“I think I am going to sit and then I will cross my legs”, announced prominent Canadian fiction writer Barbara Gowdy, in her characteristically informal, humorous style. She was the most recent guest in Glendon’s Michael Ondaatje Reading Series on January 26.
Gowdy launched into her reading from her 2007 novel, Helpless (Harper Collins Canada) and the capacity audience was immediately drawn in as the story sprang to life. Helpless is daring in exploring the story of an abducted child, the people who are looking for her and the pedophile who takes her away – daring because the abductor is not presented as a monster. He believes that he is being kind to the frightened little girl by locking her away into his basement, where he has created a fairy-tale like room for her.
Barbara Gowdy at the Glendon Ondaatje reading
(Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers-Tam)
Gowdy’s interest is in delving into a situation that most would prefer not to explore, and in creating multi-dimensional characters with real dilemmas - of inexplicable loss or taboo desires, people who are not monsters, but not ‘good guys’ either.
Gowdy is a master at creating a plot, maintaining tension and, at times, a truly lyrical style. At the Glendon Ondaatje reading, she took on the unique voices of each character and brought to life the story with wonderfully detailed descriptions and just the right amount of emotions.
Left: L-r: Barbara Gowdy with Ann Hutchison, Chair of Glendon's English Department (Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers-Tam)
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 (Steer Forth Press1992) about a necrophiliac, The White Bone (Harper Collins 1999) whose central characters are elephants, to family relations in Falling Angels (Harper Collins 1989) - made into a movie with the same title in 2003 - and unrequited love in The Romantic (Harper Collins 2003).
In describing her writing technique, Gowdy explained that she edits as she writes, polishing and re-writing every paragraph as she goes along, until she is satisfied. “My take on writing is that it is much like genetics”, quipped Gowdy. “As far as I am concerned, you have to get it right the first time.” She affirmed, however, that there are many writing styles that can be effective, bringing the example of Michael Ondaatje, who writes different sections of a book, relying on the belief that if he found them worthwhile to write, eventually there will be an obvious way to tie them together.
(Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers-Tam)
Other comments relating to her writing technique revealed that she 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.”
Gowdy also confirmed that 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 in the process, in order to fit in with the developing story, they have to emerge from a seminal idea that has 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.”
More about Barbara Gowdy
Barbara Gowdy has been published in 27 countries; she is a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and a repeat finalist for the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award and the Rogers' Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She is the recipient of the Trillium Award. In 2003 and was long-listed for the Booker Prize. In 2007, she was appointed to the Order Canada. Currently, she is working on her next book, to be published within the coming year.
More about the Michael Ondaatje Reading Series
The Michael Ondaatje Reading Series is under the sponsorship of internationally acclaimed writer Michael Ondaatje, who taught English literature for a number of years at Glendon, as well as under the sponsorship of Glendon’s English Department. The series presents contemporary Canadian writers and poets who read from their recent works and discuss the writing process as they experience it.
Previously featured authors included Michael Winter, Gil Courtemanche, David Adams Richards, Susan Musgrave and Ondaatje himself.
The next author in the Michael Ondaatje Reading Series will be Canadian novelist Nino Ricci, on March 2nd at 4 p.m. in Glendon’s Albert Tucker Room (Senior Common Room), 3rd floor, York Hall.
Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny