‘A Bite of the Apple’: Queen’s alumna discusses new memoir

Lennie Goodings reflects on her 40 years in publishing

Lennie Goodings has worked with literary superstars Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou.
Lennie Goodings, ArtSci ’76, majored in English at Queen’s before moving to the U.K. where she has spent the last 40 years working in publishing with the likes of Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou. 
While Goodings has spent most of her storied career helping other writers publish their works, her new memoir is the first book she’s ever written. 
A Bite of the Apple is the story of her publishing career at Virago, a feminist publishing house founded in the 1970s. In an interview with The Journal, Goodings discussed the book and how she got her start. 
“I was terribly anxious studying English and Film thinking I didn’t understand quite what you would do with that,” Goodings said. 
“I remember even as a young child, too, I always loved reading […] I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a creative industry even. I didn’t know anything about that, and I was just anxious all the time about what I would be when I grew up.” 
After university, Goodings worked at a bookshop in Victoria, B.C. where she learned about the world of publishing and realized it could be a viable career option for her. 
“That was when I suddenly thought ‘oh I see there is a publishing industry; maybe that is something I could do.’ But I was still keen on an adventure—not ready to settle down quite yet into working in Canada, and I’d always wanted to go to England.” 
So, Goodings bought a plane ticket to England and a return ticket dated an entire year later, embarking on what she thought would be a temporary excursion on her path to eventually settling down and working in Toronto.
“If somebody had said to me as I got on that airplane, ‘You will stay in Britain for another 40 years. You will not work in Toronto again. You will set up home in London,’ I would’ve got off that plane lickety-split,” she said. 
 When she landed across the pond in 1978, Goodings got a job for a company that provided publicity and marketing for books, a position she held for most of that year. 
“After a year of that, I thought, these aren’t the kinds of books I really admire. I really would rather be involved with something that means something.”  
Goodings decided to stay on her work visa and try her hand at something else. 
“I had a permit to work there for three years, a temporary working visa that you could get in those days […] the paperwork said, ‘We understand that young Commonwealth members understandably want to visit the mother country,’” she laughed. “As long as it’s my ticket, I’ll swallow the colonialism.” 
 In 1979, Goodings left her job at the marketing company and joined Virago, a feminist publishing house which had been founded only five years earlier. At that time, the second wave of feminism was reaching a fever pitch. 
“There were starting to be [feminist] magazines on both sides of the Atlantic—Muse Magazine, for example, started in 1972—so, the radical presses were starting to rise up in Britain and I felt very caught up in the combination of politics and literature.” 
Starting at Virago was a very exciting time for Goodings, who first became interested in non-traditional narrative forms during her film minor at Queen’s. 
“I don’t know what Queen’s is like now politically, but it was pretty straight when I was there, and I wouldn’t say it was particularly progressive,” she said. 
“But the film department was utterly mind-blowing for me […] It was so radical. We studied abstract, experimental films. We talked about different kinds of narrative. I think that [program] alongside the quite traditional English department was very politically awakening for me.” 
“I like being able to prove to the world that these books are important and necessary and saleable […] Virago started out by highlighting to the world two things,” Goodings said. 
The first was that women could be in charge of publishing houses and make the final decisions on what kinds of books were to be published. 
“I know that doesn’t sound very radical now,” she said. “But it was in Britain in the end of the 70s and early 80s, [and] it was mainly men at the head of most publishing houses deciding what would be published.” 
The second mission of Virago was to publish feminist books those other companies were rejecting at the time. 
Before Virago, there had been some famous female publishers thought to be worthy of a place in the classical canon such as Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Virginia Woolf, but the literary scene was still largely dominated by men. Virago sought to change that. 
“It’s hard for women to get published. It’s hard for men to get published. Nobody gets published easily,” Goodings said.
“But it was how women’s writing was regarded […] is it regarded as second class? Is it regarded as only for women? Those are the other areas that we’re still challenging.” 
It was on that quest to legitimize women’s writing that Goodings’ personal and professional life became entangled with that of Margaret Atwood, acclaimed Canadian author of The Handmaid’s Tale. 
While Atwood had been previously published in hardcover form, it was Virago that published Atwood’s first two novels, Surfacing and The Edible Woman, as paperbacks. 
“You can imagine how exciting it was for me. I’d studied her at university [...] so it was incredibly thrilling for me to have her as part of the Virago team,” Goodings said. 
At that time, Goodings was still working in publicity as she had been doing in her former job. So, she was charged with taking Atwood around Britain to various press junkets. 
“I didn’t really know quite what I was doing to be honest, but she’s such a sport, and when I would say things like ‘I’m sorry that person didn’t read the book’ or ‘I’m sorry there’s crappy food in the hotels,’ she just would laugh and say, ‘It’s all material.’” 
A Bite of the Apple is brimming with similar stories of Goodings’ 40 years in publication. 
“I’ve been at a really interesting publishing house. I’ve been at a publishing house at a really interesting time. This particular time of the wave of feminism […] It’s a slice of publishing history. The world has changed again, and so I thought, I do want to capture all of that.” 
Despite spending 40 years publishing the work of other writers, this is Goodings’ first novel she can call her own, a feat which she said was more taxing than she’d ever anticipated. Nevertheless, her editorial instincts kicked in. 
“My original feeling was trying not to over-claim, trying to acknowledge that I was only one of many people to do these things. Then I realized, well you have to respect the reader, and the reader doesn’t want to hear the slightly bland version of things. The reader needs you to be at the core.” 

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