Sunday, 25 May 2014

Causerie à deux in “Kathleenville”

An interview with Kathleen Winter

Two months ago I published a post on this blog, which was a review of Kathleen Winter’s novel, Annabel. It was followed, soon after, by a review on my other blog, Zero to One, where I called it “a book of contrasts.” The novel had been a finalist in the 2014 edition of Canada Reads, the most important book-reading event taking place in Canada. I was a little upset when the novel was excluded from the competition based on an interpretation that I found (and still find) completely wrong and unfair. As my friends know too well (and as will become apparent below), I am not a Canadian. But Annabel caused avalanches of thoughts in my mind, a lot of them too Canadian not to be highlighted. So I wrote the blog posts mentioned above. But I wanted to know more. And there was only one way I could find out the author’s perspective on place and space (which are, to me, the strongest elements in the novel). I contacted Kathleen Winter and asked her to give me an interview. To my delight, she accepted. Here is the result of our electronic exchanges:

The novel features a strong contrast between geography and urbanism. On the one hand, there is Croydon Harbour, a place that doesn’t exist on real maps – a mythical place of vast expanses, of white winters, of seasons that follow their own path, where humans are nothing if not subservient to ontology. On the other hand, there is St John’s, a real place in Labrador-Newfoundland – a place of human interests, of explosive colours, of distances that can be measured, of streets that limit movement or channel people’s actions. This contrast reminded me of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who proposed a distinction between what he called “smooth spaces” (the equivalent of your Croydon Harbour) and “striated spaces” (your St John’s). Would it be fair to say that the novel hinges on the understanding of this relationship and its own hermaphroditical nature? ||| My brother Michael told me that my writing about Croydon Harbour is really about a place he calls “Kathleenville”. He sees it as an extension of my imagination, which I suppose in a way it is. I have to admit, though, that as I wrote about Croydon Harbour, I thought I was writing about the real Labrador, and not really an imaginary place. It surprises me to find out that what I think of as earthy, real, tangible aspects of a place might in fact be none of those things. When I was writing Croydon Harbour, I envisioned Labrador communities I had seen and known. The landscape, the animals, the vegetation and the skies are “real”. But yes, the power and electricity and magnetism of the place, well, I guess they are real as well, but in order for them to be manifest they need a person, or consciousness, to meet them. St. John’s is a place I lived in for decades, but there again, in a way, it represents layered myth and story, to me. It’s sort of like a ragged, east coast San Francisco – the hills, the coloured houses, and what my daughter calls the higgledy-piggledyness. I love it there. The contrast between Croydon Harbour and St. John’s is, for me, partly about intimacy. Croydon Harbour is a place where the soul expands out into great space, whereas St. John’s is where it rests, like a cat, kittycorner and protected.

Croydon Harbour feels like a place that had to be imagined. My question is: what came first – Wayne or Croydon Harbour? Which one started the engine of the novel? ||| The character, the person of Wayne/Annabel, started the engine and caused me to begin writing a short story that would turn into the novel.  I met a Labrador artist who had worked a startling and mysterious figure into a beaded work on black felt, and when I asked her about this figure, she told me it was “a hermaphrodite.” She told me people of dual gender were known about and accepted in Labrador as having special powers. I had already begun writing the book when she told me this, but she helped me see a bigger picture, and Labrador was part of that picture.

Did you imagine the other places mentioned in the novel (I mean, of course, the places visited by Thomasina, which you describe to a certain extent) or did you actually see them all yourself? ||| I knew some of the places, such as London, from experience. My dear friend Elizabeth wrote me postcards from Bucharest that I used, with her permission, when describing Thomasina’s postcards. Elizabeth was my friend in St. John’s and she rented her basement apartment to a pair of Mormon missionaries. They came upstairs in the evenings and she gave them tea and cookies and they enraptured her so thoroughly with the Book of Mormon that they converted her and she became a Mormon missionary herself, which is how she got to Bucharest. Elizabeth is an artist and she has the best stories of anyone I know, the most humane and heartrending and compassionate. I beg her to let me use them and every now and then she does. Other places in Thomasina’s travels I researched or imagined.

In my review, I reflected on the myth of the androgyne, because it seemed so obvious to me. I have not seen this aspect mentioned in other reviews. Of course, I haven’t seen all of them! But how does this stand with you? Did you draw inspiration from literature that accommodated the idea of the hermaphrodite? ||| I have always been fascinated with gender, and have always felt a tension at having to play-act at being female. All my inspiration is unconscious, so it’s hard for me to be exact about a question like this. I just know that androgyny excites me and always has, whether in myth and story, or in life. Whenever I see or hear of someone who has broken the prison of gender duality, I feel released, somewhere deep in myself. Every single one of my favourite writers lives or lived beyond gender.

Wayne is written as a boy. Did that make it difficult to you to imagine him, to write his ‘gender-specific’ thoughts and actions? ||| It was the most difficult part of the book. In some ways, I feel it was impossible for me to do justice to this, which is why if you examine the story it becomes obvious that most of the gender-defining comes from people around the main character. In a way, Wayne/Annabel is transparent, and might even be said to be nonexistent. This is why I needed the idea of bridges in the book. The structure of bridges, their substance and their engineering, along with their overarching beauty, loftiness and grace, gave me a sort of whole entity that Wayne and Annabel could embrace and be interested in. I mean, you can’t have one without the other.

A Canadian trapper (a type embodied by the character Treadway)
Source: Le Dernier Trappeur, via
Wayne is the protagonist of the novel, but his father, Treadway, covers a lot of narrative territory as well. And of course, the ending belongs to him too. I don’t have the right metrics to measure this, but it seems that he appears more often than other characters in the novel. Why is that? ||| I began with one opinion and vision of Treadway, as a macho, one-dimensional man. But I based him on several men I know, and I think perhaps because of this, he quickly taught me that pinning him down would not be so easy. He taught me that nobody is one-dimensional. He taught me that love can make a father change his mind and question his own fears, and accept one’s child. He was not what I expected. My editor, at one point (when a fourth or fifth draft was not working), asked me if I should maybe “kill off” Treadway in the second half. I think that when she asked me that, I suddenly knew how important Treadway was, to the book. Her question made me work on bringing out his power and loveliness.

Also on Treadway: he never struck me as a person capable of thinking about murder. He kills animals for a living, but that’s where his capacity to kill seems to stop. He is not violent, he is not unfair, he is not revengeful. And so his determination to punish those who had dishonoured his son took me by surprise. Not that I though him incapable of reaction; but to me he seemed more likely to respond with a reflection rather than such a drastic action. When did that transformation happen in him? ||| I think of that time in Treadway’s mind as the time he regretted that he had not been able to protect his daughter. He thought of the attack as an assault on a daughter, and felt a father’s quiet, poisonous and lethal rage. I think it was fuelled by deep sorrow and regret that he had failed to prevent the violence against Annabel. Also, I felt that he knew the perpetrator would hurt someone else in the future. He wanted to at least prevent this. From a purely practical standpoint, he would dearly have loved to incapacitate the cruel, stupid bully.

To end with, there’s another aspect that I find striking in your novel: reading. Your characters read a lot. And not just each other’s letters, but books, serious books: Aristotle, Diderot, and so on. Is that normal for a man who goes out trapping in the Labrador wilderness? ||| Yes, it is normal for a Labrador trapper to read. I spent time with an old trapper who told me this, and I also heard it from other people. Trappers like Treadway were part Inuit and part Scots, and there was a lot of European influence on the Labrador coast. If you go to some of the coastal communities now you will find libraries full of books brought by the Moravian missionaries, and Labrador is full of fascinating people who combine practicality and deep knowledge of the land with a knowledge of literature and philosophy, as well as music.

Photo for Le Monde, (c) Jessica Auer
This is where our interview finishes. But I have to say I felt, from the very beginning, that I could spend days talking to Kathleen Winter, on all the intricacies of her novel and the specificities of her characters and stories. In order to understand all this, her novel needs to be read. Annabel needs to be on people’s bookshelves. For its hermaphroditism, for its themes, for its beauty.
||| Also, visit Kathleen’s blog, with a title taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, to see her other ways of approaching writing, as well as the other wonderful talent she has: drawing. |||