In the Skin of an Elephant
In the skin of an elephant: literary daredevil Barbara Gowdy has a reputation for making the bazarre seem perfectly normal. Now she’s written a novel about the extradordinary adventures of ordinary African elephants [The White Bones]Nickson, Elizabeth. Saturday Night. Toronto: Sep 1998. Vol. 113, Iss. 7; pg. 56
Not exactly fully formed out of Zeus’s forehead. Her first novel, the “atrociously titled” (as Gowdy herself puts it) Through the Green Valley, published in 1988, was a capable historical romance written with the financial support of her second husband, Mark Howell, who was then the editor of the Mack Bolan Action Adventure line at Harlequin Books. The book is still a sticking point for Gowdy. “I didn’t think I could write a real novel, so I depended on the research. It’s very serious, earnest, Irish. I wish I’d written it ten years later when all things Irish came into being.” (Careful, there’s that sardonic Gowdy humour.)
Around the same time Falling Angels was published, Gowdy was broke, her marriage to Howell was breaking up, they were selling their farmhouse in the country, and while she had met and fallen in love “at first sight” with [Chris Dewdney, Gowdy]–her partner of almost nine years now–he too was in a relationship and had a very young son to consider and a much older daughter. Gowdy left Mark Howell for Dewdney. The relationship with Dewdney has been personally and creatively sustaining — he was the one who encouraged her to go ahead with The White Bone, despite her own doubts. “He makes me think in broader and more daring ways than I ever would, and he’s not frightened. He says, ‘If you want to write about elephants, what would stop you?'”
Gowdy serves tea with a practised air. Shortbread cookies sit on the table, but she eats almost none. She is very, almost painfully, nervous. She perches on the edge of her chair and leaps for almost any distraction: her bird (Mujibar, a New Zealand parrot that Gowdy is trying to teach to sing “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbing along” in the key of A major); the phone; the carpenter who’s banging away nearby (“She’s a writer too,” Gowdy says, as if hoping I’ll become more interested in the carpenter than in her); the sound of the hammer (“Michael Snow sound poetry,” she exclaims). Anything to distract her from the business at hand-herself. Again and again she brings the conversation back to Dewdney, almost as if saying his name and talking about him relaxes her. “He’s taught me how to respect every little bug and insect. I’ve seen Chris dangling a piece of string down the sink trying to save an ant.”»Jump to indexing (document details)
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Copyright Saturday Night Sep 1998
This is who you are: you’re a tall thin pretty blonde in a city that’s full of them. You’re one of the multitudinous “1950s club,” born at the half-century in the midst of what would become known as the most intemperate generation in history. You grew up in the uber-suburb of Don Mills, Ontario, “the first planned community in North America,” as you quickly learned to quip before anyone had a chance to jeer. There was nothing more, well…ordinary, than Don Mills — a place where all families had the same income and were housed in bungalows built on streets grouped around schools and a shopping centre. And nothing could be more normal than your childhood: every family had four kids and the neighbourhood was safe, a paradise of bookmobiles, back-yard sprinklers, and boisterous fifties fun.
Where to go? What to do? The same choices faced millions of young women all over the continent. University? Boring. You last a year. But you’re curious, a natural student even, and sit down to methodically read your way from Austen through to Zola. You move a lot, looking for a sanctuary, the perfect place where you can be yourself. You need to make a living, but you’re a little arty and you flounder: stockbroker, actor, editor, wife? It seems you have a voice — all Gowdys are musical, it’s part of being a Gowdy — so you decide you want to be a singer, then a pianist, well, maybe musical theatre, in any case a professional musician of some sort. You have this drive, this force inside that propels you to do something with yourself, but what?
Well, not what you might expect, which is become one of the best literary novelists in Canada (a country where there is no little competition for such a title), poised to break out into a much wider readership. With The White Bone, to be published this September, Barbara Gowdy could very well end up among the pantheon of modern literary stars, not only at home but internationally. Her story of the imperilled African elephant, told rigorously from the point of view of the animals themselves, follows a family of elephants as they quest for “The Safe Place” of legend, “a place of tranquillity and permanent green browse,” a refuge far from the killing fields of the ivory hunters and the ravages of the worst drought in elephant history.
Their search parallels that of their restless creator. “I’ve spent a lot of years of my adult life looking for a quiet place,” says Gowdy, who has moved twenty times around the Toronto area since leaving her childhood home, almost always renting until now. We’re sitting in the kitchen of her new house, a nest on an obscure side street, backing onto a park in Toronto’s leafy Cabbagetown. Bits of green tissue paper float in drifts over the pale yellow walls, marking the places where bumps and imperfections need to be replastered, sanded, and repainted. The four-storey house, with a single long room on each floor, is furnished as a poem to convention and designed for the sole comfort of someone who intends to spend much of her time at home. Sunlight floods each floor, and the sound of children playing in the park makes her wince several times during our conversation.
Gowdy is a perfectionist, fastidious to a fault, and the first to call herself neurotic. She has an almost inhuman sensitivity to sound. Beside her bed there’s an appliance the size of a Kleenex box from which emanates white noise — the sound of the ocean (“regular or irregular surf”), waterfalls, steady rain — to block out unpleasant sounds. (There’s another sound conditioner in her home office.) Still, she has to sleep with earplugs.
She received good advances for The White Bone and she’s spent a lot of the money on this house, including installing a gas fireplace in the basement in expectation of some kind of environmental catastrophe. “I was just horrified by the ice storm last year. I thought I could not survive in a community centre, because I’m a really light sleeper and I’m afraid of crowds, and I’ve been thinking,” she adds, “I look out at these trees and think, ‘Which will fall on the house in the ice storm?’ And I wonder whether we’re on a fault, and will it open? I don’t even mind dying, I just mind long suffering.”
This is a more sober-minded Barbara Gowdy, an entire evolutionary cycle from the writer/provocateur of years gone by, who specialized in saying scandalous things in public. She shocked a Liberal bigwig at a 1989 Writers’ Development Trust fundraiser, inviting him to eat her mother’s gallstones, which sat in a bottle of clear liquid she’d brought to the table. (They turned out to be peas.) She joked to the Montreal Gazette that she’d considered faking Tourette’s syndrome, saying it might work as a publicity ploy. She told The Toronto Star that she had worked at a securities firm to make enough money to drop acid, and informed both the same Star reporter and Peter Gzowski that, like one of her characters, she had affairs as a teenager with her married bosses so she wouldn’t have to work Saturdays.
Val Ross, an arts reporter for The Globe and Mail, muses that Gowdy’s acting out is a kind of calculated pre-emption. “She’s just poking you off balance to see how you react. She surprises you before you can surprise her.” In a 1992 article, Ross labelled it being “Gowdied. Hit in the face with a custard pie of the bizarre, served with a silken sauce.”
Gowdy, irritated that she keeps being called on her pranks, says she was young, cocky, and claims she has grown out of them. Novelist Susan Swan, a close friend of hers, says, “This is a bugaboo for Barbara. While she’s still an irreverent, daring being, she has grown more conservative in the last few years and she wants to be known for her work, not her stunts.”
Edgy on the eve of departure for a much needed summer vacation at a remote Ontario lake with her boyfriend, poet and essayist Chris Dewdney, Gowdy says, “I feel more responsible now. My concerns are more weighty, the things I’m thinking about are not the things I was thinking about then.” She feels burned by the press and is consequently wary. Her voice is precise and mannered, and she speaks almost as if she’s talking to a particularly slow child, carefully pointing out that she doesn’t write autobiographical fiction that is a thinly veiled look at her own life.
The White Bone took three years, the last of which entailed an almost nun-like seclusion, and Gowdy thought the novel might end up her “middle-aged folly.” Her last three books, including the Giller and Governor General’s Award-nominated 1995 novel Mister Sandman, entranced the critics with their hilarious, urbane, and ironic perspective on everything from nymphomania to necrophilia, and expanded the definition of what it is to be normal. The White Bone is a dramatic departure and therefore a huge risk. But it’s paying off. According to her editor, Iris Tupholme of HarperCollins, which is publishing the novel under its new HarperFlamingo Canada imprint, pre-sales to bookstores here and abroad have been “extraordinary.” And foreign rights have sold for six figures, in both the U.S. and the U.K.
“The themes are really, really big,” says Sara Bershtel, her U.S. editor at Metropolitan Holt, which will publish The White Bone as its lead fiction title in the spring of 1999. “I was amazed that she tried to do it and even more amazed that she pulled it off. It’s an effort to take in the whole world and she finds heroism in the ordinary, which is the most poignant thing about the novel. This time, Gowdy’s trademark weirdness is in the service of something comprehensible [for the average reader].”
The idea that a tale told from the point of view of African elephants could be more accessible than stories about human beings is subversively ironic — vintage Gowdy. The author says that she was not intending to comment on human behaviour through her elephants, but her titanic matriarchs operating under massive environmental stress remind me of nothing less than suburban stay-at-home moms using all of their intelligence, strength, and heroism to save their young. If we humans were under similar threat, I’d be the first one hiking to Don Mills, because I’d trust they’d be the ones we’d be depending on to find us food and shelter — to get us to a safe place.
Gowdy has always worked on the margins of literary fashion, pushing the envelope of what seemed possible. In sharp contrast to the extravagant literary lyricism that often leads Canadian bestseller lists, she writes a kind of hyper-realism, using a shorn, deceptively simple language to scrutinize extraordinary situations until they seem commonplace.
Mister Sandman and her 1989 novel, Falling Angels, describe families who, while outwardly normal, harbour bizarre secrets that marginalize them. In Falling Angels the mother is a drunk who neglects her children — she has thrown her first baby over the cliffs at Niagara Falls, then loses her will to live. The father is a philandering disciplinarian who makes a pass at the fat, sweet eldest daughter. Then there’s the youngest, Sandy, who as a teenager has a series of sterile affairs with older, married men. In Mister Sandman, the family is filled with secrets they have kept from one another: both parents are latent homosexuals, one daughter is the other’s secret mother, while a third is a nymphomaniac. Joan, the artist and linchpin of the novel, is a tiny, beautiful, and silent autistic who lives in a closet; her secretive family confide in her and she eventually finds a way to tell all the truths to the assembled clan. And as a sweetener, almost every page delivers a belly laugh, and, often, a benign, compassionate perspective that can only be called redemptive.
Her 1992 short-story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, sailed into the nether reaches of those living on the sexual margins of society. In the now infamous title story, a woman has sex with the cadavers in the funeral home where she works. (The movie version, Kissed, by Vancouver filmmaker Lynne Stopkewich, was the darling of the festival circuit two years ago and is now in theatrical release in Europe.) “Ninety-three Million Miles Away” describes an exhibitionist who spends a good part of the day posing in a window for a neighbour. Another story details the dilemma of a four-legged woman with two sets of sexual organs.
Throughout the publication of the stories and Mister Sandman, journalists commented on the almost prim, delicate Miss Gowdy living in her neat, tiny, white, and conventional Annex apartment. (Never mind that this wasn’t always the same apartment; the author lived in five different places around the University of Toronto neighbourhood during this period.) The combination of flagrant talent, outrageous subject matter, and surface conformity leavened with occasional reckless behaviour electrified the Toronto literary gang, and Gowdy became the subject of a great deal of conjecture.
Not without reason. Questions have been raised about how much of her own family life jibes with the dislocated families in her novels — she too was one of three sisters living with their parents in the suburbs, as in Mister Sandman and Falling Angels (although Gowdy also has a brother). However, her dedication in Falling Angels reads: “To my parents for not being the parents in this book,” and she says she is an appropriator, using elements of other people’s lives, not her own. Still, as Val Ross has pointed out (while not drawing any conclusions), there are recurring themes: difficult parents; “out of bounds” sexuality; children clamouring for attention, competing furiously among themselves. Houses or “home” loom large in her work; in her novels, each house has a distinct character. No reader will ever forget mute Joan’s closet, her refuge in Mister Sandman, or the back-yard bomb shelter and the roof of the house the mother frequents in Falling Angels. And in The White Bone, the search for home is what drives the story.
From the time she left home, the real Barbara Gowdy was slow to emerge. “Barbara growing up was always a weirdo,” says her long-time friend, author and critic Brian Fawcett. “She was one of those kids who didn’t mature until she was nineteen or twenty, and I think she came through the first part of her life thinking she was a space alien and her only way of dealing with the world was to feign normality. So she has this part of her that’s always been sub rosa, she looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”
At twenty-one, Gowdy married her high-school sweetheart, a marriage that lasted three and a half years, and began casting around for something to do. (She has lived with five men, including two husbands, and has in almost every case been the one to call it off.) After a year of theatre at York University, she got a job at a securities company and studied for the Canadian Securities Course, ranking near the top of her class. Nevertheless, it didn’t work. “No-one would have traded with me, I was twenty-two and I looked about fourteen.” Then, to finance her music studies, she joined Lester and Orpen publishers (later Lester and Orpen Dennys) as a three-day-a-week administrative assistant. “I never wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be in musicals and sing and dance, and then I wanted to be a pianist, but I’m not talented enough to be anything more than an enthusiastic amateur–it’s sort of my heartbreak.”
She was made an editor, then managing editor at the now defunct firm, and during this period, she started to write. “I had an urge to introduce fictional elements into other people’s work and I thought, well, maybe this is what I’m supposed to be, a writer, so I started writing and that came easily to me. It was what worked. I’ve always been passionate about the word and the sound and the meaning of it, but it didn’t occur to me that I could make a living at it. Still doesn’t, though I am.”
Music has informed her writing, however. It was what grabbed the attention of Patrick Crean, editor of her last three books at Somerville House, when the manuscript for Falling Angels fell on his desk. “It was amazing. I read five pages and I thought, ‘Good Lord.’ The voice was so strong and true and there was that musicality of the line. Add to that the way she pulls you unselfconsciously into the book. She’s a writer born.”
But not exactly fully formed out of Zeus’s forehead. Her first novel, the “atrociously titled” (as Gowdy herself puts it) Through the Green Valley, published in 1988, was a capable historical romance written with the financial support of her second husband, Mark Howell, who was then the editor of the Mack Bolan Action Adventure line at Harlequin Books. The book is still a sticking point for Gowdy. “I didn’t think I could write a real novel, so I depended on the research. It’s very serious, earnest, Irish. I wish I’d written it ten years later when all things Irish came into being.” (Careful, there’s that sardonic Gowdy humour.)
“She had very little confidence,” says Fawcett. “The novel was competent, but without any of her stuff — her wicked sense of humour and her determination to see normality where everyone else was just hiving off and boiling it down and making the world smaller.”
Through the Green Valley was published in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. to general indifference. In the meantime, her short story “Disneyland,” published in the U.S. journal North American Review that same year, was chosen blind by Margaret Atwood from a field of 2,000 for The Best American Stories, 1989. “Disneyland” is the story of a father who, after promising to take his three daughters to the theme park, makes them spend their holiday with him in a back-yard bomb shelter. Hilarious and provocative, it formed the nucleus of Falling Angels, and the real Barbara Gowdy finally stood up.
“She was on a self-directed journey for a long time, developing and hiding her secret talent–leading an inauthentic life which didn’t connect with who she was or who she could be,” says writer David Young, who’s known Gowdy for a decade and Chris Dewdney for twenty years. “She’s travelled an enormous distance from who she was in her early thirties.”
Around the same time Falling Angels was published, Gowdy was broke, her marriage to Howell was breaking up, they were selling their farmhouse in the country, and while she had met and fallen in love “at first sight” with Dewdney–her partner of almost nine years now–he too was in a relationship and had a very young son to consider and a much older daughter. Gowdy left Mark Howell for Dewdney. The relationship with Dewdney has been personally and creatively sustaining — he was the one who encouraged her to go ahead with The White Bone, despite her own doubts. “He makes me think in broader and more daring ways than I ever would, and he’s not frightened. He says, ‘If you want to write about elephants, what would stop you?'”
Well, perhaps the marketing department of your average publishing house. No matter, she forged ahead and created an extraordinary work of imagination and craftsmanship. Written in the elephants’ own language, with their distinct cosmology — complete with creation myths, spiritual beliefs, hymns, and superstitions — The White Bone first enchants, then seduces. Gowdy has stripped her writing of any metaphor that could be construed as human in order to show the internal world of the elephant: sexual, rampant, sophisticated, philosophical, hilariously funny, mystical, knowledge-hungry, sweet-hearted, and exquisitely mannered. She meticulously details the physical world they swim in: their weeping in deep gurgles, their celebratory group defecations, sperm so hot it splats on the ground and steams, the brutality of the threat they face from the environment, as well as their social, political, intellectual, and spiritual lives.
“Certain scientists are now admitting that animals have emotions, and consciousness, and if animals have emotions, then they have stories,” Gowdy says. “Watership Down, Animal Farm, those adult stories were told for the sake of illuminating human behaviour, whereas I just wanted to imagine elephants. I really had to watch my vocabulary. I couldn’t use words of human experience, words like fine-tune, mechanically, personality. Often the right word, the word I needed, couldn’t be used. It wasn’t an elephant word.”
Elephants are matrilineal, and travel in families led by the matriarch. In The White Bone, they are guided by the visionaries among them, by prescient dreams, and by symbols found in ordinary dreams over which they argue like Jungians in a snarl. There’s also a “mind-talker” in each clan, who can communicate with other species and who can listen to what the others think (with the exception of the matriarch, which is forbidden). The book opens with an amusing scene about a cow elephant losing her birth name, Mud, now that she is with calf. All mature females have a name that’s some variation on “She.” (She-Spurns is what the other cows decide on for Mud, much to her distress.)
Sexuality is handled brilliantly. This is how Tall Time falls in love with the young Mud: “… the earth tilted, the sun flashed, his sense of smell bristled, assaulting him with a thousand queer scents. He was no longer aware of where he was…. Then he caught a sliver of her nascent cow odour and his penis shot out under his stomach, and Mud squealed and ducked beneath She-Scares…. There was a silence, broken finally by She-Sees, who said, ‘My dear, you are a marvellous length. A shame really that none of us is in our delirium.’
“‘But thank you, nevertheless,’ She-Snorts called.”
The males roam solitary or in small bachelor herds, meeting at the annual Long Rains Massive Gathering to “dig calf tunnels” (mate), battle, and celebrate, but they are not marginal or delinquent, just purely, gloriously male. It is we humans who are evil. We show up as “hindleggers”–stunted, venal, pitiable, fallen she-ones, who viciously murder elephants and saw off their tusks and feet. Some of us are redeemed, however, in the Safe Place, where we are said to moon over the elephants (like tourists), entranced.
In the summer of 1996, Barbara Gowdy travelled to Kenya with her sister and closest friend, Beth Kirkwood, along with Kirkwood’s two boys. “I couldn’t write sensuously, organically, unless I could smell the air, see the sky, the landscape,” she says. “I had to see them in their world. When I see elephants, I get the feeling other people get when they enter a cathedral. I’m in awe.”
Older by a year and a day, and a stock-market genius by all accounts, Kirkwood, who runs her own junior exploration company that searches for diamond and gold mines in Botswana, funded the trip. “We were our own matriarchal elephant herd,” she jokes, “with the two boys still young enough to be with the women.”
On safari, an adolescent bull charged their jeep, trumpeting toward them, ears raised, churning up a dust cloud. The tour guide stepped on the gas, the children screamed. But Gowdy yelled at the guide to stop. “I spoke with great authority, saying that this was a mock charge. His trunk was up and I knew the trunk would be down if it was real. We were really close to the herd, I couldn’t leave. I’d travelled so far to see them.” Gowdy mocks herself as she tells this story, but her passion and strong will are clear.
The White Bone is partially a long meditation on memory and the supposition that the elephants are the sum of all their memories. When they start to lose them (the memories “leak,” becoming shadow memories), the elephants themselves start to wane. “Your life, as you experience it, is the She recollecting what She has already imagined,” She-Demands tells young Mud and Date Bed. “We are memory. We are living memory.”
“Elephants, we think, have a perfect memory,” Gowdy says. “Daphne Sheldrick [who runs an animal orphanage in Kenya] says that calves whose mothers were murdered wake up screaming in terror for the rest of their lives.”
The capacity of elephants to remember — and to mourn — was Gowdy’s inspiration for the novel. One evening five years ago, she was watching a TV documentary, riveted. “There was a part where the elephants came across the bones of not only their own kind but the bones of a close family member. They got real quiet and picked up the bones. Cynthia Moss [the narrator of the documentary, who has studied African elephants for years and worked to save them] believes that they recognize their own because they spend much more time fondling the bones of a close family member — they touch each other so often, they’re constantly putting their trunks in each other’s mouths, that they know the shape of the bones. Then they turned their backs to the bones and lifted one hind foot and passed the foot over the bones. Moss said she’d been watching this for twenty-five years and you’d almost think that there was some sort of emanation coming from them. And I just got shivers down my back.”
Death features prominently in The White Bone and the manner in which the elephants die is one of the most salient and telling parts of their characters. The loss of memory is almost another death, though in Gowdy’s case, perhaps, the loss of some memories would be a blessing. Her father’s death of lung cancer in September, 1996, also fuelled her story. “I can’t live life so lightly any more, tread the earth so lightly. Things that were funny to me are no longer funny. His death was seminal, because I thought about memory a lot. I wish I didn’t remember so much, because I wouldn’t regret his passing so much. I wish I didn’t have such an intimate memory of his cough, for instance, then I wouldn’t be so burdened with the pain of remembering him so sharply when he left.
“I have a dream once a week where my father is still alive. In one version he’s sitting at the end of my bed, smoking a cigarette of course, saying he had to come back to finish a fence, that they let you do that in heaven, and when he leaves — well, I lose him all over again.”
But despite the mysticism, visions, telepathy, and the elephants’ belief in the She and a kind of afterlife, Gowdy herself does not believe in a life after death. “There’s no empirical evidence of it, it feels more like a wish or a hope. When my father died, I knew he was walking through that door into nothingness. More than anything, I wanted to save him, accompany him.”
Gowdy’s family is close, and has become even closer in the two years since her father’s death. And, in fact, says Gowdy, in a rare confidence about her work jibing with her life, she and Beth are like the passionate friends Mud and Date Bed in The White Bone. Kirkwood’s two teenaged sons, vegetarians like their aunt, often bike down to Gowdy’s place for tea. She’s also devoted to her two young nieces, the daughters of her younger sister, Mary.
There is this matter of having children, or rather not having them. “I always thought I’d have children and in my later thirties and early forties, I had a crisis where I’d weep a lot, particularly at diaper commercials. I love children and I’m very close to my nieces and nephews. I love how their minds work, their stunning beauty, their skin and teeth. But when I met Chris, I was thirty-nine and he had two kids, and it would have been complicated.”
But it wasn’t until the chance was slipping away in the late eighties that her writing voice became increasingly clear and strong, almost as if she were waking from a dream. “I feel no regret. I couldn’t have written and been a mother-one child would equal five books for me, since it takes me three to four years to write a book,” Gowdy says, adding that she can’t compartmentalize like the prolific Fay Weldon who does have children. “In fact, I find my hackles being raised when I see people with three kids. I mean, what is this? There’s too many of us, there’s no room for any other creatures, we’re the planet’s AIDS virus, we’ve got to control ourselves. It’s not like go forth and multiply is an edict that makes any sense right now.”
In another one of Gowdy’s fiercely personal choices, she and Dewdney do not live together, even though they are so highly compatible she can see them being with each other forever. “We did live together for a year, but with circumstances regarding my divorce and his break-up, it required us to be separate. Now we do talk about living together in our waning years and we imagine building a place in the country with separate wings. What shared rooms would we have? A shared kitchen? No. A shared living room? No. Then we end up with just a tunnel that our animals would go through –” Gowdy laughs.
“Half our friends ask, ‘When are you guys going to move in together?’ and the other fifty per cent envy us,” Dewdney tells me over the phone later, his speaking style as measured as Gowdy’s. “We are each other’s optimal conversational partner, which is great, because outside of physical intimacy, conversation is what makes a relationship work.”
“What we share is a love of natural history,” Gowdy says. “He’s been teaching me how to look. His gaze is a very animal gaze, in that it’s outwards. If Chris is going along the highway at a hundred and twenty, he’ll stop for a beautiful tree or flower.”
Gowdy serves tea with a practised air. Shortbread cookies sit on the table, but she eats almost none. She is very, almost painfully, nervous. She perches on the edge of her chair and leaps for almost any distraction: her bird (Mujibar, a New Zealand parrot that Gowdy is trying to teach to sing “When the red red robin comes bob bob bobbing along” in the key of A major); the phone; the carpenter who’s banging away nearby (“She’s a writer too,” Gowdy says, as if hoping I’ll become more interested in the carpenter than in her); the sound of the hammer (“Michael Snow sound poetry,” she exclaims). Anything to distract her from the business at hand-herself. Again and again she brings the conversation back to Dewdney, almost as if saying his name and talking about him relaxes her. “He’s taught me how to respect every little bug and insect. I’ve seen Chris dangling a piece of string down the sink trying to save an ant.”
Finally Gowdy blurts, “I do this, buying a house and renovating so I don’t have to think about my book and how it’s being received. Writing’s not a safe thing. You’re only as good as your last book, you’re constantly thinking about what else you can do if no-one wants it.” She launches into a story about how in the early stages of The White Bone, while she was feeling worried about the book–one of those bad patches during which she envied everyone who had a normal job — she sometimes watched her letter carrier through the window. “She was a woman of about my age and she had her dog following her around, and I love dogs. I found myself wistfully thinking, ‘Look at you, look at your real life.'”
Scrupulously polite, Gowdy shrugs, and gets up to put more water on to boil — reluctantly, for she badly wants me to go. “It seemed so much more noble than what I do. Writing can feel like an indulgence in vanity, whereas it’s necessary to give people what they get through the mail.”
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