Saturday, May 16, 2020

Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels, including Violet Clay, Father Melancholy's Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband and Evenings at Five. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer, her journal in two volumes (ed. Rob Neufeld). She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Gail Godwin lives in Woodstock, New York.

Her latest novel is Old Lovegood Girls.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

“Old” means it started in the past. “Girls” means it is about women.

“Lovegood”? Is it a place, a state of mind, an institution? Does “Lovegood” signal that irony and satire are at play here? Well, let those suggestions flit through your mind, but Lovegood is also the actual name of the founder of Lovegood College. Horace Lovegood wanted “a learning place for young women where they can partake of the same substantial branches of learning that their brothers consider a birthright.”

Lovegood College opened its doors in 1872. My two girls are roommates for a single semester in 1958. Though one of them has to drop out of school to run the family’s tobacco plantation, they have formed a bond that will take them through decades of a fast-changing world. Inspired by their Lovegood English teacher, they will both become writers. But for very different reasons.

Old Lovegood Girls was first a story called “Old Lovegood Girls.” It appeared in The Iowa Review in the Winter issue of 1986. It was written in the first person about a girl who went to Lovegood College. It was a singular school. Lots of study, lots of silence, lots of tradition and strict rules. It was a bittersweet story of a girl finally meeting her father who rescues her from her awful life and sends her to Lovegood because he knows she’ll be safe there. The father will soon commit suicide.

In the novel, the dorm mistress tells the new dean of the college, “The secret acronym for Lovegood’s extraordinary endowment fund is G.E.T. as in ‘get.’ Gratitude, Enclosure, and Tradition.” I went to a junior college much like Lovegood. It was called Peace College.

Someone at my publishers gently suggested I might consider calling this novel The Lovegood Girls. Possibly because “old” might put off readers? No, it had to stay as it was. Only once in my writing life have I been talked into changing a title. Unfinished Desires (2010) was supposed to be The Red Nun. I tell the whole story of my cowardice in Publishing: a Writer’s Memoir (2015).

What’s in a Name?

I spent more time figuring out a name for Feron Hood than I have ever spent on any character in any book I have written. She’s one of the girls in the title. She comes out of a troubled past, she’s elusive, suspicious and critical of others but most of all of herself; she is competitive, anti-social, and loath to show emotion, but steadfast in her lifetime friendship with this one person: Merry Jellicoe, her Lovegood roommate.

“Why would anyone name a child Feron?” Merry’s young brother asks. “It sounds like Feral.”

That was it. I had almost settled on “Ferris,” the name of the artist who made me an icon of Elijah and his raven, but then I, too, realized that “Feron” brought to mind a suspicious wounded animal. Also it shares a syllable with “talon.”

Feron herself does not know why she is named Feron. She asked her mother who said it may have been after some movie star. But her mother was a habitual liar.

I chose “Hood” for its suggestions of hooded, undercover, hard to know.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by this novel?

She would love the cover art’s evocation of a handsome school and bright fall weather. She would read the jacket copy and think, “Oh, good. It’s about friends who last for decades and who are both writers.” The two things she wants most are to be a writer and have a long-lasting friend.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings?

Endings often lead me down false paths or baffle me or I shortchange them. My agent and my editor have steered me more than once out of unsatisfactory or inconclusive endings.

I can be rapturous about beginnings. I see them in detail. With Old Lovegood Girls, I knew they would meet in the room they were to share at the college. At first I had Feron enter and discover Merry checking herself in the mirror. But that’s something I might do, it’s not Merry’s style. I changed it so that Merry is looking out of the dorm window, figuring out where her home is. Her little brother, knowing she suffers acutely from homesickness, has lent her his precious Army compass and taught her how to take bearings so she will always know where she is in relation to her home.

I knew that the book would end with the death of one friend and I knew which one it would be, but meanwhile I had to discover what it was that made each one essential to the other during the course of those many years.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Or are they a world apart?

Many of my novels got their start from a personal story, but they usually transform themselves into imagined story by the end. Others, especially the later-in-life novels, are imagined from the start: Flora (2013), Grief Cottage (2018). They are completely about other people.

Old Lovegood Girls was deeply influenced by a real junior college I went to, by the mood and essence of the place.
In hallowed halls removed from strife
Where they may seek the mental life
As it is sung in the novel’s school pageant. Since I was there, at the real place, much (except for the Greek columns on the original building) has changed. It is a co-ed university of many buildings now, complete with a new name.

The two girls, Feron and Merry, are based on nobody. Though I am more of a Feron than a Merry.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Personal experiences, family matters, slippery moral dilemmas, “what if?” musings. Once I dreamed the opening words of a novel, The Finishing School (1984.) That novel was also influenced by an upstate NY farming community, to which I had recently relocated. I moved my characters into the 250 year old Dutch farmhouse I was renting at the time, put in a grand piano, and lived the whole novel in a sort of waking dream.

The prod that sparked Old Lovegood Girls was the 1943 movie Old Acquaintance. Two longtime friends become writers. The Bette Davis one is the dedicated artist and well- respected writer. The Miriam Hopkins one, married with a family, becomes envious of her childhood friend and decides to “be a writer” herself. She becomes a huge commercial success. The movie was reimagined in 1981 as Rich and Famous, with Jacqueline Bisset as the serious writer and Candice Bergen as the splashy one. I was unsatisfied with the either/or dichotomy. I wanted to imagine two lifetime friends, both writers, not in competition, because as competitive Feron remarks, “How can it be a competition when only one person is competitive?” Before I was done with my drafts and revisions, I had written a moral tale as well, about values, memories, and secrets.
Visit Gail Godwin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue