Q&A with Barbara Gowdy

August 24, 2017 | Victoria Festival of Authors | Q&A

Rose Morris: Your novel Little Sister is about a woman who can leave her body behind and inhabit the body of another person. Is writing a form of leaving your own body for other peoples’?

Barbara Gowdy: I don’t enter other bodies, no. I have to imagine them, of course, especially as most of my characters are physically different from me. But where I tend to go is either into a character’s mind or into the next word.

RM: Little Sister‘s protagonist, Rose, manages a cinema. Do you consider the novel (or Rose herself) to be cinematic in any way?

BG: I do, definitely. When Rose enters the body and mind of Harriet, she is experiencing what we all experience when we watch a good movie: she is being granted intimate access to another person’s emotions and circumstances without that other person’s knowledge or consent. She is closed off from Harriet’s thoughts, however. But that’s also like our connection to a character in a movie, because unless there’s a voice-over, we can’t know what is really going on in the character’s head.

RM: Your work has been described as falling into the genre of ‘Canadian Gothic.’ What does Canadian Gothic mean to you? What differentiates it from American Gothic or the Gothic genre?

BG: It was the critic Philip Marchand who slotted me into the gothic genre. I’ve never understood why. In fact, to answer your question, I Googled ‘Gothic Fiction’ and here’s what came up: The term ‘gothic fiction’ refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. Does that describe my work? I don’t see it. I don’t consider myself to be a purveyor of gloom, death and horror. When I hear the word ‘gothic,’ I think of castles and vampires. And castle and vampires interest me not at all.

RM: How much has magic realism influenced you? Do you consider your work to be magic realism?

BG: I suppose magic realism has influenced me to a degree, but, again, I don’t think of myself as fitting into any particular category. I would say that my subject matter is influenced more by non-fiction than it is by fiction.

RM: What sort of non-fiction?

BG: For the past decade or so I’ve been reading articles and books about consciousness: what consciousness is, what makes us conscious. The essential question I was wrestling with throughout the writing of Little Sister was, how can you know that you’re you and not me? And then, carrying on from that, I wondered, how you would experience yourself if there weren’t any me, if you were the only person, the only creature, the only thing within your sensory field? Would your sense of self disappear? Or do you harbor a true, absolute self—a singular consciousness—independent of sensory experience?

RM: Did you come up with any answers?

BG: Not even scientists can agree on the answers, but I was operating under the assumption that there is an absolute self, a self so durable that it can steal into another mind and return undamaged. I’m not sure whether or not I believe it, though. It’s a novelist thing, the idea of a true self that the protagonist will get a glimpse of after being pitted against various obstacles, the idea that he or she will “grow” a little, by which we mean become self-aware, despite how, in our own lives, self-awareness is so elusive. We can list our preferences, dislikes, ambitions, regrets, memories—we certainly recognize facets of ourselves—but do we ever know who we are?

RM: Your novel The White Bone is written from the consciousness of elephants. How is writing the voice of an animal different from a human character?

BG: The big difference for me was the amount of research required. I began researching The White Bone in 1995, before you could get much information online. I read physical books, anything I could get my hands on, anything having to do with elephants and Africa, the flora and fauna, the topography, the sounds and smells, the weather. I went to Kenya and did some touristy field research there. Only once I’d really immersed myself in the biology and life of an African elephant did I start writing. At that point it was a matter of keeping my imagination nailed to the facts, to what is known. Everything that the elephants do physically in The White Bone they do in real life. My job was to invest their behavior with motivation. That’s the job of any writer with any character: invest the character with motivation—credible, persuasive motivation. Whether or not you get it right is another matter. I’m sure if African elephants read Canadian fiction, they’d hurl my book across the savannah.


Barbara Gowdy will appear Saturday, September 30 at 7:30 at the Voices Lifted Evening Gala with Gurjinder Basran, Sharon Butala, and Zoey Leigh Peterson at The Metro Theatre and Sunday, October 1 at 2:00 in conversation with Zsuzsi Gartner at the Greater Victoria Pubic Library.

Rose Morris is a writer and editor living in Victoria, BC. She has an MA in literature from the University of Victoria and she does editorial work for Room Magazine and The Malahat Review.