Lennie Goodings moved from Canada to London in 1977, and the following year took a job with the groundbreaking feminist publisher Virago Press. She worked there as a publicist, editor and publisher, releasing books by Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou and Sarah Waters, among many others. Goodings is now chair of Virago and the author of the new memoir A Bite of the Apple (Biblioasis).
You and I share a feminist awakening novel, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, which was published in Britain by Virago. What spoke to you in that book?
People talk about Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, but it was The Diviners that did it for me. Being Canadian, wanting to go to London, realizing you could make your own way. The scales fell from eyes when I read it, the idea that I didn’t have to attach myself to someone.
Early on in your publishing career, your male boss called you a communist because you wouldn’t get him a coffee.
I think I made him politer in the book – he didn’t actually say please!
Since Virago was founded in 1973, its model has been that a book shouldn’t just be good, it should also be profitable. Why was that important?
That was one of the important things right from the get-go, so we’d prove that a women’s outfit could succeed, and we’d show the world these books had a market. We have the same ratio as other publishers – not every book makes money – but yes, it was important to make a profit.
Virago was condemned by some activists as “the acceptable face of feminism.” Schisms within the movement go back a long time. Do you think that’s a healthy thing?
The key is to accept there will be divisions and tensions. We have to listen to each other, and that’s what slightly scares me now, we don’t seem to be listening. Or allowing the other person might feel as strongly as you do. The head-butting and name-calling – I’m not happy with this. These arguments are uncomfortable, but hopefully there’s a new forging. You go back and forth and something new will come out. I was recently reading James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and he had this fabulous phrase – “Causes are notoriously bloodthirsty.”
At the first International Feminist Book Fair in London, Audre Lorde publicly criticized the organizers for having too many white women running things. So some divisions were instructive?
It was about who makes the decisions. She was pointing out, forcefully, that we hadn’t included enough women of colour on our planning committee, and she was right. As I say, it was very uncomfortable because it was a very public shaming at the opening party. But we learned. It was eye-opening.
Virago published Maya Angelou’s poetry and memoirs in the U.K., and you spent a great deal of time with her. Can you tell me about her?
Her mantra was, “we are more alike than unalike” and “let’s have great humanity with each other.” In every way, she was a big presence. She was over six feet tall. She used to say: “nobody’s going to make me feel small.” She had a huge appetite – for life, for laughter, for dancing, for books, for politics. She was a hugely radical presence in my life. She was a great galvanizer; she wanted all of us to be better. I felt a huge desire to be worthy of her, to be worthy of the world. I know that sounds a bit grand, but it’s true.
Another of your authors was Margaret Atwood, and as she was gamely trooping around England on publicity tours, she said to you, “everything is material.” How did you become the material in one of her short stories, The Whirlpool Rapids?
It was in the days when the train from London to Glasgow took eight hours. On that journey, I told her a story [as a university student, Goodings was on a tourist boat that capsized on the Niagara River, killing three]. At the end of the story she said, “Can I have that? You don’t often find urban disaster.” The amazing thing was she took not a single note. And later, when the story came out, it was all my dialogue. It was incredible how she’d retained it.
You write that being a book editor is in some ways like being a therapist. What are the best qualities of an editor?
One is to see the glimmer. A lot of stuff you read is not quite there at the beginning. One thing publishers are blessed with is optimism. Despite all evidence to the contrary, in we go again. You’ve got to be able to read through – you can see there’s clumsiness or awkwardness, but there’s something special at the core. The second thing is not to impose. You collaborate with the author, but it’s their vision. There’s an alchemy around creativity, a slight magic at the core of it.
One of the things that you noticed over the years is the way that feminism has been commodified. Has that been detrimental or useful?
When I was writing that, Emma Watson was getting it a bit in the neck when she was speaking out on equal pay, because people were saying “it’s star feminism, you make thousands of pounds and it’s not the same for all of us.” But it seems to me that you have to work on all fronts. Patriarchy is a big thing to knock down. I’m really happy to use every weapon that there is.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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