It takes a writer of particular talent and imagination to find the idea for a novel within the storylines of a previous book. Asheville-born, Woodstock, N.Y.-based author Gail Godwin is just such a writer. Her latest offering, the lush and haunting Grief Cottage, takes its cues from classic ghost stories, meditations on loss and the changes of landscape — both emotional and environmental — we all face. Godwin returns to Malaprop’s to discuss the novel in conversation with journalist and historian Rob Neufeld, on Wednesday, June 14.
Much of Grief Cottage is set in the summer of 2004, when 11-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a South Carolina island with his eccentric aunt following his mother’s death. There, left to entertain himself while Aunt Charlotte paints, Marcus seeks companionship and solace in the elderly woman next door and a nest of loggerhead turtle eggs. Unlike self-absorbed Helen, the central child character in Godwin’s previous novel, Flora, Marcus “is empathetic, the pain of others hurts him,” says Godwin.
And that’s why Marcus is drawn to the abandoned beach house for which the book is titled. There, he feels a presence and begins to piece together the story of a family — including a teenage son — who had visited the cottage 50 years earlier and was lost during a storm.
“Once I had [the character of Marcus], there was no holding me back,” says Godwin. She conceived of the novel while on a beach vacation with her sister and three nephews. “I got my fill of boys in that week. I was immersed in boyhood,” hence the vivid depiction of Marcus, a thoughtful if emotionally damaged young person who narrates the story mostly through the perspective of his adult self.
During that trip, “I just made notes about the ocean,” the author recalls. “You’re never prepared for the way it takes you over.” That sense of place is palpable in Grief Cottage, from the movement of the tides to Marcus’ daily beach bike rides to the preparations made to help the endangered turtle hatchlings make their way to the water.
But equally felt is the supernatural resident of Grief Cottage. That character first evolved as Godwin was writing Flora, a novel set in the 1940s, in which the book’s inhabitants listened to a weekly radio mystery series. “I’d thought of a boy who was left mostly alone with some caretaker at the beach,” the author recalls. “In the next story, he’d found a cottage that was mostly burned down.” Wandering the ruins, he came across an elderly couple with whom he had a conversation. Of course, the elderly couple, it turns out, were ghosts.
Wanting to get the sense of the visitation just right — “The language is so important if it’s going to be a good crossover,” Godwin says — she revisited her favorite ghost stories such as the novella The Turn of the Screw and the short story “The Jolly Corner” by Henry James.
There are other crossovers in Grief Cottage, though not of the paranormal category. In 2004, “Aunt Charlotte had her laptop, but she still orders cases of wine by phone,” Godwin points out. It was a time of shifting relationships to technology. And a furniture factory in the North Carolina Piedmont — a business that figures importantly into the story — goes out of business, reflecting real-life events, and those affected look for innovative next steps.
“It’s the past moving into the future,” says Godwin. “Who knows how, in 10 years from now, the things we [currently] take for granted will be changed?”
The author is no stranger to the adjustments of time. Grief Cottage is her 15th novel; her first successful work was a short story published in Cosmopolitan in 1969, and Wikipedia features a 1983 photo of her at work on an electric typewriter. Neufeld, who previously edited The Making of a Writer: The Journals of Gail Godwin, Vols. 1 and 2, is now penning a book about Godwin’s work (she talks about this forthcoming project on her “Being a Writer” blog on her website).
One thing remains constant: The author includes a fictionalized version of her hometown in her novels. In Grief Cottage, Asheville (called Jewel) represents a dark time in Marcus’ childhood. Still, Godwin notes, “When he and his mother have to move … to the mountains, I could feel myself on that road, going back to the mountains. It’s a magical place.”
She continues, “Asheville has gotten really contemporary — the food, the maverick population. But there are the same streets, Haywood and Patton Avenue. … When I walk on them, I walk on the past.”
But the town is part of her present, too. “I’ll always have one artistic foot in Asheville,” Godwin says. “You are what you come out of.”
WHO: Gail Godwin presents Grief Cottage in conversation with Rob Neufeld
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Wednesday, June 14, 7 p.m. Free