Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone is Margaret Atwood’s choice for our new Globe and Mail Book Club for subscribers. Every week, Globe Books has looked at themes drawn from the novel to spark discussion among readers, from anthropomorphism to matriarchy. This week, Gowdy answers questions on her writing process, and which novelists she admires.
How did you make the connection with elephants in sub-Saharan Africa while sitting in Toronto? What drew you to these majestic animals?
As it happens, I was sitting – in front of the TV, watching a documentary about a herd of African elephants. At one point the herd comes upon a fragmented elephant skeleton. They stop and grow quiet. They pick the bones up, carefully fondle them, bring them close to their eyes and set them down again. They then turn their backs on the bones and lift their hind feet over them as if (to quote elephant ethologist Cynthia Moss) “they sense some emanation.”
This is pretty amazing and moving stuff. I began reading about elephant behaviour. I learned how gentle and emotional elephants are, how intelligent. They live in close-knit matriarchal herds. They have huge, complex brains and really do never forget. They know who we are. We are members of the species that is slaughtering them. And yet when they meet individual humans, they don’t automatically charge. If there were a species as bent on annihilating us as we are the elephants, how likely would we be to let an individual of that murderous species live?
What was the writing process for Helpless?
My process has always been to start with an idea, do the necessary research and then get down to business. It’s a slow business. I cut 10 times as much as I write. I know where my protagonists will end up, but how they’ll get there is another story, so to speak. Most fiction writers will tell you the same: that the narrative flows from the writing. Faith is required.
What is the strangest question a reader has ever asked you?
I can’t seem to come up with anything. It’s probably because I have a rather sketchy idea of what constitutes “strange.”
Do you read other works while writing your own?
I do. I read novels, short stories, whatever happens to be in front me. But plenty of fiction writers, once they’ve started work on a new book, read only non-fiction because they fear that some other writer’s work will be intimidatingly brilliant or will infect them with cryptomnesia, which is when you unconsciously steal someone else’s memories or thoughts. I’ve been guilty of writerly cryptomnesia. I once lifted a scene more or less wholesale from an Irish novelist. Luckily, I caught myself before I showed the book around.
Do you have a customary ritual when you finish writing the last draft of a novel?
I don’t. I can’t think of a writer who does. Most of us sit for several moments in stunned silence. We might then pour ourselves a drink or go for a walk. Or we might simply look up from the depths of the work and think (as Annie Dillard did upon completing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), “Oh, yeah, the world.”
Did you ever consider writing non-fiction?
Not seriously. I like to make things up. I like imagining how far I can push a reader’s suspension of disbelief. With non-fiction you’re attempting to drive home an idea, in which case you’re engaged in an argument. Or you’re imparting what you hope is new and arresting information, in which you’re obliged not to make things up.
Which novelists’ writing moves you the most?
The most? That’s a hard one. Every few years I reread Graham Greene for the straightforward elegance of his sentences. And then I might turn to George Eliot for the spectacular circumnavigation of her sentences. Sometimes, when I’m dusting the bookshelves, I pick up one of Alice Munro’s books because she is just so good. She is magically good in that when you try to parse her technique, it vanishes. She strings her words together with invisible thread.
Despite your many accolades, critics assess much of your work as dark or disturbing. How do you feel about that?
For sure, I’ve entered the darkness, but I’ve always made an effort to lighten it with humour, sympathy, hope. Some exit or other. If writing fiction is an art, and if we expect art to reflect life, then where is the truth without the darkness?
Is singing in a choir anything like writing?
Not at all, thank God. Writing demands solitude. Choral singing demands the opposite. And then, as a chorister, you’re interpreting someone else’s creation. Actually, you’re not even doing that. The choirmaster is interpreting. You’re watching the choirmaster’s hands, or you’re supposed to be. In all my years of writing fiction, I never once got the sublime feeling I can get singing in harmony.
Here’s where I shamelessly insert a plug for my choir, B-Xalted! We’re performing Wednesday, May 22, at 8 p.m. at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, 477 Manning Ave., Toronto. Tickets are available at the door or through Eventbrite.
On Friday, Barbara Gowdy will appear in conversation with Margaret Atwood at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto at an exclusive event for subscribers. For the latest on the Book Club, go to tgam.ca/bookclub and sign up for our weekly Books newsletter.