Gail Godwin has been keeping a journal since she was 12. And she’s still writing daily entries today, 18 books and more than 60 years later. “It has been my memory!” she exclaims, as the snow thaws into a milky fog outside the windows of her elegant Woodstock, N.Y., home on a recent winter afternoon. Poking at the fire, Godwin recalls how her daily habit, and her most recent novel, Flora (Bloomsbury, May), came to be.
While she was a student at Asheville, N.C.’s St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines, Godwin’s favorite teacher, Mother Winters, motivated her to start keeping a log. “I just had to write down everything about her—everything she said, what she taught, what she said to me, and how she smelled,” Godwin explains. “Once, she sent me to her room, and boy did I have a look around; Cashmere Bouquet hand lotion! And this made me want to record.” Her impulse was less about archiving intimate emotions than describing the world around her in detail—“to say ‘this happened’ and ‘I saw this, I smelled this.’”
Godwin’s journals have not only been her memory—they have also served as the inspiration for her prodigious career. A few years ago, while going through her notes for what became the second volume of The Making of a Writer (Random House, 2011), a collection of edited journals from 1961 to 1969, she came upon an entry from May 1969: “That house on the top of the mountain! Children are like bombs that will one day go off.” These few lines, penned 40 years earlier, triggered the idea for Flora.
“My mother had just remarried and it was a polio epidemic summer, 1948. We were up there [in the mountains in North Carolina] all summer: my mother, my new stepfather, and me, in this big, crumbling, fascinating old house... I couldn’t play with any of the children in town. We ordered our groceries and they were delivered by three-wheeled motorcycle, which also brought comic books. And that’s all—that’s all I remember. But the house just fascinated me.”
Flora takes place in an old house on the top of a mountain near Asheville. Set in 1945, the story is told from the perspective of the sharply observant Helen, age 10, who spends a formative summer more or less left to her own devices. Her mother has been dead for seven years, and Helen’s beloved Nonie, her paternal grandmother, has recently died. While Helen’s father is off working in Tennessee (secret war things), she is left in the care of Flora, her mother’s first cousin from Alabama, who is in her early 20s, and, at least in Helen’s opinion, more than a little provincial. Because of a polio scare and Flora’s inability to drive, she and Helen see few other people that summer. Finn, the young man who delivers their groceries, is a war veteran, and he becomes a source of distraction and allure for both Flora and Helen, with consequences that will impact Helen for a long time to come.
Godwin says that when she came upon those 1969 lines from her diary, the images “connected to my abiding love and fascination with The Turn of the Screw. I wanted to write a novel about a child and her guardian in isolation. But I wanted my child to be more sophisticated than her guardian. I was also very interested in moral tensions and how a young mind finds its place in those moral tensions.”
Young Helen is fiercely astute, always gauging not only the world around her but also her own impulses and accomplishments. She’s savvy well beyond her years, and her questioning voice propels the novel, and its characters, through the languid summer in which both Flora and Helen, in their own ways, are trapped.
Putting another log in the fire, Godwin is reminded of characters from her 1995 novel A Good Husband, for whom adding (or not adding) logs to the fire served as code between the husband and wife: their company would stay a little longer—or not. “My books have all affected me,” Godwin says, watching the embers. Flora was the first book she wrote without allowing anyone to read it until it was finished. “I loved having the freedom to the very end to find out what I really meant,” Godwin says. Armed with her journals, past and future, and the enormous dictionary that sits open next to her desk, Godwin is already at work on her next book. As for not showing anyone the work-in-progress, Godwin, at 75, is convinced: “I’m going to do this again.”