The Next Chapter

Barbara Gowdy wants to inhabit another body

The Guggenheim Fellow and member of the Order of Canada makes a formidable return to writing with her new novel, Little Sister.
Little Sister — a novel about inhabiting someone else's body — is Barbara Gowdy's first book in a decade. (Ruth Kaplan/Tin House Books)

Eminent author Barbara Gowdy has always toyed with the idea of inhabiting other people — to feel their emotions, move in their bodies, think with their minds. As a long-time sufferer of debilitating back pain, Gowdy longed to abandon her aching body and feel what it was like to be free of chronic pain. She explores the idea of experiencing another person's body and consciousness through Rose, the main character in Little Sister — her first novel in a decade.

In Little Sister, 34-year-old Rose and her mother, Fiona, run a small repertory theatre that was passed down from her father after his death. Fiona, who is in the early stages of dementia, has been talking recently about Rose's little sister, Ava, who died when they were children. Soon, Rose finds that whenever a thunderstorm rolls through the city, she experiences migraine symptoms that evolve into detailed lucid dreams of entering another woman's body. She soon discovers that they are not dreams, but a disturbing state of reality. 

Going beyond yourself

I liked how that was happening, just getting deeply into people's hearts and minds. I write quite unconsciously, by the way. I wanted to widen her perspective. That certainly happens when you write fiction — it behooves you to imagine lives other than your own if you're not writing strictly autobiographical fiction. You think, "What would I do in this situation?" And you have to go beyond that and think, "What would she do in this situation?" So the I, the me, the she, the know thyself dictum, I was thinking how difficult that is. In fact, I think it's easier to know someone else than it is to know yourself.

Children are poets

I have a strong relationship with my own sisters and it's evolved over the years. I like to write about women but I've written about men, gay men, necrophiles, elephants. So I like to write about people who aren't me, all sorts of relationships. But there's something natural for me going into the lives of women, especially women as little girls getting older. I love writing about children because it's like writing about poets. They are having first experiences. They're comparing everything to everything else, building their own fanciful worlds, their little metaphors. They're great with similes because that's how they're figuring out the world.

A window into her mother's soul

My mother died in 2008. She died of lung cancer, but she was also in the early stages of dementia, about where Fiona is. And my mother was very funny and we would laugh at her and she liked that. The filters go, and in some ways that's good and in some ways that's horrible. But also like a child, they are telling you the truth. Maybe for the first time in your life you're hearing some things. She died bravely, without asking anybody for anything. But one time I asked her, "Is there anything you want to tell me that you haven't told anybody?" And she said, "I'm shy." I had no idea that my mother was shy. But she thought she was. So this is my interest in consciousness — a window is cleared into my mother's soul. I thought when she said that, that I had stepped into her a little bit, which for some reason I'm dying to do. Everybody I love, I'd love to spend at least several hours in them.

Barbara Gowdy's comments have been edited and condensed.