Gail Godwin has written 14 novels. Three were nominated for National Book Awards. Five made the New York Times Bestseller list. She's also written nonfiction and two story collections, and her archives live at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She built her Woodstock house with book profits. She's been on the Today show, NPR, and in the New York Times. She's been featured in this magazine and her local appearances are occasions not to be missed.
She's the essence of successful, it seems. But as she writes in Publishing: A Writer's Memoir, none of this came easily. She has never been able to rest on her laurels, not in the 45 years she's been publishing, not for a single page. But she's also never lost her way, or her heart.
Godwin dreamed of being a published writer as a young girl. In 1958, while a college student at UNC, her plucky first attempt met with crisp rejection. "The scout's manicured fingers (polished with a sophisticated shade of brownish mauve) were actually touching my pages," she writes with a pitch-perfect blend of detail and empathy. She attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where Kurt Vonnegut bemusedly told her he didn't think she had it in her to be crude. She wrote in obscurity, fending off discouragement: "If I could not be a published writer, maybe I could earn my living teaching literature until I was 65 and then I would decide whether I wanted to go on living." She soon began a long, fruitful association with the astute agent John Hawkins, and in 1970 published her first novel, The Perfectionists.
Just as Godwin settled into her career, publishing began its stormy sea change. Her editors would be canned mid book, a publisher swallowed by a conglomerate. How she and Hawkins navigated "the new publishing ethos," as Godwin drily puts it, is an object lesson in canny survival. Infuriatingly, both the hardcover editor at Morrow and the paperback editor at Avon, her publishers for Father Melancholy's Daughter (1990), separately sent her suggestions for cuts, a brash move previously unheard of. "Her title just doesn't shout big book," Morrow's then-president told Hawkins, though Godwin, who yielded on cuts, held her ground on the title.
Years later, Godwin endured another title debate when Random House rejected the title of her 2009 novel, The Red Nun: A Tale of Unfinished Desires. Tormented, Godwin consulted the I Ching, which presciently warned against compromise. But the editor relented, and Godwin gave in—to Unfinished Desires. "That was my caving moment," she writes. "It seems to me now that The Red Nun would have attracted more of the kinds of readers who would have appreciated such a book. There are still thousands of them out there who went to school with nuns, many of them likely to eschew a title smacking of a bodice ripper."
Aside from the irresistible territory of art vs. commerce, what makes Publishing most enjoyable is Godwin herself. She's a captivating storyteller, providing all the elements here, including love and loss, without overwhelming or lecturing. Though she'd have a right to, she never delves into snark — or sentimentality. Line drawings by the architect Frances Halsband (who illustrated Godwin's evocative Evenings at Five) provide a quietly intimate accompaniment, so that we feel like we're in a room with Godwin, sharing a bottle of good wine. It's a terrific room to be in.