A Conversation with Gail Godwin
Rob Neufeld is the book reviewer for the Asheville Citizen-Times and
director of the program “Together We Read” in North Carolina. At
present, he is editing volume one of Gail Godwin’s diaries.
Rob Neufeld: One of the most distinctive features of your writing is
that you keep adding layer after layer of history and attitude to your
characters and yet somehow manage to maintain the drama. Is this
layering a method of yours?
Gail Godwin: The characters and the places have to be as real as possible.
I have to know what the characters are seeing and thinking. I
end up developing much more than I use, and sometimes I include
passages that I later have to take out. When I started The Finishing
School, I had gotten stuck in the opening on the story of how Justin’s
grandmother had met her husband. My mother said to me, “I think
you need to get back to the drama.”
RN: The Finishing School is just a little over three hundred pages.
That’s a nice length for a novel, don’t you think?
GG: I wish I could make the novel I’m working on now that length
because I love that length. Father Melancholy’s Daughter was over
four hundred pages, but it didn’t feel like it. With my Christina stories
[autobiographically based stories that have contributed toward
Evenings at Five and other pieces], I’m building one large work that
I’m calling The Passion of Christina.
RN: The Finishing School, along with Father Melancholy’s Daughter,
are two of the most cohesive yet complex novels I’ve ever read.
There are many great novels that aren’t so much of one piece. They
have hinges that show. How do you make a long novel that has the
continuity of a short tale?
GG: I have been pulling out big chunks of the novel that I’m working on
presently—Queen of the Underworld—in order to reposition them or
break them up into absorbable pieces. My goal in this novel is to sustain
three months of the heroine’s experience, seeing how her mind works—
with no foreshadowing allowed. I want the reader to be there with her. I
don’t want any sidetracks to slow down the journey, which is very much
of-the-moment. Sometimes, I am amazed at how much I discard from my
drafts—months of work, including long forays into flashbacks. I ask myself,
What is the trajectory I want? Can I put the information across without
what Kurt Vonnegut used to call my “sandbagging flashbacks”?
RN: Could you talk a little more about the process by which you
GG: I make diagrams of my novels with a ruler. I turn a page sideways
and write the name of my novel on top. Then, I take a ruler and draw
vertical lines to make ten divisions and a horizontal line to make twenty
for the number of chapters. I start planning what happens where. If I
have a character offstage for too long, I know I have to bring him or her
back. I’ve done this with every novel I’ve written since The Perfectionists.
It takes me two, three, or fours years to complete a novel. Over that
period, you tend to lose track of things, so you have to keep refreshing
yourself. I also write myself blue papers (after the kind of paper I’d
once used in my typewriter). They’re sermons or pep talks to myself:
“Well, Gail, you think you’re stuck. Why? You have a party with thirty
Cuban exiles at it. What are they doing? You just have to get to the
party and start anywhere—with the food, anything.” Writing The Finishing
School, I knew how many chapters it would become because I
made notes of which scenes would go where. Since Justin hangs on to
Ursula’s every word, I knew I could have Ursula dole out her life story
in bits anytime anything suggested something.
RN: Are discarded parts the seeds for other novels and stories?
GG: The one I just threw out was based on something that happened
to me at St. Genevieve’s [school]. It was about trying to talk with
Cubans. I was sorry to lose it. It was twenty pages long. Then I
thought, This would make another good Christina story.
RN: In the beginning of The Finishing School, Justin reveals that
Ursula DeVane has “claimed a permanent place in the theater of my
unconscious.” Theater is an important concept for you. Madelyn Farley,
a key character in Father Melancholy’s Daughter, is a theater designer.
Justin Stokes becomes a stage actress. In what ways does the
theater of the unconscious resemble theater?
GG: There is a finite stage in the theater of the unconscious. There is
a finite number of actors—not fifty, but only five or ten. The story
crystallizes into figures of necessity. The drama must be riveting, and
the setting has to be a place where you’d want to live for a few hours.
Then, there are certain sets that you return to again and again in your
imaginative theater, like recurrent dreams. I have Asheville sets. One is
St. Mary’s [Episcopal Church]. One is St. Genevieve’s. They don’t
represent themselves. They represent points of growth. They stand for
attitudes and challenges. You can learn so much from dreams.
[After a couple of moments of silence over the phone]
GG: My cat is vocalizing.
RN: Is that the cat [who becomes a protective spirit in Evenings at
GG: That’s the cat. I named him Bud in Evenings at Five after my
friend, a Jungian analyst. The cat’s real name is Ambrose.
RN: There’s so much fun in the world, isn’t there?
GG: I know it!
RN: Later, I’ll want to talk about your sense of humor. Now, let’s talk
about your sense of realism—particularly, how you represent what goes on
in people’s minds. Aren’t people’s thoughts at any moment a big mishmash?
GG: Not so much a mishmash. The actual process of thinking has a
tempo of its own. It moves very quickly. Try tracing back your present
thought to the thoughts that had initially led you to it. At first, you
think you’ve gone through some astonishing non sequiturs, but I believe
you’ll usually find that they are all ordered in some way. One thing leads
to another and you discover patterns. Everyone has his or her very own
cloaking pattern. This kind of pattern—which is like storytelling—
may involve a tempo, a costume, purposeful omissions, and intuitive
progressions. The subconscious is your ally in coming up with fictions.
RN: Ursula DeVane says that her mother haunts her. Is a person’s
mind a scary thing?
GG: A person’s mind is full of ghosts, and the main ghosts have real resonance
and real power. They have vibrato. Think of how much you’d know
about a person if you knew the main ghosts that haunted him or her.
RN: What kind of an adventure is it to create a character and go into
his or her mind? Do you see that as an adventure?
GG: That more than anything else is what keeps me wanting to
write—to get to understand the mind of anyone. José Ortega y Gasset
calls it transmigration into other souls—seeing a situation from
the other’s point of view, or trying to. Barbarians don’t do it very
much. It’s hopping into someone else’s being and living another life.
RN: On your Web site, under “tips for writers,” you suggest that a person
write a story first in the style of Ernest Hemingway and then Anton
Chekhov. What would it mean to write a story in the style of Gail Godwin?
You seem particularly interested in the idea of transmigration.
Justin “becomes” Ursula and “becomes” her fourteen-year-old self.
Empathy is important to other characters as well. Justin’s grandfather
“becomes” the slaves.
GG: And the snake!
RN: That’s a good trick! At any rate, do you acknowledge that kind
of empathy as one of the distinctive features of your work?
GG: Yes. In the novel on which I am now working, Queen of the Underworld,
the heroine is a young newspaper reporter in Miami, and
she’s staying in a hotel with Cuban exiles. One of the exiles had been
an owner of a sugar plantation, but now he’s at the front desk. He
doesn’t speak much English. It’s interesting to notice how being an exile
changes the way one moves. Your whole posture changes when you
don’t speak the language. The reporter then imagines herself in another
country as an exile. It’s an exercise in empathy for her.
RN: How do you go about becoming someone else?
GG: I usually start with visualization. I see other people—what they’re
wearing, what their gestures are—going onto a train, going into a
restaurant. They’re coming in thinking what, I wonder. With Aunt
Mona, my first thought was, What kind of person would be the opposite
of the kind whom Justin has been raised to admire—someone who
is not reserved, who talks all the time about starting with nothing?
Then I ask, What would she be like? How would she move, how would
she furnish her house? It occurred to me that that character would be
Justin’s aunt, and Justin would have to go live with her—with a person
who would not have been admired in certain circles in Virginia. Then, I
had to visualize Aunt Mona—her birdlike qualities, her earrings. At a
house I’d visited once, I had seen plastic paths laid down so you
wouldn’t have to walk on the rug. I thought it was bizarre and touching
at the same time because it said, “I’m not used to having things that are
expensive.” Eventually, I start hitting the levels where I become the person.
For example, I see Mona’s sterling qualities. She’s a fighter and
wants to better herself. She’s quite generous and warmhearted.
RN: That’s a good acting method. Are you an actress?
many years] told me I was.
RN: At one point Justin says about Becky, “One day . . . I am going to
crack the code of Becky.” Is Becky’s story waiting to be told?
GG: Becky’s, no. But there is a certain kind of character who has fascinated
me throughout my life—a quiet, inscrutable person who appears
to have who-knows-what going on inside. I met a model of this Becky
when she was three—and now she’s thirty-two. I can see how she’s doing.
RN: At the end of The Finishing School, you suggest that having
multiple personalities—or at least acknowledging them—is the secret
to sanity. Going through transformations and acknowledging multiple
personalities makes Justin whole.
GG: Yes, I agree. Justin does keep transforming. Being able to acknowledge
having many personalities goes against the picture people
have of themselves. The trouble with the phrase “multiple personalities”
is that people think of cheap movies. You know, the doctor helps
someone get rid of all the personalities except one, and that one survives,
and then the person is healthy. We need another phrase. I like to
say internal cast of characters.
RN: Can Justin accept the fact that one of her personalities—or internal
characters—is a monster and still be okay?
GG: If Justin can recognize that then she’ll be able to put it in its
place. We all have monsters. Justin’s monster is the ability to close
down when she feels herself threatened or being turned into something
against her will.
RN: Let’s talk about how you set the stage for your stories. In The
Finishing School, you have a kind of score. Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat
minor and Franz Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” play important
parts. How did these pieces come to you?
GG: The most important piece is the one that Julian plays as an allclear
signal. I heard Robert play that, and it’s diabolic. It summons
trouble. Also, it’s very hard to play. Above the sound of gathering
force, there’s a cascade of relief. I chose it intuitively.
RN: Would you be opposed to the book’s being published with a
GG: It should be. My late editor, Alan Williams, when he called me
to talk about The Finishing School, played the Scherzo and then came
on to talk. Music can express many things that words cannot. Do you
know the story “The Jolly Corner” by Henry James? A man comes
back to New York and haunts his family’s town house in order to confront
the ghost of who he would have been if he had stayed. James’s
description of the climactic moment—the meeting of the two—
doesn’t work. The ghost comes downstairs and he’s missing two fingers,
which is supposed to represent that he had become a powerful
business mogul. Music could have made it work better. For an eerie effect,
you could tune violins up one whole tone, for instance.
RN: How have you collaborated with Robert on musical compositions?
GG: We created twelve works together, including operas. Magdalen
at the Tomb and Anna Margarita’s Will can be heard through links on
my Web site, www.gailgodwin.com.
RN: Transformation is an important theme in your work, and it’s an
agonizing process for characters. Why is it so hard for people to realize
who they’re supposed to be?
GG: That’s what my new book is about, transformation. The other
key word—the heroine’s key word in the book—is usurpation. She
has gone through her life resisting usurpation. Other people and
forces in her life have been trying to usurp her for their own reasons.
RN: Is that what Ursula was doing with Justin?
GG: Yes. Justin was the perfect blank page. Ursula was the most
powerful person in her life when she was fourteen. Justin was almost
completely drowned in Ursula’s personality until she knowingly
drowned, in a sense, in that pond. Even then, you could say that Justin
has been controlled by Ursula because she was repeating Ursula’s betrayal
of her mother.
RN: You mark characters’ passages with epiphanies. Do you like that
GG: The term was drummed into me at graduate school. It belongs
to James Joyce. “Shock of recognition” is good, but we need to come
up with our own term. The quickening moment—I like that. It has to
do with the speeding up of the story, as well as bringing things to life.
The quickening moment for Justin—when everything comes together
and comes to a head—is when she dives into that pond. She is, among
other things, asserting her ability to swim. She is also trying to protect
Ursula from being discovered with her lover.
RN: Just before Justin goes off and instigates the story’s big event,
she witnesses the demolition of her subdivision’s old farmhouse. This
leads to her getting angry at her mother for her indifference about
this, and that leads to her running off to see the DeVanes. The fall of
the farmhouse makes the plot work, but is it also symbolic?
GG: The farmhouse represents the place where Justin could be herself,
where she could escape the conformity of her new home. It reminded
her of her old home. She had a great need for it. When children who
were playing around the farmhouse saw Justin coming, they left the
place to her. They recognized a need in her that was so strong, it scared
them. It spooked them. The farmhouse is a kind of symbol, but with a
good symbol, you never can get to the bottom of it.
RN: There is a lot of humor in your books. Aunt Mona is a hilarious
GG: I had one person come up to me once and ask me why I was humorless.
I’m not. I’m glad you mention the humor. There are levels of
humor, and mine tend to lie in the subtler ranges rather than slapstick.
Aunt Mona’s funniness comes from her holding on to certain beliefs
and habits with great tenacity, so there’s a strength to her weakness. You
see her asserting herself over and over again in predictable ways. You
look forward to her comment, for instance, that things would have
turned out differently for her if she had had others’ advantages. And the
contrast between her own terrible decorating style and her image of
herself as someone who can give decorating advice is comical.
RN: That’s right. When Mona warms up to Ursula because of Ursula’s
cultural knowledge, she suggests that she and Ursula might become
good friends, and that she might give Ursula some decorating tips. It’s
GG: In the end, though, Aunt Mona is redeemed from being primarily
comic. There’s a seriousness in that.
RN: People look at your fiction and see that, for instance, the mother
characters in the stories are all very different. Yet, they keep wondering
about the autobiographical content. How did The Finishing
School come to light for you?
GG: It came out of Robert’s and my experience of living in a 250-yearold
Dutch farmhouse when we first lived together in 1973. We were not
only thrilled by it, but spooked by it. That whole landscape was waiting
to be put into a book. For a long time, I had had the idea of an older sister
living with her brother in an old house, and a young woman would
get involved. At first, my idea for the story had been melodramatic. The
girl would be pregnant and the brother and sister would take her in because
they wanted a child. They would have researched bee stings in order
to figure out how to get rid of the girl. The other thing that inspired
me was hearing Robert play the piano. You could hear him playing in
the house when you were on the terrace. I once discussed with Robert
the possibility of composing a piece for eleven cellos so that we could
hear weird music coming out of the house.
RN: How did you come up with some of the characters’ names? Jem
is the name of the boy in To Kill a Mockingbird, and “Cristiana” suggests
Christ, which contrasts with Abel Cristiana’s personality.
GG: Jem’s short for Jeremy. It’s a good Southern name. I have a feeling
that the name Jem had floated into my subconscious from To Kill
a Mockingbird. Perhaps I was trying to give a little homage. Cristiana
is a real big name around here—a Huguenot name—and I love it.
RN: Does the cover of the 1999 paperback edition of The Finishing
School accurately portray the hut and pond scenario? How does it
compare to this one?
GG: This new cover is even better. For the previous edition, I had sent
a photo of Mohonk for the artist to use. There was no hut in the
photo—that was added. This new cover is simply gorgeous, truly
strange. You see a window of a hut and you look through it. You then
see a vast expanse of field, and you realize that you’re not looking out
from the inside of the hut, but you’re looking in from the outside as if
into a vision of a vaster life. It relates to putting yourself in another person’s
1. The Finishing School begins, “Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane,” which is reminiscent of the beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed of Manderley.” Is a dream a good starting point for a story? Imagine one of your own dreams. How would you develop it? How does Godwin proceed? (I count nine different tacks she takes in the first six pages before preparing herself for the mantra “Fourteen. Be fourteen again.”)
2. On page 3, the narrator admits, “I won’t hire a detective to go in search of a real seventy-year old woman . . . But I will attend to what her image, playing its role in last night’s dream, came to tell me.” real person—has its function.” Can you imagine any characters with whomJustin might have engaged but whom Godwin weeded out? Are there any characters she included whom she could have left out?
3. When Aunt Mona dives to pick up a piece of food that Jem, Justin’s brother, had dropped at dinner, Justin gives her mother a look to distinguish “Our Way of Life” from “Theirs.” You can gain insight into the way of life represented in a novel’s universe by asking yourself what the book or its characters have to say about a variety of key topics: religion, politics, the arts and literature, mass media, social class, race, gender, aging, the natural world, human nature, sex, current events, community, crime and punishment, etc.
4. Adolescents do not write many great novels, so we have to trust adults to create adolescent states of mind retrospectively. How accurately does Godwin do it? What aspects of adolescence would an Justin’s awareness of and involvement with sexuality, starting with the Cristiana poltroon farm.
5. When Justin receives her grandmother’s pearl necklace, initiating her into womanhood, she muses, “There was a lonely, mysterious side of myself I was just beginning to know, a side neither masculine nor feminine but quivering with intimations of mental and spiritual things.” Does the focus on sex stunt other developmental needs in teenagers?
6. There are some good passages for studying the nature of Justin’s confusion. On page 79, you read that Justin goes up to the old farmhouse and paints an Ursula-like figure whom she then consults as an oracle. Upon returning home and being swallowed by circumstances there, her painted figure begins to look like one of the mindless milkmaids on her wallpaper—her newly forming self, she thinks. Can a person see his or her fate? How clearly does Justin do so?
7. Also, look at page 99. Justin senses the magic of her visit to the DeVanes draining from her as Aunt Mona defends her. How many people are fighting for Justin’s allegiance? Who is Justin if she is not any of the people others think she is? On page 105, Justin thinks she might be a monster manipulating others in order to get her mother to move back to Virginia. Could she be a monster? Where does her goodnesslie? This is a question that the grown-up Justin asks on page 106 as she looks back at her fourteen-year-old self.
8. Make a list of the music cited in the novel, get the recordings, and play them. How do they affect your experience of reading and remembering the novel, if at all?
9. Satire lovers, how much satire can you take? How much satire is there in The Finishing School? Does it serve its role well? Would you want more? If there were more, how would that change the novel? Can you think of a novel that has a lot more satire in it? What is that novel missing that The Finishing School has? Look at the first instance of satire in The Finishing School, on pages 23 through 35. (Also, see other satiric passages on pages 146, 200–201, 213–16, 265, and 269–70.) Notice how Godwin introduces Aunt Mona’s household—with a seemingly banal conversation that, nonetheless, introduces a lot of information and thematic notes.
10. We know that when Godwin introduces a subplot or anecdote, it has a double edge. For example, late in the book, Ursula makes Justin question the admirability of her grandfather’s statement about his wife—“the only woman . . . who would behave exactly the same way if nobody were looking.” Note the subplots in the novel and puzzle over their double meaning. You can start with the story of how Justin’s mother had eloped (pages 32–33).
11. If you were to write a story in the manner of Gail Godwin, what would be the features you would include? In the preceding interview, Godwin says that one of her major motivations for writing is to understand what goes on in others’ minds. In what ways is empathy an active attribute of Godwin’s characters as well as of herself as narrator?
12. How do characters who are good at empathy fare and how do ones who are not? Look at Aunt Mona and the wallpaper and curtains she puts in Justin’s room as an act of empathy. Look at Justin’s mother and judge whether she is indeed to be condemned for not knowing her daughter’s mind. Look at Ursula and her uses of empathy. Rate characters on their levels of empathy. See if you agree with your fellow readers.
13. In representing characters’ states of mind, Godwin does not stick to linear narrative. How would you represent a character’s mental activity? (Try tracking your own.) Find a passage in which Godwin uses flashbacks, reflections, wishes, and actions to dramatize a character. Do you find this exciting? Pleasing? If you take out everything but the drama, with what do you end up, greater or lesser suspense?
14. Justin moves from a Virginia town to an upstate New York one. Godwin lives in New York State, but grew up in the South. Is she a Southern writer? Does her writing have Southern qualities, or does she represent the South in her work? (See page 65.)
15. How would you interpret the dream about the magician and the grass-overgrown house on page 43?
16. Look at a passage of dialogue—pages 53 through 56, for instance. What are the dynamics? Godwin lets you examine how people jockey for position through their conversation, no matter how light it is. How do they do so in this passage? Justin’s mother tells the story about Justin’s experience at a riding stable. The owner advises Justin to let the horse know who’s boss, and Justin replies, “Oh, he already knows, sir.” As with horses, so with people, no?
17. Somehow, you’re going to have to deal with the character of Abel Cristiana. Try to remember as many things as you can about him. Is he a bully? (See page 205.) Why is Ursula attracted to him? What do you make of his World War II experiences (page 66)?
18. Godwin says that she keeps track of her characters so that no major character ends up sitting offstage too long. After a while, a character has to assert him- or herself. When and how does Justin’s mother assert herself? Does she assert herself enough? See Chapter IV, for instance.
19. Would you call The Finishing School a symbolic novel? For instance, there are the birthday presents Justin gets—the blue bottle (from Ursula) and her grandmother’s pearl necklace (from her mother). These are intentionally symbolic items. What about dream symbolism? Finally, what about the symbolism of actual things, such as the demolished farmhouse and the murky pond? Don’t be literary, be real. Does symbolism have an effect on people’s lives?
20. What’s the deal with Ursula’s first lover, the European with the same family name? Does the DeVane family have a condition, inflicted by history? What does Justin mean, on page 198, when she says that dining with the DeVanes was like “being abducted into a community of ghosts”? How does this aspect of the story compare to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”?
21. Mr. Mott, as a character, comes to life late in the book. Did you dismiss him as an uninteresting character at first? Do you believe that any character—or person—can make an interesting subject for a story? What might be interesting about Joan Dibble?
22. Chapter VII is a good chapter to look at to see how Godwin uses foreshadowing (see pages 166 and 171). Grown-up Justin returns to the scene of the “crime” and gives hints about things to come. Why does Godwin leave the big revelation until the end—for just dramatic reasons? Is it so terrible that Justin can’t admit it? What might be the parts that Justin can’t bring herself to admit?
23. Have you ever known a brilliantly manipulative person? What techniques did he or she use? Does Ursula use those tricks? Can you be attracted to such a person and hold your own?
24. Writing experts say that the most important element in a story is voice, and that the most important element in voice is authority. You’ve got to believe and trust your main speaker. But what if there is more than one main speaker? Do any voices compete with Justin’s for authority? What other voices made an impression on you in The Finishing School? Ursula takes over the first-person voice for a good portion of Chapters IX and X. How would it be if she had narrated the novel? Where do you think she ended up?
25. Do you agree with Ursula’s need for perpetual youth and her motto, “As long as you yearn, you can’t congeal”?
26. On page 245, Ursula confesses to Justin that her mother haunts her and she feels condemned to relive her mother’s life. Is this a common condition, being haunted and falling into a fateful pattern? Can you see it in yourself? Does The Finishing School give us warnings about what may happen to us, or models on how people break away from such influences?
27. Does Godwin draw special significance from the double meaning of the word “finishing” in “the finishing school”?
28. Starting on page 289, when Justin considers how she might have responded differently than she did to Julian’s despairing talk, do you see any paths for her other than the one that the plot (fate?) requires?