Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gail Godwin's warm, smart memoir on her life in the book business: Publishing: A Writer's Memoir

About a year ago, I was surprised and delighted to be invited to lunch at the New York City restaurant Sarabeth's (pumpkin pancakes!) with one of my literary heroines, Gail Godwin, her fabulous editor Nancy Miller (Bloomsbury), some of her publishing team, the genius Emily St. John Mandel (She had not yet published Station Eleven, but The Lola Quartet is one of my favorite novels). After being awed by the company I was in, I relaxed enough to enter the conversation about the perils and pleasures of book touring. I told the story of my red cowboy boots. how I was terrified to go on my first tour for Algonquin, until a friend suggested a talisman. When I saw a $15 pair of short red cowboy boots on Ebay, I thought, “The woman who wears these isn’t afraid of anything.” And when I bought and wore them, I wasn't.

Gail put that incident in her lovely, graceful and absolutely fascinating new memoir: Publishing. It’s not just about publishing a book, but about everything that goes along with being a writer: the wait for publication, what it means to be a writer and how the very business of publishing works.  It’s also filled with gorgeous line drawings by Frances Halsband.  From fledgling want-to-be writer to the author of two story collections and fourteen novels, three National Book Award finalists, and five New York Times bestsellers, Gail Godwin brings you along on her journey, with  sparks of gold on each page.

You couldn’t ask for a better guide than Ms. Godwin.  If there is such a thing as a born writer, she’s surely one, telling stories to her mother as she was growing up,  ferociously reading. She marries, divorces, marries again, and guffaws while she reads one of her stories aloud to her class. Kurt Vonnegut was a teacher (he told her to stop the “sandbagging” flashbacks but also gave her a thumbs up, but another teacher crushes her by saying he was 24 when he published his first novel, and what then could the 30-year-old Godwin expect? 

She guides us through her editors (one of whom died before she even got to lunch with him),  her long term relationship with her agent John Hawkins, her editor Nancy Miller, and it’s all so deeply human (she cries the first time she meets the legendary Robert Gottleib). 

Through Publishing, we get to see just how much publishing has changed, and how much it has stayed the same And while the publishing industry seems to be in flux today, in 1983, there was a virtual bloodbath, and Godwin writes, “It’s hard to maintain your equilibrium when your dance partners keep getting dragged off the floor.” Every writer, even one as accomplished as Ms. Godwin, has her struggles to overcome, which is actually, very comforting and inspiring.

Reading it, I feel like I’m back at that table at Sara Beth’s, talking to a friend rather than a heroine--but then again, she is, that, too.

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