An interview with Gail Godwin

Interview by Karen Herceg

I see a landscape opening out, and I sense I can do anything I need to do if I take my time and let the way lead me forward. – Gail Godwin

On an early spring day this past April, I met with acclaimed, bestselling novelist Gail Godwin at her home in the historic town of Woodstock in Ulster County, New York. She has resided there for close to four decades, although she was originally born and raised in the south as evidenced by her distinctive, southern drawl. A three-time nominee for the National Book Award and a former Guggenheim Fellow, Godwin is the author of two short story collections, three nonfiction books, and fourteen novels. The latest one, Grief Cottage, was published in 2017. She is currently working on her fifteenth novel and continues to explore her lifelong love of art through drawing and painting. Aside from being a prolific author, Godwin has written ten libretti for compositions with renowned composer and musician Robert Starer. She and Starer shared their Woodstock home until his passing in 2001. That loss is still fresh and raw, her grief undiminished by the passage of time. Godwin’s writing explores deep, complex levels of human interactions. She manages to hit all the authentic nerves that resonate on a universal level–those feelings that are indigenous to us all. Her work eschews sentimentality while exploring the nuances of our relationships, the repercussions of our choices, and the varied spiritual influences in our lives.

Godwin turned eighty-one in June. She recognizes that some writers cease to write as they grow older. As she contemplates what compels some authors to continue, Godwin embarks on what she calls another sphere of writing that began two years before her novel Flora was published in 2013. 

KCH: Your work has a definite spiritual underpinning to it and explores the thin veil between the corporeal and the ethereal. In a treatise by Jane Hill from 1992, she quotes you as stating, “resolutions often occur beyond the boundaries of physical reality.” Can you clarify what you mean by that statement?

GG: I’d say resolutions slip into one’s life and perspectives grow larger. They become more apparent but are not always explainable. Quite often it surprises me when one of my characters goes past the edges of reality into more ethereal states of mind, even in the most realistic moments.

KCH: Sometimes we think we’re writing something consciously but when we read it back, we find ourselves asking where did that come from? And I think that it’s genuine inspiration, in spirit, this connection we have, if we allow it to flow through us, to let go of those reins of control. 

GG: This morning I was watching an old interview with Mike Nichols who directed so many wonderful films. He said that he suddenly realized that the ending to The Graduate was insufficient. He felt there needed to be more. He expressed this same sentiment, that the answer for a different ending seemed to come in from some other dimension he didn’t realize existed. 

KCH: Very often lines just come in. You have to write them down quickly or they dissipate like fog. And then you build it from there. I think it’s miraculous really.

GG: I do, too.

KCH: Your work includes a lot of influence and examination of religion. What are your thoughts on the mystical and how religion differs from spirituality? 

GG: In his Notebooks, Rilke talks about people who just undertake God. They really have no choice, and they just embody Him. I put myself in that same category with those people. I’ve been back and forth about church. I do a lot of research when I write about religion. For example, if I write from the clergy’s perspective, I want to do it fairly. I don’t go to church anymore, but I’m still doing that undertaking that Rilke writes about. You may have heard what Mother Theresa said when someone asked her how she prayed. She said, “I don’t pray I listen.” Then she was asked, “Oh, and what does HE say?” And she replied, “He listens too.”

KCH: I think that’s brilliant.

GG: Yes, and it illuminates what we’re referring to, the taking of God into ourselves.

KCH: I went to Catholic school back in the sixties when it was very strict. I turned away eventually. But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, as the saying goes. There are spiritual aspects and things I’ve gotten from it. The problem with religions is they become organizations and political bodies. There’s a lot of dictating, control, pomp and circumstance that I don’t ascribe to.

GG: No and nor should you really.

KCH: On that subject, the actress Leah Remini has come forward about her life in Scientology and its aftermath in an Emmy-award-winning documentary that investigates the organization and interviews former members. How do you feel about Scientology today after meeting Ron Hubbard and becoming involved with them along with your second husband, Ian, back in the sixties? Do you see it more as another cult now? (Godwin lived in England at this time and was married to her second husband, Ian.)

GG: It was all totally new to me, and the insiders took it so seriously. My husband put me right in training, and you had to pay for everything, pay, pay, pay. Their goal is to train you to control yourself through a series of tests. My teacher, who they called an auditor, was a German woman named Cornelia. She had a very strong accent and would say things that would make me laugh or get some kind of a reaction, and she got me every time. If I passed these tests, I would become an auditor and would train others. It was similar to mind exercises. I look back on it as a sort of fantasy, though I must say I enjoyed it. After these sessions I’d get behind my husband on his motorcycle and we’d ride back to Chelsea and have something to eat. I did rise high in the ranks, though. Their headquarters were in a beautiful house in Bloomsbury. We would also go to the country house owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur, and that’s where the last classes were held. It’s where I became “clear,” as they say. I remember the incident that finally ended it for me. You were always holding onto these cans that acted as homemade lie detectors. It’s like a comedy. You were connected up to V8 juice cans that are hooked up to a needle and somebody is reading the needle. When I got to the last question, “Who is your suppressive person?” I thought of everyone I could, but the needle didn’t like it. Finally, I said, “God,” and the needle floated, which is what it’s supposed to do when you’re telling the truth. At that point they said I had to leave right away and disconnect from my suppressive person. That was my last experience with Scientology. It all occurred through the one winter of my short marriage

KCH: How disturbing!

GG: I think I was lucky. I was never the type of person that just went along with things automatically. But Ian was really into it. He was very intelligent and had completed a double major in philosophy and math at Oxford. Then he went to medical school and that wasn’t enough. It just never seemed to be enough for him. When I met him years later he said he’d gone back to Oxford and then returned to psychiatry. Mostly what he did was prescribe medication. But Scientology became very controversial in the last few decades from what I’ve seen on television. They’re very much about money, and it’s very autocratic. People who grow up in it are trapped like in other cults. I never took it as seriously as I did going to chapel with the nuns when I was in school. I kept one of the Scientology dictionaries, and there are so many interesting things in there that Hubbard thought up. He was very clever but restless. He made up these wonderful descriptions such as when you have an “overrun.” It means that you’ve just gone on with something too long. Your auditor would tell you, “You’ve just had an overrun!” Then there’s the ARC break, meaning Affinity, Reality and Communication, one of those breaks where you appear to be hanging on by two threads. I was gone by spring. I wonder how many people have been truly saved by that. Apparently, some celebrities say they have.

KCH: There’s a lot of talk about that, about actors and others supposedly selling out their souls for what they received in return for their careers. I’m not sure if that’s tithing to the highest degree or something else. There are always some unique truths to these types of organizations or religions, but people’s agendas get in the way and things go off the rails.

GG: I’m sure that’s all part of it. Some people feel these types of structures work for them. 

KCH: You incorporate ghosts and otherworldly energies in your work, and one can see the influence of Henry James, for example, The Turn of the Screw, in your latest novel, Grief Cottage. In an interview with Narrative Magazine in 2007 you mentioned characters being haunted from the inside by patterns of behavior. How do you define our psychological ghosts and their significance on our behavior? 

GG: We’re haunted from the inside, and often we may not know this for our entire lives. You can be repeating your mother’s faults or fulfilling an agenda you didn’t want. It’s like someone else is inside of you, and if you’re not aware of it you can likely die without ever knowing it.

KCG: Yes, we’re all sort of possessed that way unless we wake up.

GG: Possessed, yes. And we’re lucky if we wake up.  There are methods of extracting our true selves. It’s not easy and takes a long time. It takes a person a long time to accept it. 

KCG: Like grief. Traditional ideas or time frames for mourning are unrealistic. It’s different for everyone. In so many ways, it never really ends. And we can also grieve for what was or what wasn’t. 

GG: Robert is just as present for me now as ever. In two days, it will be the anniversary of his passing. He and I spent hours indulging ourselves talking about our deaths. We spoke of his death, in particular, as he was thirteen years older than I. We’d discuss it as part of our story.

KCH: Deep, personal, interior examinations and loss are very prevalent in your latest book, Grief Cottage. Do you feel that the work we choose and experiences we have in our lives are primarily vehicles for our evolution as souls and spirits? 

GG: If we’re extremely fortunate it is. Not everybody chooses; often people are distracted with the mundane tasks of daily living. They get caught up in things that pull us away from our goals and passions.

KCH: Regarding autobiography and fiction, you’ve stated that, “experience not profoundly realized within cannot be vividly or profoundly rendered without.” How do you weave personal experience into your work?

GG: It’s really more of transference to a character. Naturally I’d have to start with my own profound experience, but then given the personality and soul of the character, it would have to be adjusted. That’s one of those things you can’t easily sew up. Every writer has a past. Every writer feels and has experience, and every fiction writer funnels it into her work. But there are millions of ways to do this.

KCH: It’s not a direct transference…more of a synthesis.

GG: It’s more like a sieve. Things come through like a tea strainer, coming through the little holes. 

KCG: You’ve written in a diary back in 1966 that you wanted to write about “…lives driven by enlightenment rather than purpose” and, “The person who cherishes and values his ideals above reality can only grow or create to a certain level.” These observations are critical to evolving toward truth in one’s life and work. Can you explain these observations in more depth?

GG: You’ve got to make room for the world, which I’m still learning to do every day. I find that the more outside of yourself you get, the more of yourself you can bring to it.

KCH: Sort of the inverse of what we might think. That’s a very insightful way to put it. 

GG: Yes, well for me it took eighty years to think of it!

KCH: As the volumes of The Making of a Writer attest, you are an avid journal keeper since childhood. You’ve also mentioned feeling very protective toward that young girl in those diaries just as Orwell mentions his own ‘young boy’ in his essay “Why I Write.” Define what it means to feel protective toward our younger self, and how does that extend to your work?

GG: As I get older I’m writing about younger people. I find that’s happening for me more and more. There’s some attraction there, some pull from them to me. What bothers me is that, up until recently, I have felt darkness about that young girl. I wasn’t trying to protect her; I was trying to forget her. I’m only recently beginning to understand it. Things happened in my life because of my experiences and because of the way I am. Only now am I able to take that young girl and reunite with her. So I’ll see what happens next.

KCH: That question came out of my own experience as a very abused little girl trying to regain that innocence.

GG: I didn’t look at these things back then. I couldn’t have or I wouldn’t be sitting here. I drank and put curtains over everything and that’s the way it’s been. Then you finally reach a point where you find someone you can talk to, like a therapist, and it can take years and years. You start to notice those same destructive patterns you’re seeking out because you feel at home in them. And you’re working out how you ever got there. I’m still at the beginning of all that.

KCH: We do things automatically, these rituals, these patterns. We feel protected in it.

GG: They’re familiar things to us. The time has to be right. You can’t rush it. A person actually feels safe being trapped. Once you really deal with it, though, it does lose its power and its sting. 

KCH: In a June 2017 NPR interview you stated that truth on an essential level is now most important to you. And in a recent Lit Hub interview from October 2017, you mention the Orwell essay about words and how each of us tells hundreds of lies each day. We see this on the micro/personal level as well as on the macro/global scale. Can you elaborate on this?

GG: We lie all day long. First of all, we don’t have enough words to tell the truth. Second of all, it’s the pattern thing. We go into the easier paths. I’m trying to catch myself when I do that. It’s hard.

KCH: It is hard, and most often we don’t like being caught. And many times, people don’t want to hear the truth.

GG: That’s the whole thing about to tell or not to tell. Sometimes it can ruin someone else’s life, and sometimes you even feel like a fool when trying to tell the truth. 

KCH: You’ve written that personal experiences don’t “mean a damn to anyone else until they are transformed into something that produces a universal emotion.” How do you craft your experiences into your characters in order to achieve this “universal emotion?”

GG: You can’t just say that you’re going to craft something universal. You do the best you can with your passion and your skill, and you either achieve it or you don’t. The quality and intensity of the writing have to express it well enough. 

KCH: You were raised in a predominantly female household with two feminine role models: a grandmother who was more traditional and a mother who seemed caught between tradition and individual expression. Did you feel this conflict as a young woman and writer, and how might this have changed with time?

GG: I was torn about traditional roles from the ages of about eighteen to thirty-eight. I just couldn’t see how you could do all of it: be an attractive woman, have a man, have all that go well and do your work. It sounds funny to say that now because we’ve moved forward on a lot of this. I watched the movie “The Post” last night about Katherine Graham and The Washington Post newspaper. When Graham’s husband committed suicide, she was caught in that old world and had to really grow fast to realize it was now her paper, and she could make the decisions. I remember when I was leaving for Europe (in the early sixties) on my big symbolic trip, going away to become a writer. Even down to the last minute there were several men who could have convinced me to stay. God knows if they would have been more persuasive, I might not have gone. I no longer deny some confusion in the whole male/female dynamic. Even in later years while living with Robert, we would have the most horrible fights. Over the years since he’s gone, I’ve come to realize we were two strong people trying to hold onto our power, to not lose it to the other one. Some things never die. But now, on my own, I just don’t have those problems. I write, and I’ve been drawing and painting. As I write now I can stop and decide I want to paint a scene. As I’m painting, I realize more about people than I thought I knew, and it helps with the writing. So, in a way each creation is a new beginning, like starting over.

KCH: It’s great that you can draw and paint as well as write.

GG: That was another life choice. When I was in my teens I really wanted to be an artist, a painter. I get much more pleasure out of that. Now I can stay in my bed and make pictures for hours, and they get better and better. A couple of weeks ago I went to an art school and took a course from an artist. I thought maybe I should know certain things. She taught it from the point of view of mixing secondary and tertiary colors to get another particular color, whereas I’ve always just known that intuitively by simply mixing. So, I knew more than I thought I did. But that’s a new part of my life. I go to the art store and buy all these brushes and paper and it relates to my writing, too. I enjoy the whole thing much more. I want to do what I want to do for the rest of my life. 

KCH: Our mothers are typically our original and strongest influence. They are usually our greatest source of conflict serving as role models but also reminders that we need to forge our own “self” from these imprints. You followed your mother in certain patterns with education, journalism and writing. How has your mother influenced you as a woman and a writer?

GG: Well, as my oldest childhood friend told me recently, “You didn’t have a chance, Gail!” She said, “Kathleen, that’s my mother, shot you off like a nuclear rocket to the writing life.” You had no ability to choose anything else. She wanted it so much for herself. As far as a feminine role model, I think she wasn’t a great one. She let herself be bullied. She grew up in different times and gave up much too much. She told me once, after her second marriage, she was going into the bank to put some money into her savings account and her new husband came in and said, “What are you doing?” She replied, “I’m putting money in my savings account,” and he said, “You have an account without me?” So she had a lot to learn. If I had a role model, it would probably have been Wonder Woman, who was in the comics while I was growing up. 

KCH: You’ve mentioned “shapeliness” as part of your mother’s advice about writing but also found contradiction in this because, as you state, it was “at the expense of allowing the truth to reveal itself in slow, shy and often problematical glimpses.” How did she relate to your more uncompromising approach and to your success, and how did it impact your relationship?

GG: When I was at the Writers Workshop in Iowa (in the late sixties) I would send her my stories. She would say, “You need more plot,” and she was definitely one for shape. But I believe shape has been my worst enemy. It cuts off the edges. Now I’m interested in what gets cut off, what was left out. All of this is new to me. You’re visiting and interviewing a new person. Last summer I had my cataracts removed one at a time. It was like the beginning of a new life, because I’ve never been able to see well. I was nearsighted and had stigmatism. Now, with the cataracts removed and new lenses in there, I have 20/20 vision. It’s affected my whole life. It’s almost a spiritual thing. I can see, and that may be where the drawing is coming from. I just need those cheater eyeglasses from the pharmacy for reading. By the way it’s a great way to meet a man. They’re at the drugstore trying on glasses. They’re so vain. They want to look good!

KCH: When you mentioned earlier about drawing, there was this essence that came over you, of happiness, that just emanated from you. It was interesting how you tied it all in with vision and being able to see. If your mother wasn’t so interested in you becoming a writer, would this have been your direction?

GG: I think you’re right. When I’m drawing and painting, time is a whole different thing. Time just goes away.

KCH: Does that flow easier for you than the writing?

GG: Oh, God, yes. I put some of my drawings on the blog on my author website. They’re getting better and better because I’m learning how to draw simply by drawing. I get this indecent pleasure out of it, and it’s changed my writing habits. I usually stay away from that thing (points to her computer), and I use notebooks, and the writing has become more of a physical act. I’ve just worked out all these scenes and they’re ready to be typed in. I have about eighty pages of the new novel typewritten so far. But I am not going to rush. I was convinced to do a two-book contract. Right after Grief Cottage the publisher was asking when the next one would be ready. At first, I told my agent I’d rather just give the money back, the advance toward the next book, because I will not be rushed. And I’m not telling anyone the name of it either! So, that’s where we are now. I’m just as willing to get out of it. But he said no, the paperback of Ghost Cottage is coming out soon, and there are so many positive reactions. So I said that maybe at the end of this year I’d show them some of it. And then the other night I was lying in bed and thinking that I don’t have to show it if I don’t feel it’s ready. I don’t have to do it. It’s a pity that it took me so long to get so strong.

KCH: Do you find criticism and reviews helpful, and do they influence you to any great extent? 

GG: They make me sad, furious, and angry! Robert and I used to sit at cocktail hour each evening and try to see who could remember the worst review. I always remember the night in Boston Symphony Hall when a critic from the New York Times began his review of Robert’s work with, “Boredom swept over the audience.” The worst I can come up with is, “Gail Godwin is a good writer but The Good Husband is not a good book.” I was going to use that critic as the horrible woman in my book Evensong. She’s a writer with absolutely no sense of humor. She said I tried to make too many philosophical connections in my book. That would have been horrible if I did do that. Whenever somebody criticizes me, I usually go and read their books and think, ugh! 

KCH: There’s the issue of writing truthfully and objectively, but most often people are just tethered to their conditioning, wounds and imprints that carry right over into all aspects of their lives. We have to acknowledge things about ourselves.

GG: I’ll tell you a story about myself. I had been drinking since I was eleven. On the morning of May 11, 2009, I woke up feeling pretty bad with a hangover. It’s like losing your mind. And I wrote in my journal, “Oh God please help me. I’m going straight to hell.” In saying this, the experience I had was that I was being taken care of, and all I had to do was live with it and accept it. My doctor was all ready for me in case I had withdrawal symptoms. He got me to his cousin who’s a therapist and works with alcoholics. It worked because I was finally ready. I wasn’t ready before. 

KCH: There are depths we sometimes need to reach to push us on our way, to become ready.

GG: No one should want to feel that way, but yet we do over and over.

KCH: In your Afterword to Jane Hill’s treatise, you mention being asked by a Jungian analyst, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” Do you still feel fears hold you back in any of your writing and, if so, what are they?

GG: I don’t think fears hold me back any longer. It’s rather like seeing a landscape opening out in front of me. I sense I can do anything I need to do if I take my time and let the way lead me forward. I kept a notebook of writings called Unpublished Desperations for that same Jungian analyst, delving into those fears. One of the pieces I wrote was from my mother to me, really letting me have it, so to speak, laying out her side. It ended up being quite funny. Another was an exploration into what I might have done had I ever found myself pregnant, alone and abroad. I went right through the stages of making the decision. In writing about it, I found I was one of those who would look for a way out, which wouldn’t have been easy in the early sixties. I also had long dialogues with a “Blue Nun” in which I put forth all manner of questions. I worked with that analyst for eleven years by phone and face to face when I could get there. We got a lot done. When I stopped drinking on May 11, 2009, I was seventy-two years old. I had just completed Unfinished Desires and was writing Flora, which would be the first novel nobody saw until it was finished. At that time, I began working with a new therapist, whom I continue to talk with once a week. For me, talking to a safe, trained person is very helpful. 

KCH: You’ve said, “I think it does your soul good, your character good, to realize there are things that aren’t for you, there are things you can fail at, and if you fail well, it becomes another little pearl in your destiny.” Can you elaborate on what it means to “fail well?”

GG: I love that. There’s a lot to failing well.

KCH: There’s always that perfection thing as an impediment.

GG: And, also, the obscure edges of failing. You just can’t see the edges there. Again, it’s like accepting your life, the way it’s turned out, and the horrible things you did to people, and the horrible things they did to you, and realizing that all of that has made you what you are now. 

About the interviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Literature/Writing. She co-featured at The N.Y. Public Library, The Queens Museum, The Provincetown Playhouse, and other venues before moving to France in 2019. Out From Calaboose is her latest book of poems. Find out more at http://karencorinneherceg.com

This interview appeared originally in The Southern Literary Review.

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