Quill and Quire

Barbara Gowdy

« Back to
Author Profiles

Perfectly normal

Or perfectly weird? In Barbara Gowdy’s fictional worlds, they’re often both the same

Barbara Gowdy

She asks me to describe the cookies I’d eaten the night before (they were chocolate, I tell her, with coconut sprinkles). It seems an oddly particular question (though I’d told her I’d scoffed down a whole box) – but then Barbara Gowdy is the voyeur’s voyeur, telling me how she likes to prowl her neighbourhood by night, looking in windows, not hoping to see sex acts or anyone naked, but excited rather by the pictures people have on their walls, or by what they might be watching on television. I tell her how, during my own voyeur days, I was heartbroken once when I noted that a favourite couple I spied on had switched their detergent from Tide to a cheaper brand. She knows exactly what I mean. “I like imagining lives other than my own,” she says. “I like writing about people who aren’t like me. When I lie in bed at night, I think about my neighbours or what people I’ve seen on the street might be doing. Humans still seem exciting to me.”

We are sitting at the table in her large and (as her sister, Beth Kirkwood, had predicted) immaculate kitchen, in her two-storey, detached house on a dead-end street at the far eastern end of Cabbagetown, so far east that her backyard deck overlooks the park that edges down the Don Valley. She’d asked me, at the door, to remove my shoes. And absently picks a few imaginary crumbs from the counter. Her cat, Marni (named after her best friend, writer Marni Jackson), periodically startles us by leaping suddenly onto the table and pacing back and forth, though she skillfully avoids stepping onto the shortbread cookies or dipping her tail into our cups of peppermint tea.

Humans excite Barbara Gowdy. Animals provoke a strangely unsentimental tenderness. Her sister says she will move a caterpillar off a woodland path, that her compassion for wildlife “extends down to bugs and worms.” She’s a vegetarian. She is nonetheless fully aware that Marni would happily sink her fangs into the baby squirrel we are idly watching on the back fence. Yet she can’t help loving Marni. And she can’t resist loving said squirrel, though she is an ardent gardener and I have never, until now, met a gardener who didn’t fantasize the most exquisite of medieval tortures for those pesky and persistent rodents. So. Love is complicated. Love is unpredictable. Love can hurt. Love isn’t always happy endings. None of this is news to Barbara Gowdy.

Not, at least, if you judge by her body of work. This is the woman, after all, who has emptied a room during a public reading – people, it turns out, were squeamish about a story featuring a woman with two vaginas (not to mention two extra legs) who somehow manages to get screwed through both. There is the famous short story on which the film Kissed was based – that of a young woman whose sexual preference involves sitting on the faces of dead young men (not much room for “happily ever afters” in that scenario). Another investigates the rapture of a nascent female exhibitionist. Her novel Mister Sandman features homos and a possibly brain-damaged, possibly reincarnated baby. So how to explain her latest, due to be published in February? It’s called The Romantic. If not exactly Harlequin, it is the story of a “normal” woman, with the usual complement of limbs and sex organs, who has loved, since childhood, a more-or-less “normal” guy (if you discount alcoholism – and we do, culturally anyway). Perhaps the explanation lies in her insight that there isn’t that much difference, really, between a passion that manifests itself in sitting on the faces of dead guys and the voluptuous ache and obsession we call romance.

Barbara Gowdy is 52 years old. She didn’t publish her first book, the now out-of-print Through the Green Valley, until she was 38. Since then she has given us Falling Angels, Mister Sandman, The White Bone, and a collection of short stories called We So Seldom Look on Love. She has been a finalist for any number of prizes, from the Giller to the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and the recipient, in 1996, of the Marian Engel Award. She is widely translated (rights to The Romantic have already been sold to Germany and Norway, as well as the U.S. and England), and is particularly popular in Germany. Falling Angels is currently being filmed in Regina, and though the script is by Vancouver poet Esta Spalding, Gowdy is involved with crafting some of the dialogue. Not, by some standards, a huge volume of work, but as she says, “I take a long time to write a sentence. It took three years to write this book. And at the end, I was putting in 15-hour days.” Which rather comes with the territory when you want to be perfect.

And that goes back a long way. Her sister, Beth (there are two other siblings, a brother and a sister), just a year older, remembers how Barbara tried to be perfect at everything – having the perfectly neat bedroom, getting perfect marks at school (“she’d study under the covers with a flashlight; she’d try to memorize entire textbooks”), doing meticulous research for everything she writes. Beth recalls a trip they took to Africa, with Beth’s two boys, when Barbara was researching The White Bone (a novel told from the viewpoint of African elephants), and how she was better than the native guides at identifying the birds and animals they saw. On that trip, Beth would stay up late with the boys, playing poker for real money. Barbara would go to bed early.

And if perfection eludes her, she is very good at calling it quits. Before she became a writer, she wanted to be a musician. She didn’t begin studying piano until she was in her 20s – an age when most serious players already know whether they’ll make a career or not. “I practised five to eight hours a day for eight years,” she says. “Then I stopped, and I didn’t play again for 20 years.”

“Because you weren’t perfect?” I ask.

“Yep,” she says. “I stopped enjoying it. It took me a while even to be able to listen to the piano again.

“I believe in perfectionism as applied to art. If you have the temerity to be an artist, the least you can do is go for broke.”

Which makes her sound somewhere on the razor edge between high-strung and bitch. Which isn’t what I’m seeing, here on a late-autumn afternoon in her kitchen. If there is such a thing as an alert, vibrant drowsiness, that is what Barbara Gowdy conveys. She does not have the quick, snappish movements of the high-strung. Her motions are deliberate, gestural – a teacup proffered with an almost balletic fluidity, the cat stroked with a seemingly absent-minded grace. She has, of course, the advantage of beauty (everyone I talked to before I met her mentioned that), and apparently perpetual youth (something else everyone mentioned). I wondered how such a potentially lethal combination affected her growing up. Not much, it seems. Or not in the way you’d guess. She doesn’t like her hair (“it’s too fine. Beth got the great, thick hair. Chris [her partner, poet Christopher Dewdney] says my hair looks like algae”). And she didn’t, she says, meet the beauty standards of the day, which were based on a Marilyn Monroe voluptuousness. She remembers retreating from high school dances to the relative safety of the girls’ washroom, “where I got clever at hiding myself by going into a stall and standing on the toilet so that my shoes couldn’t be seen. But I was ever hopeful. I’d go back.”

And youthful looks? When she was 18, she looked 12. When she was in her 20s, she looked like a young teenager – and she didn’t like it. “I want,” she says, “the credibility of my years.” One of her first jobs was in editing at Lester & Orpen, and she recalls the startled look she got when she met writer Patrick Watson, one of whose books she was editing. She couldn’t help but imagine him thinking, “What is this kid doing editing my book?”

A good enough job, probably. But this kid would really rather have been writing. And though she had passed the Canadian Securities course, and could have become a licensed stockbroker, writing is what she turned to, bringing to it her customary perfectionist zeal. She says she is easily distracted when she writes – the knowledge that her otherwise spotless kitchen sink might harbour a dirty cup is enough to bring a sentence to a halt. “I actually took a hotel room, once for two weeks and once for 10 days, when I was writing The Romantic,” she says. That meant room service, total quiet, no phone calls, no dirty dishes whispering up from the kitchen. She went for broke, in other words. “This book,” she says, “is as perfect as it can be at this time.”

A perfect book, then, titled The Romantic. In some senses, she might be said to have done her research here, too. She married her high school sweetheart, which lasted about as long (three years) as one would expect. Then she was with a man she describes as “the sweet, heavy drinker,” for six years (he died drunk, in a collision with a cement truck). Then she married a Brit, who gave her, among other things, the sense that women did not have to have voluptuous breasts in order to be attractive. This lasted eight years (she’s precise with her chronologies). She and Christopher Dewdney have made it to 13.

They don’t live together, which to me, at least, is about the most romantic thing a couple can do, the ache and longing for more than you can get being one of the essentials of romance. Which she partly concedes – they see each other only once or twice a week, and she still gets excited, she says, at the prospect of their meeting though there is also a wistful allusion to sometimes being lonely, to how nice it would be to “be in it together,” as she puts it.

We end up talking a lot about romance, about love. The world needs a richer vocabulary, she says – “there ought to be as many words for love as the Eskimos have for snow.” She tells me that, when people, even strangers, ask her what her new novel is about, she tells them, “it’s about you. And they’re always flustered, as if I knew something about them and they knew I knew.”

And she does. It’s not just the pictures we have on our walls, or what we watch on television, or the kinds of cookies we’d eaten the night before. She knows the universality of our desire to connect with another human being, and how strange (or conversely, how normal) are the means by which we choose to do so. Those readers who find, in The Romantic, signs that Barbara Gowdy is abandoning the weird and celebrating the normal will be guilty of a serious mis-read. She has always celebrated the normal – if only because, in the realm of love and romance, weird is normal. Her great insight here is that romance, good old traditional hearts-and-flowers romance, is as fractured, strange, destructive, uplifting, and genuinely crazy as the force that drives a woman to rock to orgasm while sitting on the faces of dead young men.

“Sometimes,” she says, “everyone just seems like lost children to me. I write because I want to know how they cope.” Her books seem to tell us that lost children cope by finding each other, and that the paths we take are evidence of our will and our consciousness, that the paths we take are all mad, that the paths we take are all lovely. By making the everyday of the seemingly extraordinary and bizarre (and vice versa), she dignifies all our lives.