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Barbara Gowdy

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Profile: A painstaking effort

Barbara Gowdy persevered through chronic pain and illness to write her first novel in 10 years.

(Rachel Idzerda)

(Rachel Idzerda)

Barbara Gowdy is a perfectionist who, by her own admission, can spend several days honing a single sentence. But there was more than painstaking attention to detail behind the author’s recent, decade-long publishing hiatus.

Gowdy composed her new novel while lying down, afflicted by chronic lower back pain, and typing on a propped-up laptop. Even then, Gowdy only was able to work during spells when the pain had sufficiently subsided, lessening her reliance on powerful, but dulling, medication. “My pain gets so bad sometimes that for months on end I can’t write,” she says, while lying on a sofa in her tidy, smartly appointed Cabbagetown home, discomfort visibly etched on her face. “I’m just in bed. And I’m on heavy-duty drugs like oxycodone that make me too woozy. When I’m feeling better, I can taper off the drug and write a bit.”

Little Sister (HarperCollins), one of the spring’s most keenly anticipated releases, is Gowdy’s first novel since 2007’s Helpless. After her 1988 debut, Through the Green Valley, the Toronto-based writer previously hadn’t gone longer than four years between books. To date, she has published seven novels, including 1999’s widely acclaimed The White Bone, and a short-story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love.

In the 14 years since Gowdy’s back problems first flared up, her search for a diagnosis has led “from extreme quack to neurosurgeon and everything in between,” but without any satisfactory explanations. Soon after completing Little Sister last fall, Gowdy was also diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer, treated through surgery, radiation, and medication, is now in remission. Attendant thoughts of mortality, she says, proved more unnerving to her long-time partner, poet Christopher Dewdney, than to her.

“It suddenly occurred to Chris that we both weren’t going to live forever,” says Gowdy, now 66. “There were 11 days when I didn’t know what stage I was at while I waited for the pathology, and I had to think about death. So many of the things I worry about just fell away. I thought, ‘This is great.’ But all of it, including the perfectionism, came creeping back as I entered remission and started feeling better.”

Gowdy has never been timid about asking readers to suspend disbelief, in particular with The White Bone, narrated from the perspective of African elephants. Little Sister invites another imaginative leap. The novel tells the story of Rose, a woman who runs a Toronto repertory cinema with her mother. A series of extreme meteorological events brought on by summer storms somehow imbue Rose with the ability to inhabit the body of another woman – a potentially suicidal publishing employee named Harriet. In an attempt to assuage lingering feelings of guilt over the accidental childhood death of her younger sister, Rose aims to thwart Harriet’s thoughts of self-destruction.

“I found this harder as a feat of imagination than The White Bone, because no elephants were going to read The White Bone, which was all based heavily on research,” Gowdy says. “Whereas this is all in my imagination. Humans are going to read it and they’re going to think, ‘Well, maybe that would happen or maybe it wouldn’t.’

“I am more interested in metaphysical things lately,” she says. “In this world, where we’re all so separated by technology, there’s not as much contact as there used to be. So I was longing for a kind of intimacy. What could be more intimate than being in someone else’s mind?”

Gowdy, who took some misguided flak for her sympathetic portrait of a child molester in Helpless, says she has been “around long enough not to be severely wounded” by negative reactions to her work. But that doesn’t mean she’s entirely ambivalent about the success of Little Sister. She wants the book to do well not just for her own sake, but as a reward for the steadfast support she has received from her publisher.

“My back pain makes sitting almost impossible,” she says, “but I’ve agreed to go to festivals and sit on trains and planes to promote the book. I’m going to give it my best shot. HarperCollins is really behind this book, so I want to do my bit.”

Gowdy says she’s not considering retirement just yet, as much as writing has become a struggle. “I don’t want to write past my best writing years, but I don’t know what else to do,” she says. “I’ve never had to search hard for something to write about, although right now I don’t have anything percolating. Nothing is occurring to me. I just have to hope it will.”