Category Archives: A Writer’s Life

The Horse on the Road

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. 

 

Kathy Page on the short story, an interview with Trevor Corkum

http://www.malahatreview.ca/interviews/page_interview.html

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.

 

The Wishing Tree

DSCF2358While drinking coffee at the Cornerstone Café in Fernwood, I noticed  something flickering in one of the  trees across the road. The tree grew in the paved area by the Belfry Theatre–it was some kind of ornamental cherry,  I thought–low and unusually broad, the  lower ends of its branches either trimmed straight, or  growing in remarkable harmony with each other, so that they all ended a foot or so above head-height. Labels or tags of some kind had been fixed at the ends of  these branches, rather like fruit,  and  they were blowing in the breeze, drawing attention to themselves.  I  soon crossed over to look.

There were at least a hundred  labels, probably more. Most were the old fashioned kind made of cream-coloured card, with a punched hole threaded with   brown string. Others were  improvised from pieces of paper and card, torn or cut  to size and fixed with anything that came to hand.   I took hold of one of them and read: “For my mom to get better and be big and strong like she used to be.” I let go and chose another, which read, “I wish that mermaids were real.” A wishing tree!  I spent  a while reading, moving through “For a day off,” “Mum and Dad to be happy and healthy for ever,”  “To be able to fly,” “That Jake reads this!”  and “To be an DSCF2359awesome father,” to “For Fernwoood to stay  as it is and not be spoiled.”  There was an interesting mixture of childish, righteous, simple, complicated and often deeply personal wishes, and I read on until I came to “I wish my daughter knew me.”

There I stopped, brought suddenly close to tears by the suffering inherent in those six words, and by the way the wish was both enormous and modest at the same time Not loved, but known.  Was it written by a mother or by a father?  In either case,  someone who had given up their child, or someone who had been kept from their child. I remembered the drug users I used to work with in a London rehab. Some of them had lost touch with their children, often out of shame, or given them up to foster care or adoption, and dreamed of finding them again one day when – or if – they were living well again. The wish, bobbing on its scrap of paper, was a door into someone’s life story, and an invitation to imagine. The tree was a book, full of lives and possibilities.

What we wish for should be what shapes our future. It should,at lest.  Did any of these wishes lead to action or to some kind of choice?  Did writing them down make them more likely to be acted upon? What did it feel like to have a wish out there on the tree with everyone else’s, rustling together in the breeze, instead of buried, perhaps unspoken, in a corner one’s heart or mind?

I can’t answer those questions but I can say that it was  exciting  and moving to stand under the tree, reading what people wished for. The wishing tree energizes the entire space around it with human desire. It reminds me powerfully that everyone I pass in the street is full of yearnings, large and small, and that this is a wonderful thing, even though the gap between reality and desire is sometimes painfully wide.

How did the wishing tree come about?

DSCF2362The funny thing is that no one I asked seemed to know, and neither does the internet, though it seems that is it has  been there in some form since 2013.  Was there a visiting community activist or artist, or did someone just  dream it up or hear of something similar, like the idea, buy a packet of labels and  stand in the street to get it started? Did it happen during a festival of some kind, or on a regular afternoon, or over a week or an even longer period of time? Are people still adding wishes?    No one seems to know.  “It was probably just someone  from the community,” the servers in the café told me. Fernwood is a place where people do things such as plant community gardens, start festivals, give things away, so that makes sense.   I noticed that no-one else was stopping to read the wishes. Perhaps they had simply grown used to the sight of them fluttering there, or felt they were or should be private. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to read them all; my thanks go to  those who  thought of the Fernwood wishing tree, and to all those who joined in and made it real.

What would you wish for?

Living in The Mansions

Carlton Mansions

I now live in a forest on an island near Vancouver.  But it has not always been so, and I’ve been meaning to post this piece about Carlton Mansions for over a year.   I understand that the residents are still fighting the council’s latest attempts to evict them from 387 Coldharbour Lane, where I spent some very formative years.

Living in The Mansions

Carlton Mansions, on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton: I lived there between circa 1980 and 1987, and I enjoyed telling people my address. There was the piquant contrast between the two names, one suggesting luxury, the other austerity, and an equally delicious contrast between the stately-sounding Mansions and the reality of the accommodation. The long, thin block of sixteen flats had been derelict and was at that time in the process of turning itself into a housing co-operative. The building, which stretches along the side of the railway line, so close that passengers can see into some of the flats, was riddled with rot and woodworm and had to be gutted. It had shuddering sash windows, a leaky flat roof, lead pipe-work and far too many cats. Those who lived there or wanted to had to put in the time to fix it up. We had to learn plumbing, brickwork, carpentry, window-glazing, plaster work or whatever was required at the time. Most of the materials we used were reclaimed from skips. Until others were installed, there here was just one a communal kitchen, supplied with cast-off vegetables collected at dawn every day from Covent Garden market. None of the hard work was a bad as the interminable house meetings, but the point was, you ended up with somewhere to live, and those, like me, who put up with the downsides of the place were people who either wanted or had to live out the box: artists, activists, and vulnerable people of various kinds.

The flat I ended up with was at the front, opposite the old steam laundry building, with huge windows looking out over the street and the market arcade on the other side. Despite the incessant traffic, the yelling and the music from the street, despite the way the passing trains rattled both windows and floor at least three times an hour, day and night, I felt instantly at home. I knew all my neighbours. If something went wrong, I had to fix it myself, but the affordable rent meant I could take time to work out what I was going to be and do. I’d graduated from university, and had not quite given up on my idea of being a painter. During my years in The Mansions I took up wood-carving as a hobby, but it turned out that what I mainly did there was write. I started out at an evening class at the City Lit, and just kept on at the end of it. Six of us women from the class continued to meet every two weeks, hosting in rotation. Again, there was a great deal of contrast: one lived in a vast converted warehouse flat with a grand piano, views over the Thames and original art on the walls, another in a tiny first-time buyer flat – but no one had as much space to herself, such extraordinary neighbours or such convenient and interesting food shops as I did. We ate, talked, read our work aloud. Over the course of a year or two I wrote my first novel, Back in the First Person, and then another, The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley, both of which went on to be published by Virago Press. I became a writer. It’s still what I do. Writing of course rarely pays well. I wanted a job that didn’t drain my creativity, and since I had enjoyed the building work, I signed up for a four year apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery with Lambeth Council. One of a group of pioneering women in the trades, I emerged at the end of it with a certificate and a good job. By then, The Mansions had passed through the Brixton riots, weathered various other storms and, to a certain degree, matured. People painted their front doors, fixed up window boxes, and even swept the stairs. Some of us grew almost house-proud. Others not. Meetings continued to be tortuous: perhaps not surprising when you consider that the caste of characters included a man who wore rubber gloves on his feet, whom I shall never forget. There was an under-employed actress, a council employee, an art student, an ESL teacher. Right above me lived a wonderful puppet-maker who chipped away at blocks of wood into the small hours. Another tenant was a photographer whose sideline, chandeliers made of recycled glass, propelled her work into the pages of glossy magazines. It was a very good place to be and hardly anyone ever moved out. I did sometimes wonder if I’d ever be able to leave ­– but then, quite suddenly I did. I moved to Norwich to begin an MA in writing, and never returned.

I live in Canada now, teach at a university and continue to write. But for over twenty years I’ve kept in touch. The Mansions is still, as it ever was, both a haven and an eyesore, but now the housing co-op has been there long enough for it to have a history, too. The huge mural on the wall has become famous, and is commemorated with a plaque. Some of the tenants have lived there a quarter of a century or more. So I was a shocked and saddened to hear that Lambeth Council may be about to close The Mansions down and make everyone move on. I only hope they remember that communities like this, which allow the non-conformists, the vulnerable and the artists amongst us to carve out the shape of our lives and make a contribution to the whole are just as vital as all the other kinds of accommodation cities provide: I’ve absolutely no idea what would have become of me had I not lived in Carlton Mansions, on Coldharbour lane.

Paradise & Elsewhere in Upcoming4me

Paradise and Elsewhere  comes out in the USA this month. Here in Upcoming4me  is an article about the background to the book, and how one  the stories, “Low Tide,” was inspired by a trip to Oregon.

For years, I carried the idea of a new short story collection in the back of my mind, yet did nothing about it. Procrastination? Of course, but in my defense, short stories are far harder to administer than novels are. Scattered in the filing system, they lurk in various degrees of completeness: published, unpublished, in progress, embryonic, forgotten; some are crying to be sent somewhere, and others for help, which may include radical surgery or even dismemberment prior to use elsewhere. Add to this that agents and publishers tend to discourage the production of short fiction, and you’ll see that it’s easy to let a year, or three, or five go by, and so I did, until a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of Biblioasis, a dynamic indie publisher described in the Canadian trade press as “the gold standard for short fiction.”

Encouraged, I gathered my stories together and began to arrange them. There were two kinds of writing: the regular realistic, contemporary kind of story, and something else rather hard to describe – stories that have a mythical, magical, uncanny, futuristic or fable-like, quality. I liked both kinds, but had to admit that they did not mix particularly well. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I had two collections, not one.

It was exciting to put the two books together at once, and especially so to see the many ways the fabulist stories in Paradise & Elsewhere connected with and amplified each other. For example, there are recurrent motifs and themes: travel, trade, money and sex: what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate, or on the shore. What are we looking for when we make journeys? What kind of relationships do we create? In one story, a group of media people venture out of the city in pursuit of a story – a journey which only one of them will, barely, survive. In others, travelers return home after many years, arrive at a desert oasis, or visit the relics of ancient civilizations. The stories began to talk.

I sent both books to John Metcalf, the editor at Biblioasis. Within a week he made contact to acquire the realistic collection. I asked about Paradise & Elsewhere, but he hadn’t  read it. Three months later, we began editing The Two of Us and he still had not. When pressed, John admitted that he had a prejudice against non-realistic writing, and said that he tried to discourage his authors from taking that path. Still, I begged, since I already had taken it, would he not take a look? Dreading both the read and the letter he would have to write to me, John agreed to at least run his eyes over the MS.

“Actually,” he told me two days later, “I like them very much. I think we should do them first.”

Asked for an adjective to describe my writing  process, I’d have to pick slow, which may not  at first sound attractive, yet has hidden depths and merits: consider slow, as opposed to fast food. Years sometimes pass between the idea for a story or a novel and its first draft, and although occasionally a story comes out almost whole, others demand numerous drafts and then insist on lying dormant before I can finish them.

Not surprisingly, given its themes, many of the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere originate in journeys I’ve made for personal or professional reasons. I don’t travel frequently, but when I do, it has a powerful and lasting effect on me. I look carefully and think about  what I find abroad, and so you could say that I am a hybrid of the two sisters (one stay at home, one traveler) in my story “I Like to Look.”

One story, “Low Tide,” was written in 2013, but has its origins in a journey that took place five years earlier when we attended a family  wedding in California, and took the opportunity return slowly home to British Columbia using the coast  road. On one of our many stops we visited the lighthouse at Cape Blanco in Oregon.  I have always liked lighthouses­ – the isolation, the potential for drama – and Cape Blanco is a particularly beautiful example, with its shell-like spiral staircase and, at the top, a multi-faceted Fresnel lens. It was a bright but windy day with good views of the wild coast there and I did not want to leave. The lens in particular fascinated me. That evening, I recorded the visit in my notebook, adding that at some point I must write about a lighthouse, and the idea promptly drifted out of consciousness until John Metcalf and I began to edit Paradise & Elsewhere. Two of the stories were, he felt, weaker than the rest and he suggested that I replace them. Although this was hard to hear, I knew that if I accepted his praise, then I should also listen to his more critical thoughts. I was nervous, though, about writing to order, but soon realized I had plenty of ideas slowly maturing in the back of my head.

Every story arises from a variety of elements and comes together through a kind of alchemy.  In the case of “Low Tide,” I began with a feeling that the book, which features several stories set in deserts,  needed water. This led me to an image of a beach at low tide,  and to the selkie stories from Orkney. I’ve heard these tales since childhood and there are many variations, but the essence of the story is that a woman (or it can be a man)  emerges from a seal’s skin and is taken my a human lover, who hides her pelt so she cannot return to the sea. The selkie cares for her human lover, but still yearns for her own kind. I was interested in the idea of a seal-woman who actively sought out her transformation, as opposed to being caught. From there I found my way back to the lighthouse and its keeper, who would be her lover.

Much of “Low Tide” takes place inside the lighthouse and it was a huge pleasure to write about one at last (not exactly Cape Blanco, but close) and to include the Fresnel lens: “A glass beehive, he called it, though also, I thought, it could be a gigantic insect eye.  In daytime, the lens glittered and took on the colours of the sea and sky; at night its many planes glowed, so that it appeared  to hover in the room: a hallucinatory  vessel, a ship that might have travelled from beyond the moon.”

Each story has its story, and this slim book contains many years of work: the ingredients have matured, then been combined, refined and distilled.  I have come to accept that the process is long, as with making wine, fine cabinetry, a garden or any number of worthwhile things. It’s pointless to yearn for speed. On the whole it works best for me when experience is slowly mulled over, absorbed and almost forgotten, then later retrieved and combined with other unexpected ingredients to make something new. I certainly do procrastinate, but in the end (which naturally takes a good long time to reach) that seems to be a good thing.


Kathy Page on the Blog Tour

Arnon Grunberg, from Writers at WorkWe writers may not always admit it, but we love to know how other writers work, and, if my experience at readings is anything to go by, it’s something  readers find fascinating, too. Why should this be?  On the face of it a person sitting, standing (or even walking) at a desk, either typing or staring into space is not a promising subject, but perhaps that is just it: What is really going on?  Can it possibly be as dull and peculiar as it sounds?  No. The devil is in the detail: routine, word-count, early start, midnight oil, inspiration, perspiration, planing, free-fall, cork-lined room, cafe,  music, no music, same music every time…  There are indeed many ways of getting those words on the page.  So  when Barbara Lambert, author of The Whirling Girl,  invited me to participate in this blog tour,  which asks two writers a week to  answer four questions about the way they work,  and then nominate two more writers to answer the same questions, I said yes. My responses are below.

Next up on the tour are Susan Juby and Marilyn Bowering, two multi-talented writers,  both colleagues of mine at Vancouver Island University (though Marilyn  has just left to write full time).

What are you working on?

Battersea Reference libraryI have a story collection, The Two of Us,  forthcoming with Biblioasis in 2015 and a set of linked stories, The Other Man, forthcoming in 2016, so I’m busy with both of those. I’m writing new work at the same time as  researching  for stories-to-be (there’s a historical element to the linked stories)  and revising pieces that are already drafted.  I enjoy having all these different tasks to turn to, and writing stories fits better with  the fragmented nature of the time currently available to me than would a novel. All the same, I do  miss my novel, and write to it in my note book. We’ll get back together eventually, and I know from experience (see the last question below) that the time away is likely to be beneficial.

How does your work differ from other work in its genre?  

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page thmbThe first thing to say is that I write in a variety of genres, and that in itself may be distinctive. In terms of the short story, this year’s collection,  Paradise & Elsewhere is unique in the way it blends myth and fable with contemporary concerns  and solid, believable settings.  I don’t see anything else quite like it. However, the next two collections will  be completely different from it and to each other.  As a (literary) novelist,  I’ve written contemporary realism, but also speculative and historical fiction.   There’s definitely a dark, thriller-ish edge to my last three novels. These are serious books  about very complex characters and they and the issues they face are what interest me,  but at the same time I do have a natural drive to build suspense, and end up with a book that hovers on the border between literary novel and psychological thriller. Perhaps what pulls all this together is that I’ve always been very interested in power, the way  it flows between people, and how the flow or balance can unexpectedly change.  Many of my stories and novels feature some kind of radical transformation. At the same time, story-telling itself  fascinates me and consciously or  unconsciously,  I often tap into the archetypical and mythical, which I  think can add resonance to a basically realist narrative.

 Why do you write what you do?

Madge PageI write what I do because it interests me emotionally, intellectually and, in terms of how to shape the particular piece, aesthetically. As to why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, I can only (and affectionately) blame my family. I’ve been thinking about this for a book John Metcalf is compiling called Writers Talk. There was a great deal of conflict in my family, which includes some dramatic, complex characters. I’ve always credited them, and my mother in particular, for the lessons they unknowingly taught me about writing dialogue; I realize now that  they are also in some way behind the  characters and the kinds of storylines I’m drawn to. It’s because of my family and how it made me that I have an affection for difficult characters,  an openness to the messy, imperfect qualities of human life, and an understanding of the potential in conflict. 

 

How does your writing process work?

Kathy Page in gardenIn a word: slowly. I have ideas and then put them to the back of my mind for years before setting to work, or start to work on something and then realize I’m not ready or have backed myself into a corner so  then  put the project aside for years.  The first half of my novel Alphabet,  eventually a GG finalist, sat in a drawer for almost a decade; it was only when packing to move to Canada that I rediscovered it, saw what it needed and completed it.  A short story I recently wrote for Paradise & Elsewhere has its origins in a visit  to a lighthouse made five years previously, though in that instance the writing itself was relatively swift. The collection itself took years to put together, and many of the stories have been through multiple revisions. Sometimes I’m impatient with myself and send work out too soon, and I always regret it.  Sometimes I wish I wrote quickly and more, but it is fruitless to  argue the way things are, and after all, many worthwhile things, such as wine and gardens, do take a long time to make. As for the rest of it, mornings are best, routine is good, and I can’t work to music, though sometimes Debussy will put me in the right mood.

 Also this week: Janie Chang, author of Three Souls. She is passing the baton to Théodora Armstrong and Kathryn Para 

Next up on my side:

 Marilyn Bowering

A multiple award-winning  poet, playwright,  novelist (To All Appearances a Lady, Cat’s Pilgrimage, What it Takes to be Human) , and songwriter, Marilyn Bowering  recently adapted her collection of poems about Marilyn Munro, Anyone Can See I love You, into an opera, Marilyn Forever, which  premiered to great reviews in Victoria. Soul Mouth,  a collection of poems,  came out in 212.

 Susan Juby

I am jealous of Susan Juby  a) because she makes such great use of humour in all her work and b) because is one of the most industrious and disciplined  and productive writers I know.  She too works in more than one genre. Her  teen sci-fi novel Bright’s Light was shortlisted for a Sunburst Award. Her most recent and very funny adult novel, The Woefield Poultry Collective,  earned rave reviews.

 

Other stops on the tour:

Matilda Magtree 

Alice Zorn

Pearl Pirie

Julie Paul

Sarah Milan

Steve McOrmond

Susan Gillis

Jason Heroux

Barbara Lambert

Reading in Real Time

CNQ88It’s out! The current bright red issue of Canadian Notes & Queries celebrates the work of John Metcalf, writer, critic and editor extraordinaire. Tucked in amongst appreciations of John from Kim Jernigan, Clark Blaise, Caroline Adderson and many others, is a short story of mine, “G’Ming,” from the collection Paradise & Elsewhere, forthcoming with Biblioasis in 2014, and, of course, edited by Mr Metcalf. So I’ll add my voice to the chorus: Working with John is an extraordinary experience, not just because of the blend of encouragement and astute literary advice he dispenses (advice which ranges from scrapping entire stories to moving commas or setting off on a week-long hunt for a satisfactory synonym), but also because it involves going back in time. John does not use the internet and conducts business according to the stately rhythms of Canada Post, with the occasional phone call when clarification is urgent. There are normally about two weeks between sending him revisions and receiving a his considered response in a letter as much as ten pages long, handwritten on thick, creamy paper, with accompanying photocopies from the text, relevant articles and so on, all interspersed with news, opinion and more general discussion.

At first the delay frustrated me, but now I’m converted. Each of us can forget the book a little between readings, and that helps to keep  it fresh. More importantly, this is reading in real time,  part of another person’s existence. The letters make me palpably aware of the book as part of both of our lives. My work is being carefully read, by a man I’ve not yet met who lives halfway across this vast country, and he wants it to be its very best… Knowing this is a powerful thing.

http://notesandqueries.ca/

Biblioasis

It’s done! I’ve  just sent the final edit of the text of my  collection of short stories, Paradise & Elsewhere,  to Biblioasis. Years of work go into a book; sending it out ushers in a delicious cocktail of  emotions, which may include (but is not limited to) satisfaction, lassitude, excitement, euphoria, anxiety, and exhaustion. The net effect could be summed up as a feeling of deliverance:  I’m free, now, to explore something new.

I’m delighted that Paradise & Elsewhere  has found a home with small but beautiful Biblioasis  (Such a lovely name! And so appropriate to this book!) of whom a  Quill & Quire reviewer recently wrote: “If there is a gold standard for Canadian short  fiction in the new millennium, it is probably set by Biblioasis. The press has been at the forefront, season after season, of producing collections by some of the finest practitioners of the form, both veterans and newcomers.”

Biblioasis is a small team of exceptional people absolutely committed to the books they produce. In this instance they have been brave enough to take on a set of stories pitched somewhere between myth and realism and verging on impossible to define or describe.  The collection spans human time from its origins to its later days: in the beginning, there may  have been a garden, an oasis­ – or perhaps an island. And there was sex, money,  and a bargain of some kind, though between whom and how and exactly what  was done, why, and what the consequences have been: you’ll have to read the book to find out.  It comes out in the spring of 2014, which is not so very long to wait.

 

Huacachina, Peru, by Luca Galuzzi g

 Biblioasis

Biblioasis catalogue Spring 2014