Washington — Gail Godwin drifted off to sleep one night still brooding about her next novel, but she woke up to find it bulldozed by a dream. A new novel had taken its place.
''This is the kind of thing that doesn't happen often; I don't want you to think it does,'' she says in a firm voice softened with a hint of honeysuckle and hickory smoke. ''But I dreamed the first paragraph,'' she says of ''The Finishing School.'' ''The whole paragraph,'' she says again, marveling at the way a creation may appear.
None of Godwin's previous six books had ever arrived embedded in a dream - certainly not her last and most successful book, ''A Mother and Two Daughters,'' which landed her on the best-seller list for six months and won her an American Book Award nomination for fiction this year. ''A Mother and Two Daughters'' came to her in quite a different way and she will talk about that, but not right now. Later. Right now she is wondering over how this novel ''struck with heat,'' and knocked ''Gotham'' out of the typewriter.
Her seventh book, to be published in September by Viking, is called ''Mr. Bedford and the Muses.'' It's a collection of stories about ''artists or dreamy young people,'' she says, with the title taken from a short novel about a boardinghouse in England where she once lived. Although she talks modestly about ''Mr. Bedford,'' the Washington Post lists it as one of the three most eagerly awaited works of fiction this fall.
Her current novel, ''The Finishing School,'' will be told in the first person by a woman looking back to her childhood at the episode that transformed her life at 14. After Gail heard that first paragraph of the book in her dream, she woke up and wrote it down, but realized it was a ''little too high-flown. Dreams and all that unconscious stuff, they often speak to us in a very high-flown (way). . . . So I had to kind of tone it down.''
She murmurs the opening sentence of the paragraph which came to her whole: ''Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane.'' For a moment there are three of us there at the luncheon table, novelist Godwin, the interviewer, and the mysterious Ursula DeVane. But it is the ''I,'' the girl of ''The Finishing School,'' whom Godwin wants to talk about.
We are squirreled away in a quiet corner of a French restaurant near the White House where the conversations are generally garnished with politics. She had arrived early and sat at the entrance on a gilded chair with her hands folded in her lap, like a patient child waiting for dancing class to begin. She wore a purple suit, the color of an iris, with a long jacket. Under the amber light at our table, her hair gleamed a dark auburn, wavy and full-blown like a rust chrysanthemum. She had an open face: a salting of freckles, a few laugh lines beside a full mouth, slightly flaring nostrils, and dark blue eyes wide as a witness to an unexpected scene that must be remembered. Writer's eyes. Or child's eyes, with a very adult, sometimes merry, sometimes wary, intelligence behind them.
She turns those searching eyes on the interviewer and begins, effortlessly, before the tomato juice has arrived, to try to winkle out the reporter's life story. Like all good writers, she collects people's stories like seashells at the beach; when reminded that she is the subject here, she grins and begins to talk about her heroine in ''The Finishing School.'' As she talks there are echoes of her own past.
Gail Godwin grew up in Asheville, N.C., under the ''Look Homeward, Angel'' wings of Thomas Wolfe's hometown memory. For her, the Southerner, the North will always be an alien country. She talks of ''Finishing School's'' heroine, the girl who at 14 was packed off to live with an aunt when the girl's family broke up. The girl, she explains, had been yanked from her ''sort of genteel, decaying Southern aristocrat family'' to live with her practical, proletarian aunt in a Northern village. ''The girl, of course, is miserable in the village,'' the author explains, ''because the Northerners are different; they're cool, they're in themselves, like the trees. She moves up there in early spring and when she leaves Virginia, the trees, the green is already out. And then on the train as they go north, she sees the green shrink back into itself. Then when they get to their destination there are no leaves. And she finds the people similar. . . .''
Godwin has made that trip herself. A novelist with roots wound tight around the South, she has chosen to settle in the North for a reason most women would understand: ''It all boils down to a man,'' she says, and smiles. Her first Northern home was in Stone Ridge, N.Y., an old Dutch Huguenot farming community surrounded by fields and the Shawangunk Mountains. She had wanted to write about that town for several years, she explains. ''The mood of the place was so strong it demanded a story.'' She had also wanted to write a novel about the relationship between a young person and a mentor. Out of that long-nurtured wish came the dream of ''The Finishing School.''
The novel is, however, being written in her present home in Woodstock, N.Y., the Hudson Valley town known either as a traditional artists' colony or the place where they had that wild rock festival, depending on your persuasion. She is visiting Washington for the Kennedy Center concert premiere of music by the composer Robert Starer, her longtime friend and companion.
Gail Godwin's childhood was as unique as any of her fictional characters'. She was raised by her mother and grandmother: ''They formed a little family. My mother was divorced - grandmother took over the practical side of life.'' Her mother supported the family first as a photojournalist for a newspaper, then by writing short stories for women's magazines and teaching writing. ''I think she put a great many of her dreams into me. . . . By making my life possible, she sacrificed her own, in a sense. But she seems very happy with the way things have gone. She goes down to the local B.Dalton's to make sure that my racks are filled up, and if they're not she wants to know why.''
Her parents met when her mother's dog bit a handsome Southern bachelor, Mose Winston Godwin. He left a few years after their marriage, leaving no money for child support, and didn't turn up again until his daughter Gail's high school graduation day. ''He had to introduce himself, as I had no idea who he was. I flung myself, weeping, into his arms and he invited me to come live with him.'' She described that meeting in ''Becoming a Writer,'' part of ''The Writer on Her Work,'' a collection of essays by women writers edited by Janet Sternburg.
Godwin did live with her father for a year, then went on to study journalism on a scholarship at the University of North Carolina. She says that, like Ambrose, the charming dilettante uncle in her novel ''Violet Clay,'' he ''did end his own life.''
As she points out in her essay on ''Becoming a Writer,'' fact and fiction are inextricably braided in her writing. Her first novel, ''The Perfectionists,'' began this way:
''This island made her feel exposed. Its colors were raw and primeval: scalding azure sky, burnt sienna earth, leaves of dusty green. The scrutiny of its noon light rooted out the skulking shadow, the secret flaw, and measured these ruthlessly against the ideal. . . .'' She is writing here about a marriage between a British psychotherapist and his American wife on their Majorcan vacation; actually, it was the end of her own second marriage. While working at the US Embassy in London she had met psychiatrist Ian Marshall at a creative writing class and married him. Her first marriage, to Florida photographer Douglas Kennedy, was the subject of her novel ''Gull Key,'' never published because she sent the only copy to a fly-by-night London publisher.
That first, brief marriage followed her being fired from her job as a reporter on the Miami Herald. The Miami editor who dismissed her as a failed writer would have a difficult time topping her writing accomplishments: author of five novels and two collections of short stories; writer of many stories and essays for national magazines; winner of National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships for fiction; holder of a doctorate in English from the University of Iowa; teacher at that university's Writers' Workshop, as well as lecturing at Columbia University and Vassar College. In the words of Mort Sahl, that's a case of failing upward.
For her, she says, being a novelist instead of a journalist is very much a matter of temperament. ''Some people actually thrive on being in the world at the same time they're trying to write privately.'' She points to the prodigious novelist Anthony Trollope, an official in the English postal system who wrote in the morning before work and after work at night till 11 o'clock. ''If he finished a novel at 10:50, he would start another because he had 10 minutes to go,'' she marvels. ''Now, there are the other kinds, and I probably fall into the other kind: the recluses. I'm extremely sociable, but I find it hard to do both (write and socialize) at the same time. If I go to New York for a business and social day it takes me a day to recover.''
In a sense, all her books are about women struggling to plumb their own souls , to express their individuality and talents without alienating the men they love, their own families, or society. In ''The Glass People,'' Francesca, the beautiful doll-wife, is shattered by her marriage to a martinet. In ''The Perfectionists,'' the American writer Dane Empson, married to an English doctor, finds her marriage buckling as she struggles to maintain her individuality. In ''Violet Clay,'' the artist, Violet, tries to salvage her talent from a wrecked past and succeed as a painter. In ''The Odd Woman,'' for which she earned a 1974 National Book Award nomination, the heroine, Jane Clifford, is a professor of literature forced to reassess her life after a family funeral.
In ''A Mother and Two Daughters,'' it is again the twin themes of the individual vs. the family which are the core of the book. But ''A Mother and Two Daughters'' is the richest, and most universal, of her books, with a wholeness about its encompassing view of a large Southern family. The family's rock and heartbeat is Nell Strickland, suddenly widowed after a long, loving marriage and facing a life as tumultuous as that of her two daughters. Her compassion enfolds the lives of her two disparate daughters: the renegade Cate, divorced twice, an intense and brilliant college professor, and the conformist stepsister Lydia, who unbuckles herself from her marriage and begins again. The book goes full circle, ending as it began at a large party of family and friends, on a note of hope. The idea for the book came from an incident in her best friend's family which she had permission to use.
Godwin adds that the real mother on whom Nell Strickland is based was at a party the author gave in North Carolina last year, ''and she saw a very attractive Episcopal priest across the room and asked me, 'Who is that?' '' - wanting to meet him. And Godwin answered, ''That's who you married'' (in the book). ''It gives me goose bumps,'' she says softly.
Although she writes novels that appeal to both men and women, there is a special dimension in her work for women readers. As much as Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf in their day, Godwin gives women readers special insights into coping with their lives in society today. She seems to say: ''Here, this is how it is. Here's the way it happens, take heart.''
Jonathan Yardley, book critic of the Washington Post, called ''A Mother and Two Daughters'' ''a work of complete maturity and artistic control.'' And he noted that ''it is everything that a novel should be: funny, sad, provocative, ironic, compassionate, true.''
We have forked our way through a green salad and the salmon with hollandaise sauce when Godwin launches into her experience on the ''Today'' show, her first TV interview. After preparing for it as carefully as she would for a PhD comprehensive exam, she was asked by interviewer Jane Pauley: ''Why did you title this book 'A Mother and Two Daughters'? Don't you feel a title like that will make people say 'yuck, a woman's book?' '' Gail shot back, ''When 'Fathers and Sons' came out, no one said, 'Yuck, a man's book. . . .' '' She sighs, afraid the crack about Turgenev's classic misfired: ''Television is a superficial medium, it's in the nature of the thing.''
Her next novel, ''Gotham,'' will be anything but superficial, she says. It's an ambitious concept which she figures will take her five years to write, a novel about American society modeled on Trollope's work and Thackeray's ''Vanity Fair.'' She says it will be completely different from ''The Finishing School,'' the novel she's writing ''to get my soul in order. . . . Then I'll have a basis, 'cause 'Gotham' is going to be about so many cynics . . . and I'll have to live in shark-filled cynic waters for five years.''
She laughs as she says it, but the laugh ends in a small gasp. ''I'm going to have to be with so many dreadful people in 'Gotham.' '' With her characters, she explains. ''I try to understand what it would be like to be in their skins, with their family backgrounds, with the way they look, which is important, with what their histories have been like. You can get to love almost anybody'' you know well enough, she points out. ''That's the thing that criminal lawyers learn.''
When she's writing a book she says she enjoys the writing and yet can't wait for it to be done. She writes ''the majority of the mornings of my life,'' including weekends and holidays, 320 out of 365 days a year, on a yellow legal pad or at a typewriter on a teak desk that looks out on woods full of deer and birds.
When she finishes a novel there is an uncertainty, a restless time for her. ''Your mind is like searchlights, it goes round and round and sees something and thinks it's a bird, and it's not, or it's a plane, and it's not. And you run on. I don't like that restless time. And yet that's so important. . . .''
But as a novelist she is always searching. As we leave the restaurant and walk down the street an old woman approaches. Gail Godwin stops in mid-sentence until we are past her; she is small and gnarled as a blackthorn stick, with white hair skewed up on top of her head and the lined, indomitable face of a mountain woman. ''Did you see that face?'' the novelist whispers. ''Wouldn't you love to know her story?''