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Gowdy, Barbara

Category: Writer

Barbara Gowdy (June 25, 1950), is a Canadian novelist and short story writer. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she is the long-time partner of poet Christopher Dewdney and resides in Toronto.

Christopher Dewdney (above) and with Barbara (right).

Extracted from Barbara Gowdy - Perfectly normal Or perfectly weird? By Gerald Hannon [2003] in Quill and Quire
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.
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 ... 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 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.”
…..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.
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.


 

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