A Vonnegut Protegee (and John Irving Pal) Warms a Bad Winter with a Hot and Ambitious Book

updated 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

A refugee from several careers and two brief marriages, Gail Godwin, then 29, enrolled in the Ph.D. writing program at the University of Iowa. For her thesis, she poured out the story of the psychiatrist she had just divorced. One of her teachers was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and in recalling Godwin now he compares her to a fellow student, the young John Irving: "They started out with considerable stature. What remained was simply to put on a little weight, a little muscle and gain some wisdom."

Now, 15 years and six books later, Godwin appears to have done just that. Her sixth book, A Mother and Two Daughters (Viking, $15.95), traces the relationships between three Southern women as they struggle to come to terms with one another. (Godwin has no children of her own and only one half sister.) "It is everything that a novel should be: funny, sad, provocative, ironic, compassionate, knowing, true," raved Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley, calling it "a work of complete maturity and artistic control." Perhaps equally remarkable, given today's sluggish book market, Godwin's most ambitious novel to date, containing some two dozen major characters, is actually selling. On publication date, Jan. 8, the book went into its third printing (for a total of 60,000 copies), and before the end of the month it appeared on best-seller lists. "With three strong heroines," she says, "I knew this would be a winner."

Godwin's own life gave her much of the material from which she spun her first five books: The Perfectionists, Glass People, The Odd Woman, Dream Children and Violet Clay. Born in Alabama, Godwin was raised in Asheville, N.C. "My grandmother was more like a mother to me," remembers Gail. "But my mother was my heroine. She was this very exotic creature who had all these jobs: newspaper woman, novelist, teacher." Gail's father, Mose Winston Godwin, was a sometime tennis instructor who wandered out of her life when she was 1 and didn't reappear until the day of her high school graduation. "It was very dramatic, it swept me away, so I lived with him for a while," she says. He died when she was 20.

In 1959, with a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina, she landed a job at the Miami Herald as a reporter. She was fired two years later, in part for embellishing stories. "Devastated," she hastily wed photographer Douglas Kennedy. It lasted three months. She then toured Europe for about a year and took a job in London as a travel consultant for the U.S. Embassy. She met psychiatrist Ian Marshal in a creative writing class in London and married him.

This marriage was not a success either—it ended in 1966—but out of it came her first novel, The Perfectionists, published by Harper & Row in 1970. Through the years she and Vonnegut have remained fast friends, as have she and classmate Irving. "When I was writing Violet Clay and he was writing The World According to Garp, we exchanged chapters as we wrote them," she recalls. "It was funny. In my first draft I started off with Violet's birth, and in his he began with Garp as a grown man, middle-aged and looking for something to do. He advised me to change mine, to start off when Violet is mature enough for the reader to be interested in her, and he was right. Then later he decided to start his novel with Garp's birth, and that decision made the book."

For 10 years Godwin has shared her life and her home, now in Woodstock, N.Y., with classical composer Robert Starer. "So far we are very happy," he says. Says she of marriage: "Don't rock the boat." Why has it worked? "We share each other's difficult moments," says Robert. "We have been through a great many things—good and bad."

Gail's next book, titled Gotham, will be a Vanity Fair treatment of the glitz and glamour of Manhattan. It may be an interesting place to write about, but "She wouldn't want to live in New York" says Robert. Gail agrees but declares proudly, "I am getting better at braving the stores. It's scary. You have to know what you want. Now I can walk into Saks and not fall to pieces."

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