Barbara Gowdy, a Canadian author and writer in residence at U of T St. George, spoke to a crowd at UTM on March 8. Gowdy, who was invited by the English department, read from and spoke about three of her most famous works, Falling Angels, The White Bone, and We So Seldom Look on Love, a collection of short stories.
“‘Nightmarish and wonderful’ is a term that applies to much of Barbara Gowdy’s work,” began Professor Wood.
Gowdy is known for writing characters who are eerie and extreme, including an alcoholic mother in Falling Angels, elephants in The White Bone, and a necrophile in the short story “We So Seldom Look on Love”.
“I see myself in all my characters,” said Gowdy. “They’re all me. I was never as daring as or as angry as Lou [a character in Falling Angels] when I was growing up.”
Gowdy was born on June 25, 1950 in Windsor, Ontario. Much of her work focusses on turning extreme and grotesque characters into next-door neighbours.
“I come from a family where my parents were blunt. I wasn’t protected from anything,” said Gowdy. “That’s how the world was to me. I want to see the worst possible stuff first.”
“I think you write from emotional and moral trees and everything else is furniture,” she continued. She joked that she wants to see into people’s closets and medicine cabinets to see their secrets, even telling professor Levene, her next-door neighbour, that she goes through his closets when he’s not home. “You should change your locks,” she joked.
When talking about The White Bone, a novel told from the perspective of an elephant about the difficulties of an elephant’s life, Gowdy said, “Everything that happens in this book happens. I just gave it intention.”
“I think animals are our science fiction,” continued Gowdy. “If you’re an animal in this world, be afraid. Be very afraid, unless you’re a pampered pet.”
She spoke about her time in Africa when a group of elephants was walking toward her across a river. She said elephants in the wild are protective of their families because of the horrors that humans put them through, but the elephants spared her life and walked on. Gowdy compared the elephants’ actions in sparing her life to what a human would do in that situation.
When asked about her short story, “We So Seldom Look on Love”, about a necrophile who works at a mortuary in order to have access to cadavers, Gowdy said the story is based on an actual case in California in 1978 when a woman named Karen Greenly worked at a mortuary. Greenly was charged for stealing a hearse instead of for disturbing a body.
Gowdy said her collection of short stories, We So Seldom Look on Love, is based on true stories that she heard and researched over the years.
When asked if she’ll be writing any more short stories, Gowdy joked, “I only have so many first lines.” She compared a short story to a book saying that a book is like a continent, rocky and exciting on both ends, then some exciting cities, with the flat prairies in the middle.
“I didn’t always want to be a writer. I wanted to be a musician. You sort of need permission to write,” said Gowdy. “I never thought of myself as odd and strange. This is just how I see the world. I do what occurs to me.” Speaking about her past writing, Gowdy said, “The person I was when I was a girl, and the person I was when I wrote it, is not the person who I am now.”