The Pain Woman: A Conversation with Barbara Gowdy




CANADIAN LITERATURE does not have the immediate appeal of the “exotic” that some readers might be searching for when they stray from the comfort of reading their favorite American writers. If you’ve wandered into the northern wilderness in your reading, you’ve likely pored over novels by Margaret Atwood, stories by Alice Munro, and maybe the poetry of Anne Carson or Leonard Cohen. But even the work of the aforementioned authors — with the exception of Munro — tends not to dwell too much on the Canadian “experience,” whatever that might mean to non-Canadians. In a geopolitical climate currently obsessed with the idea of “porous” borders, it’s a bit strange how the literary writing produced by our nearest northern neighbor doesn’t take up more shelf space in households (or bookstores) across the United States.

Barbara Gowdy is a Canadian writer. Her third novel, Mister Sandman (1995), was hailed by Atwood, while her much-celebrated fourth novel, The White Bone (1999), found a fan in Munro. Gowdy has won — or been nominated for — virtually every book prize that exists in Canada, as well as being awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s second-highest honor. Yet Gowdy’s name isn’t nearly as recognized in the States as her more famous peers. She’s even had the benefit of controversy (always good for sales, especially in the US), when her novel Helpless (2007) was criticized for being an allegedly “sympathetic” portrayal of a pedophile. 

Her seventh and most recent novel, Little Sister (2017), took Gowdy a decade to write while she battled chronic back pain so severe it nearly drove her to suicide. As she confessed to The Toronto Globe and Mail, “Writing saved me.” It is not by accident, then, that Little Sister involves, among other things, inhabiting the body of another person. Imagining the lives of other people is something a writer does out of necessity, but Little Sister is quite literally about seeing the world from another person’s perspective.

In the novel, Rose Bowan runs her late father’s repertory theater in Toronto with her mother, Fiona, who is suffering from the onset of dementia. This condition causes Rose’s mother to sometimes confuse her for her sister, Ava, who died in childhood. Then, there is the thunder. It’s a hot, humid, Canadian summer — the sky roiling with the sounds of oncoming storms. When one strikes, Rose disappears into the body of a woman named Harriet — in a twist not unlike the central premise of the 1999 film Being John Malkovich, except that Rose has no idea who Harriet is or why she inhabits her whenever it rains. 

Perhaps it was all the rain, but while reading Little Sister, I was reminded of a night years ago when, as a student in Boston, I endured the misery of public transportation during a downpour to make my way to a now-closed bookstore just off Newbury Street for a reading. Clutching my hardbound copy of Mister Sandman, I was determined to meet the person who wrote it. But the store was emptier than the streets leading to it, and I hid behind a shelf as Gowdy and the store manager chatted about the poor turnout (which was zero, not including me). 

In an email, Gowdy tells me that she remembers the night well: “the storm, the empty bookstore … the next day I went to the airport and rather than taking the plane to the next US city, I went home.” Owing, perhaps, to my sense of guilt for not making the author aware that at least one American reader was there that night so many years ago, I feel beholden to make US readers more aware of the extraordinary work of Barbara Gowdy. Our conversation via email continues below.

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GREGG LAGAMBINA: One of the great clichés when describing an artist favorably is to say they are “fearless.” This term has been used to describe you and the subject matter of some of your work. In your story “We So Seldom Look on Love,” you imagined what it might be like to have sex with a corpse. In Helpless, you endured a lot of criticism for daring to try to inhabit the mind of a pedophile, while The White Bone is told from the perspective of elephants. Would you describe yourself — or your writing — as “fearless”?

BARBARA GOWDY: I suspect I’m more reckless than fearless in that I tend not to dwell on outcomes. I get an idea, and if it interests me enough and strikes me as unique or under-examined, I pursue it. I don’t have an agenda other than to give my imagination free rein. I like to think that readers will understand what I’m up to, so I was surprised when some critics of Helpless said I was sanctioning pedophilia because the narrative steers clear of condemning Ron for being sexually aroused by little girls. You can’t help what arouses you. Whether or not you decide to act on your arousal is another matter. Commercially, I would have done far better had I stuck to telling the story from the point of view of the abducted girl and her mother, and left Ron out of it.

A lot of Little Sister takes place in and around a repertory theater running classic films. Your novel Falling Angels (1989) was made into a feature film in 2003 and your story “We So Seldom Look on Love” was adapted as the 1996 movie Kissed. Some novelists profess they don’t care about the movies made from their books, but as a writer whose stories inhabit the perspectives of such a wide variety of unusual people, I would imagine you might be interested in seeing how a filmmaker translates your imagination into images. What do you think of the movies that have been made from your writing?

I’m flattered when somebody wants to turn one of my novels into a movie, and excited when it actually happens. As you know, there are thousands of books optioned for every one that makes it onto the screen. I’ve written a few screenplays — unproduced, except for a single short [Green Door in 2008] — so I get it that you can’t transfer a story wholesale from one medium to another. I saw a rough cut of Kissed, and a screenplay draft of Falling Angels. In both cases I had some input, not a whole lot. Kissed is more faithful to my writing than Falling Angels is, mainly due to the fact that Kissed is based on a short story, which made it possible for the screenplay to follow my narrative almost line for line. But Falling Angels is certainly true to the characterizations and spirit of the book.

In Little Sister, Rose recalls her father racing to see the filming of that iconic scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955), with Marilyn Monroe over the subway grate, while the movie itself plays inside her theater. The 1961 film The Misfits plays a small role in the book, and many of Rose’s impressions of the world are filtered through movie memories. When she eats the vegan soup at the yoga studio, for example, and imagines she is being poisoned like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Do the films mentioned in Little Sister have any particular significance for you? 

I refer to the movies I do in Little Sister partly to invoke their tones and motifs — the spookiness of Rosemary’s Baby, the double-life absurdity of The Seven Year Itch, the pathos and disconnection of The Misfits. Having Rose manage a repertory cinema allows these references to occur naturally. The bigger reason for the cinema setting, though, is that watching movies mirrors Rose’s experience entering Harriet in terms of intimate access to a stranger’s feelings and circumstances without that stranger’s knowledge or consent. And then it was just fun imagining the double bills. What would the links be? Rose, like her father, goes in for whimsical links. She screens The Seven Year Itch with Rear Window (1954) because both take place during heat waves in mid-1950s lower Manhattan, both feature apartments improbably humble for the kinds of salaries their occupants would have earned back then, and both concern middle-aged, white males obsessing over a neighbor.

One way to describe Little Sister is that it’s a book about the invisible barrier — or cosmic membrane, if we want to get more ethereal — that keeps intact the reality (or illusion) that our “self” is somehow separate from “others.” This is most explicitly rendered whenever a thunderstorm arrives and Rose enters the body of Harriet, but this idea is also tested with Fiona’s dementia, Shannon’s “spirit visions,” and even Gordon’s ever-present construction helmet — seemingly keeping his “self” inside so it doesn’t come spilling out like the brains Rose imagines are exposed and gurgling just beneath it. Do you write in order to lose yourself in other people, or to discover more about yourself while inhabiting other lives, much as Rose does in the book?

I think I write in order to discover whether or not the way I see the world is the way other people see it. When I was a girl, I was aware of noticing things my friends either didn’t notice or didn’t want to. I developed a reputation for being shocking and funny, and that was okay, but what I really wanted was to be popular and normal. Writing fiction freed me, at least it did once I found a readership. It was like finding your species, like spending your life as an elk among deer and one day there’s a herd of elk coming over the hill. I go off in new directions with each book, so I risk disappointing readers of my earlier work. I’m often asked if I’d consider writing a sequel to The White Bone. The answer is, no, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. As I change, my books change. Little Sister reflects my more focused interest in consciousness and identity — for instance, the big question of whether or not there is a pure self, one so hardy and absolute that it can enter the mind and body of another person and emerge unscathed.

What drives you to keep writing? This is a basic question that authors get asked all the time, but in your particular case, you endured a lot of physical hardship in order to complete Little Sister. Was your motivation to complete the novel different from previous works, and how do you think this change in determination affected your writing?

I’ve tried other jobs: book editor, stockbroker. I fell into writing after abandoning a long, preposterous dream of being a professional pianist, and as I said above, having novels out in the world satisfies a need in me to be part of a community of the mind. Beyond that, I enjoy making things up. The type of non-autobiographical fiction I write amounts to barefaced lying, if you think about it. So, I guess I’m saying I enjoy convincing people that the lives I invent are real lives, lived lives. And then there’s the call of language. Throughout the years of my chronic pain, immersing myself in language has worked as a great distraction. Little Sister took a long time to complete because of the pain, but I always knew I’d reach the end. I’m dogged, if nothing else.

It would be easy to conjecture that this novel’s subject matter must bear some connection to the pain you experienced — a wish to literally inhabit another body. But in reading about the different ways in which you have tried to address this pain — from ingesting ayahuasca to taking oxycodone — and how you needed to taper off from the medication in order to write, it all weaves into the themes of the book in other ways too. Has the experience of writing this novel under such challenging circumstances provided you with any insight as to how to navigate your way back to your essential self? The pain is not you, the drugs are not you, but to feel most like yourself, you need to be writing, which is an act of the imagination. This is a really long way of asking: If you learn something new about yourself when you complete a novel, what did you learn about yourself once you had finished Little Sister?

I’m happy to report that my pain is far more manageable these days, thanks to a postural therapy recommended by a violinist from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She told me to read Back Mechanic, a 2015 book by Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of spinal biomechanics who contends that all back pain can be reduced by changing your posture. So, I changed my posture — rigorously, paying attention to it every minute — and, lo and behold. But, yes, in the 13 years before I read that book, I took extreme measures, including going on and off heavy-duty drugs. I never wrote when I was high, but I wrote in pain. A lot of writers do, though, don’t they? — write through prolonged physical or emotional agony. Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rimbaud. I’ve read that Hilary Mantel wrote Wolf Hall (2009) while suffering terrible endometrial cramping.

As for the pain not being me, the truth is, it was me for a while. I was the pain woman. I was the woman on the floor. I was humbled, and I believe I needed to be. Writing novels is a really selfish profession. You hoard acres of time for your work, and the people closest to you are supposed to understand and keep their distance. When I finished Little Sister, which was 10 years in the making and which showed up at my house as advance reading copies on the same day that I was diagnosed with breast cancer (I’m now in remission), I wanted some of those years back. You miss a lot of life when you’re holed up in a room.

As a writer, or as “Barbara Gowdy,” where is your north star? Do you have any firm beliefs about where “you” are located? When do you feel most like yourself?

I can’t tell you where exactly I’m located, but I can tell you what I aspire to. Professionally, I aspire to be better at what I do, to read more widely and to write more transparently, cleanly, and honestly. Personally, I aspire to listen more and talk less, to stop being so critical, impatient, and anxious, and to forgive. I have a long way to go, especially when it comes to being critical and impatient. My challenge is to love people as much as I love animals. Should I ever manage that, I might get a better handle on who I am.

It’s difficult to categorize your body of work under a single genre. When I first read Mister Sandman, I was excited by the fact that it was “allowed” to be published as a straight novel, without some constricting subgenre attached to it like “fantasy.” Does this indicate a fundamental difference between publishing in Canada versus the United States? Do you think this has had any effect on the size of your readership in the US — we just don’t know what shelf to put you on?

If you’re asking why I don’t sell more books in the United States, I have no idea. Some of my books have been widely and favorably reviewed throughout the States, and I’ve been edited by the best: Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, Meg Storey at Tin House. My father was American, born in Detroit, so I have American DNA. Let’s go with calling my modest sales a shelving situation. I like that.

To give us a chance to redeem ourselves, can you recommend some new Canadian writers that more people in the United States should be reading?

I can recommend both new writers and underexposed writers. Steven Heighton, Jowita Bydlowska, Russell Smith, Marni Jackson, Michael Helm, Michael Redhill, Christine Pountney, Michael Winter, Kathleen Winter, Lisa Moore, Bill Gaston, Caroline Adderson, Lynn Coady, Dionne Brand.

Let’s do a twist on the old standard, “What three people would you like to have dinner with, dead or alive?” A thunderstorm arrives, and you, Barbara Gowdy, can enter the bodies of three people, living or dead, who are they and when would you like to inhabit them?

That would be Thelonious Monk playing “’Round Midnight” with the Thelonious Monk Quartet, Venus Williams playing the final match of any one of her grand slam victories, and the Buddha at his moment of enlightenment. Moving out of the realm of people, I’d like to enter the body of a newly hatched damselfly opening and closing its wings on a bulrush in the sunlight a thousand miles away from the nearest human.

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Gregg LaGambina is a writer living in Los Angeles.


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