Several years ago, the writer Barbara Gowdy fell into a period of profound despair. The cause of her depression, primarily, was the near-crippling back pain that has plagued Gowdy for more than a dozen years, and the significant financial strain that resulted from her long, frustrating and, to this day, continuing search for a cure.
She contemplated killing herself. "It wasn't a frightening thought," she says. "It was just, 'Okay, I'm laying my burden down.'" For about a week, "everything looked like a potential for suicide." She'd gaze out the window at the woods behind her home and imagine walking out at night, in the cold of winter, lying down and never waking up. Or she'd look up at the high-rise apartment buildings in her neighbourhood and try to pinpoint which floor she'd need to throw herself off of so that she didn't "just become a vegetable." She told her long-time partner, the poet and essayist Christopher Dewdney, that she wanted to die. "I'd say to him, 'If you love me, you've got to let me go. I can't stand this pain.' And he'd say, 'I can't. I can't do that.'"
It passed, eventually. Gowdy went on antidepressants, which, she says, allowed "the idea of the world" to be "separate from the fact of my pain." She continued to seek new therapies, and test different drugs, in an effort to improve her back. And she continued, as she has for decades, to write.
At the time, she was working on a novel about a woman able to leave her physical body behind, to experience the world through the eyes of another person. It's called Little Sister, arrives in bookstores on Tuesday and marks the return, after the longest break of her career, of one of the most inventive and important writers Canada has ever produced.
"Writing saved me," Gowdy says, then explains: "It's kind of a meditation. You're in the moment. You're in the word. You're in the sentence. I could kind of forget my pain when I was writing."
Barbara Gowdy lives just north of the Toronto Necropolis, at the end of a dead-end street. She shares her house, which is tall, long and narrow, and which she jokes is "like living on a ladder," with a cat named Lily. (Except for a short period near the start of their relationship, Gowdy and Dewdney, who have been together for nearly 30 years, live apart.) She bought the house in 1998 with what she calls her "White Bone money," referring to her best-known novel, published that same year, about a group of anthropomorphized African elephants seeking sanctuary.
The house has an unusual history, perfectly suited for a writer such as Gowdy, whose characters often sport unusual histories themselves: It was built by Peter Demeter, the Hungarian-Canadian real estate developer currently in jail for orchestrating the murder of his wife, a lurid slice of Toronto history chronicled in By Persons Unknown, the 1977 true-crime book co-written by George Jonas and another Barbara: Amiel Black.
"Sometimes, I blame him for my back pain," Gowdy says while making coffee in her kitchen one cold afternoon in March. "Or I blame his wife, the ghost."
Like a ghost, Gowdy's pain hovers on the periphery of all her conversations. It is greedy and constant. She cannot stand for long periods of time, so she leads me upstairs, to a tastefully furnished sitting room, where a pair of couches form an L. She lies down on one couch, a pair of pillows propped under her knees, while I sit on the other, giving the interview the air of a therapy session. She's wearing black leggings and a peach shirt a similar shade to the couch, making it appear as if she's being absorbed by the furniture. Above her hang a trio of sketches by the artist Michael Snow. They are, ironically, from his Walking Woman series.
"I wrote [Little Sister] on my back," she says, using a device called a Laidback, basically a tray with angled legs that allows her to write while lying down in bed. It was slow going, and the novel is her first since 2007. "I'm glad it took 10 years because I changed in those 10 years. Pain changes you. My take on the world, and on myself, and who I want to be in the world, and what matters to me – that all evolved. The earlier drafts of this book were written by a different person."
Little Sister is the story of Rose, a thirtysomething woman who runs a repertory movie theatre in midtown Toronto. She lives with her mother, who is suffering from dementia, has a long-term partner with whom she seems to be growing apart and is haunted by the childhood death of her sister.
Rose's life is transformed, suddenly and inexplicably, when she begins to dream she's inhabiting the body of another woman, an odd occurrence that only takes place during thunderstorms, which are happening with unusual frequency this particular summer. Fairly soon, however, Rose realizes these are not dreams.
"I'm really interested in other people's stories, and what it would be like to be you," Gowdy says. "The basic existential question: Why are you you, and I'm me? Why aren't I you? Who are you? And who am I? These have always concerned me and my work – entering other minds. … And so I thought I'd have my character maybe do what I do."
She uses the example of a Russian matryoshka doll – a writer enters the mind of her character, and then that character enters the mind of another character, and, eventually, all the characters wind up in the mind of the reader.
"It's, in a sense, an allegory for what she does in her own work," Dewdney says. "That's what a fiction writer does. That's what imagination does. It projects you. It gives you the ability, through your imagination, to project yourself into somebody else's place."
Whether it's a herd of elephants, as in The White Bone, or the voyeurs and necrophiles and two-headed men of her landmark collection of stories, We So Seldom Look on Love, or the quasi-pedophile of her previous novel, Helpless, Gowdy has always put the reader in somebody else's place – a place that's unexpected, strange, yet one we want to visit again. "The depth of her affection and compassion for her characters is so strong," says her friend and fellow writer Marni Jackson. Her long-time editor, Patrick Crean, describes her as "an incredibly psychic-senstive person. Her sensibilities are so refined on that observational level. What she sees, you and I don't see as readily as she might."
And she's seen a lot. Gowdy, who will turn 67 this year, had a résumé's worth of careers – pianist, stockbroker, editor – before publishing her first novel, Through the Green Valley, in 1988. (It's not that she's disowned the novel, a sweeping bit of historical fiction set in 19th-century Ireland, but she's not a fan, either: "It makes me cringe.") The first appearance of the real Barbara Gowdy came a year later, with the publication of Falling Angels, a horrifically funny novel about three sisters growing up in suburban Toronto in the 1950s and 60s. The writer Sheila Heti recalls finding Gowdy's work "on the shelves of my local high-school library, when we were reading W.O. Mitchell in class, which I did not connect with. I think Falling Angels was the first book of hers I read and I loved it. So funny and sharp and modern and dark and so different from what I thought Canadian literature had to be. She was instantly my favourite Canadian writer and her existence gave me hope."
This kind of story is common to a certain kind of writer, of a certain generation. It's not that she hasn't done well in her career – Gowdy's books have been published around the world and she's been nominated for all of Canada's major literary awards (although, curiously, she's seldom won) – but her real legacy has been influential, rather than commercial. Her career serves as proof that it's okay to be different.
"We still struggle, in this society, with those who dare, and I think Barbara is in that category," Crean says.
Jackson agrees: "She's fearless as a writer, and we don't have that many of those. She just goes out on every limb."
Gowdy is a writer who has always, she says, had "a preoccupation with the body and the mind. Why this body? Why this mind? Why this body in this mind? I've never really come to terms with it. And I think it's probably really therapeutically obvious if I look back at my childhood."
She's always been small for her age, and she feigned reaching puberty years before it actually arrived. "I was pretending to be on my period for two years. My girlfriends would say, 'You're really irregular,' because I'd forget. I wasn't keeping notes." Photographs of her as a teen show her in padded bras, and multiple pairs of pants, in an effort to appear more "voluptuous." She cut her headshot out of her high-school yearbooks: "I couldn't stand looking at myself." She recalls, one day, overhearing her mother ask someone when her daughter would develop.
"I thought I was letting them down," she says. "My body always felt like it was betraying me. … There always seems to be something going on with me and my body that I'm not quite happy about. You go, when you write fiction, where the heat is. And that's where my personal heat is."
Perhaps it's not surprising Gowdy has written a novel in which her protagonist can escape her physical confines and live, if only fleetingly, in the mind of another. Yet, that transference comes with a cost. As Rose discovers more and more about the woman – her name is Harriet, she works as a book editor at a downtown Toronto publishing company and her personal life is a mess – she becomes increasingly obsessed with spending time in Harriet's mind, to the point she drives around the GTA chasing thunderstorms.
Still, it's an experience Gowdy wishes she could have.
"I think I'd enter a singer with a great voice. I was going to say Billie Holiday, but she was too tormented – you'd go mad. Maybe Adele? I'd just like to open my mouth and sing like that."
It's easy, when she's cracking jokes, to forget Gowdy is in tremendous pain, a pain that has grown worse since she finished Little Sister, and a pain that has cost her both physically and financially. "I've tried everything," she says. "I've pretty well bankrupted myself." Just that day, she met with a practitioner of something called Tong Ren therapy, "a form of bio-field energy healing." It involved a clipping of her hair and a doll. At another point during our interview, the doorbell rings; another pillow has been delivered. "I've got, like, 10,000 pillows," she says. "My basement could be a back store [with] all the things I've bought." She's gone to Italy for "ozone injection therapy," ingested ayahuasca and, a couple of years back, went to CAMH "for three months straight, every workday, and had my brain zapped." Nothing has worked. "It's always there. I'm never not in pain."
Writing Little Sister was a tremendous challenge. The drugs, whether antidepressants or painkillers, made her "foggy," so she'd stop taking them in order to write. "I'd have no distraction from the pain, but my brain would be sharp again," she says. "I can wean myself fairly quickly – one or two days. I'd wean off and I'd write and then the pain would get out of control. And then I'd go back on Lyrica or Oxycodone or whatever I'd been on."
"I never thought that she wouldn't finish it," Dewdney says. "She puts her head down and she goes through to the bitter end, whatever it is."
Last fall, Gowdy's body betrayed her yet again: She discovered a lump. She underwent radiation and a breast-saving lumpectomy, and is currently in remission. During this time, she was visiting the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, accompanied by her younger sister, Mary, when Mary suffered an aneurysm. Because they were in a hospital, she was put on oxygen immediately and was in surgery within an hour. She stayed in intensive care for more than two weeks, but survived.
"Had she been anywhere else, she would have been dead," Gowdy says. "My tumour saved her."
It's an incredible anecdote, one that brings together ideas of fate – Mary was one of five people who'd offered to accompany Gowdy to the hospital that day – and family and illness and the power of the body to hurt and, even when it's by chance, to heal. It's a story that could have been written by Barbara Gowdy if it wasn't true.