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A double dose of bestseller Gail Godwin

January 24, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Gail Godwin is having a career moment. Fifteen books and 45 years after she first committed to the writer's life, Random House is publishing her new novel, "Queen of the Underworld," simultaneously with the first volume of her edited journals, "The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963."

"I didn't plan it that way," says the Southern-born Godwin, who is 69, by phone from her home in Woodstock, N.Y. "It just happened." And yet, at some point in a writer's life, she must consider what her legacy will be.

All writers depend on the people around them -- their agents, editors and publishers -- to help shape their careers. Times change, tastes change; in the last 50 years, fiction has wobbled between daring feats of imagination and "domestic" dramas featuring recognizable characters caught in a familiar daily grind. Godwin's novels, whose female protagonists were working-world pioneers in the 1970s and early 1980s, seem tame to some readers in the harsh light of the new millennium. The noble goals of self-reliance and respect (let's leave aside equal pay for now) were the battles of another generation. Novels about women's lives are burdened with different issues than they were 20 years ago.

Godwin is hardly an unknown commodity. Five of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and she's been nominated for the National Book Award three times. Her most successful books were "A Mother and Two Daughters" (1982) and "The Finishing School" (1984). Since then, though, her readership has fallen off. "We decided it was time for a Gail Godwin moment," says Nancy Miller, her editor at Random House. "We felt 'Queen of the Underworld' was her best book in a while." It's a calculated gesture, although hardly inappropriate; as John Hawkins, who has been her agent since the late 1960s, suggests, "It would have been embarrassing to bring out the journals, which are the story of the author's intellectual journey, if she hadn't already had a long and successful career."

"I wish that Godwin was more widely read," says Marcela Valdes, review editor at Publishers Weekly. "A lot of her subject matter is like the subject matter in chick lit, but Godwin's characters are worrying about their work, not their weight." Sure enough, the woman who emerges from "Queen of the Underworld" and "The Making of a Writer" is no demure Southern belle. In the journal especially, she describes a high-wire act of love and work that would send most women running for anti-anxiety medication. Then in her mid-20s, Godwin was, sometimes to her own horror, a wild party girl (coiffed, manicured and loaded for bear), staying out to all hours, fending off gropers and juggling at least two men ( three if you count the one back home in Asheville, N.C.) all at once. She espouses fierce, uncompromising and often strange ideas about fiction. Anyone placing bets on her career at that point might have envisioned rehab, not commercial success.

Godwin was already working on "Queen of the Underworld" when her friend Joyce Carol Oates suggested that she publish her journals in an edited form, something like Virginia Woolf's "A Writer's Diary." Around the same time, Godwin, who had recently had a pacemaker implanted, was approached by a prospective biographer. Horrified, she decided nothing short of a preemptive strike would do. She began blue-lining the journals and asked her longtime friend and close reader Rob Neufeld to help shape them. Eventually, she tied the first three quarters of her novel and 150 pages of the journal in ribbons and gave them to Miller, who decided overnight, says Godwin, to publish them together.

Many readers and critics refer to Godwin as a female Philip Roth because, like Roth, she has unabashedly written about her life. Her recent novels, such as "The Good Husband" (1994) and "Evensong" (1999), have been about older people, often depressed. The journal and the new novel, though, feature young characters determined to succeed, which Hawkins, Neufeld and Miller agree is a good thing. "She had fun writing this novel," says Hawkins. "She was energized, on fire; it really caught her."

"I think that it creates a whole new appeal for the 20-year-old to 40-year-old group," Neufeld says.

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