How Gail Godwin and her editor Rob Neufeld shaped volumes 1 and 2 of The Making of a Writer
Published: May 5, 2011
|Rob Neufeld, a librarian and book reviewer in Asheville, N.C., met Gail Godwin when she returned to her hometown to research local architecture for a book she was working on. As the town historian, Neufeld became her tour guide. That particular novel didn’t materialize, but a professional friendship blossomed. During the tour, Neufeld and Godwin talked of many things, including reading, literature, and the mythology behind history. The relationship continued. Neufeld reviewed her books; they were involved in a couple of programs together; and he introduced her when she was inducted into the regional hall of fame. As time went on, Neufeld wrote the readers guides for paperback editions of her books. It was natural, then, that Godwin turned to Neufeld when she needed help editing her early journals for The Making of a Writer, Volume 1 and Volume 2. In a Writer interview (June 2011), Godwin talks about the importance of journal writing to her work. She gives high praise to Neufeld, who edited the books and gave her journals context. We asked him to describe the process.|
Q: Godwin’s journals are so detailed and comprehensive. Where did you begin?
A: They were remarkable documents, but she wasn’t able to [edit them] herself. She needed someone to come at it from a distance. [The original journals] had more than what’s published. How many writers were writing so religiously without breaks for so many years about all kinds of things—stories she heard, stories she read, thoughts about literature, thoughts about writing, her experiments in writing, good stories about her life and very personal contemplation about what was going on—all this stuff, all in one place.
She decided the parameters. Volume 1 begins when she decided that it was “now or never,” to become a serious writer and took herself to Europe for a job. Volume 2 ends, fittingly, with the publication of her first novel, The Perfectionists.
Q: How did you approach the material?
A: I approached Volume 1 insanely. I decided to try to know everything that was going on Gail’s mind just for some deep background to help me in shaping her words, shaping her narrative and providing the background material, which is presented through footnotes and through what we call various things, such as setting the stage [with additional information].
I read all of her books, and I read all of her unpublished works as well. She has given all her papers to the University of South Carolina-Chapel Hill. I made a few trips out that way.
I was reading what she read. I was listening to the music that she listened to. I was sometimes chasing down things that were really hard to chase down so it was a little bit of a detective job.
I read [the raw journals] all through, taking notes—just to get the feel. I circled some things I needed to follow up on either with some background research or talking with Gail. Then I had to go through chapter by chapter and create each chapter as if it were almost a separate entity. The [chapter] titles were a construction to provide breaks and a novelistic feel, but also they each summarize how that particular episode or part of her life is to be viewed dramatically.
With Volume 2, I actually carved and edited with the editor’s absolute dedication to make sure it sounded more like Gail than her diaries because, as you know, diaries are written for yourself. So writing a diary for the world is a different thing; therefore, making it sound more like Gail is an interesting task.
Q: What did that involve?
A: Sometimes what needed to be done was obvious—like Gail didn’t mean to make that syntactical error that doesn’t reveal anything about her. A lot of it had to do with the pacing. Repetitive things were taken out. I had to balance: Do we want that repetition for emphasis? Is the emphasis really important here, or does it slow down the pace? Does it actually have more strength with the repeated thing taken out? An editor would generally say, “Of course, take it out.” I didn’t necessarily think that, I had to make a judgment. Even when there was a syntactical or word-usage error, I might ask something like, “was that a great Freudian slip—do we want that because it’s interesting and entertaining.”
In order to create a more novelistic feel in the second volume than the first, and also to really fulfill one of Gail’s big goals—which is have it be an important text for inspiring writers—I interleafed passages from her writing. In some cases I was even able to show the writings in a few different stages along the way so you not only have her talking about her writing in the diary, you got [can read] the writing she was doing at that time.
I also felt at liberty to include passages from letters, which of course weren’t part of the diary. There are a couple of letters that she wrote to her mother, and her mother to her, that are such a powerful part of the story that they couldn’t be left out. I don’t know what the purist would say about that. We do separate it—it was in italics—so I think it still is purist. But, wow, did they make the story even more powerful.
Q: Gail praises your footnotes for providing cultural, historical, and literary context to the journals. How did you decide what to include?
A: I would use them to make connections. Gail is a very self-directed reader. It’s not only what she read but also what she chose to read that becomes significant. In Volume 2, she sees herself in the context of world literature. She’s creating her own Web connections in world literature. Therefore, I think it was important for me to shine a light on some of those [connections] in the footnotes, but you know I couldn’t go on too long. They had to be pretty darn concise.
Q: What stumbling blocks, if any, did you have to overcome in the editing?
A: The bigger stumbling blocks were when there was unclarity as to what was going on. This is a journal; it isn’t even a work of nonfiction. She’s writing for herself so there’s going to be gaps, there’s going to be code words, or slight references she didn’t expand on. We had work to find that clarity. Most of the time she had some recollections that cleared it up, and I was able to put them into a note. There were only a few places where we had to do what writers sometimes have to do: write around your ignorance.
Q: What did you learn from the process?
A: Being able to explore one writer’s writings and have such a relationship with the writer herself has led me to be a champion and appreciator of writers. When I do my book reviews, I have a policy: If I don’t like the book, I don’t review it, or I just do a little blurb. If it’s a good writer, I don’t care if it’s one of his more flawed books. I mean this person is making an amazing effort, and I’m in the business to show people how to appreciate it. If there are things I wish the writer had done differently, I put that in the review, but I’m coming at it from a different angle.
I learned a lot about Gail’s writing style, writing approach. I struggled with coming up with the best words for this. I’ve written [chapters of a book] that have to do with the appreciation of writers in general, which I call “the spellbinder’s art.” I came to really know her spellbinding art, which is distinctive not just in the content and the themes but also in the way of telling. One of those things is incorporating what existence is all about and to realize it is part of a design reflected in the writing—that the writing has more than just a thrust forward, more than just a plot. It spreads out and makes a design. I learned that from Gail.
Now, as I’m going through other writers’ works, I look for things that are distinctive in their ways of telling. If you’re writing about a jazz musician, you see that one riff that he or she does, that’s one of the hallmarks of his work. He doesn’t use it repeatedly; it’s just one of his tricks in his bag, and he uses it for effect, not as a gimmick. You can bring that in any time as one of the hallmarks. People don’t talk about writers like that. They talk about cooks like that and all kinds of other people. It also could be done with writers.
Elfrieda Abbe is the publisher of The Writer. Her many
articles for the magazine have included book reviews and interviews with
Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Bragg, Alan Furst, Margaret Drabble and other