On her Web site, North Carolina-born writer Gail Godwin doles out her expertise to aspiring authors – but her meticulous explanations might prove more intimidating than encouraging. When a fan e-mail-queried about “inscrutable characters” vs. “see-through characters,” the author responded, “Your choice depends on what experience you hope to give your reader,” and capped her answer with a homework assignment.
Godwin instructed the fan to pore over two short stories as examples – Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog” – suggesting the necessity of gnawing one’s way through such canon mainstays before sitting down to the word processor.
But despite the sometimes too-teacherly advice, Godwin, after a 35-year career, hasn’t totally forgotten her awkward roots: those first aching wonderments of a young writer hoping to someday see her name grace the cover of a novel. In fact, the author’s latest, Queen of the Underworld (Random House, 2006), follows a week in the life of recent college grad Emma Gant, who moves to Miami to pursue both a much older lover and a career as a journalist.
“The newsroom of 1959 is now historical fiction. Romantic fiction,” Godwin recently revealed to Book Browse. “The noise, the cigarette smoke, the lack of privacy. Everyone clacking and yakking away in one big room.”
Godwin, who reads at Malaprop’s on Saturday, readily admits she wasn’t cut out for journalism, a career that came to an abrupt halt – along with a short-lived marriage – by 1961. “I let my boredom show,” she confesses on her Web site. “After I had completed my one or two assignments for the day, I actually took frequent trips to the hairdresser down the block and came back freshly coifed. … I acted out the role of the flighty starlet …”
But the loss of her job allowed Godwin to pursue her love of fiction, a passion shared by her main character in Queen. Except that, while Godwin went on to complete a Master’s degree (and later a Ph.D.) at the University of Iowa, Queen doesn’t allow the reader to see where Emma’s life will take her. Instead, the heroine remains in the humid climes of Florida imagining the fictitious continuation of another life – that of a former Madam.
“Even before my fortuitous meeting with her at the hospital, I had sensed she belonged to me. She was the worthy subject I had been waiting for,” Godwin writes in Emma’s voice. “She was my sister adventurer … who had been places I hadn’t and who had returned with just the sort of details I craved to imagine further.”
The Madam character that informs Queen was inspired by the Miami charm-school-girls-turned-call-girls Godwin encountered in her time there – an idea that still intrigues the author. “I’m tempted to do still more with them, in a future novella written by Emma Gant,” she admitted to the press.
Released in tandem with Queen is The Makings of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963, a collection of Godwin’s personal musings in the years leading up to her first publication. And it’s into this world of more than 40 years ago that the author (who now calls Woodstock, N.Y. home) delves.
“I loved being 22 and hungry again, with a 22-inch waistline, so desperate to succeed and equally terrified I might fail,” the author told Book Browse. And indeed, main character and young Godwin-doppelgänger Emma is no tragic Chekhovian figure. Instead she’s girly, dangerously ambitious and self-centered enough to land a lead role in a Sophie Kinsella chick-lit novel.
And, perhaps surprisingly, while trying to advance in the man’s world of journalism circa 1959, high-heeled, nail-polished Emma shuns her female colleagues. “Segregated inside a glass cubicle, some middle-aged women in colorful dresses were clustered over fashion layout pages or prancing around in high heels or clacking out copy,” she tells readers in Queen. “My acceptance letter had said ‘general assignment reporter’ and I had no intention of getting corralled into the women’s department.”
The Miami Emma enters offers few friends except a family acquaintance known as “Aunt” Tess and her married, often absent lover; a hotel quickly filling with Cuban landowners and artists escaping Castro (though they still believe they’ll return to their homes at the end of the summer); and the newsroom where she begins her career.
“People said, ‘Don’t you think you ought to fly down to Miami and sort of brush up on the locale?’” Godwin relates in a press statement. “I said, ‘That’s the last thing in the world I want to do; I want the Miami of 1959.’”
Author Gail Godwin reads from Queen of the Underworld at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) on Saturday, Jan. 28. 7 p.m. Free. 254-6734.