, and a bully. Törless, the future writer, searches for a bridge between rational, disciplined activity and destructive, forbidden impulses.
- Rainer Maria Rilkes, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; translated into English in 1930): written as a collection of diary entries by a budding young Danish poet, living alone in Paris.
- James Joyces Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916): revolves around experiences crucial to Stephens growing awareness of his writer-vocation and his estrangement from his family, country, and religion.
- André Gides The Counterfeiters (1926): the novelist Edouard keeps a journal of events in order to write a novel about the nature of reality. Its called The Counterfeiters and features two adolescent boys, Bernard and Olivier, who leave home to ﬁnd their true selves. They encounter many varieties of hypocrisy, wickedness, and self-deception. (The Counterfeiters and Malte remain perennial favorites of mine.)
- Thomas Wolfes Look Homeward, Angel (1929): Eugene Gant grows up in Altamont, North Carolina, goes to the state university and to Harvard, and at last sets out for Europe to fulﬁll his destiny as a writer.
Donosos seminar on the apprentice artist-novel was one of the high points of my novelist education. How many ways you could present a single theme! I loved listening to Josés insight into the characters in the novels and into the whole process of creating ﬁction. When I ﬁnally, some thirty-eight years later, wrote my own apprentice artist-novel, I gave his debonair cadences to Don Waldo Navarro, the Spanish man of letters, in Queen of the Underworld.
THAT THERE was not a single novel about a woman becoming an artist on our reading list did not occur to me back in 1967. My failure to notice this wasnt really so amazing. After all, what “portrait of the artist as a young woman” was out there at the time? Canadas Margaret Laurence would not publish The Diviners, a complex, wide-ranging novel about a woman writer in Manitoba approaching middle age and trying to come to terms with past selves, until 1974. And it would be 1989 before her countrywoman Margaret Atwood published Cats Eye, about Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who has a retrospective in her old hometown of Toronto and recalls the viciousness of the little-girl friendships that were to inﬂuence the style and subject matter of her paintings. In 1981 Muriel Spark gave us Loitering with Intent, Fleur Talbots memoir of her young self as an apprentice-writer, who turns her secretarial job into novel material, only to have the real people begin to act out scenes from her manuscript.
The most helpful account of what it was like to be a writing woman was Virginia Woolf s A Writers Diary (1954), edited by Leonard Woolf, who had selected entries dealing with his late wifes writing process from the personal diaries she had kept between 1918 and 1941. I remember lying on the Iowa River bank outside the English building, reading it like sacred text, underlining things like: “The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say. As this morning I could say what Rhoda said.” Or this: “I am now in the thick of the mad scene in Regents Park. I ﬁnd I write it by clinging as tight to fact as I can, and write perhaps ﬁfty words a morning. . . . I feel I can use up everything Ive ever thought.”
But where, in 1967, was a novel whose central focus was on a young woman feeling her way toward her writing vocation, while struggling with the usual woes and follies that accompany human development?
That I might write such a novel myself also did not occur to me back then. There were so many traps my protagonists were waiting in line to escape: the trap of family and societys expectations, of schools and workplaces, of loneliness and outsider-hood, of wrong marriages and wrong jobs; the traps of being born in a certain place and time and all the limits and restraints that go with that place and time-the traps that go with being born female.
My fourth novel, Violet Clay (1978), was about a painter, in her “soon or never” period. Shes thirty-three, living in New York, illustrating Gothic romance novels and wondering why she hasnt become a real painter. I suppose Violet Clay could qualify for an apprentice-novel reading list, though its main focus is on the ghosts that keep her from risking her potential: her dead parents, her own “Gothic” upbringing in Charleston, South Carolina, and, ﬁnally, the suicide of her beloved uncle, Ambrose Clay, who published one novel and never completed another.
When I was writing Queen of the Underworld, I wanted to be totally inside the life of my twenty-two-year-old protagonist as she lived during her ﬁrst ten days as a newspaper reporter in the Miami of 1959, sharing a hotel with the new Cuban exiles, who believed-as she did with them-that Castro would soon lay an egg and they would go home again.
I named her Emma Gant-the Gant after Thomas Wolfes voraciously ambitious Eugene Gant; the Emma after Jane Austens eponymous heroine, about whom Austen told a friend when beginning the novel: “I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like.”
Like Emma Woodhouse, my Emma Gant gets a crash course that takes her from self-delusion toward self-recognition. Notice I say “toward,” not “to.” Her self-discovery is only beginning at the novels close, when she ﬁnds herself exiled, practically overnight, to the Broward Bureau. Both heroines also share a spunky self-regard, which often leads them to trample on the rights of others. However, Emma Woodhouse has a corrective mentor (and a future husband) in Mr. Knightley, while Emma Gant has neither.
I decided not to practice 20/20 hindsight by having a later, wiser Emma looking back on her apprenticeship. I also decided against distancing myself from her foibles with authorial irony. Whatever my Emma thought and did, I would write, without smoothing over or prettifying. I let her be her complete, eager, resentful, vainglorious young self, determined to prevail as a writer. (Product Warning: If you would rather not remember your own youthful follies and overweening ambitions, this book may not entertain you.)
I also wanted to show Emmas emerging creative methods, what people and stories attracted her so much she couldnt stop spinning them forward in scenes of her own. And, conversely, how she recognized when a story idea was “not for her.”
And I wanted to give her, even in her low moments, the certainty that I so love in young unpublished Fleur Talbot, the heroine of Sparks Loitering with Intent: “The thought came to me in a most articulate way: ‘How wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.That I was a woman and living in the twentieth century were plain facts. That I was an artist was a conviction so strong that I never thought of doubting it then or since; and so, as I stood on the pathway in Hyde Park in that September of 1949, there were as good as three facts converging quite miraculously upon myself and I went on my way rejoicing.”
QUEEN OF the Underworld also has elements of the picaresque novel, the autobiographical narrative of a roguish character, usually young, moving through adventures and associating with people of all types, who serve as models or warnings, steppingstones or hindrances. The picaresque novel always rises out of a speciﬁc time and place, and depicts a society and an era in realistic detail. The ﬁrst picaresque novel, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and His Fortunes and Adversities, published anonymously in 1554, was a mordant, satirical tale narrated by an orphan boy determined not to starve in scheming, church-haunted, poverty-ridden, mid-sixteenthcentury Spain. He learns from, but is not defeated by, each of his mentors, or mentor/obstacles: from the shrewd blind man to the miserly priest to the proud but hungry squire to the mendicant friar to the greedy seller of indulgences. Lazarillo survives with his natural candor intact. He ends his career as Toledos town crier (an early form of journalism!).
Though Emma Gant probably wouldnt classify herself as a rogue, she readily admits to her hard-earned stash of self-advancing “weaponry.” After the dashing Major Erna Marjac, an Army recruiter, proudly conﬁdes to Emma on the train to Miami that “weaponry is opening up to women in an unprecedented way,” Emma privately inventories her own “arsenal to date,” the weapons she resorts to under duress: “guile, subterfuge, goal-oriented politeness, teeth-gritting staying power, and the ability, when necessary, to shut down my heart. Forces had been mobilizing inside me for the past eleven years to do battle with anything or anybody who might try to usurp me for their purposes again.”
She also owns up to her inordinate ambition, which is not just about gaining her share of success, but avoiding the “usurpations” which would prevent her from taking full possession of her powers. She delights in the adventures of another picaroon, Felix Krull in Thomas Manns The Confessions of Felix Krull, Conﬁdence Man: The Early Years, written when Mann was in his late seventies. Emma ﬁnds similarities in their stories (both Felix and Emma know how to beguile, and both begin their careers by waiting tables) and she is crushed when she learns that Mann died before he could complete part two of Felix.
1. On page 117, Emma thinks it is “utterly spellbinding” that she is actually standing by the gurney of this former madam, “the Queen of the Underworld,” she has been dying to meet. “How thankful I was that Id headed straight for the hospital after the tornado. In a way, I realized, this amazing scene had been my creation.” What does Emma mean by this? Can you cite other examples in the novel of Emmas resourcefulness?
2. This story takes place in 1959. Does the novel feel “historical” to you? How so? How not? How has the world changed since then?
3. Imagine Emmas story if it were unfolding today. How would this different era affect her chances to realize her ambitions? Would she have the same chances? Better? Worse?
4. On page 59, when Emma is in the newspaper morgue reading the news clips about Ginevra Snow, she thinks, “In some strange way I felt she offered an alternative version of myself. To follow her story would be to glimpse what I might have done had I been trapped in Waycross in her circumstances.” Now go to page 335, where Emma again thinks of the Queen of the Underworld: “She was the worthy subject I had been waiting for, the opposite of the old maid who had died in her ﬂyblown hamlet as my train passed without ever setting off on her own adventure. . . . She was my sister adventurer, another unique and untransferable self who had been places I hadnt and who had returned with just the sort of details I craved to imagine further.” What are some “alternative versions” of yourself ? Are there ﬁgures in your life, people you have glimpsed-or known-who embody some aspect of what you dont want to become (like Emmas imagined old maid)? And what about people who make you question what you would be like if you had been brought up in their history? And what about people who “have been places” you havent and who “have returned with just the sort of details” you crave to imagine further?
5. Queen of the Underworld is dedicated “to the exiles, wherever you are now.” Do you think the author refers to the Cuban exiles Emma meets in the summer of 1959, or does she mean it in a broader sense? Have you ever been an exile? From your homeland? From a life you felt was rightfully yours? How did your speciﬁc form of exile change your life?
6. The word “usurp,” Emma tells us, has become her adversarial banner (page 9). She goes on to elaborate: “And the more I meditated on it, the more the ‘usurp word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A persons unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces.”What are your deﬁnitions of “usurpation”? What forms of it have you experienced?
7. Do you believe a person has a unique and untransferable self ? Or not? Discuss how Emmas “story so far” might have been different if she had not believed in her unique and untransferable self.
8. Queen of the Underworld is a very populated book. How many of the characters can you recall? Which were your favorites? Which reminded you of someone you know-or of yourself? Which ones did you dislike? Which ones did you feel could have been left out? Which ones would you have liked to know more about?
9. Were there things about Emma that you disapproved of ? If she had been a male character, would you have felt the same?
10. Were you surprised or disappointed by Ginevras choices at the end of the book? Do you think Emma will ever write her novel inspired by “the Queen of the Underworld”? How might that novel be different from Ginevra Browns story?
Q&A with Gail Godwin
Your twelfth novel, QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD, is based on some of your own experiences as a young journalist just out of college. How much is Emma Gant like you?
What was it like to re-live that time when you were writing the novel? Is it easier or harder to write a novel based on personal experiences?
Two incidents from my reporting days on the Miami Herald lurked in my imagination for decades before they finally bubbled up into Emma Gant’s determined pursuit of Ginevra Snow, the young ex-madam known as “Queen of the Underworld.”
The first incident was a routine story the Herald assigned me in 1959. After the famous New York trial of her boyfriend and pimp Mickey Jelke, “the oleo-margarine heir,” the former call girl Pat Ward had quietly married an osteopath and they lived in Hollywood, Florida. My bureau chief in Hollywood asked me to phone the husband and see what I could get out of him about Pat’s latest suicide attempt. Well, the husband answered the phone and when I identified myself, he said in a really kind but crushed voice, “I wish you could understand how hard this is for us. I don’t want to say anymore. Please leave us alone.” That’s probably when it began to dawn on me that I might not be destined to be a crack reporter. I said, “I’m so sorry for your pain, and please give your wife my best wishes.” And I hung up. Hardly a determined pursuit! But Emma is more ferocious because Ginevra’s story in some way offers her knowledge about herself. Ginevra appeals to her as a doppelganger figure. Also I gave Emma the chance to meet the former madam in person–without her husband’s protection. Or rather, Emma earned her chance by being at the right place–a hospital corridor after a tornado–at the right time.
The second, more haunting, incident from the Miami of 1959 was a certain evening in an exclusive Miami Beach supper club. Everything very low-lit and quiet and super-elegant. My date said, “You see those two girls over there? They look like sorority girls, don’t they, with their good posture and their cashmere sweater sets and pearls. They’re _____ girls. He makes them dress like that and sends them to charm school to polish their manners. They are VERY expensive.” And I said, “You mean they’re...?” He nodded. For years I have wanted to put those girls and that charm school into a novel. And I’m tempted to do still more with them in a future novella, written by Emma Gant.
During the two years I was writing QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD, I could hardly wait to get to my computer. I loved being 22 and hungry again, with a 22-inch waistline, so desperate to succeed and equally terrified I might fail. The tension was a stimulant. And I loved re-locating myself in the seductive Miami scene. People said, “Don’t you think you ought to fly down to Miami and sort of brush up on the locale?” I said, “That’s the last thing in the world I want to do: I want the Miami of 1959 and how I felt, and all those people coming into town who thought they would be back home in Cuba by the end of the summer.”
How has time altered your perspectives on that first job? Journalism was, obviously, not the right career path for you (as Al Neuharth realized). Was it hard to let go of that ambition or was it just a cover for what you really wanted to do–write fiction?
The newsroom of 1959 is now historical fiction. Romantic fiction. The noise, the cigarette smoke, the lack of privacy. Everyone clacking and yakking away in one big room. The feeling of being part of a vast organism. The smell of copy paper and paste. If you wanted a copy of your story, you made a carbon. There were no copying machines and no Googling. You went to the morgue and looked up your information–if there was any–in old clippings alphabetically filed in envelopes. Everything was so physical. There was a whole sensual element about the news room, and I’m glad I got to partake of it before it became extinct.
I would not have made a good investigative reporter. I’m not pushy enough, as you can see from my Pat Ward anecdote in the answer above. I’m a classic introvert who has managed to teach myself sociable manners. I always wanted to write fiction. Fiction and drawing were my main loves, but I also had not a penny of my own and I needed a regular job with a salary if I planned to eat. That’s why I chose to get a BA in Journalism rather than Literature. However, if things had turned out differently, I could see myself writing a syndicated column or maybe even being a book critic or book review editor on a newspaper. And also writing novels.
You have kept a journal your entire adult life and a portion of it is in THE MAKING OF A WRITER. Why is journal writing important to you and how has it helped you as a writer?
Do you refer back to your old journals? Have you found inspirations for stories in their pages?
I have always liked to keep track of things. To write something down is to preserve as closely as possible the unique moment. Memory makes unique moments into generic moments. You know, you think you’re remembering a certain sunset that changed your life, but the memory is alloyed with other sunsets or sunsets in poetry and so on. Or you remember the gist of a conversation, but not all the delightful specifics. Such as Isabel, the Spanish boarder, [in THE MAKING OF A WRITER] bringing down a London dinner party with her comment on the comparative freedom of Anglo-Saxon bachelors: “In Es-pain, the man, he come out from his mother and go under his wife.” Excavating that sort of treasure in an old journal has given me new stories: my novella “Mr. Bedford,” about a young American living in a London boarding house was completely the gift of my journals from the early 1960's. Yes, I do re-read them, selectively. Dipping into eras I want to revisit. Both to look up things and inspire myself.
My journals also allow me to keep track of myself, to trace the repetitions and the back-slidings, the underlying passions and the occasional growth spurts. They’re my way of dressing and undressing the soul, as the poet George Herbert advises us to do. To be a true journal keeper, (true to yourself and your journal, I mean), you have to have a confidential relation to yourself. A diarist divides herself into two. One confides in the other, warns the other, strengthens the other. Once, when I was in love with a very unsuitable man, I decided to write a dialogue between me and God. I said I don’t care, I want him and God said, “Okay, I’ll give you a sneak preview of what life will be with him.” And before I finished writing out the dialogue I was aware of things I had been keeping from myself. I was also laughing.
THE MAKING OF A WRITER reveals an ambitious young woman who is working intently to be a writer and get her work published. And yet it took six years after this journal ends before your first novel was published. Tell us about those intervening years and what transformed you from a wanna-be writer to one with a novel that was snapped up by a publisher based on 50 pages.
“Those intervening years” (1963-1970) will be in Volume Two of THE MAKING OF A WRITER.
which Random House will publish next year, along with the novel I am currently writing, The Red Nun.
The novel you speak of, The Perfectionists, went through three drafts while I was studying at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and taking literature courses. One agent gave up on me, and my next and present agent John Hawkins thought the 50 pages I had done of the third draft were strong enough to submit on their own. So actually, after I had my contract for The Perfectionists, I spent a full year writing the rest of draft three.
From the Hardcover edition.