ATLANTA — “I want to be everyone who is great,” an unbearably young and earnest Gail Godwin gushes in a journal entry from 1961. “I want to create everything that has ever been created.”Now 68, the renowned novelist looks back on such youthful hubris with an equal sense of humor and detachment.“What struck me was the mixture of desperation and hunger on one hand, and yet there was always this tiny little seed of certainty that I would go on,” she says from her home in Woodstock, N.Y.This month Random House is publishing two books by Godwin: her 12th novel, Queen of the Underworld, which is set in 1959 Miami as a young woman embarks on a journalism career; and her first collection of journals, The Making of a Writer, covering the years 1961-63.Like much of Godwin’s fiction, the new novel draws many elements from her life, and the journals fill in scores of autobiographical blanks. Born in Birmingham, Godwin grew up in Asheville, N.C., and graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. After graduation, her boundless ambition led her to a plum reporting job at The Miami Herald and then prompted her firing within a year. (“I let my boredom show,” Godwin says.)Over the next two years, she devoted herself to becoming first a world traveler (working for the U.S. Travel Service in London) and then, most emphatically, a writer.“I didn’t start keeping a journal seriously, almost as a spiritual discipline, until I went abroad,” Godwin recalls. “That marks the start of keeping track consciously and responsibly, with a goal in mind that if I do this, I’m bound to not repeat some of my mistakes. And I’m bound to know myself a little better. It takes eons to get to that point where you have enough desire and enough leisure to take a moment and assess the day — as George Herbert the poet said, ‘to dress and undress the soul every day.’?”After two failed marriages in her 20s, Godwin has lived in Woodstock since 1976; her longtime companion (and occasional collaborator), composer Robert Starer, died in 2001.Q: So much of your writing has been about a woman’s search for identity. Does that search ever end?A: Oh, I hope not. I was talking to a friend the other day about wanting to write something about old, fierce heroines, in literature and theater and real life. Like King Lear. Big, old, tough, powerful, monumentally sad, maybe even holy, enraged, but I couldn’t come up with anybody! I thought of one novel: The Nobel Prize winner Patrick White, the Australian, wrote The Eye of the Storm, about this old woman dying. And she’s done exactly what she wanted to do with her life.Q: Have you done what you wanted to do with your life?A: [Long pause.] I have lived my chosen life. I’ve certainly made many mistakes, and there were crucial times when it could have gone any way. But there was always that little nugget that said, “Go on, go on.” It was kind of a mythological pattern to follow.Q: It’s interesting that you married twice — very early, very young. A: Almost arbitrarily.Q: And very briefly ?A: Very briefly.Q: And yet you were in a 30-year relationship and never married?A: That’s right. We were thinking about it toward the end. But my favorite priest had died and his favorite rabbi had died. [She laughs.]Q: And you never had children?A: Never did. I was telling a woman the other day — she has three teenage boys — that I never realized until I saw people like her how absolutely heroic and adventuresome it is to do this thing. I asked her if she knew what she was getting into, and she said, “I think if anybody knew that, they’d never do it.” I’ve had two Siamese cats and carried them through many years, and now I have two more little ones. Just the anguish and love you feel over those… I just can’t imagine what it would be like to raise a human being.Q: But maybe it was a brave choice not to get married as well?A: At the time it was. But it just wasn’t for us to do. What we wanted was just to see if we could last. We kind of went week by week and then month by month. Both of us had tempers, and both of us considered ourselves artists.Q: Do you think artists can have normal family lives?A: Oh, yeah. I know several couples who have been married for a long, long time and they’re both writers.Q: How is it to live alone after so many years?A: I told somebody this recently and they got all worried, but I mean it in a positive way. I feel a lot of the time that I’m a ghost presiding over my history, and yet I’m free to keep making comments on it.I really would not like to live with anyone again. I got so used to Robert, and the specifics of him are such that they just grow clearer and more vivid to me. So if anything, I try to incorporate in myself the parts of him that I miss. For instance, when I’m trying to be tough with repairmen, I just think, “Well, I’ll just be Robert now.”Q: Do you have a regular writing routine?A: Yes, when I’m lucky. I love to go straight from bed to work. Although my actual time at the computer is about three hours, you live in a book. I mean, you’re always there. I write about it at night, and I draw cartoons and portraits of the different characters.Q: You wrote several musical pieces with Robert. Do you have any musical talent at all?A: No, I wish I did. I just wrote the words. I listen to music. I’m an appreciater.Q: What do you listen to?A: The old kind. I’ve been listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas. I like music you can keep listening to and discover more in — patterns and harmonies and juxtapositions. When I’m upset, I like Bach. When I’m jubilant, or want to be jubilant, Mozart. And I like Spanish guitar music — the meditativeness of it, the sultriness of it.Q: How important was your early traveling to your development as a writer?A: Oh, I think it was very important. You might imagine it as a line drawn, and on one side of the line is Asheville, N.C. ? and on the other side, all these other countries. The far side of the line actually began in Miami. That’s when I realized there were people who were in quite different circumstances than myself and yet we had the same aspirations. Miami was my first foreign country. [She laughs.]Q: What writers influenced you most when you were young? A: I kept up very much with the current scene, so I was naturally respectful of Hemingway. And I had bought an early version of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary that her husband had edited, and I wore that ragged. I still love that book. And I loved Camus. I’m not sure I understood him, but I loved the idea of him. And I liked Katherine Anne Porter. A lot of my favorite writers now I didn’t read then. I didn’t read Jane Austen until I was in my 30s. Oh, and I forgot my dear old Thomas Wolfe. I read him mostly with just a mad jealousy.Q: What’s your proudest accomplishment?A: I have to say I’m proud, slash, thankful for my endurance and for the aliveness of my curiosity. I’m proud and I’m thankful that it’s still just as rapacious as ever.Q: What’s a perfect day for you now?A: A perfect day is what I’m looking forward to. Spring would be coming on. I like it when the days lengthen, and I can spend hours and hours working on a novel that won’t come out for a couple of years. That’s a lovely, secretive time.Q: Does anything scare you at this point in your life?A: It doesn’t scare me exactly, but I’m certainly reluctant to face whatever you face down the line — loss of strength, loss of mental acuity, having to be dependent on others, to be taken care of. My mother, who really had conversations with God — I mean, she expected answers — told me she made a deal with God that if she would visit the nursing homes around western North Carolina and see that they improved things then he wouldn’t make her have to go to one. She did this for about 10 years, and then she had a heart attack at the wheel of her car and died when she was 78.Q: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?A: To steal from Henry James, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Don’t be afraid to be greedy. And don’t feel like you have to take small bites. I mean, overeat occasionally — symbolically speaking.Q: Do you remember the worst piece of advice you got as a young writer?A: Yes. “Write about what you know,” which they always mean literally. Now I have written about what I know, but I’ve taken great liberties in freeing up the material and adding to it, changing it and deliteralizing it. And trying to see the larger pattern, which attracted me to the memories in the first place.Q: Who are your heroes? And they don’t have to be writers.A: Well, Robert Starer was one, in terms of what I think is important. He finished writing a piece of music on his last day in this house, and then went to the hospital and died. He was vividly an artist to the very last. And then on the other hand, when he was 14 and his whole life was torn apart in Nazi Austria, and he was waiting to get out of the country, he borrowed a swastika to go to a parade and see what [Hitler] looked like close-up.Those are the things that I admire, this curiosity to confront something dangerously different, and just curiosity period. And then using yourself up, burning yourself out, to the very last of the candle.Q: Is that your goal?A: I hope so. I want to burn down. But I want to be a good beeswax candle. You know? The very best. [She laughs.]Ed. Note: Heather Hoffman, Mirror book critic, is taking a few weeks off.
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