YES! It was my honor to blurb~And Gail will be live interviewed on A Mighty Blaze on Friday, May 5/8 at 2! How COOL IS THAT?
Literary treasure Godwin’s shimmeringly alive new novel follows a True North female friendship through 41 years of shifting connections, love, tragedy, and the deep drama of a changing world, but it’s also about so much more, like the secrets that can make or break us, and how stories can virtually save our souls, leading us to something we never realized that we needed to know—which is exactly what this gorgeous, heartbreakingly true, and profound novel does. To say I love it is understatement.
Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World
Gail Godwin is indeed a literary treasure. She’s written 14 novels, two short story collections, three non-fiction books, and ten libretti. She’s the author of five bestsellers, three finalists for the National Book Award, and she’s won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts. She’s also one of the most astonishingly kind writers I’ve ever met (people kept telling me, “she changed my life!” I think I can say that, as well.) I first met Gail when her publicist called me to ask if I would like to come to lunch with Gail, her publishing crew and Emily St. John Mandel. I was so honored! To my delight, the lunch was warm, friendly and from then on, I kept in touch with Gail.
I’ve loved her new book, Old Lovegood Girls in a way I can only describe as passionately. It’s about a lifelong friendship between two writers, about art and how best we live in the world, what we remember and what we forget, and it’s—in a word—dazzling.
One of the many things I loved so much about Old Lovegood Girls is how deeply attached we become to both these women, Feron and Merry. You uncover both their lives, their hearts, and indeed the souls of them. At one point, the writer Feron is told she can “glimpse the undersides of peoples’ lives.” I think that is what you absolutely do in this book. Is this a kind of alchemy that only happens in writing for you, or does it happen in real life, as well?
“You have more strangeness in you than you are aware of,” Feron’s writing teacher tells her in their first session. “I would urge you to cultivate the strangeness. You can glimpse the undersides of people’s lives, what is going on beneath the realistic narrative.” Her novel in progress is at an impasse and Cuervo tells her to give it a rest and go to
the library and study up on fairy tales and then write a modern one of her own.
Years later, after Feron’s Beast and Beauty has been published, and A Singular Courtship, a successful version of the old impasse novel, has at long last found its way to fruition, Cuervo tells her, “You have preserved the strangeness I liked in the original draft.” Feron’s precarious childhood has sharpened her awareness of the underside because she was raised in that underside herself. To sustain herself, she has had to ferret out the motives of others. Through the practice of writing fiction she brings to light more and more of this underside in herself and others.
When Feron first lays eyes on her roommate, she marvels at Merry’s “in-one-piece-ness.” (“As though God, when making her, took great pains to color all of her inside the lines.”) About herself, she thinks, “Feron was not inside the lines.”
When they are in their sixties, Merry tells Feron, “You have a sense of the beyond that I just don’t,” after Feron has seen the ghost of Merry’s dead brother after spending a single night in his room. Later that morning, while Feron is standing behind a lectern reading a psalm at her aunt’s funeral, she has a brief moment of looking out at the congregation and seeing the parts they are hiding. This sudden invasion of “underside” vision scares her. At first she thinks she is having a fit or a stroke.
A reviewer wrote that I was “a forensically skillful examiner of my characters’ motives, thoughts, and behavior.” When I am writing, a character’s singularity will suddenly poke right through the page and show itself. (This will happen to the mature Feron as she finds herself lingering over the passages about her husband’s mother.) There is something so arresting in this material that she resists leaving it. And her decision to stuck with it as long it attracts her is the right one.
There’s a lot about memory in the book, what we choose to remember and what we try to bury or at least to keep to ourselves. Can you talk about this please?
Isn't that everyone’s dilemma, what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget? And then there’s what we actually DO forget until someone remembers it for us. Also there’s what we choose to bury, or at least keep under wraps, for our own reasons. After Feron is given a new life by her uncle, she resolves to offer the barest of facts of her old life, heavily edited, and then to start over on a clean page with every new person she meets.
Throughout their entire friendship, Merry never tells anyone, not even Feron, the secret that led to her marriage. Another love secret is added later, but Merry guards that, too. The one private family story Merry had told Feron in college, about Merry’s mother’s winter depression chamber, shows up thirty years later in Feron’s novel, Mr. Blue, even including the furniture in the depression chamber.
On a happier note, having been friends for so long, Merry can remind Feron of old conversations they’d had in the dorm.
(“You would speculate about your uncle’s sex life with his fiancée, sometimes you’d do their voices. Like, ‘Not yet, Rowan, I’m not ready yet.’ And he would say, ‘Honey is it because you think I’ll respect you less?”
“Merry, I do not remember one single word of this.”
“That’s what friends and family are for. Even during my brother’s brief life, we often remembered entirely different versions of the same event.”)
Can we talk about the writer’s relationship to something she has written? The usual question: “Did you make that up or did that really happen?”
And what about the writer’s relationship to something she has written? You are asked “Did you make that up or did it really happen?” If you say I made it all up, are you sure? Or if you say, well, some of it happened, but I changed things around——-if you say this often enough, one day you might yourself lose track of what happened and what didn’t.
This is Feron’s line of reasoning after Merry has asked her if the “physical part really happened” between Feron and the ex-convict in Chicago, on whom Beast and Beauty were based. And Feron waffles with a “well, yes and no.” In real life, Feron tells her, he was unnaturally gallant, or else impotent, “but in the novel I let her talk him into it the night before she leaves him.” Because it made a better story. Then she thinks, What if, one day, you actually lose track of what happened and what didn’t?
What did a book have to do with your life?
I love the way you have phrased this question. It widens the answers.
Let’s say it is your own book, the one you are writing. Cuervo tells Feron that the one book he wrote in his youth, Nito’s Garden, kept him from committing suicide.
Feron’s Beast and Beauty provides her with a safe form to express an unsafe experience.
Miss Petrie, Lovegood’s English teacher, passes on her reverence of Chekov to Merry and Feron who take him as their model. “Miss Petrie is trying to make us comfortable with uncertainty,” Feron explains. In their early writings, both ask themselves: “How would Chekov do it?”
What if it is a book you are reading? Merry, who did not grow up reading the Bible, enters an enlightened world in the company of her Bible study group. She realizes that this book was written by people like herself down through the ages who were looking for help. Each of the women in the group offers up her ideas, her research, and then all of them seek guidance through the group’s mind.
When a librarian in her apartment building asks Feron whether she has read all of Jane Austen, she says, “All but one. I couldn’t stand that goody-goody heroine in Mansfield Park.” But she tries again and finds herself in a different moral place than the one inhabited by her scornful younger self. She realizes that Fanny Price’s transplant from low to high on the privilege scale is painfully similar to her own and the book has much to say to her now.
So much of this astonishing novel is also about art, with a very excellent bit of advice for any writer. Ignore the sponsor—which is anything that has influence or power over the art you are attempting to make. That’s such a difficult but important thing to do, especially now where so many writers are dealing with many sponsors, including social media. Are you yourself able to follow this advice?
Cuervo tells Feron the true artist learns when to “ignore the sponsor. “Sponsors are all the influences outside yourself and between you and your work. Sponsors include the editor, the publisher, the business act of production and publication, the booksellers and buyers, the readers and reviewers, the admirers and detractors. Cuervo even includes himself as a sponsor. After his death, Feron hears him say “out-walk the sponsor! So far, I have failed in my efforts to ignore my sponsors. But increasingly I try to out-walk them!
I loved that both women are writers. It’s astonishing how the snippets of their writing reveal the characters even more deeply. How would you say your writing reveals you?
As writers, Merry and Feron operate out of different needs. This is evident even back in junior college. Merry wants to fulfill the assignment responsibly and please her teacher, and she is attracted to material that touches her emotions. Feron is stimulated by envy and competition and the desire to impress. On a much deeper level her writing impetus is fed by her longing to stop feeling she is tainted and has earned the right to acknowledge she is good enough.
Merry is the first to publish—to Feron’s anguish. When Merry’s story, “The Curing Barn,” appears in the Atlantic Monthly, Merry is 28. It is a story in which a sister is slowly coming to terms with her brother’s death in Viet Nam by retelling herself the story of the family’s annual tobacco harvest, when the leaves are hung in the curing barn. She recalls how he picked off the “lugs” (spoiled leaves) when he was a child and gradually has him as a teenager straddling the rafters of the barn and hauling the leaves up to dry. Feron’s first publication is her modern fairy tale, Beast and Beauty, when she is 36. Merry never publishes again in a literary magazine. She spends several years writing a long piece (for no payment) about tobacco growing for a state magazine. Then she spends more years working on a novel about Stephen Slade, the slave who discovered the art of flue-cured tobacco. She abandons it when she realizes she will never be able to get inside the mind of a black person let alone a slave. Over the years, she writes and rewrites many stories. The ones she loves best are her re-imaginings of the love story between her favorite college teacher, Miss Petrie, and her secret partner Miss Olafson, the gym teacher. She knows these can’t be published in the 1960’s and seventies. She never stops writing because the act of doing it makes her happy.
Feron’s Beast and Beauty makes it possible for her to face the two weeks with the ex-con, another part of her past she has tried to bury. It will take her almost two more decades to feel her way into the right way to tell A Singular Courtship, her marriage novel.
The things Merry and Feron choose to write and the way they go about writing them reveal precious information about their values, their affinities, and their qualms.
I’m not sure I can give a satisfactory account of ways my work reveals me. As I get older, I write shorter and make do with simpler sentences. Like Feron, writing is a practice to save myself, to learn myself, and to puzzle out why humans do the things they do. For me, as for Feron, jealousy and competition have served as excellent stimulants! However, like Merry, the act of writing makes me happy. I have reached the point where I feel unsettled when I am not writing.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I used to obsess over Death and Dying. Then Donald Trump happened.
Since November 9, 1916, I have been circling my Obsession Corral, asking “How?” and then “Why?”
Obsession is circular. You trot round and round your little corral. You can go clockwise or counter-clockwise, but there is no exit gate.
What happened to my country? How did it happen so quickly? How is it possible that one man...?
Yet history tells us it has happened like this before and can happen again.
How much longer can the center hold this time?
How I look forward to getting back to good old Death and Dying!