Barbara Gowdy lives in the ideal house for a writer, at the end of a Toronto cul-de-sac backing onto cemetery parkland. It is isolated, slightly sinister because it was built by wife-murderer Peter Demeter, and only large enough to house Gowdy's boundless imagination and her deeply neurotic grey-and-white cat, Marni.
"When I leave a room, I come back and it is exactly as I have left it," Gowdy tells me on a cold, sunny morning earlier this month. "I don't know how I could get ideas or how I would know what I think about anything if I had the distraction of people in the house," she adds, as I try to imagine the creative licence that comes with that kind of solitude.
And yet what Gowdy visualizes in her seclusion, as she sits at the desk in her third-floor study, or wanders from one obsessively neat room to another, are the lives of lonely young females desperate to form attachments and to find ways of being and belonging in families.
"I must tell you that I live in perpetual envy of women with children, no matter how troubled or what they are going through," she says, as we sit across from each other drinking coffee and nibbling shortbread in her skinny kitchen.
Doe-eyed, with an appealing vulnerability on her heart-shaped face, Gowdy looks at least a decade and a half younger than her 52 years. She is wearing black trousers and matching sweater, and nursing her left jaw. An impacted wisdom tooth, which was extracted a few days earlier, has become infected, and Gowdy is downing Tylenol 4s.
Gowdy always imagined she would have children, but she never got pregnant through the course of two failed marriages and untreated endometriosis, and now she is past menopause. "I am not going to have babies now -- at least not in a natural way," she says in the same matter-of-fact manner that she introduces bizarre compulsions in her fiction, such as the necrophiliac in We So Seldom Look on Love who achieves orgasm by sitting on the faces of dead men.
"I do not know what it is to love like that," she continues as I drag my thoughts back from Raelian cloning tales.
Marni leaps up on the table, turns her back on us, and wraps her twitching tail around her haunches in a territorial signal to me, the interloper.
"Some people can't stand cats on the table," she confides. "I am pretty clean and fastidious, but I don't deny her anything."
If I lived alone, I would let my cat sit on the table too, I realize with a start.
Gowdy speculates that if she had succumbed to kids and domesticity, she would have produced maybe three books instead of the six works of fiction, including Falling Angels and Mister Sandman,that have earned her international sales and a raft of award nominations.
Although Gowdy's writing is not explicitly self-referential, she has mined her own past in a series of haunting novels set mainly in the suburban time zone of her own upbringing in Don Mills, Ont., in the 1950s and 1960s. Even The White Bone,her African novel about a family of elephants, is really a quest for home, and a threnody, as Gowdy herself suggests, for the death of her father to cancer in 1996.
Louise, in Gowdy's new novel, The Romantic,is the only child of a germophobic former beauty queen who disappears when Louise is 9, leaving a terse note on the refrigerator saying, "Louise knows how to work the washing machine." Bereft, the little girl falls in love with Mrs. Richter, a neighbour woman, and dreams of being adopted. Later, she transfers her affections to Mrs. Richter's son Abel.
Gowdy, who became a writer by default at age 39, after trying to be an actress, a broker, a secretary and an editor, really wanted to be a pianist like Abel. She came to the piano late, at about 25. Even though she practised eight hours a day -- "I think it ruined my first marriage [to her high-school sweetheart]" she confides -- she gave it up after six years because "I was going to be a good piano teacher or a bad barroom pianist."
For a perfectionist like Gowdy, that wasn't good enough.
She would still rather be a musician than a writer, because she thinks it is a purer art form. The arrangement of sounds has no politics and no ethics, she argues, whereas words are so commonplace that they can have a power and a meaning beyond your intentions. Her failure as a pianist has given her the freedom to write fiction, she thinks, because she doesn't "revere it so much."
The connection to writing came through editing. She was working three days a week in the late 1970s as a secretary at the startup publishing house, Lester & Orpen -- "I was the ampersand," she jokes.
She began working on manuscripts, but decided she wasn't a very good editor, because she kept rewriting people's copy. After inventing a character to liven up a non-fiction book, she quit to write short stories of her own.
Gowdy's peripatetic career path echoes Louise's stumbling attempts to find a fulfilling job in The Romantic. So does Gowdy's love affair with a man she calls M., who is a model for Abel Richter, a dreamy and alcoholic musician with whom Louise falls obsessively in love. "He was a handsome, rapturous, beloved, intelligent, sweet, sweet man, and I could never understand why he drank," she says of M. "I remember saying to him once, 'If you give it up, I will give up anything.' And he said, 'There is nothing in your life that is as important as this is to me.' " Eventually he killed himself driving while drunk.
After leaving M., Gowdy married Mark Howell, another "lovely man," like her first husband. Howell supported her while she wrote her first novel, Through the Green Valley,an Edna O'Brien-inspired Irish romance. That marriage broke up in the fall of 1989, just after Falling Angels came out to stellar reviews and brisk sales, because Gowdy met poet Christopher Dewdney and "all hell broke loose."
Looking back at their reckless passion from the calm stability of a relationship that has now lasted 13 years, an anniversary that she attributes to the fact that the two of them have always lived apart, Gowdy says the romance was "horribly destructive" for their partners. "I can't believe I was that heartless about the other people involved -- my husband and the woman in his life -- and yet I was just so crazy about him that nothing else existed."
As we talk, Gowdy continues to rub her jaw. The pain is a welcome distraction from her anxiety about how reviewers will respond to The Romantic,which is officially published this Saturday. When people say reviews and prizes don't matter, they are wrong, she says. They do matter, because they mean sales and income.
Even though her basement bookshelves are lined with copies of her foreign editions, and The Romantic has already been sold to the Unites States and several other countries, and Falling Angels and Mister Sandman are both being made into films, Gowdy has a bad case of the bag-lady syndrome. She fears she will end up living on the streets, or borrowing money from family and friends, and holing up in somebody's basement.
"I envy writers who have all these other talents," she says, a trifle querulously. "I said to Chris that I have put all my eggs in one basket and he said 'No, you have your egg in one basket,' " and we both laugh.
Part of Gowdy's postpartum despair comes from the compulsive way she writes and rewrites. She is easily distracted by sounds, so she wears earplugs, and has a white-noise machine in her office. During the six months she spent revising The Romantic,she rented a hotel room on Toronto's Jarvis Street off and on for a couple of weeks at a time so that she could evade friends and domesticity. She ordered in, a chambermaid cleaned up, she found somebody to feed the cat, and she spent 15 hours a day pushing herself further and further into her characters and her storytelling.
"I love to see how deep I can go," she says. "If it doesn't do well, I can regret not being smarter, or the extent of my so-called gift, but I can't regret how hard I worked or how much I put myself into it. I gave it my all, and there is a great satisfaction in that."
With satisfaction, though, comes depletion. Waiting for the well to fill again puts Gowdy "in an awful place," she confesses. Experience has taught her that she can't move on to a new project until she has gauged the reaction to her current book. "I always finish a book thinking, 'That's it. It's over. I'm finished. I'm washed up. I have no ideas.' I remember years ago [after her story collection appeared]saying that to one of my nephews. He must have been six or seven. And he said, 'Here is a story: There is a lizard, and he lives on the lizard planet, and he comes to Earth,' " she intones. "And I was almost grasping him by the lapels and saying, 'What happens next, kid?' "
Despite her anxiety, Gowdy will be fine. She has done it before, she will do it again. The Romantic will be a success.
The novel is compelling, the story is finely paced in its seamless shifts back and forth in time, and the writing is sharply polished. Besides, the subject matter -- the different ways men and women love -- is irresistible. Still, offering Gowdy gratuitous reassurance is like telling a woman who has already had five healthy babies not to worry during her sixth pregnancy. That's why she is worrying -- her luck must be about to run out.
All Gowdy can do in this resting phase is to wait it out, have faith that the muse will visit again, that her book will sell, and she won't end up as a bag lady just yet. She knows the drill.