A Conversation with Gail Godwin
Rob Neufeld is the book reviewer for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the director of the Together We Read program in North Carolina. He has collaborated with Gail Godwin in editing her journals, published by Random House as The Making of a Writer.
Rob Neufeld: When you wrote The Odd Woman, you’d already published two novels. Glass People had received rave reviews. Did you feel free to write a new kind of novel?
Gail Godwin: When I started The Odd Woman, my grandmother was still alive. The novel was going to be the grandmother’s story, then progress to the mother’s story, and then Jane’s story. In the archives [at the University of North Carolina] at Chapel Hill, you can get most of the grandmother section [ultimately cut out]. I sent my grandmother a long list of questions–everything I needed to know. She was about to die. . . . When she got my letter, she laughed. "I can’t answer all these questions. It’s just too much." Then she died and there was her funeral. I decided to start my book over with Jane going to a funeral. Then I had that whole summer at Yaddo [an artists’ colony in Sarasota Springs, N.Y.]. I kept writing as I’d always done–what happens next. It just wasn’t good. I started again. I started with a scene that stayed warm for me. I wrote about insomnia. Anatole Broyard said the longeurs in this book are just too much to take. It was the first novel that I wrote in a snowflake way instead of point-to-point. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Stanley Elkin said, "I loved that book and I bet you think I wouldn’t like a book like that." He’s the one who fought for it. I spent three months at Yaddo. That’s where I met Robert [Starer, the composer]–and that totally changed my life. For instance, when I was creating the villain [of The Odd Woman–Von Vorst, who turns out to be a darling], I gave him Robert’s looks.
RN: What went on at Yaddo while writing the novel?
GG: First of all, my editor at the time–David Segal–said, "You ought to try to get into a place like Yaddo." So I applied and I was surprised when they invited me for three months. I had the whole summer there. It was free. Your meals are made for you and, I’m sorry to say, your beds are made, too. There was help. They gave me Katrina Trask’s room in the main house–she was the owner who had left Yaddo to the colony. Hers was the best room. It was on the second floor; it had eighteen windows . . . I was set up with a romantically ideal place to write. There was all this beautiful furniture and a beautiful bathroom. All that was mine was my electric typewriter, my thesaurus, my dictionary, my yellow pads, and my typing paper. For the first month or so, I was writing the 1905 section of my novel. It was just perfect–I was in 1905. And it was a wrench to have to give that up. It added a flavor to the book.
RN: Were you on your own in thinking about your novel?
GG: Oh yeah, totally. You didn’t talk about your work with others. It was not good manners. There was a breakfast table called the silent table. If you sat at that table in the morning, it meant you didn’t want to talk. And the breakfasts were so good.
RN: What was the 1905 part of your book?
GG: I had the two girls–Jane’s grandmother and Cleva, who ran away with the actor–growing up. They were on a farm. Then their mother died and this horrible housekeeper came with her carpetbag and her bombazine dress. They knew when she walked in the door that she was going to marry their dad. She does and she makes the father disinherit them, which is what happened to my grandmother.
RN: Could you describe the snowflake method of writing?
GG: Instead of going point-by-point with suspense, I let myself follow topics that entice me. I’ve done that for several of my books. A snowflake is a kind of a curtailed or organized tangent. It’s got a center and tangents that go out, but it’s a finite thing. If it works, it makes the whole design tighter. If it doesn’t, it has to go. There are scenes that never got into books that I wrote. They were digressions, such as the 1905 section.
RN: While you’re following this type of design, do you know the overall shape of the novel?
GG: I can feel how many chapters there are going to be. I number the chapters and what I want to have in each one.
RN: Do you remember laying out the chapter on the shopping experience in The Odd Woman?
GG: I started putting it in simply because I wanted to. If I were Jane in New York, waiting for a man, I would go shopping. I have had shopping experiences like that. I did buy a dress like that. I didn’t leave it in a taxi but I wish I had! I left my Jung book in a taxi once, but I didn’t leave that dress. Then the shopping scene became so much a part of the book. Afterward, Jane goes to the library and feels completely at home–this is what she should be doing. I reread the Saks scene when I was writing a shopping scene for Emma in Queen of the Underworld [Godwin’s 2006 novel]–when Paul goes to get his hair cut and she has to go into Saks in Miami Beach. Emma is more sure of herself than Jane. She stops by the door and arms herself against all the things she’s going to feel about all the well-groomed people she sees. I remember, in The Odd Woman, the inspired crescendo when Jane hears the voice that says, "Ladies, remember: the pieces of yourself are on loan." It went into another sphere. It wouldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t followed her all the way through Saks and through all those little torments.
RN: What do you need to do with autobiographical material to turn it into fiction?
GG: You start off from somewhere and usually you Þnd yourself at a certain point making it up, working some kind of alchemy, and that’s where the real truth begins–the story truth rather than what literally happened. In The Odd Woman, there’s this long scene about Jane fainting when she goes to this strange little school. There’s a class called poise, and you have to sit perfectly still, and if you move, you have to start over. She finds herself fainting. That was not true in my life. What was true was, there was a school in Asheville called the Plonk School of Creative Art. It was run by two sisters, Laura and Lillian Plonk . . . I couldn’t stand it . . . For one thing, they tried to get our accents out of us so we wouldn’t speak like hillbillies. You’d have to say, "I never saw a purple cow." Cow, not caih-ow. I was trying to think of the way that Jane could get out of going there. I had just told my mother, "I can’t stand it, I hate it." And she said, "Well, let’s try St. Genevieve’s. I teach there, too." For some reason, I had Jane faint, and she found that fainting worked. This is also tied into a subterranean thing I had learned. When I had read Jung’s autobiography, I learned that he went through a period of fainting to get out of things. He heard his father saying to a friend, "I don’t know what I’m going to do with the boy. He won’t be able to have a job." And this brought him back to reality . . . Oh, I’ll tell you another scene. When Edith, the grandmother, goes to a Fourth of July celebration, she’s coming down with typhoid and doesn’t know it, and she faints to escape a reality she considers ugly. That’s when she meets her husband. She wakes up and she says, "Life is a disease." Well, when I was writing that scene, I was just going to a Fourth of July celebration with some people from Yaddo. Robert was with me. It was crowded. Firecrackers kept going off. I said to Robert, "These people!" And this other musician said, "What do you mean, these people?" So I asked Robert to take me home because I was not enjoying it. The next day, I started writing that scene. It was a good way for Edith to meet her husband.
RN: What role did Emily play for you? That scene about rubbing the rabbit’s foot and saying hmmpff–does that have a source?
GG: Emily is patterned after my half sister. After The Odd Woman had been published–my sister was a lawyer by then– she said, "I would prefer not to be in any more of your books. It limits me in some way. I see myself in terms of that character." Later, in A Southern Family, the protagonist has only two brothers and no sister.
RN: Did you compound other elements with your sister in order to create Emily?
GG: I was visiting home from London and I was watching my sister dress for school. That whole pain of dressing for school came back to me. She was going to St. Genevieve’s as I had. My grandmother would tell me what to wear, but I had that moment before the mirror when I’d think, "Not perfection." My little sister did have a rabbit’s foot, and, as she dressed, she would rub it, and I just thought, what a lovely scene. She thought I was asleep. We were sharing a room, and I was watching her out of a half-closed eye . . . She’d hold different little scarves to her blouse. It was very moving. I was that girl, and she was me–you know, dressing for the bitches at school.
RN: Did she say hmmpff?
GG: No, I’m the one who said hmmpff.
RN: At what point does the setting come into play when you’re writing a novel?
GG: It better come very soon. Remember those awful novels in the late ’60s and early ’70s–Robbe-Grillet was one of the authors. They were novels of nowhere and nobody. I think setting even comes before character because character is so much formed by setting.
RN: Does that come into play with The Odd Woman?
GG: Yes. It’s funny because Jane’s present-time setting– Iowa–is the nearest thing in her life to a blank page or a snowstorm. It’s where she can get most deeply into her thought pattern; and then out of that, she hears things. That’s probably the insomnia. She has time to be still. The soul swims to the top. And then, in the flashback, when she goes home, there’s that whole other setting in which she’s embedded more than she knows.
RN: Do you have a connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who invested his settings with . . .
GG: Spirit. He didn’t mean much to me until I was in graduate school; and then my best friend at Urbana, Nina Baym, the critic–one of her passions was Hawthorne. I went to some of her classes, just as Jane went to Sonia Marks’s. In fact, Sonia is Nina. She talked about Hawthorne in such an interesting way, I realized I had both an attraction to him and things in common with him–investing a place with its history, giving it a haunted quality. Also, I like moral dilemmas.
RN: Regarding the theme of communion in the novel, music seems more essential than words. Is music very much on your mind when you’re writing?
GG: Robert used to say that I wrote my novels in musical keys. My minor key books are the ones that have some peculiar offbeat sadness or sinister element–for example, The Finishing School. The Odd Woman, A Southern Family, and A Mother and Two Daughters are major key; they all can be called social novels, novels about a person’s place in society and the community. The Good Husband was a minor key novel with something else added. Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong were major key novels with a lot of sharp notes.
RN: What is the piano piece that Gabriel’s mother played when he was a boy?
GG: Robert and I picked out the piece. Robert played it for me over and over until I could describe what it did. It’s the last movement in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 31 in A-flat Major, the Waldstein.
RN: Women’s roles are a major theme, too. Did you work to create a spectrum of women?
GG: I was very conscious of doing that. I used Gerda a lot because she was writing Feme Sole. I brought in minor characters such as Eleanor, the wife whose husband runs away with someone else. And I included characters from literature because Jane studies them. For a lot of feminists from that period, The Odd Woman became their hallmark novel.