Lennie Goodings’s Interview *  



Lennie Goodings: changing the face of publishing

Goodings was born in Canada, and came to London in her early 20s, where she joined the recently founded team at the feminist publisher Virago, one of the most influential publishers in the world. Today she is Chair of Virago Press, and author of A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago, published this year by OUP.


What was your teenage ambition?

To be honest I was very nervous about what I would `be’. I remember thinking what could I be?  I grew up in a town the size of Brighton in Southern Ontario. Our friends and family  were either professionals like my mum who is a registered nurse and my father who is a civil engineer. Everyone I went to school with were those kind of professionals or they owned or worked in shops. The only thing I was really good at in school was English.  I thought I have no idea what I can be: I knew I didn’t specially want to be a teacher but I had no idea that there was such a thing as a creative industry.   It wasn’t until I worked in a bookshop and discovered publishing much later. after university, that it suddenly dawned on me that there was a  publishing industry and I could  work with books. 


I thought you had to be something, I didn’t know you could work at something.  


Did you attend a private or state school?  Did you attend a university or go straight into work?

I was at a big mixed state school. In Canada, to be honest, the private system is nothing like as common as it is in the UK, so most of us go to state schools. I went to university, Queens University, about 250 miles from my home and I studied English literature and Film Studies.


What is your go to comfort food?

Maybe hummus and pita bread. My favourite food of all time is tomatoes, but I wouldn’t call that comfort food!


Who was your teenage mentor?

Probably my English teachers at high school. The school I went to, wonderfully, had an idea that you could do advanced courses if you were good in something, so I was able to take  two English literature classes rather than one. And I would certainly say one of my English teachers Miss Ball was very instrumental, she got us seeking out literature. I found Margret Atwood’s first collection of poetry in our library, called the The Circle Game. I remember I did a presentation to the class. Because we didn’t study a lot of Canadian writers let alone women writers,  I remember saying to everybody, ‘Oh my God, she is going to be important’, and we should read her. My English teachers were people who really expanded my mind. I remember reading Crime and Punishment and things like that. I was reading beyond my years in some ways. Books are my mentors.


Where Is your happy place?

Really a hot bath, to be frank. Hot water as  therapy always works for me. Otherwise with family. 


Hard work or talent, which matters more?

I’m not sure they are opposed, to be honest, but I have certainly seen in my time talented people who can’t apply themselves, so I suppose if you really  come down to it, I would say hard work. If you work hard enough you can hone your talent. I think talent without application is fleeting and a bit sad. I have seen a lot of that in my time as a publisher, where you can see that someone has the glimmer of something really amazing but they just can’t settle down to it and push themselves.  Writing a book, for example, is really hard work as I now know from having written my first one. It demands real stamina and you have to dig so so deep.  But If you don’t have a spark of something at the core you probably wouldn’t bother would you, so it Is a mix of the two. You can’t use your talent without hard work, I would say that!


What is your biggest pride or achievement in your life so far?

I would definitely say my children. I am proudest of having two striving, talented children. Everybody has ups and downs in their lives, I am not saying they are all finished and totally successful but they have got  really open and inquisitive attitudes, and they are generous and kind.  I don’t know if it’s my achievement but I certainly feel proud of them.

And then, in terms of work, I feel proud of the fact that I have overseen Virago as part of a conglomerate since 1995,  and am still maintaining its integrity. It’s easier to keep  philosophy pure, as it were, when you are independent. I am proud of managing that.


What advice would you give your 15 year old self?

I guess I would say there is a big world out there. That, I didn’t know. My world was pretty small, it was pre internet.  I didn’t have very broad horizons.  Just hang in there, that’s what I would say to her . And also follow what you believe.  I was lucky in that what I believed in was books and I was able to work in books.  I know everybody says this but if you follow your passions, that is where you are going to find your greatest happiness and you can probably, hopefully make a reasonable living as well. Put passion before an idea of how you are going to make money. (Though maybe your passion is to make money, in which case that is different.)  But I think It is difficult to fit yourself into a box that you don’t fit so following your passion is a good way to find something that feels right for you.


What is the biggest problem in the world right now?

Well I think that climate change is the biggest problem right now.  Obviously, we have a lot of different problems around sexism and racism and lack of equality and lack of respect for each other. I definitely think those are all problems but even they are dwarfed against climate change.


On a scale of 1 to 10 how content are you with your life at the moment?

I’m pretty happy I have to say. I’m just going say I’m pretty happy at the moment and not put a number on it.  I’m in a good place.


*inspired by Hester Lacey