Laura Godwin, the author, has a new book this season, and Laura Godwin, the editor, has a new title: v-p and publisher of Godwin Books, an imprint of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.
It’s the capstone to a remarkable career for a woman who arrived in New York 30-plus years ago and had to first conquer culture shock: Godwin grew up in a town of 3,000 in Alberta, a province of mountains and windswept prairies in western Canada.
“Laura is one of the most gifted editorial talents I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” said Jean Feiwel, the senior v-p to whom Godwin will report. “The time is right to allow her the freedom to grow and focus her own list.”
Christian Trimmer has taken over for her as editorial director at Holt, where Godwin has been editing books for the past 25 years. In a publishing climate where ascending the ladder usually means leaving the company. Godwin is an anomaly: she’s worked at just two houses, first Harper, then Holt. “It’s such a good company, I never had the urge to go somewhere else,” she said. “Brenda [Bowen] hired me. Now she’s my agent.”
In a way, Godwin’s new book and her new job bring her twin pursuits – editing and writing – full circle.
As a junior editor at Harper & Row in the 1980s, the very first illustrator she hired was William Low, who has also illustrated her new book, The First Christmas Night (Feiwel and Friends, Sept.) And though she’s probably best known as an author for the Doll People series she co-wrote with Ann M. Martin, her writing career began with a holiday title: Christmas in the Manger, published under her pseudonym, Nola Buck, and illustrated by Felicia Bond (Harper, 1994). A backlist staple, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published.
Though at this point in her career editors who acquire Godwin’s manuscripts usually ask if she has someone in mind to illustrate, Godwin says part of the fun is being surprised. “Most of the time I just love seeing what they come up with,” she said. “It’s just my pleasure to write the text and let somebody else take it from there.”
Circumstances were different, however, for The First Christmas Night, which Godwin estimates is about the 30th book she has written (“I lost track a while ago,” she admits). She has worked with Low frequently over the years after first hiring him to illustrate Summer Stories, written by Nola Thacker (Harper, 1988). Somewhere along the line, he made a request. “He told he always wanted to do a very traditional Christmas book and asked me to think of him if I ever got a text along that line that I wanted to publish,” she said. “So I kept my eyes open for a long while and finally I decided, I’ll just write one myself.” The text is a poetic retelling of Jesus’ birth, highlighting on the sensory aspects of a cold night long ago in Bethlehem – the shepherd’s “soft, woolly sheep,” the sound of cattle lowing, the smell of hay in the barn. PW’s review called it “a lyrical and understated account of the Nativity that will leave readers feeling as though they are witnessing something momentous.”
Despite their decades-long working relationship, it is their first collaboration as author and illustrator. It is also the first of Godwin’s books to be published by her own employer. “I never wanted to publish myself, of course, but Brenda showed this to Jean [Feiwel] and Liz [Szabla, the imprint’s editor-in-chief] and they said, ‘Yes, we want to do it.’ ”
Editors and writers might rightfully wonder: When in the world does a editor who works full-time, now publisher of her own imprint, have time to write her own work?
“The very simple answer is, it’s a pleasure for me,” Godwin said. “ When I have time, even on vacation, writing is something I look forward to doing. Other people would go golfing. I write.”
She wrote a lot of poetry as a girl in Alberta but never dreamed of being an editor or a writer. Her father was a botanist who taught at the local college; both parents were descendants of settlers, who farmed the land. “When you come from a country town, like I did, the idea of being a writer was not even a remote possibility. You can’t aspire to something you don’t even know exists,” she said.
But after lucking into a job at Harper in the 1980s, she knew immediately she had found her niche. “The minute I landed at Harper I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
The pen name she used when she began writing – Nola Buck – is an homage to her parents; she combined her mother and father’s first names.
As publisher of her own imprint, Godwin does not think her workday will change materially. Over the years she has worked with a wide variety of award-winning authors and artists including Eric Carle, Mike Curato, Peter McCarty, Rosemary Wells, Jacqueline Kelly, Eugene Yelchin, Marguerite Engle, and Denise Fleming. “I would really like more western and midwestern voices,” she said. “I didn’t grow up on the coasts so I’m hoping I can add my free-range, Alberta influence to the list.”
She decided against “Laura Godwin Books,” in favor of just her last name. As a joke, she proposed “Godwin Books, Eh,” as a tribute to her Canadian heritage.
The new imprint will publish fiction and nonfiction across all age ranges beginning with its 2017 lists. A logo is in the works. “We’re designing it now,” Godwin said. “I suggested something with a cowboy boot and a skyscraper but I doubt that will fly.”