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Breaking Her Fall is Stephen Goodwin’s first novel in 24 yearsand it’s “not the book I set out to write,” the author says. But then much of Goodwin’s career has been unpredictable, so it’s fitting his latest project laid its own winding path.
Fall’s protagonist, a principled and organized single dad, enjoys what he considers a strong bond with his 14-year-old daughter, Kat. But then he receives a late-night call from the father of one of Kat’s schoolmateswho claims Kat’s been seen at a party in a compromising situation with “a parade of boys”and so begins a string of miscalculations that ends with an injured teenager and a legal tangle.
Though he’d intended to write a different book entirely, the topic of teen sexuality “just kept pushing to the front of the book, until it became the focus,” Goodwin says. “I had heard about similar edge-of-scary incidents in the area, and it seemed a real example of the fears surrounding parenthood and communicating with your kids.”
Goodwin uses Kat’s experience, and the emotional crises that follow, to examine the stuff of relationships: communication and miscommunication, regret and forgiveness, loneliness and love. “But more than anything,” he says, “this is a father-daughter book.”
The novel’s characters inhabit the small world west of D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, not far from where Goodwin himself lives. The author is also the father of two adolescents, and although he’s quick to point out that the incidents in the book are not autobiographical, he wasn’t afraid to borrow details from local life.
“People really see this place as a one-dimensional town,” he laments. “I want readers to know that there’s so much life and vitality here that has nothing to do with government.”
Originally from Alabama, Goodwin moved to the District in 1978 to teach creative writing at George Mason University. His last book, The Blood of Paradise, was published in 1979.
“I can’t exactly say it’s a coincidence that my career as a novelist halted when I became a teacher,” Goodwin says. “I had written two novels [Kin was published in 1975], and I thought, Hey, I’m a professional now. I embarked on a big, complicated family saga, and the thing just wouldn’t be written….As a teacher, I thought that with enough strategy and discipline, I could make it come to life. And that’s not the way it works.”
Goodwin spent years working on that would-be third book before shelving italong with his career as a novelist. He turned his attention to his professorship and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, with which he’s worked since its inception in 1980. Founded by writers and housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library, the foundation holds a series of readings each year and bestows a prestigious annual award to an outstanding work of fiction. The group’s Writers in Schools Project, with which Goodwin is also involved, brings authors to public high schools around the District.
“When I moved to the city, 25 years ago, book promotion was a very different thing,” recalls Goodwin, who has served two terms as PEN/Faulkner’s president. “Writers today are more willing to mix with their audiencesit breeds a sense of intimacy. The PEN/Faulkner Foundation has helped to perpetuate that….It’s generously supported by writers, and through it we are able to attract a lot of great people to D.C.”
Goodwin will soon embark on a book tour to Boston, Miami, and Chicago, and he is keen to write another Washington-based novel. When asked how he managed to complete a novel while teachingand in less than a year, at thathe tries on a few theories.
“I thought of myself as having a failure of nerve,” he decides. “I’d listen to my students read their stuff, and some of it was so damn good, and they were so passionate about it, and I’d think, Man, I remember what that feels like.
“Besides, I’m a big believer in the right project at the right time,” he chuckles. “I guess I’d have to be.” Anne Marson