Acclaimed Canadian novelist Barbara Gowdy shares the inside scoop on her first novel in 10 years.
We're sipping tea on Barbara Gowdy's couch in her Toronto home. One of her cats (she feeds and houses ferals) wanders around us as we settle in to discuss the author's latest novel, Little Sister. We talk mostly about the deeply fascinating characters: Rose (whose strange weather-induced episodes cause her spirit to enter the body of a woman named Harriet); her mother, Fiona (whose dementia is increasingly apparent over the course of the novel); and her late sister, Ava (who tragically died at a young age). While we chat, we keep returning to ideas of empathy, perspective and human connection, and I realize that Gowdy's generous, warm demeanour has allowed her to tell the tale of these characters without judgment. Here's what she had to say about Rose and Harriet's unique bond, as well as what it's like looking at the world through another's eyes
Canadian Living: What was the inspiration for this story?
Barbara Gowdy: It must be an extension of my fascination with other people. I'm not an autobiographical writer; I imagine myself into other lives. I always thought it would be great to absorb someone else's consciousness or to enter another woman's mind—a woman completely unlike myself. I felt it would be intimate, just like reading someone's diary.
CL: Though Rose is so different from Harriet, she still looks for connections, points of similarity.
BG: I guess that's what fiction writers are always trying to do—connect and enter the consciousness and emotions of characters and connect them with one another in some way, especially when there are forces pulling them apart, like how Rose's mother's dementia is taking her away from her daughter. But there are places when they can intersect, and strangely, one of these places is when Rose's spirit inhabits Harriet and sees her mother differently. With the advantage of another pair of eyes, she has a wider perspective. We could all do with a wider perspective.
CL: Rose and her mother are having episodes simultaneously. Are they mirroring each other?
BG: They are, but at the same time, they're completely different. There's a line where Rose says her mother is losing herself one memory at a time, and Rose— in the most concrete way possible—is finding another self. So they're also going in opposite directions.
CL: I felt sympathy for Rose, for her loneliness. Was that a catalyst for these episodes?
BG: Well, she has this ghost—her sister—and she's damaged, and I think she needed these episodes to heal. The only cure for sadness, anxiety, loneliness, I think, is looking at the world outside your own skin. Whether or not we can see beyond our own skin is where I dwell as a writer. I think most of the failures of human beings are failures of empathy, which is also a failure of imagination—the inability to see beyond your own dilemmas and your own experience and imagine yourself as someone else. So Rose has this terrific opportunity of viewing the world through someone else. I wish that were possible for all of us.
Little Sister (HarperCollins) by Barbara Gowdy, $34.