Writer in Residence

Interview with Jowita Bydlowska on Writing Fiction, Her Literary Inspirations and Her New Novel, Guy

By Danila Botha

Jowita Bydlowska is one of the most exciting writers in Canada. Her first book, Drunk Mom (Penguin, 2012)is a beautifully written, fearless and deeply introspective memoir about motherhood and overcoming addiction. Her wonderful first novel, Guy (which will be published by Wolsak and Wynn this October) is subversive, fiercely intelligent and funny.
I was lucky enough to get to read one of the first drafts, and I remember staying up until 2:00 am to finish it, because I couldn’t tear my eyes away from my computer screen.
In addition to working on a new novel, called Wolves Evolve, she’s also an accomplished artist and photographer. In fact, the amazing cover photo for For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known, was taken by Jowita (and features her as both the woman and the man)
We had a chance to talk about Guy, her literary inspirations, and why she prefers writing fiction.

DB: Guy is such an engaging book. I was immediately being taken with the idea- a story about a sociopath, a misogynist who falls in love. It reminded me of Brett Easton Ellis and Michel Houellebecq, but also, your voice, and Guy’s voice, were so original, unapologetic, honest and funny. Tell me about the inspiration for this book- what your literary inspirations were, and where the original idea came from?

JB: You’re way too kind and thank you for all those incredibly nice things you say about Guy. Wow. The literary inspirations are the ones you mention, actually—I’m a huge fan of Michel Houellebecq, his style of writing – I love the deadpan, dark humour; the bleak outlook on life of his protagonists – and the novel American Psycho (Brett Easton Ellis) had a big impact on me and in many ways Guy’s neurotic obsessions—with food, with working out, with labels—echo Patrick Bateman’s, the protagonist of American Psycho, similar obsessions.

The original idea, however, came from me being stressed out about editing my memoir, Drunk Mom and needing to write about something that was completely different from what I was writing about. I found that by writing from male point of view I afforded myself a great escape from having to write about myself. I was walking on a beach one day and I saw a very good-looking guy and I thought, I wonder what it would be like to be him.

DB: Really? I didn’t know that. That’s so cool.

JB: I thought him up and lived in his head for a while to find out. It was an interesting place; it was a trip into the universe, which I had to know to some extent already or at least believe that I knew about it—a writer has to be confident about the subjects she’s writing about as you know—but which I had only truly explored by writing about it.

DB; Yeah, I totally know what you mean.
One of the things I found most impressive is that despite Guy being very transparent about who he is from the beginning (assessing women’s appearance by assigning them numbers out of ten, and assessing them so harshly, etc) I was still so invested in him and the story. Because however mean he can be, he’s intelligent and funny, the psychology is fascinating and he’s magnetic. I couldn’t put it down. What was it like to write, and inhabit the mind of a character like Guy? Was it fun? Voyeuristic? Deeply frustrating? And now, having had time away from him, and the story, do you fell affectionate or critical towards him?

JB: It was so exciting to write him albeit it was scary too. As any writer creating a monster, I was Victor Frankenstein and Guy was my Creature that I had sewn up together and was responsible for. Your questions are so perceptive because I can only confirm what you’re asking, which is that it was: voyeuristic and deeply frustrating and fun. The incredible freedom that we have as writers to make up entire worlds and people is so otherworldly—we can inhabit any character, live anywhere, and have all kinds of lives. I’m in no way Guy but writing him allowed me to see what it would be like to be someone like him. Anyway, I felt the same repulsion that Frankenstein felt toward his Creature but there was a lot of affection toward Guy, too. He’s a deeply flawed guy—a cad, a racist, and homophobe among other characteristics—but I also see him as (troublingly for the reader perhaps) sensitive and vulnerable in many ways.

DB: I can imagine. He definitely comes across as very three dimensional, and complex, which is a feat in itself. I want to talk about the women in this book, too. I really liked Delores- It was interesting because Guy’s read on her seems quite different to who she actually is. And I loved Bride- she’s fascinating, charming and intelligent, and the chemistry and the whole thing is so great. I have to admit that when Guy starts inventing reasons why she doesn’t call, and assuming he knows why, it was very satisfying. There’s a lot of commentary on misogyny and relationship dynamics (and social commentary on our culture) that’s subtle and sharp. It reads like exploration (versus social criticism) How did you manage to get the balance so right?

JB: I don’t know. Barbara Gowdy told me that often our books are smarter than we (writers) are. I don’t know if it’s a smart book but I know that it knows things I didn’t know before I started writing it.

DB: I love her writing, especially We So Seldom Look on Love. She’s so talented. That’s really interesting. I know what you mean.

JB: Women were easy to write for obvious reasons—I’m one—and I loved writing Bride; she is possibly more twisted than Guy... but I guess, and forgive the pat answer, that is for reader to decide if she is.

DB: She’s great. Tell me about $isi part, about her, and her popstar career and the cancer. It’s brilliant, and it adds a really interesting dimension to the story and to Guy and his sense of control over everything. Was it inspired by something real? (I was actually reading about the Svengali guy who discovered a bunch of the nineties boybands the other day, and I was thinking of Guy)

JB: It was not inspired by any actual story but interestingly, there was a big story recently about the pop star Ke$ha (and oh my God, she, like $isi has the dollar sign in her name!) who sued her manager for sexual harassment.

DB: Right! Ke$ha! That’s so funny. I didn’t even think of that.

JB: My publisher pointed it out and (for legal reasons) we put in a disclaimer saying that all characters and events in the book were entirely fictional. I wrote the book in 2011! There’s another super creepy real-life rockstar coincidence and it has to do with what happens to $isi and the theme of the music tour she goes on… I am an oracle and I should immediately write and publish something about an evil blowhard with a terrible comb-over NOT wining the US presidential election.

DB: (Laughing) You should!
Drunk Mom, your first book, was published in 2012 to great acclaim. What was it like to make the transition to writing fiction? Did you find the two more or less related you expected? Did you find one more challenging than the other? Also: which do you prefer? Writing Fiction or writing non fiction?

JB: I prefer fiction all the way and aside from trying to be disciplined with my writing – avoiding being too precious, avoiding big pompous words and flowery language – they are different from each other in so many ways. A memoir is kind of like sitting next to a fire and constantly burning yourself (on purpose, dear God) where fiction is a fireplace.

DB: Ooh, I love that.

JB: My biggest dream is to only write fiction from now on. I just want a three-book deal—is that too much to ask?

DB No, I don’t think so at all. Of course. I would love that too.
In the last few months, you’ve had amazing short stories published in Maisonneuve, and the Puritan, and you’ve contributed great essays to Lenny Letter. Have you considered putting together a collection of short stories, or a collection of essays? Also: What are you working on these days? Tell us more about your new novel.

JB: I don’t think I’d want to do a collection of essays unless I get that three-book deal and live enough of a public life for people to be interested buying a collection of essays that has such fascinating bits about how I ate meat for the first time in 2005, had a baby in 2009, or how I felt about selling my house in 2016 (the essays are better as piecemeal).
The short stories I had published are mostly excerpts from the new book I just submitted to my agent, called Wolves Evolve (from the poem by Christian Bok). It’s a book about marriage, infidelity, mental illness, a dead baby, two cities, interior decorating, aquariums and ugly pets. There’s lots of troubling sex in it.

DB: I love that poem too. It sounds great. I also want to talk about your incredible photography. Like the cover of For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known. Your photography is so striking and beautiful- tell me about the photos that star you as both the male and female characters. They’re amazing. I’ve always wondered where the ideas come from, and which visual artists inspire you most.
JB: I did a Ryeberg talk about self portraiture where I talked about all of this.

Danila, thank you so much for your questions and I feel so honoured to be asked—especially by such accomplished writer as yourself. You are way too kind and I’m really happy you gave me this opportunity to blab on about my book and writing.

DB: Aw! I always love talking to you about writing. Thank you so much!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Danila Botha is the author of three short story collections, Got No SecretsFor All the Men (and Some of the Women I’ve Known) which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, The Vine Awards and the ReLit Award. Her new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness will be published in March 2024 by Guernica Editions. She is also the author of the novel Much on the Inside, which was recently optioned for film. Her new novel, A Place for People Like Us will be published by Guernica in 2025. She teaches Creative Writing at University of Toronto’s SCS and is part of the faculty at Humber School for Writers. She is currently writing and illustrating her first graphic novel.