• Birth—June 18, 1937
• Where—Birmingham, Alabama, USA
• Raised—Ashville, North Carolina
• Education—B.A., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill;
M.A. and Ph.D., University of Iowa, Writers' Workshop
• Currently—lives in Woodstock, New York
Gail Kathleen Godwin, an American novelist and short story writer, has published one non-fiction work, two collections of short stories, and eleven novels, three of which have been nominated for the National Book Award and five of which have made the New York Times Bestseller List.
Godwin was born in Birmingham, Alabama but raised in Asheville, North Carolina by her divorced mother and grandmother. She attended Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina (a women's college founded by Presbyterians in 1857) from 1955 to 1957, but graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959. She worked briefly as a reporter for the Miami Herald and married a Herald photographer named Douglas Kennedy. After the job and the marriage finished (by firing and by divorce, respectively), she worked as waitress back home in North Carolina to save money to travel to Europe.
In the early 1960s, Godwin worked for the U.S. Travel Service at the U.S. Embassy in London and wrote novels and short stories in her spare time. She returned to the United States and worked briefly as an editorial assistant at the Saturday Evening Post before attending the University of Iowa, earning her M.A. (1968) from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and PhD (1971) in English Literature.
Godwin's body of work has garnered many honors, including three National Book Award nominations, a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Five of her novels have been on the New York Times best seller list.
Godwin lives and writes in Woodstock, New York. Her family includes her half-brother Rebel A. Cole and half-sister Franchelle Millender.
Godwin’s eighteen books have established her as a leading voice in American literature along several currents. Her first few novels, published in the early 1970s, explored the worlds of women negotiating restrictive roles. The Odd Woman (1974) was a National Book Award finalist, as was her fourth novel, Violet Clay (1978), in which she modernized the Gothic novel and explored such themes as villainy and suicide.
A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) marked a turning point in Godwin’s career. It encompassed a community, Mountain City, based on her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and carried out her empathetic method of entering many characters’ minds within a fluid narrative. Voted a National Book Award finalist, it also became Godwin’s first best-seller. Between it and her next four best-sellers, Godwin interposed Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983), her second short story collection after Dream Children (1976).
Dream Children had been Godwin’s offering, with some additions, of work she’d created at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, studying with advisors Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Coover. It exhibits her early interest in allegory made real on a psychological level. The Iowa years come alive in her edited journals, The Making of a Writer, Journals, 1963-1969 (2010). A previous volume, The Making of a Writer, Journals, 1961-1963 (2006), presents her years in Europe after a do-or-die decision to become a writer. The novella, “Mr. Bedford,” which leads her second story collection, derives from her time in London. Narrated in the first person, it achieves the author’s quest for timelessness through a look into a living room window.
“Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane,” begins Godwin’s sixth novel, The Finishing School (1984), again employing a first person reverie, and turning it toward one of Godwin’s fertile interests, the effect of a powerful personality on a developing one. The suspense that tragically ensues relates to her next novel, A Southern Family, which returns to Mountain City, but is darker than A Mother and Two Daughters, as it involves a murder-suicide that sends shock waves and melancholy through a family. All of Godwin’s second three novels were published additionally as mass market paperbacks.
Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1991), also a best-seller, represented Godwin’s independence from the best-seller niche being marketed for her. The daughter of the title navigates her relationships with her father, an Episcopal minister; and with a classic Godwin character, a bewitching theatrical auteur. Theology, and its non-doctrinal meaning in spiritual life, became one of the areas in which Godwin began to act as a leading explorer. The subject is embraced in Evensong, her 1999 sequel to Father Melancholy’s Daughter; and in her 2010 novel, Unfinished Desires. It also informs her non-fiction book, Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life (2001), illustrated by stories from her life and from her constant reading.
Godwin ninth novel, The Good Husband (1994), makes use of a form she’d emulated as a 24-year-old in Europe, Lawrence Durrell’s quartet (as in The Alexandria Quartet), by which a story is told through four related characters. Godwin’s new direction—not just in form, but also in choice of characters—did not reach the best-seller list. Evensong, her tenth novel, did; and then she engaged in another literary experiment, "Evenings at Five" (2003), a novella that explores, through a distinctive kind of stream-of-consciousness, the presence that follows the death of a long-term companion. It is based on her relationship with composer Robert Starer, with whom she collaborated on nine libretti. Regarding Evenings at Five, Godwin said she wanted “to write a different kind of ghost story.” The trade paperback edition of the book, with Godwin’s autobiographical “Christina Stories” added, became one of eight works of her fiction published as Ballantine Readers Circle trade paperbacks, with interviews and reader’s guides.
For her twelfth novel, Queen of the Underworld, Godwin fashioned a Bildungsroman, derived from her years as a Miami Herald reporter, 1959-60. Her experience included close familiarity with the Cuban emigre community, with whom, at times, she conversed in Spanish.
Unfinished Desires (2010) exemplified her empathetic method by inhabiting the minds and enunciating the voices of more than a dozen full characters. Set at a girls’ school run by nuns, it makes the connection between religious devotion and artistic seriousness. The novel openly reveals girls in adolescence, as well as their elders, who bequeath them their deep-set issues. Suspense comes from multi-punch power plays, as well as from characters’ struggles to be good. The novel’s original title, "The Red Nun," refers to the statue of a tragic novitiate, whose story becomes the subject of a school play, which in turns becomes an arena for acting out. The play’s the thing, dramatically, metaphorically, and psychologically. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 7/2/2010.)
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