Reading Matters

Godwin’s ‘Grief Cottage’ set on S.C. coast

Some writers just get under your skin – in the best sort of way.

Novelist Gail Godwin, who grew up in Asheville, got under mine almost as soon as I started writing about books – waaaay back in 1975.

Godwin was 39 and living in Stone Ridge, N.Y., in 1976, when I first interviewed her. A UNC graduate, she’d earned her master’s and PhD at Iowa, won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. And in a handful of years, published three novels and a collection of short stories.

Her accomplishments are not what won me over. It was her quirky asides – bracing as sea breezes.

About the ravaging toothache that felled her when she learned her first novel had sold: “There are things in us that just won’t let us have too much,” she said.

I interviewed her several times over the years, often as a new novel appeared: “A Mother and Two Daughters,” “Father Melancholy’s Daughter,” “A Southern Family,” “The Good Husband.”

Always, something she said fascinated me.

“There are things in people we want to love the most and we don’t, and then there are things in people we do really love whether we should or not,” she said in 1991.

Of her 12 novels, three were finalists for the National Book Award. In each, currents of sorrow run through. Longing. Loss. Motherless daughters. Daughterless mothers. Widowers. Widows. Orphans.

No surprise when you realize that Godwin lost two in her family to suicide. Her mother died in a 1989 car crash on the way to the Asheville airport, and her long-time partner, composer and pianist Robert Starer, died in 2001.

I’d lost touch with Godwin in recent years, and I was delighted to learn she’ll have a new novel – as she turns 80 – in late spring of 2017. “Grief Cottage” is set on the South Carolina coast, a place, she emails me, that’s a mix of both Pawley’s and Edisto.

In the new novel, an orphaned boy, Marcus, goes to live with his great-aunt Charlotte. Near her house is a ruined beach cottage from which an entire family disappeared during a long-ago hurricane.

We’ve learned to count on certain things in a Godwin novel. Entanglement with the unseen. Grief suppressed and revealed. And those finely-wrought paragrahs that make tangible our vaguest feelings and thoughts.

I can hardly wait.