How Gail Godwin became a writer

An author simultaneously releases a novel and a memoir about the making of herself.

In 1961, novelist Gail Godwin began work on a fictional account of her time as a fledgling reporter at the Miami Herald. Forty-five years later, Queen of the Underworld has finally hit bookshelves.

If that lesson in perseverance isn't enough for aspiring writers, Godwin ("Evensong") has simultaneously released The Making of a Writer, her journals from the years 1961 to 1963, beginning the summer after the Herald fired her - apparently for being too impatiently ambitious.

In the warts-and-all approach that gives the journals their strength, Godwin includes a copy of the letter her editor wrote when he gave up on her. It reads in part, "I really feel badly that I have failed to make a good reporter out of obviously promising material. I hope you can use this experience somewhere but I'm afraid you won't do it successfully until you look facts in the face and at the same time quit expecting to get to the moon in one day."

(The day the Herald fired her, she had six bylines - including a banner headline on the front page - so obviously talent wasn't lacking.)

These years mark Godwin's early struggles to become a novelist, and follow her to Denmark, the Canary Islands, and London as she tries to amass the life experience needed to become a great writer. And the operative word here is "great"; the 24-year-old Godwin isn't settling for good or that hideous adjective, mediocre. "I have a disease.... It is that I want to be everybody who is great; I want to create everything that has ever been created.... I want to have written all the good stories, said all the clever things."

"The Making of a Writer" is a generous gift from a much-loved author to her readers. It's a shame "Queen of the Underworld" doesn't profit more from its long gestation, since one cracks open the book's cover really wanting a happy ending for the author.

Emma Gant, like Godwin, has just graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill when she joins the staff of the Miami Star in 1959. That's the year Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and Emma finds herself living in the Julia Tuttle Hotel, surrounded by expatriates who fled the island believing they would return within weeks after the revolution fizzled out.

Emma, who thinks herself terribly worldly because she's carrying on an affair with a married man 20 years her senior, is determined to be an overnight sensation.

"My plan was to become a crack journalist in the daytime, building my worldly experience and gaining fluency through the practice of writing to meet deadlines," she writes of her quest for global domination. "Then, in the evenings and on weekends, I would slip across the border into fiction, searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest questions. My journalism would support me until I became a famous novelist. Perhaps I would become a famous journalist on the side, if I could manage both."

She's so ambitious that when the paper's top female investigative journalist is sent to Havana on Emma's second day at the Star, Emma can feel bile rising in her throat. Her jealousy would seem more ludicrous, but by the end of the novel - less than two weeks later - the assistant managing editor packs Emma on an assignment only marginally less improbable for such a greenhorn.

That misstep seems remarkable, because otherwise Godwin does a fine job of re-creating life in a newsroom, even throwing in some of her old clips. My favorite begins: "A pair of flaming undershorts saved the life of Richard Dolan..."

Godwin has an amazing ability to draw memorable characters and, aside from Emma and her stuffed-shirt boyfriend, her Miami teems with fascinating folks: Alex, the wealthy, Harvard-educated manager of the hotel, who polishes guests' shoes at night; his much-married mother Lidia; and Paul's aunt, Stella, a concentration camp survivor who creates personalized fragrances for Miami notables.

And Godwin's ability to evoke 1950s Miami has dramatically improved since her following journal entry: "I want to hold the real flavor of Miami - a city of no return where you lose sight of values & mount the whirling dervish, the dangerous half-truth infallibility that comes over one in dark cocktail bars after too many gin & tonics."

But Emma, sadly, lacks the curiosity and empathy characteristic of the best journalists. In fact, she is so self-centered that she fails to notice that she's positively steeping in the biggest story of the day. Her adopted aunt is involved in a gun-running scheme to arm Castro's opponents.

(To her credit, Emma finally does realize that the renowned writer who fled Cuba with his memoir sewn into his bride's wedding dress might make a spiffy human interest story. Unfortunately, he's left Miami by the time she realizes she ought to set up an interview.)

The story that most fascinates Emma is that of a suicidal former Mafia madam. Despite the fact that her tale has already been told by a colleague, Emma is convinced that "The Queen of the Underworld" holds the key to her success.

Toward the end of "The Making of a Writer," Godwin has an epiphany: "I know what is wrong. I cannot stand to write about anything that is not myself - how much have I lost by failing to look around me instead of inward, always inward."

She then begins work on a short story about a girl seeking guidance from a priest after her father commits suicide. The story has elements of the grace that marks her best work. Unfortunately, "Queen of the Underworld" leaves Emma several years shy of that useful revelation.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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