'Grief Cottage': A Ghost Story About Loneliness, Loss And Affection

Jun 3, 2017
Originally published on June 3, 2017 9:35 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A stranger in the mind of an 11-year-old boy named Marcus gestures at an abandoned old home and tells him, people who go in don't always come out. Now, do you think that'll keep that boy away from the house they call Grief Cottage? It's a ghost story set on an island off the coast of 1990s South Carolina and in the life of a little boy whose mother has died in a car accident and before she could tell him it was his father. "Grief Cottage" is the latest novel from Gail Godwin, the critically acclaimed and best-selling novelist. She joins us now from Woodstock, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us.

GAIL GODWIN: I'm so glad to be here.

SIMON: Why do they call the old house Grief Cottage?

GODWIN: The locals on this small island call it that because 50 years ago, in a hurricane, there was a family who came late in the season. It was October, hurricane season. And they never knew what happened to the family. The mother and the father and the boy just disappeared during the hurricane. So the cottage had a dark aura to it. And so they just called it Grief Cottage.

SIMON: And, of course, there's no way Marcus is going to stay away, is there?

GODWIN: Oh, no. If you are an 11-year-old boy with a bike and lots of time on your hands and you'd heard about this, of course, you'd be going up there. And you'd probably be courting something to happen even though you were terrified it might.

SIMON: Is it OK to call this novel a ghost story?

GODWIN: Yes. It's a ghost story. And it's a mind story. And it's a story about loneliness and loss and affection.

SIMON: I want to ask you about - you have another character on the island, Carol Upchurch. She's 95. And...

GODWIN: Yes.

SIMON: She - I wrote down what she tells little boy Marcus. She says, quote, "these days I have to put in request to my brain as one does at the library. And then a little worker takes my slip and disappears into the stacks. May take him a while, but he always comes back with the goods." I gather you're going to turn 80 in a few days?

GODWIN: Yes. And that - Coral's experience came right from mine. As you get older not only do you get more picky with your words, but you lose them. You used to have lots of servants. And you just pulled the bell like in "Downton Abbey," and they'd all rush up with trays full of things. And now you pull the bell, and you wait for this very arthritic old butler who's your only servant left. And he comes up with his wooden tray, and there's one word on it. But it's a good word.

SIMON: (Laughter) That's that's very vivid.

GODWIN: But you know what? I'll tell you two good things that have happened to me this year.

SIMON: Sure.

GODWIN: One is I've had an old schoolmarm living in me all my writing life, and she has either retired or died. Her favorite mark of punctuation was the colon because the colon says to the reader - stop; now I'm going to say something important. You may not know this - so getting rid of her and also feeling that my materials were more available to me than they have ever been.

SIMON: Your materials - your choice of words, your emotional depth?

GODWIN: It's the themes, really, that attract you and obsess you. In my case, why people do the things they do? What are the ranges of human possibility, both good and bad - just human, human, human. So it's that kind of material. But also, my last two books, I have noticed I'm writing shorter, sharper and crisper. And truth - truth on an essential level is more important to me...

SIMON: Boy.

GODWIN: ...Than ever before. I mean, if I'm going to write about loggerhead turtles, I want to know about them and not say anything that's false, fake.

SIMON: Yeah. I do have to ask you, with this wonderful novel - all right, I'm going to consciously phrase it this way. How many ghosts have you seen?

GODWIN: That's a - good for you. I didn't expect that. OK, the sharp true answer is I saw a bunch of them in my 36 year when I'd moved to an old house by myself and made a lot of changes in my life. And they were all changes to do with forfeiting my security for a while. So I saw some people just in this house at night.

And the other time was right after I got to Miami to work on the Miami Herald. I guess I was afraid. And I was living in this hotel near the old Miami Herald. It was called the Robert Clay. And I woke up one night. And there was a man in white standing over my bed, and he looked like he was either going to - either he was going to choke me or feel my pulse. I never decided which.

But I do believe my people. When they see ghosts, they really see them. And I've read a lot about this. And it's - you're particularly vulnerable to it when your psyche is vulnerable and floats looser than usual from your body - from your stability. Have - you have never seen one?

SIMON: I don't believe I've ever seen a ghost. I have heard my late mother.

GODWIN: Oh, your mother. Sounds wonderful. Listen, absence can always be present. Don't you believe that?

SIMON: Yes, I do very much so. I believe in that. And that helps us get through. Gail Godwin, her novel, "Grief House." Thanks so much for being with us.

GODWIN: You are very welcome. It was nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATHLEEN EDWARDS SONG, "GOODNIGHT CALIFORNIA")

SIMON: And tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, a conversation with John Grisham about his new book, "Camino Island" - gang of thieves, rare books and a circle of writers. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.