Publishers Weekly once described Gail Godwin as a mix of "mysticism and clear-headed practicality," a fusion of divergent forces that has proven a rich one for the author, whose novels Evensong and The Good Husband explorations of mortality and faith that mine the spiritual side of their characters have earned her both popular and critical acclaim.
"I spend a lot of time either in awe of or in pursuit of the unseen," Godwin says by phone from her home in Woodstock, New York. Indeed, her first nonfiction book Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings gives substance to the unseen, solidifying the essence of one of our most popular symbols: the heart. A synthesis, a survey, Godwin’s new book tours history, religion, literature and art, examining the role of the heart in each of these contexts and bringing to mind the best of Diane Ackerman and Annie Dillard along the way. Exploring the accretion of meanings, the layers of significance humanity has projected onto an emblem that probably dates back to 10,000 B.C., when the heart as we know it that shapeliest of symbols, all lavish arch and flirtatious curve was first scrawled on a cave wall in Spain, the narrative is part history, part anatomy, part literary criticism, an in-depth examination of what lies behind the good, old-fashioned valentine.
"Finding out how all these areas branched out and connected was a broadening experience," Godwin, a three-time National Book Award nominee, says. "It’s a heartful way to write, more of a circulatory way, to see how things tie in to other things."
Raised in North Carolina, Godwin has a soothing Southern lilt, which she punctuates with deliberative periods of silence, as though searching for the best possible words to express her ideas. The contemplative tone seems just right for the author, whose abiding interest in the world’s theologies lends her new book a certain urgency. When she encourages readers to "revaluate the heart," to "develop more consciousness of heart," Godwin seems to be writing in earnest.
"I feel more and more that we really spent hundreds of years perfecting our minds and our industries and our reason, and now it’s really time to catch up with the other stuff. Like the heart," Godwin says. "I think it’s happening in increments. Once you’re aware of the heart and heartlessness, you’ve already made some mileage."
Although Godwin has a strong background in journalism — she once worked as a reporter for The Miami Herald — the shift from fiction to nonfiction with Heart was not without its challenges. "As far as the writing goes, I found that I had to keep myself from being too dry and scholarly," she says. "Whenever I put on my scholar’s hat, my heart went out of it. When you think of the nonfiction you enjoy reading, it’s written in a voice. You’re not just getting information. Someone is bringing you the information through their personality."
Godwin’s voice in the book is poetic and lucid as she recounts some of the greatest heart moments in history — the creation of the stethoscope; the first valentine; how the heart symbol got its shape. From the evolution of Taoism to the Holy Wars to courtly love, she portrays the heart as a motivator for some of history’s greatest moments, showing how much of life has, in a sense, been engendered by one little organ. The seat of desire and the center of humanity, the stimulus for things great and small, from one-night stands to world wars, the heart, as the author demonstrates, is a point where we all connect.
Godwin experienced this connection firsthand during the writing of Heart, when she discussed the narrative with friends, some of whom freely gave her suggestions for the book. "When I worked on my novels in the past and talked to people about them, they always hung back from suggesting ideas," Godwin says. "They would observe a certain decorum. But with the heart book, everyone was plunging in: ‘Don’t forget to put in this poet or that artist.’ I decided that maybe when you’re writing out of a shared culture, people feel perfectly free and even obligated to contribute."
While a sense of shared culture permeates Heart, for the author, there are personal contexts at play in the book as well. One of the most poignant chapters in the narrative is about heartbreak and includes the story of Godwin’s half brother Tommy, who died during a shooting incident in 1983. Godwin had written about his death before in her book, A Southern Family.
"A Southern Family was a huge novel, and this chapter in Heart was a completely different take on what happened," she explains. "I learned more about what a broken heart means and what grieving means just from writing this part of the book. Maybe that’s a good instance of one of the blessings of nonfiction writing — you can get closer to something that really happened without having to disguise or design. You can still use all your imagination and try to illuminate mysteries, if not solve them."
Such were the gratifications of the nonfiction genre that Godwin has decided to do a sequel to Heart. "The next book will be about hospitality," she says. "I’ll treat it the same way I treated the heart, looking at all the ways hospitality has been perceived throughout the ages."
At the moment, Godwin is at work on a new novel called The Queen of the Underworld. "For the first time in my life, I don’t have a deadline," she says. "It frees me up, and I seem to work more. I’m interested to see how, having written Heart and found this new kind of circulation, it’s going to affect what I’m writing now. I think it’s going to permeate the fiction writing with more heart qualities," she says hopefully. "Things like zest, courage and taking chances at pain."