I'm completely honored to host a Q and A with Gail Godwin about her latest novel, Unfinished Desires. Her 30-year career spans short story collections, nonfiction, novels and librettos for ten musical works with her husband, the composer Robert Starer. Nominated for the National Book Award three times, and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a National Endowment of the Arts grant, Godwin, to me, is a writer's writer, someone who creates living, breathing worlds, and seems to do it effortlessly.
Unfinished Desires moves back and forth through time as Mother Suzanne Ravenel tapes her memories of her years at a religious school, focusing on the worst year, 1951-52. About the perils and pleasures of friendship, and the way the past informs the present, Unfinished Desires is frankly, brilliant.
You nailed down what it is to be a teenaged girls so expertly—the rivalries and the yearnings. Where did that knowledge come from?
This question of yours sets me thinking in the way I love to be set thinking. I’ll have to dig. Why do I still have such contact with the teenage girl in myself? I never had children, so I don’t have daughters to study. Perhaps---and I mean this seriously---I still feel thirteen or fourteen in a lot of important ways. The thought patterns of those years are still visceral and available to me.Could it have something to do with the great chunk of SILENCE that was part of my school life and home life? I wasn’t a boarder at St. Genevieve’s (the school on which Mount St. Gabriel’s is modeled) but the “St. Genevieve’s silence” was a big part of my life. We studied in silence next to one another in a huge study hall (formerly a hotel ballroom). We prayed next to one another in silence. We rode in silence, to and from school, on the school bus. A nun sat on the front side seat. We didn’t talk, we didn’t whisper, we didn’t read on the bus. So what is left for a girl to do? Think. That’s about it. No texting. No I-pod hidden beneath the hair. All you had were your thoughts. Which were? “What does S think about me? How can I win the admiration of K? How can I punish L.? Who am I, anyway? What will my life be like when I have some freedom and POWER?” And when I was at home, my mother was reading or correcting papers (she taught college English); my grandmother was reading or listening to the radio. I was studying and reading and thinking of my life with them. “How do I get them to do what I want? Why are they happy? Why are they unhappy? How do I break free of them and become myself?”
Of course there were noisy fights at school, screaming and shrieking at home, gossiping, plotting, betrayals, playing one against the other, jealousies---oh, the jealousies! It wasn’t all silence. But the silence was always available when you needed to think about the meaning of your noisy life.
You write music, you’re a talented painter, and you’ve done a painting of the school whereUnfinished Desires is set. Drawing also figures in the book, as Chloe, one of the girls, continually draws pictures of her dead mother, as if she is consulting with her. I’m wondering if the painting of the school came first, after, or while you were writing, and how you believe different kinds of creativity inform the others?
These were consuming and extremely pleasurable activities until I reached the age of, oh, about fifteen. Then the demands and horrors of social life took over. It wasn’t until about ten years ago, when I was undergoing a Jungian analysis, (and I started dreaming of particular paintings and drawings I wanted to do) that I bought some sketchbooks and started drawing again. I was attracted to recycled paper, because of its little spots and suggestive irregularities. I would sit on the sofa beside my basket of colored pencils and start evoking an image. One of the first ones was “Good Behavior,” which you can see on my website: gailgodwin.com. Drawing has now become attached to memory, and to situations and people I don’t understand. As I begin my next novel, Flora, about a girl and her summer tutor, the pencil points are sharpened and I’m enthralled by what is going to form itself out of those spots.
As soon as I knew I was going to be devoting the next few years of my life to Unfinished Desires(which during the writing was called The Red Nun: A Tale of Unfinished Desires)
I hunted up old photographs of St. Genevieve’s and composed an image that I could “go into.”It’s also on the website. I kept it on my desk the whole time I was writing the novel. It was my touchstone.
As for different kinds of creativity feeding other kinds, that’s what happened when Robert Starer and I started collaborating back in the early 1970’s. He had a commission from CBS to do an evening length chamber opera at Caramoor. But he couldn’t find a subject or a librettist he liked. I had a failed short story, “Indulgences,” about a promiscuous woman who gets caught up in the story of an apocryphal saint (Pelagia, also a promiscuous woman.) It became our chamber piece, “The Last Lover” for four voices and wind instruments, which later became so popular that Robert re-scored it for piano and organ. We did many chamber operas together. I wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. Our last one, and our favorite, was “The Other Voice,” about St. Hilda of Whitby. It was performed in New York shortly before Robert died.
I’m fascinated by process. Unfinished Desires is gorgeously structured. It moves seamlessly from the past to the present, presenting its surprises like small, perfect shocks, and it also has an additional layer of meaning—the memoir that Sister Ravenel is writing. Do you map your novels out beforehand or are there constant surprises for you? What’s your process like? You’ve also mentioned getting to the “hot wand” in the writing process, that moment in a book where the creative fire is. How do you get to that point, and where was that in Unfinished Desires for you?
At first, I began the novel with the “Tour of the Grounds” chapter, set in 1951, when the headmistress, Mother Ravenel, is conducting the new teacher, Mother Malloy, on a strenuous walk, to introduce her to the school. This was going fine, but there was something missing. I felt a lack of texture. I wanted a frame of some kind. It would give me more layers, more freedom, but I wasn’t sure how. Then my “hot wand” trembled (this was a concept of the theater artist, some would say villainess, Madelyn Farley, in Father Melancholy’s Daughter. It is the moment of creative fire.) I saw a very old, blind nun being escorted into a room where a brand new tape recorder awaits her on a table. She has agreed, at the insistence of her old girls, to write a memoir of the school. Now the time was May of 2001. I had my frame. Other interiors were also opening: the interior of Mother Ravenel’s actual memoir, and then the further interior of dictated parts that never got into the memoir. I also knew I wanted Tildy, Chloe, and Maud to meet again, when they were old women. All of this frame and interior progress was not linear. It came in flashes, throughout the writing.
I read that you said that if you had stayed in the Midwest, you might have been the director of the Writers Workshop, but your writing would have stagnated. As a writer who has to do a lot of other things besides writing to pay the bills, I was interested in how and why you think your writing would have changed?
That interview was a long one, tape recorded in my study. The interviewer and I had drunk our tea and the afternoon was waning and we had our feet up and I was musing in a loose, wandering way about what might have happened had I stayed on in Iowa, teaching in the Writers Workshop. In that interview I was remembering how at the time (1972-3) the academic setting and the subjects I was teaching had become foremost in my mind and had bumped aside other parts of my memory and imagination. I remembered telling my agent, John Hawkins, “I’ve got to get out of here, I can no longer remember what it was like to be a waitress!” But the real reason I left Iowa and my safe tenure track job was because I had met Robert Starer at Yaddo and we wanted to be together. If he had not come into my life when he did, I might have stayed on at Iowa and written---who knows? Maybe a novel about a waitress, drawing on my own experience. Or maybe another “take” on The Turn of the Screw, which I was teaching then. The ironic thing is, the first novel I wrote after Robert and I got together was The Odd Woman(1974) a thoroughly academic novel. And later in our life together I would write another one:The Good Husband (1994). And now, in 2009, what am I writing? Flora. Inspired by---you guessed it!---The Turn of the Screw, which still fascinates me.
But, you know, I still get those warnings (“I’ve got to get out of here if I want my writing to stay alive!”) and I always listen to them and try to engage with them. Only this week I had one. I started wondering if maybe there wasn’t enough “violence” in my work. Did that mean there wasn’t enough reality? But then I started digging, and I realized: your métier is the reality of psychological violence, the kind that crushes someone or forces change. There are no crushed eyeballs, but plenty of crushed hopes and having to start all over.
This was very inspiring, Caroline. I know things I didn’t know before this interview. Thank you for making me dig!
December 20, 2009