Barbara Gowdy tackles taboos and odd perspectives in her novels

Canadian fiction writer Barbara Gowdy was characteristically informal and humorous when she read from her 2007 novel Helpless on Jan. 26 as part of Glendon’s Michael Ondaatje Reading Series.

Helpless explores the abduction of a small child from the point of view of the pedophile who snatches her away and those who are looking for her. It is a daring story in that the abductor is not presented as a monster. Instead, he believes he is being kind to the frightened girl by locking her away in his basement, where he has created a fairy tale-like room for her.

Right: Barbara Gowdy reading from her book Helpless at Glendon. Photo by Brian Desrosiers-Tam.

A Marian Engel Award Winner  and a two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee, Gowdy is interested in delving into situations in her work that many would prefer not to explore. She creates multi-dimensional characters who are not monsters but not good guys either, and who face real dilemmas, such as inexplicable loss and taboo desires.

Gowdy’s close examination of the many faces of love is seminal to all of her work from her short-story collection We So Seldom Look on Love and her novel The White Bone,  whose central characters are elephants, to Falling Angels, a story about family relations that was made into a movie in 2003, and The Romantic, a look at unrequited love. The short story We So Seldom Look on Love was also made into a film, Kissed, about a young embalmer’s assistant who also happens to be a necrophiliac.

In describing her writing technique, Gowdy said that she edits as she writes, polishing and rewriting every paragraph as she goes along, until she is satisfied. “My take on writing is that it is much like genetics,” said Gowdy. “As far as I am concerned, you have to get it right the first time.” She affirmed, however, that many writing approaches can be effective. Michael Ondaatje, who writes different sections of a book, believes that if he finds them worthwhile to write, eventually they will tie together.

Left: Barbara Gowdy (left) with Ann Hutchison, chair of the Department of English at Glendon. Photo by Brian Desrosiers-Tam.

Gowdy considers honesty in writing paramount and that ending stories is one of the most difficult things to do well. “I know that a book is truly finished when I reach the point of being tired of it all and have nothing further to say.”

She also said the writer has to know what the story is really about and to think about the characters, before beginning to write. While characters may change as a story develops, they have to emerge as if they have the potential to be a complete individual. “I need to have a general idea of the story and its characters when I start. But so much of what follows is a matter of faith, like a bridge that is being built from one side.”

Gowdy has been published in 27 countries, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She is a recipient of the Trillium Award and in 2003 was long-listed for the Booker Prize. In 2007, she was appointed to the Order of Canada. Currently, she is working on her next book, expected to be published within the coming year.

More about the Michael Ondaatje Reading Series

The series is sponsored by Ondaatje, who taught English literature for a number of years at Glendon, and by Glendon’s English Department. Contemporary Canadian writers and poets read from their recent work and discuss the writing process.

Previously featured authors have included Michael Winter, Gil Courtemanche, David Adams Richards and Susan Musgrave.

Nino Ricci is the next author featured in the series. He will read on March 2 at 4pm in the Albert Tucker Room (Senior Common Room), York Hall, Glendon campus.

Submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny