Kathy Page’s guest blog on realism and the fantastic for fellow author Gail Anderson-Dargatz
The snow has long ago melted (or never really settled) here on the West Coast, and the nights are longer, yet not so warm that you want to stay out gardening: a perfect time for literary readings. I’m taking Frankie Styne and the Silver Man to some great local libraries and bookstores.
29th March, 7 pm, Kathy Page reads with poet Alexandra Oliver at Book Warehouse on Main in Vancouver
5th April, 7 pm, Kathy Page reads with Douglas Gibson at Cowichan Library, 2687 James St, Duncan
6th April 7.30 pm, Kathy Page reads with Douglas Gibson at Russell Boooks, 734 Fort St, Victoria
23rd April, Kathy Page reads in Sechelt
27th April, 7.30 pm, Kathy Page reads with Tricia Dower at Mulberry Bush Books, 28o Island Highway, Parksville
29th April, 10 am, Kathy Page on air with Sheila Peters on CICK 93.9
An Evening with Douglas Gibson (Across Canada by Story)
& Kathy Page (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man)
Frankie Styne and the Silver Man
When Liz Meredith and her new baby move into the middle rowhouse on Onley Street – Liz having lived for years off-grid in an old railcar – there’s more to get used to than electricity and proper plumbing. She’s desperate to avoid her well-meaning social worker and her neighbours Alice and Tom, who, for reasons of their own, won’t leave her alone. And then there is her other neighbour, the disfigured and reclusive John Green, better known to the world as Frankie Styne, the author of a series of violent best-sellers. When his latest novel is unexpectedly nominated for a literary prize and his private life is exposed in the glare of publicity, Frankie plots a gruesome, twisted revenge that threatens others who call Onley Street home. Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is unforgettable: a thrilling novel of literary revenge, celebrity culture and the power of love and beauty in an ugly world.
“A fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Page’s monsters display a more complex relationship between inner and outer ugliness and find redemption in responsibility.”—The Globe & Mail
“Frankie Styne offers a terrific showcase of Page’s singular style (with its attractive high-low mixture of genres), quirky unexpected invention, and attention to the nuances of psychology.”
“This book has the trappings of great pulp … Page’s prose is vivid and alive, with nary a scrap of throwaway writing to be found.”—Publishers Weekly
“Frankie Styne is a taut examination of the complex emotional ties that bind, the methods we employ to distance ourselves, and our ambiguous powers of imagination.”—Time Out UK
“Fresh and engaging. Her writing is crisp and her insights into human behavior are acute.”
—Lynne Van Luven, Monday Magazine
Across Canada by Story
Acclaimed McClelland & Stewart Publisher and Editor, Douglas Gibson, crossed “no man’s land” and entered authors’ territory when he wrote Stories About Storytellers in 2011. The memoir is a fond remembrance of Canada’s elite “literati”: Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Hugh MacLennan, W.O. Mitchell, Barry Broadfoot, Mavis Gallant, Pierre Trudeau, and others. Gibson calls it “a cheerful personal memoir of working with 20 famous Canadian authors, some of whom are still with us.” Gibson’s 2015 title, Across Canada by Story invites readers on a coast-to-coast journey following the Scotsman as he tours the nation with a stage show telling more tales. Often witty, at times tender, and always amusing, the memoir paints a portrait of Robertson Davies, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Terry Fallis, Myrna Kostash, Trevor Herriot and others, with accompanying illustrations by Anthony Jenkins.
His legendary stage presence radiates on the page and his wit, sincerity, and eloquence – a trait that earns him instant rapport with the reader – makes readers feel they are gossiping with an old friend returned from life on the road. Gibson absorbs the landscape, culture, and history of each province he visits, while treating readers to some amusing rendezvous with authors and other locals along the way: He rediscovers James Houston’s riverside distractions in Haida Gwaii; tastes the wine his wife, Jane, is partial to in Prince Edward County; munches succulent peaches and apricots on the Sunshine Coast; daydreams in the Deer Creek sunshine; goes bird-watching with Trevor Herriot on Last Mountain Lake; visits Anne of Green Gables sites in PEI; and you come along for the ride.
“Page’s imaginative powers are electric. She has the ability to analyze the often nightmarish qualities of the human psyche and as a result, Frankie Styne is a taut examination of the complex emotional ties that bind, the methods we employ to distance ourselves, and our ambiguous powers of imagination. She is at once poignant and provocative, stomach-churningly distasteful and yet compulsively readable.” Time Out
“Page is a fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life.” Kirkus starred review
I’m delighted to learn that Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is due for release in Canada and the US in February 2016 and has already earned a Kirkus starred review https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kathy-page/frankie-styne-and-silver-man/.
I’m very fond of this novel, which combines fantastic elements with a (mostly) realistic narrative, partly because it is funny as well as serious, stomach-churning, etcetera. It’s set in a terraced street in small town in the UK, where some very distinctive characters live side-by side and sometimes overhear and/or try interfere with each other’s lives. More details will follow, but here’s what the UK edition said:
“Frankie Styne, the successful author of a series of gruesome killer novels, has lived at 125 Onley Street for many years. Meticulous and obsessive, he lives a life of isolation, managing to keep both future and past at bay.
Next door, live Liz Meredith and her new baby, Jim. Liz has been told by her social worker Mrs Purvis that Jim has a rare disorder, and will never be like other children. But Mrs Purvis can’t see, as Liz can, that Jim already knows things no ordinary person could. Besides, Liz doesn’t want any help from the social services, or from Tom and Alice, the couple at number 129 who seem to want to adopt her – or is it Jim they really want? In any case, Liz yearns to be left in peace so that she can imagine her way out of how things are.
When Frank’s solitary anonymity is threatened, he hatches a real-life plot which, as he begins to enact it, unexpectedly changes not only his own life, but also those of Liz and Jim. Sifting through our collective nightmares, Kathy Page has written a novel that is powerful, humorous, tragic and thoroughly surprising…”
My recent novels, The Find, Alphabet and The Story of My Face, are suspenseful narratives about characters who struggle not only with circumstances, but also with their own natures. It was in Frankie Styne and the Silver Man that I began to explore questions about the nature of identity which have continued to animate my work, and to develop a fascination with the inner lives characters who are marginalized, extraordinary or in some way “other.”
“Exquisite writing .. Page is a fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life. ” Kirkus starred review
“Frankie Styne & the Silver Man resists being put down for the night… I read on, captivated and creeped-out. But this being Kathy Page, I always trusted I was heading away from a nightmare, towards a happier place. This is Felicia’s Journey, with a big dollop of hope.” Caroline Adderson, prize-winning author of Ellen in Pieces.
“Fresh and engaging. Her writing is crisp and her insights into human behavior are acute.” Lynne Van Luven, Monday Magazine
“Great story. Great writing too. You render down the monstrous, gently fold the abnormal into an embrace and make it human… fantastic!” Helen Heffernan
“Each character in the book is horrific, but each in a different way. I was even afraid of the baby! Was absolutely certain that a truly gruesome ending was in story but couldn’t put it down anyway. Ending was perfect. It’s a keeper. Will read again.” Barb Egerter
The Horse on the Road
The road is pretty much a straight one: highway, with various intersections and stop lights. It passes a small shopping mall, a tiny airport, various yards stacked with lumber , a used car lots, garages, two farmer’s markets. To the left: high ground, still snow-capped; to the right, glimpses of the ocean. Houses. Densely packed trees. Occasional fields. What you see most of all, however, is the road itself, signals, blacktop, crash barriers, signage, and, of course, the cars and trucks ahead, to the side, or glimpsed in the mirrors. It’s pass or be passed on a two-way river of metal and glass; the road reels out and on, suspending us drivers in the means to our ends, and active trance, a kind of super-alert sleep… Then the brake lights ahead go on and we’re down to forty, then twenty kilometres per hour. Ten. Gaps narrow. Traffic clots to a standstill, vehicles pack the road ahead solid until it disappears around a bend. All of a sudden we are going nowhere.
Some days, the sky is spectacular, cerulean, stormy, or multiply rainbowed, but today it’s an even grey. We sit under it and wait, each in our metal box. One by one, we switch off our engines, reach for the radio or phone. A grey-haired man in the Subaru next to me winds down his window, lights up a smoke. According to temperament, we rage or resign ourselves. Perhaps five minutes pass before the reason for all this appears: a perfectly groomed chestnut horse – so real that he seems like some kind of hallucination – appears between a piled logging truck and an empty a school bus and trots at a steady pace against the now-stilled flow of traffic. He does not appear to hurry. Choosing always the widest gaps, anticipating, never slackening his pace, he threads his way between the vehicles as if they were simply part of the landscape. His mane floats up and sinks again with each step. Unfettered by any kind of reins or bridles, he disappears behind another truck, reappears and is suddenly just feet away: I look up from my bucket seat at a being from the World Before Cars. I see something far larger than I am with long teeth, soft lips; deep, velvet nostrils; brown eyes fringed with a plethora of lashes. His coat glistens, and beneath it, every muscle seems independently alive… Oh, to climb up there and be joined to him, part of the fleshy world instead of the metal stream. My own, lesser musculature aches for that lost world, for movement itself. All I can do is wind down the window to catch the beat of hooves on the road, the tang of equine sweat as the horse passes, going where he wants to go.
Our engines cough into life. We pull away from each other, accelerate, drive to work.
TC The short story form is chameleon and shape shifting, filled with infinite possibility. The best short fiction, I think, comes into being seemingly fully formed, completely original, sui generis. Who are the short story writers you admire most? What short fiction writers have had the biggest impact on your own work in this form?
KP Yes—one of the wonderful things about the short story is the scope it offers for formal invention, how infinitely various and startlingly new (and at the same time ancient) it can be. Of course, the novel is a shape-shifter too, but brevity makes innovation and radical experiment more feasible, and it certainly makes it possible (though not required) to play around with the way plot is put to work. The short story, in its intensity and in the ways it is structured and read, is as much related to poetry as it is to the novel.
Oddly enough, many of the short fiction writers who have meant most to me have names beginning with C: Carter (Angela), Carver, Calvino, and Chekhov… These are writers who do very different—indeed, almost opposite—things with both the story and the sentence. Carter, for example, plays with folk and fairy-tale motifs but writes in an intricate, baroque fashion, whereas Carver is distinguished by the pared-down style he and his editor arrived at, and by the sheer ordinariness of his characters. Calvino is playful enough to tell a story from the point of view of a mollusc. Chekhov’s characters are so convincing that he can get away with anything: think of the ending of “Gusev,” where the protagonist dies and the perspective shifts to a shoal of fish, a shark, and finally the ocean itself. British writer David Constantine, just beginning to be read this side of the pond, is another C, and then of course there is Joyce Carol Oates, and (moving on to other letters), Kafka, J.G. Ballard and Olivia Butler. Since moving here I’ve encountered wonderful Canadian short fiction writers—to name just a few, Caroline Adderson, Alice Munro, both of the MacLeods…
As for your “fully formed” hypothesis, this is probably a very personal thing. For me, some stories arrive almost complete and others are a struggle to excavate (it’s often a matter of stripping out extraneous parts), but I don’t think you’d be able to judge which is which from reading them.
TC You’ve had a varied career—teacher, carpenter, therapist, lecturer, just to name a few. You’ve also lived and worked in several countries—the U.K., Finland, Estonia, and now Canada. How do the various threads and themes of our lives make their way into fiction? How should we, as writers, treat this real-life source material? Why fiction and not memoir, for example?
KP I don’t think there is a “should” here. What you do with your material and how much you use your own life experience or observations of others depends on whether your interest is in the story and where it can go, or in coming as close as you can to the experience, or the facts, and the meaning they have for you. Intention is important, but I’d argue that even when we try very hard not to, most of us write some degree of fiction. Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest” pretty much sums the situation up, I feel. I’m by nature a fabricator. I sometimes write memoir, or stay close to my own experience in fiction, but I tend to feel uncomfortable doing it. I want to shape things, edit and exaggerate, and I feel restricted if I don’t, and sometimes guilty when I do. It’s better to feel free.
TC If you could spend a full day with one of your literary heroes, who would you invite, and what would you do?
KP Perhaps I’d go for a hike with Edward Thomas, an English First World War poet with “Eco” leanings. He figures in my forthcoming set of linked stories. My caveat is that we’d go in the landscape of his time and place, not mine. Thomas wrote a few short stories, though his poetry is on the whole more interesting than they are. He’s a fascinating character. Often depressed and conflicted at home, he was at his best outdoors, walking or cycling, and was supposedly a great wayfaring companion. Like most heroes, he might be a disappointment, but the landscape would not.
TC In your own career, you had early success, and then stepped away from writing for a time, disillusioned by the publishing world in the 1990s. Eventually, you found your way back, and have enjoyed great success and recognition, winning or being shortlisted for major literary awards. Dire prognostications of the future of books have been sounding in the literary world for some time—publishers going under, bookstores closing, reading numbers seeming to decline in the age of the virtual world. Given this backdrop, why continue to write?
KP I did step away from writing novels, or I tried to. I flirted briefly with writing for film and TV, and looked into a career in social housing management… However, I continued to write short fiction, and in many ways those years were very productive since the screenwriting side of things taught me a great deal about structure, and I made real progress with my stories. A big part of my problem then was that I was with a big publisher who was then bought by a bigger one. I didn’t really satisfy them in terms of sales. The industry was becoming much more focused on the idea of each title being very profitable, rather than the business simply making a profit over all, as in the old days. So I had a feeling of being a disappointment to them: Could I not just do something differently, though they did not know exactly what, and would I please never write a short story again? I felt bad about it. Now, none of this seems so problematic. Short fiction may not be viable in the new hyper-commercial atmosphere, but nonetheless, I and others (including a few very wonderful publishers) love it, think it’s of huge value and know that it connects powerfully with readers: so yes, this is very much worth doing. The readership may be smaller than it is for best-selling novels or blockbuster movies, but that does not mean its cultural value is lesser. We’re so used to the Hollywood model that we irrationally assume everything should be measured and valued that way.
With a novel, the reader steps into a vast and fully imagined world and may stay there for hours or days on end, pulled along by the emerging storyline, character development and so on. I think this is what many of us want a lot of the time, and it can be a wonderful thing. Short stories ask something different of the reader—a particular, concentrated kind of attention and the ability to sense and absorb the story as a whole. Reading a good story is both intense and very satisfying, but it is not the same as being “carried along.” It’s more like a dive into the lake.
Of course, in the current market, short fiction is unlikely to pay the writer a living wage for the time put into crafting it, and yes, there are many competing forms of entertainment. Even so, I think that the important thing is to make good work and get it out, to build and sustain a short fiction culture, which is exactly what we’re doing here, with this contest.
TC In a follow-up question, what do you think is the state of short fiction in Canada today? Are you optimistic about the short story’s future?
KP Yes. I see many wonderful short story writers and a great deal of respect for the short story in Canada. There’s a tradition of story writing, and some pride about that tradition. Canada’s wealth of independent presses, and journals like this one, are a huge force for the good, ensuring that a huge variety of short fiction can appear. There’s a sense of the Canadian short story moving beyond its traditional confines, especially in terms of subject matter. So all in all, I think the ecosystem is very healthy.
TC You’ve written successfully in both short fiction and in the novel. How and why does a project find a particular form for you?
KP My novels often arise out of a combination of a character or characters who won’t go away, a predicament of some kind, and a big question that needs to be explored and elaborated (rather than answered). The beginning of a novel is rather like making a snowball: more and more seems to stick to what I already have; the thing accumulates, grows, and eventually begins to move, still growing as it rolls along. In a novel, I’ll often be interested in the fruits of a particular action over time. My short stories tend to foreground shorter periods of time, and even when they are full of event they are more likely to focus on the architecture, quality and meaning of a particular experience. I always know when I am beginning something whether it is a story or a novel. Once, I did return to a published short story and use the main characters and events again in a novel. In that novel (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, which comes out in Canada this fall), the material from the story is not much changed, but there are many other characters and a much longer timeline which stretches either side of the original idea.
TC Finally, what are you looking for in this year’s contest? Any tips for the short story writers who will be entering their work?
KP I want to be surprised, moved, or made to think, and perhaps all three—to read vivid, original stories that have a powerful effect of some kind, whether that is achieved by subtle or spectacular means. One tip: Leave as long as possible between revisions.
FRANKIE STYNE AND THE SILVER MAN
A pulp-fiction writer, an unwed mother, and a couple with marital problems live as neighbors in connected town houses and correct course in their contiguous lives.
Page (Alphabet, 2014, etc.) builds layers of meaning into her exquisite writing. Her favored themes are here—the stark dichotomies of life, the power of language, the way the social system tries and fails to help people, and how saving grace can come from unseen places. Page sets a theatrical stage of three connected homes, with young unwed mother Liz Meredith living in the middle under the watchful eye of a social worker, Mrs. Purvis. Liz stays up late at night listening to the arguments, the sex, and the reconciliations of her neighbors Alice and Tom while feeding her newborn son, Jim. On the other side of Liz’s house, novelist Frank Styne, disfigured from birth, follows precise routines and writes another book. He is shortlisted for the Hanslett Prize and dreads it, fantasizing a hideous revenge on his agent for the embarrassment of his now-very-public persona. While he writes his pulp, Liz ruminates about her son’s silence. Jim has Spinney’s syndrome and will never speak. She adores her baby in spite of this hardship and calls him the Silverboy who will one day become a silver man—the silver lining her beloved Grammy talked about. This is a pained and damaged clutch of people living within hearing distance, drawn into each other’s lives. “Other lives. It was frightening to think of. Because anything was possible. Really anything,” Page writes. The options come quickly at the end, and “anything” does transpire, all because Liz stayed the course, true to herself and to her “silly boy.”
Page is a fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life.
Kathy Page’s story The Last Cut is online at The Walrus:
“…It’s not often that I read a book set in prison. It’s even less often that I read a book set in early 1980s Britain. Even more rare is that I’d enjoy the combination of the two, but Alphabet is a stunningly well written and deeply human book. The nuance of relationships and character development is hard to equal…. even if Alphabet falls as far from your normal reading subject matter as it does mine, I highly recommend trying out this book.”
Read the entire review here, on this thoughtful and wide-ranging site, A Geography of Reading: