a conversation with the writer Jowita Bydlowska
'Personally I don’t care why something turns me on. I don’t want to have to apologise for my own desires. For women, there's a huge freedom in owning your own shit.'
I’ve known the writer Jowita Bydlowska since the early 2000s in Toronto. At the time she was being squired around town by my old friend, the novelist and fellow Globe and Mail style section columnist Russell Smith, with whom she now has a 13-year-old son. They split up a few years back but remain friendly co-parents and even occasional colleagues. Russell worked as an editor her most recent novel, Posessed, for Dundurn Press.
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It’s dark and sexy and disorienting in a hypnotic, dream-logic kind of way that verges on terrifying. The novel is so scary, in fact, it was blurbed by the bestselling horror novelist Andrew Pyper who also happens to be an old friend of Smith’s and mine as well. Why am I turning poor Jowita’s author interview intro into a game of Toronto naughties literary scene connect-the-dots? Because it amuses me and I have no editor to tell me not to, but more importantly because it gives you some indication of just how hilariously incestuous the writers community in Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city was twenty years ago (in a way that it no longer is today) — a topic that Jowita and I discuss at length in our wide-ranging, intellectually tangential and unapologetically swear-y interview below, along with other salty topics like female rage and desire, addiction memoirs, shame, mental health and how, as mothers, we are both actively raising our sons to be unreflective PS4-addicted jocks in the hope that they never decide to read our memoirs.
Back when I first met Jowita, she was a quiet, smoulderingly sensuous presence — she dressed then as she does now: unselfconsciously in body-contoured frocks. This was remarkable because, at that time anyway, very few writers in Toronto smouldered. You could be witty, vivacious, erudite, aloof, bombastic, flirtatious or even an outright lech — but smouldering? It just wasn’t done. But Jowita did what she wanted. Anyone with eyes could see that. It made her instantly cool and more than a little unnerving in a sensuous, deadpan, Eastern European way.
Today, Jowita and I are regular email correspondents on all subjects writing-related. Most recently our conversation has revolved around her *fantastic* newly-launched Substack Unshame, which explores the endlessly fascinating subject of human shame all angles, embarrassing and otherwise. Great name, rather irritated I didn’t think of it myself. It’s free for the time being so do yourself a favour and subscribe.
Jowita was born in Warsaw, Poland and moved to Canada as a teenager. She currently lives in Toronto, which she says is “fine.”
She’s the author of two novels, Possessed (October 2022) and GUY as well as the best-selling memoir Drunk Mom, which Lena Dunham accurately described as a “a very intense, brave and complicated story.” She's also a short-story writer, journalist and a professor at the Creative School of TMU.
LM: Jowita. Your latest novel Possessed centres around Josephine, a Polish-born Canadian woman in her 30s who, dissatisfied with her dreary existence travel agent and carer for her demented mother, becomes romantically obsessed by a Sebastian, an unemployed suburban gym rat who alternately neglects and uses her for loveless sex in the public toilets in Toronto. That makes it sound incredibly depressing and in a way it is, but it’s also intensely gripping, unsettling and deeply erotic. The novel’s genius for me was that it simultaneously revealed Sebastian as a feckless cad and yet also managed to convey his smouldering hotness, so instead of encountering the narrative as an outsider marvelling at Josephine’s madness, I empathised completely with her wild self-destructive desire for this totally unworthy man. I wanted her to connect with him and make him fall in love with her even though it was clearly never going to happen. What was it that attracted you to the subject matter?
JB: I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of abandonment and losing control. This might be because I have addictive tendencies and I’m really a control freak at heart, but also, I want to examine what it would be like to let yourself go completely, the way I have let myself go when I’d relapsed on booze, and once, or twice almost, when I’d relapsed on a man. With men (well with substances too, eventually), however, I’ve been able to rein it in, at least outwardly, but the internal torment was there. It’s terrifying, letting another person dictate your life like that and since I’ve had that experience with substances already, I knew that it was an ever-powerful force… not of love, but of limerence, which is similar to addiction because it’s unrequited love; you give it your all but it doesn’t love you back and the more desperate you become—to make it/ him love you— the more destructive it gets. Yet you keep trying and trying to make it work and it just looks more and more desperate and then you loose yourself entirely. So I wondered what it would be like to just say fuck it, and let love/ limerence possess (lol) you. Josephine is aware of all those things but she’s completely powerless and she lets it take her. I started writing Possessed at the end of a destructive affair like that—an affair that I played very cooly (I have receipts; he came back years later and told/ wrote me how aloof I was at that time and how he himself was becoming obsessed—something I didn’t know at all—so all great acting all around, I guess). Fiction allows to take those “what-ifs” further and it’s intoxicating and super fun to explore that (also, writing is horrible, don’t do it). Plus, around that time, I had a few friends who were dating these fuccbois, losing their heads over unreliable men who were giving back so little—and the less they gave back, the stronger the obsession would become. It was in the air.
LM: We’ve known each other for what, going on twenty years? Christ. When I lived in Toronto we moved – and dated certain palsy older male novelists – in the same circles, and yet I feel like I didn’t really even begin to get to know you properly until after I moved to London and we became email friends.
In advance of this interview I found myself wondering – like actually trying to figure out – why that was. I think I suspected you didn’t like me but I’m not sure why. I mean, we were always very friendly and nice, I was a bit older and more “established” than you but I’d read your work and respected your talent. It wasn’t a competitive thing exactly but there was a certain wariness between us as I recall. And I could be wrong – but I suspect you felt the same way – that I didn’t like you somehow. But I did! I do! I think you’re brilliant. Anyway, I think this is a common thing among young woman writers – the weird wariness thing – and I really fucking hate it. I think it separated us from each other at a time when we could have helped and supported each other and it’s pernicious and men don’t do it so much – at least not in a way that precludes them from forming bonds as “writer bros.” Do you agree? What’s up with that anyway?
JB: When I met you, I was doing my Masters at a journalism school (Ryerson University at the time) and there was this disdain for you and Rebecca Eckler, two very successful female writers who were only slightly older than me and my classmates but who somehow (it must’ve been dumb luck!) made it and had columns in national newspapers, and were doing all those things we were only just dreaming of doing (having platforms, being fabulous and a little bit famous). Also, you were being “marketed” as not so serious, right? So the disdain was also about that, that you weren’t real journalists and you could only write about yourselves, etc., not like us, real soon-to-be-journalists. Those were the sort of real discussions that went on in classrooms, discussions I didn’t participate in because I certainly didn’t feel that way at all, I was very impressed and since I was also dating someone who wasn’t considered a “serious journalist” at the time, I felt a lot of conflict with how I was supposed to think about you. I remember someone randomly saying “I just hate Leah McLaren and [the guy I was dating],” and then going on a rant and I wanted to disappear because I wasn’t sure whom I was betraying by listening to that—you and the guy or my classmates by not participating.
And then I remember meeting you (and Rebecca) and being told that you thought I was a “cute” or something along those lines, which I thought should piss me off because I was, after all, a serious soon-to-be-journalist (but I also loved it because I am vain). I was also told (by a man) not to trust you, the way people always demonise women; they’re not to be trustworthy—I was conflicted because my friendships with women were always solid, I hated that I had to develop a mistrust based on gossip. And I’m sure you learned something about me too, something that made you think I wasn’t trustworthy, I probably had some kind of a “reputation” (Lynn Crosbie told me some people we all knew referred to me as “Death Babe,”1 which is kind of thrilling but also kind of depressing.)
So that’s the juicy (?) part, but I think the gist of it is that female writers/ artists/ etc. always come with a “reputation” (“bitch,” “cunt,” “ditzy,” “death babe”) but where when their male counterparts have a “reputation” we make concessions for that, we are more forgiving, we want to examine it further, pet it and tell it it’s okay.
Also, perhaps, because I was being seen as the “the girlfriend of” for such a long time, until I came into my own, I didn’t think I had the right to be anything else—until I proved myself. Men are rarely thought of as “the boyfriend of,” are they?
I’ve learned from all of that. I am fiercely loyal and supportive of other women writers/ artists —not all of them, of course, but the ones I meet and who give me no reason to not trust them—and even then, I always examine where this idea that they’re not trustworthy came from, based on something to do with me or because some man who couldn’t get his dick sucked told me about it?
I really hope we stay friends.2 I’ve a lot of regret over not reaching out sooner or something but I’m also a firm believer in things happening at the time when they’re supposed to happen and growing older and wiser and all that. (And there’s the student part of me that is like totally chuffed and intimidated, I can’t believe that Leah McLaren wants to be my friend!)
LM: I think our first proper conversation was when I interviewed you just after your first book, the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom, came out. It was ten years ago but I remember both the book and the interview (a phone Q&A for Chatelaine magazine) very vividly, I think because it happened the winter after my own first son was born. I had a powerful reaction to Drunk Mom and it wasn’t the one you’d expect given that I was a besotted and very well-behaved new mother without a drinking problem. I expected to be sort of horrified but instead I found myself empathising with it deeply. I know it was an addiction memoir (which I’m addicted to despite not being an addict) but what I found compelling was that it read more like a kind of heightened metaphorical rendering of the emotional roller coaster ride of new motherhood. Those feelings of powerful animal attachment and ecstatic love for this tiny, helpless being set against the sleeplessness, isolation and round-the-clock anxiety of what Elena Ferrante calls the “crushing responsibility” of motherhood. And I wasn’t even drunk (much) in that first year but the truth is, I felt like I was. The whole world seemed kind of blurred and unreal. I remember distinctly having the feeling that I was slurring my words when I wasn’t and that my entire body, my being, had somehow gone out of focus. Do you get this reaction to Drunk Mom a lot from non-alcoholic new mothers or am I just an empath in a sea of smug judgemental bitches?
JB: I loved, loved, loved your piece in Chatelaine and over the years, I’ve frequently gone back to it to understand/ remind myself what it is that I was doing because you wrote about it so eloquently (that part with the Japanese fan dance is something I often talk about when I do guest lectures). As for the reaction to Drunk Mom, I’ve had all kinds of people reach out—new moms, new dads, drunk moms, drunk dads, adult kids of drunk parents… and many of them do say that the addiction part is almost secondary, that I did capture something about motherhood, that crushing isolation and the rollercoaster and that primal, intense love.
LM: It goes without saying you laid yourself bare in that book in a way that was both brave and terrifying to read. Back when I interviewed you, I remember getting the distinct feeling that you were proud of the book but also deeply conflicted and agonised about it, which I can now wholly understand since I felt *precisely* the same way about my own recently published memoir. I mean, it was one thing to write it but promoting it? Everyone was very sensitive but I still struggled. I remember feeling a bit like Coriolanus – I’d managed to survive this battle (writing the book) and now I was being forced show my wounds over and over again to the crowd just to prove it. What I mean to say is that I was resentful -- not a great look when you're promoting a literary memoir. Anyway.
How do you feel about Drunk Mom a decade on? Any residual shame, regret, compassion, nostalgia? Also, what advice do you have for aspiring memoirists who are struggling with subject matter that’s similarly painful, revelatory and/or controversial?
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