Read “Strangers” by Kathy Page, along with writings by Alain de Botton, Jay Griffiths, Nikita Lalwani, Craig Taylor, and others when you download Five Dials 55, On Love, for free.
The Two of Us
by Kathy Page
Reviewed by Paul Headrick in The Ormsbury Review
From Gallant to Kafka
In “The House on Manor Close,” the opening story of this collection, a woman recalls her childhood with an older sister who was obsessed with birds: “I began to think that when she grew up she would become not an ornithologist but an actual bird.” Her fanciful speculation isn’t actually implausible, for in Page’s work we can be in the territory of Mavis Gallant at one moment and Franz Kafka or even Ovid the next. Her characters manage to inhabit the subtly psychological world of literary modernism while also belonging to the unpredictable, shifting landscapes of much older literary genres.
Page’s previous book, Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis, 2014), an astonishing collection of contemporary folk-fairy tales, brought this ancient/modern element into relief, but it’s present as well in these stories, which are more realistic, at least on the surface.
Several that begin the collection are about elderly parents and their adult children. The parents need help that their offspring mostly fail to provide, burdened as they are by old, generosity-killing resentments. “Why are we like this,” asks the narrator of “Snowshill,” after a failed outing intended to cheer her enfeebled father and passive-aggressive mother. “Why can’t we all see how little time there is left?” The grudging reconciliation that follows seems dependent on shared self-deception.
In “The House on Manor Close” the mother exercises a weird tyranny, in part by feeding each of her three daughters differently, rewarding and punishing with dishes they like or despise. When her girls grow up and leave, alienated and angry, she and her husband indulge their passion for gardening, succeeding with plants as they never could with their girls: plants have potentials but not wills. The individual troubles here are entirely convincing while at the same time evoking the force of archetypal generational conflicts.
“Different Lips,” one of the strongest of these enthralling stories, is a variation on The Beauty and the Beast tale, which Page has explored before with startling effect in her novels. The character needing redemption in “Different Lips” is Beauty, not Beast. Jessica is a self-centred, damaged young woman who long has traded on her looks but who finally discovers herself desperate, out of money and friends. She travels across town to see an old lover whom she knows still yearns for her, and she hopes for sex, her only way of making connections.
A funny and cruel reversal greets her, no redemption at all, as her former lover’s lips are grotesquely swollen from an allergic reaction. After their wretched encounter, she struggles to make a last attempt to reach out to him and to save herself. The narrator pauses to describe the scene that Jessica passes:
The cheap restaurants and pubs nearby were filling up. People spilled out on to improvised terraces or else just leaned on walls, glass in hand. A few parents pushed slack-faced, sleeping children homewards, the older siblings, occupied with bright coloured drinks and ice creams, trailing behind.
The carefully chosen words — “cheap,” “improvised,” “slack-faced,” “trailing” — establish a continuity between the alienated main character and the failed world she inhabits, winning the reader’s recognition and deep assent in a way that contributes to the power of Page’s work.
The exceptions in these stories, the characters who are able to love, still feel a pull toward self-interest, but they choose to resist. In “The Right Thing to Say,” Don and Marla wait to discover whether she has inherited an incurable disease and to decide, if the news is bad, whether she will have an abortion. Don knows that he will also need to decide whether he is even capable of staying with Marla. The story echoes a fine Page novel, The Find (McArthur & Co., 2011), in which a couple faces a similar revelation.
In both cases, in the manner of the most gripping of folk tales, the tension-filled situations dramatize a choice that on some level we all must make, with the same ultimate consequences. (The story also gracefully alludes to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” and it’s a mark of Page’s accomplishment that this move doesn’t seem at all audacious.) Don’s eventual response, which forms the resolution of “The Right Thing to Say,” is a brilliantly fitting surprise.
“Open Water,” the final story of The Two of Us and the longest, creates both the most realistically detailed world and the most impressive dramatization of the way that for Page realism and myth are one. Mitch, a swimming coach, gets a big break — out of nowhere, Tara, a prodigy. Mitch must proceed cautiously in order not to put off the girl’s parents, who are unenthusiastic about the extreme time commitment required by competitive swimming. He also needs to be cautious when Tara, on the verge of elite success, considers quitting swimming altogether.
Once again the story is about parents and children. In some ways Tara becomes closer to Mitch than to her mother and father, who are preoccupied with their other children, and with their own conflict — they separate when Tara is in her teens. We learn through flashback of Mitch’s childhood and his own mother and father, familiarly self-absorbed. “‘It’s tough having parents who ignore what you are,’” Mitch tells his wife when recounting his past.
The decision that Mitch helplessly awaits — Tara’s decision — isn’t as life-and-death as the impending news in “The Right Thing to Say,” but still it’s elemental, as the story consistently draws the reader’s attention back to the importance of water and the image of a person moving through it. “‘What the hell is it about?’” Tara’s mother asks Mitch of her daughter’s swimming life. “‘Being in the water,’” Mitch replies.
Earlier, Mitch recalls his lonely childhood at a boarding school that was precisely wrong for him, and the moment when he discovered the school’s unused swimming pool: “He remembers how his heart lifted, how he almost cried when he saw it. Just the sight of the water, the thought of being immersed.”
So Tara’s choice takes on that special Page quality: will she live on land or in water, choose realism or myth? How will Mitch, her proxy father, straddling both of these worlds, respond? With exquisite timing the answer confronts us with the immense stakes for Mitch and for all of Page’s characters in these stories, the works of a master who seems to have tapped into ancient troubles bubbling up in our struggling world.
Link to original review:
GLOBE and MAIL FICTION
THE TWO OF US
BY KATHY PAGE
“One of the most talented short-story writers working today delivered yet another knockout collection that is both darkly funny and terribly sad.”
The Writers’ Trust Best Books of 2016 recommended by Canadian writers
QUILL & QUIRE
Following her 2014 collection of fantastical tales, Paradise and Elsewhere, Kathy Page’s newest story collection is notable first as a demonstration of the author’s remarkable versatility. But The Two of Us stands on its own merits: a group of emotionally resonant, poignant examinations of life and love and – most piercingly – death. Page is a highly skilled miniaturist, capable of pulling off powerful effects by way of simple (though never simplistic) prose and a keen eye for human fallibility and ambiguity. –S.B.
The Walrus Best Books of 2016
Canadian authors pick their favourite reads
On my bedside table are the books I’m dying to finish when I’m done marking: Kathy Page’s Giller-longlisted The Two of Us, Susan Juby’s Leacock-prize-winner Republic of Dirt, and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s truth-to-power memoir, Brown.
This review of The Two of Us ran in the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Sun, probably elsewhere, too.
“Word is, the publishing industry (a business sector conscious of market demand) doesn’t invest much in, or encourage, short story collections. Alice Munro-like exceptions exist, of course, but — word is — that literary genre is regarded as a money pit. In a Walmart world, apparently, any volume of short stories is artisanal, a hand-crafted labour of love: those who seek it out will cherish it, but the majority of fiction readers desire the engagement or satisfaction or dollar value that only novel-length storytelling is thought to bring.
Based on the evidence of Kathy Page’s The Two of Us and Clea Young’s Teardown, though, someone’s mistaken. These collections, 28 stories representing untold hours of art-making effort on their authors’ parts, invite us into captivating worlds. In ten-page allotments, admittedly, but still. Technically accomplished, they’re immersive, emotionally involving (the proverbial laughter through tears), and insightful.
If you’re a short story reader already, here’s another pair to seriously consider. If you’re not, maybe considering giving them a taste. They’re way more satisfying than kale.
For The Two of Us Salt Spring Island resident Kathy Page selected pieces that focus on pairs. Psychologically rich and cinematic in the best way, they showcase Page’s range of interests, clever setting choice, and singular eye.
Usually taking place in the U.K. (where Page once resided), the stories capture assorted moments in time. For instance, just four pages, “Johanna” features the reminiscences of a man whose philosophy decades earlier had been “love often” and “don’t count on me.” Settled now, he wonders if he’d want to meet one of the children he sired. Not quite two pages, “Daddy” relates just an instant in the day of a girl who is about to begin a caving adventure with her father.
Some stories envision intersecting strangers. A lovely scenario, “The Last Cut” portrays a hairdresser shaving the head of a last-minute client, a woman with cancer who then asks for his help in choosing the perfect hat.
Page often examines familial and romantic relationships. “The Perfect Day” follows shifting allegiances between interchanging pairs: a daughter taking her ailing elderly father to a historical landmark with her waspish mother in tow. Her vow — “I intend to keep smiling and move on through the kind of day I want us all to have” — proves difficult to uphold. That story twins with “The House on Manor Close” and “Dear Son,” where the subtle tensions and evolved dynamics of adult children with elderly parents are portrayed with both humour and finesse.
Showcasing lovers — squatters; worried expectant parents with problem DNA; former friends with benefits; an obese couple struggling with prejudice; and a marriage on the verge — Page hints at the myriad possible trajectories any romance might take. Altogether Page offers a master class in fun with numbers, in this case two. She has been longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for this collection… “
It’s also a great pleasure to see this student review in the McGill daily
To quote from it: “Sweet Agony is one of the shortest stories from the collection. Page proves that you sometimes don’t need to write a very detailed and long story to describe a loving relationship and evoke an emotional response. It describes two lovebirds making love on a hot day of summer while no one’s home. The story evokes the feeling of nervousness, confusion and awkwardness surrounding being intimate with one’s childhood crush.”
Short fiction does sometimes garner short shrift in terms of review coverage. It’s a huge pleasure then, to read Steven W. Beattie’s review of The Two of Us for the Globe, which takes the time to explore one of the stories in depth, mentions their “potent” emotional impact, and at the same time defends the genre.
“…Page’s ability to convey large swaths of emotion in just a few simple gestures; she runs circles around authors who work twice as hard for half the reward.”
It’s over a week since I heard from Dan Wells at Biblioasis that my short story collection, The Two of Us, had been short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was a delicious surprise and is a great honour and, but since it happened, I’ve been too busy to post here, and have only been only shocked into action by the Giller Prize tweeting an invite to my website yesterday. This is rather like having your parents visiting unannounced, and a bit of belated house-keeping seems in order, so here I am, – delighted, too, with the first review from Quill and Quire: http://www.quillandquire.com/review/the-two-of-us/
My previous collection of stories, Paradise & Elsewhere was long-listed for the same prize in 2014. The two books are very different, so this adds to the pleasure of the current nomination in that I feel both sides of my writing personality and interests have been in some way endorsed. It’s also great to be part of what looks to be a very strong and diverse list.
Many thanks to this year’s jury, Lawrence Hill, Jeet Heer, Kathleen Winter, Samantha Harvey, and Alan Warner – and also to my editor, John Metcalf, and publisher, Dan Wells for all their skilled work and dogged faith in my writing.
A Tale of Four Storytellers
In this thoughtful and illuminating essay posted on AllLit Up, https://alllitup.ca/Blog/2015/A-Tale-of-Four-Storytellers, Poet Zachary Wells asks whether Canadian culture is old enough to make a literature of fantasy, and concludes with an affirmation that yes, it is, provide we have an elastic definition of what Canadian is, and can overcome the traditional prejudice against work that breaks out of realist bounds. Wells includes Paradise & Elsewhere in his survey of recent fabulist short story collections, which also includes work by Sean Virgo, Mike Barnes, Molly Peacock and Stuart Ross. Here’s what he says about Paradise & Elsewhere:
Kathy Page, originally from England, is best known for her realist fiction. Her recently republished prison novel, Alphabet, has been praised for its gritty fidelity to the prisoner’s experience in the English penal system. Page’s editor, John Metcalf, admitted to her that he has a McEwanesque “prejudice against non-realistic writing,” and was therefore reluctant even to read the manuscript of Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis), which Page had submitted at the same time as a collection of more conventional stories. When she prevailed upon him to give the fabulist book a chance, it turned out that he liked it a great deal.
As have many readers and awards jurors, perhaps because of the very archetypal nature of the collection’s tales. Tolstoy, who looked to the art of the peasantry for models, famously said that “all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The latter plot is crucial to Page’s dark fables. The place where the stranger arrives is not usually a town, per se, but the settings of Page’s stories tend to be hostile, isolated, inhospitable zones. If these are not always “the places where things begin,” as the book’s cover copy proclaims, they are certainly the sort of place, like the Galapagos, where things, be they species or languages or stories, mutate into unique, heterogeneous forms—the sort of place where a stranger’s arrival means trouble.
Indeed, one of the book’s most trenchant themes is the troubled interpenetration of the modern and the pre-historical. In “G’Ming,” the book’s first story, the narrator is Aeui, a teenager on an impoverished island who bilks tourists of money in exchange for “authentic” exposure to village life. While Aeui disdains the gullibility of his marks, he is also contemptuous of his shaman uncle who “sits by the river all day. It seems to me he has no obligations.” The next story, “Lak-ha” is the very brief origin myth for a community that clings to life on an exposed, stony peninsula, supported by the Hetlas tree, the fibrous wood of which, it turns out, is very good for making rope. A chance visit from a foreign ship brings commercial exchange to Lak-ha. The rope trade affords a measure of prosperity to the people, who now “have television, internet, iPod, cellphone, denim jeans, Barbie doll, same as you.”
As in Barnes’ and Virgo’s books, the nature of storytelling, its origins and its future, the imperatives of “objective” journalism or science in conflict with myth, feature prominently. In “Clients,” a fable set in an unspecified future time in which the rage for expertise has infiltrated all aspects of society, a couple hires a professional conversationalist who “doubt[s] that [they] would enjoy a home-grown conversation.” They decide to give it a go regardless and the story ends with them as an Edenic couple, speaking to each other haltingly, making the first hesitant, unmediated forays into language, “a new country, vast, intricate, ours.”
The article is very much worth reading in it entirety. https://alllitup.ca/Blog/2015/A-Tale-of-Four-Storytellers
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.
Kathy Page’s story The Last Cut is online at The Walrus:
From the Biblioasis blog:
We are pleased to announce that Kathy Page’s Paradise & Elsewhere, Catherine Chandler’s Glad and Sorry Seasons, and Cynthia Flood’s Red Girl Rat Boy have all been reviewed in Canadian Literature!
“The genius of [Page’s] book is the way magic seeps into the stories. It seems so inevitable. Somewhere deep in the ancient part of our brains, there must still be a grasp of the connectedness of all things, of the endless flux of creation and destruction.” –Amanda Leslie-Spinks, Canadian Literature
Read the full review here: http://canlit.ca/article/to-paradise-or-elsewhere/
Already a Giller Prize finalist and a CBC Bookies Award finalist, Paradise & Elsewhere is now short-listed for the 2015 BC Book Prizes. It’s one of five titles listed for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.
Daniel Perry on “We, the Trees.” Each reviewer seems to have a different favourite.
“….Uniting the stories’ themes of exchange, translation, and conversion with their steady attention to the natural world (and loss thereof), “We the Trees” stands among the best-achieved pieces in the collection, telling of a journalism professor’s encounter with Joshua, a strange student who is taking no courses other than hers, who never comes to class or follows assignment directions, and who decamps to the nearby forest to study a fungus said to be a network through which all the trees communicate. The mission costs the young man his life, but his final message—seemingly from the trees, through him—leaves the professor with the sudden realization that it will be her who has to convert this supernatural happening into a story the public can consume through the news media. The professor’s epiphany leads to the reader’s own, revealing the young man’s objective: to force humanity to see the destruction of the natural world from the trees’ perspective for once. The bridging of such divides in these stories can explain the collection’s title: in all cases, there is paradise, and then, an elsewhere. The conflict that arises when shaken out of the former gives these stories life—and, like the fables they resemble, profound meaning.”
Beautiful, daring, giddy, startling, intricate, fine, always intriguing, often dazzling – and while neither comfortable nor flawless – immensely fun to read... Dan Vyleta, choosing Paradise & Elsewhere as his favourite book of 2014 in The Walrus
Dark, haunting, truly original… Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury/CBC Best Books 2014
Lyrical, fabulist, sometimes brutally cautionary, unexpected, erotic… Shawn Syms, Quill & Quire
Sensuous, verdant, lyrical, wicked, fresh, exuberant, impeccable, perfectly timed and executed, startling, surprising, horrific… Stephen W. Beattie, National Post
Immersive, eerie, mystery-laden, restless, memorably skewed, neither imitative nor derivative, simultaneously exotic and recognizable… Brett Josef Grubsic, Vancouver Sun
Tight, strange, nifty... Margaret Atwood on twitter
Compelling, unexpected, memorable… Tobias Carol, Volume 1
Transcendent, nuanced, strange, expansive, intimate, remarkable… Dustin Kurtz, Music and Literature
Lush, mythic… Kate Hargreaves, Cover to Cover in Quill and Quire
Expansive, amazing… Leland Cheuk, The Rumpus
Mind-bending, startling, singular, unexpected, capricious, uncanny, boldy illuminating, elastic, extravagantly outlandish… Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Deeply mysterious, astounding, perfect… Caroline Adderson interview with Kathy Page in The New Quarterly
Brilliant, smart, deep, moody, incendiary, wondrous… Literary Press Group, Full of Lit
Well-honed; there is not an image or a word wasted, full of surprises Lynne Van Luven, Coastal Spectator
Heartfelt, shape-shifting… Barnes & Noble Review selection for their Long List, wherein the author was described as “the Alice Munro of the supernatural.”
Beautiful, profound… Daniel Perry, Malahat Review
As insightful as their older counterparts Globe and Mail
Extraordinary, dislocating, dark, wonderful Kim Forrester, Reading Matters
Thanks too to those who reviewed the new Biblioasis edition of my novel Alphabet, which earned starred reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal, and its own collection of descriptors.
You can read/see Tobias Carroll’s interview with Kathy Page for Volume 1 bookstore in Brooklyn here, on their excellent site:
“The stories in Kathy Page’s new collection Paradise & Elsewhere revel in discontinuity. Whether exploring the ruins of a fallen civilization, finding unexpected tension in the interactions between tourists and the residents of the place they’re visiting, or borrowing from folktales to illustrate a tense, wrenching relationship, Page’s fiction rarely goes where you might expect. I checked in with Page via email to learn more about the book, along with her recently-reissued novel Alphabet…
“The Ancient Siddanese” is evocative of many things at once: both an ancient culture and the myriad ways that tourists can take in ancient cultures. Were you inspired by any particular spaces or societies as you wrote this, or was your aim to create something more impossible?
My father had an interest in archaeology, and a quirky sense of humor. He once included some Roman mosaic tiles stolen from a dig he had been part of in the paving in front of our garden shed, with the aim of confusing future archaeologists. But I think it was when travelling in Mexico that I first understood how the explanations concerning archaeological sites depend on the skill and the point of view of the interpreter. Deserts are elemental and extreme landscapes, very compelling, and of course desertification is something that has brought more than one civilization to an end. I’ve been to the Sahara, and other very dry places, but the desert in this story is imaginary. It’s in the future, as well as in the past, because climate change is part of this story: these are tourists right at the burnt-out end of human history, and that gives the narrator, who seeks to create her own understanding of the site, a very particular perspective.
Tourism also arises in “G’Ming.” When did you first realize that the state of being a tourist could inspire compelling fiction?
I do find tourism fascinating: the interpersonal relationships and transactions, the meeting of cultures… In England, where I grew up, lower cost air fares made holidaying in Europe possible in the late sixties. The “package tour” was born…The premise was that everything would be cheaper there and you could live like royalty, as well as see exotic things. I remember playing with local kids I couldn’t speak to, and wondering about their lives. Very soon it was a huge industry. Many of the stories in the book feature travelers of various kinds and look at what happens when they turn up uninvited, or with an agenda of some kind. It’s a huge question: how do we treat the stranger at our gate, or behave towards the local community we are moving through. How does all this change us?
The way that “We, the Trees” evolves over time, paralleling philosophical explorations with an air of menace, made for one of the collection’s most memorable experiences. Where did that juxtaposition come from?
I was fascinated by a recent research from the University of British Columbia, which shows that trees use a fungal network to communicate nutritional needs and to share nutrients. In the story, the idea is pushed a stage further, in that the trees, given the desperate situation they are in, begin to reach beyond their own community into ours. I combined that with the idea of self-sacrifice, and some of my observations of young people at the university where I teach. There’s a huge amount of political frustration about ecological issues.
“Low Tide” has echoes of a number of folk tales, but there’s also a sense of Gothic isolation there. How did you come to bring these two together?
The stories in this collection are instinctively written, more so than is normal for me. I find the starting point, get inside the story, and let the subconscious do the work of finding out where it goes. But looking back, yes, there is something very gothic about lighthouses: isolated towers in remote, storm-tossed and dramatic landscapes. I had wanted for a long time to set a story in a lighthouse. And I was very interested in the Selkie myth, which also calls for a watery setting. So it began with the land/seascape. The lighthouse and the rocks and the water allowed the woman, and then the story to emerge.
Your publisher also reissued your earlier novel Alphabet this year; do you see any points of comparison between it and this collection?
On the face of it, they’re quite different since Paradise & Elsewhere is in the fabulist tradition, and Alphabet is a grittily realistic contemporary novel. But I do see connections, quite a few. Alphabet may not be obviously mythological, but beneath the surface it features an archetypical struggle: a man who has to face his (inner) demon. It’s a story about transformation: the slow progress Simon makes through the prison system and in his understanding and remaking of himself and also, of course, the other, more dramatic processes that another prisoner, Victor/Charlotte undergoes. I think there’s a gothic element to Alphabet, too: the closed world of the prison. Both books look at the question of how we understand and deal with the other, which as I mentioned, is one of my themes. And Alphabet was of course an exercise in entering into a reality very different to my own, just as the stories were.
Of the societies, philosophies, and cultures detailed in Paradise & Elsewhere, which was the most difficult to create?
I had such fun with this book – none of them were difficult to invent. But the subsistence sheep-framing community in “Lambing” was the hardest to spend time in: very harsh and patriarchal, and perhaps rather too real, in a way.
‘Early in Paradise & Elsewhere, her latest short-story collection, Kathy Page places readers in an Edenic oasis of plenitude, communal and iridescent, populated by immortal women—a bubble about to be ruptured by a stumbling heat-stricken outsider. The women of this paradise discuss the intruder:
“Then again, how different was the traveller? . . . We had recognized her as human from the start. Differentness was not the point, some said. It led both ways. Rather, the issue was that she had come from elsewhere and so we did not know her story or intentions.”
Here Page has written a useful gloss of that story, itself called “Of Paradise,” and, indeed, the entire book. In these stories Page gives readers a literature of elsewhere, but one in which difference—or, as above, “differentness”—is not a truth laid bare. Oddity, the fantastic, the cruelty that accompanies them, is not the point. Instead it serves only to highlight a longing, across stories and characters, for a kind of transcendent understanding or (and they amount to the same thing) an escape.
The Canadian author Kathy Page has been compared by critics to Angela Carter, and it’s easy to understand why…http://www.musicandliterature.org/reviews/2014/10/5/kathy-pages-paradise-elsewhere
Of the longlist, the jury writes:
“We’re celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse, generous with their empathy, offering deeply immersive experiences. Some delve into the sack of memory and retrieve the wisdom we need for our times, others turn the unfamiliar beloved. All are literary achievements we feel will touch and even transform you.”
From CBC Books:
Twelve Canadian writers are contending for what has undoubtedly become the richest fiction prize in Canada – the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
In a major announcement from Montreal Tuesday morning, prize founder Jack Rabinovitch said that, beginning this year, the cash awards would double. The winner will now receive $100,000, up from $50,000, and the remaining finalists will receive $10,000, up from $5,000.
“Canadian storytellers deserve this recognition,” Rabinovitch said in a statement.
He established the prize in 1994 (then worth $25,000 for the winner) in honour of his late wife, literary editor Doris Giller.
“I can hardly imagine what Doris would say,” he added.
The 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlisted books are:
- Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu (ECW Press)
- The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins Canada)
- American Innovations by Rivka Galchen (HarperCollins Canada)
- Tell by Frances Itani (HarperCollins Canada)
- Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove (ECW Press)
- Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Random House Canada)
- Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo (Doubleday Canada)
- The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Canada) ·
- Paradise and Elsewhere by Kathy Page (John Metcalf Books/Biblioasis)
- My October by Claire Holden Rothman (Penguin Canada)
- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada)
- The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan (Random House Canada)
You can learn more about the longlisted books at CBC Books’ special Scotiabank Giller Prize page.
The jury described the longlisted writers as being “brave enough to change public discourse” and said they have contributed “literary achievements we feel will touch and even transform you.”
CBC News in Montreal was at the longlist reveal. You can watch a report in the video clip below.
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.
PARADISE AND ELSEWHERE
“The Kissing Disease”“The Kissing Disease” is from Kathy Page’s collection, Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis, 2014). Page is the author of seven novels, including The Story of My Face, nominated for the Orange Prize in 2002 and; Alphabet, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction and scheduled for American release Fall 2104. She is a British writer living in Canada.
Page said this about her story: Well, who doesn’t like to kiss? I’ll admit it cheers me to see other people kissing, too. At high school we called mono the kissing disease, but when I wrote this story I was thinking more of HIV/AIDS. That pandemic surfaced during my twenties. Everyone lost someone. There was a before, and an ongoing after. It was terrible time, but there were eventually some positive consequences: increased honesty and more open public discourse about sex, for example. It was that aspect, the silver lining, that I had in mind.
The story begins with Gary arguing with the radio. My roots are in England, and for decades BBC Radio 4 was the background to my life. No ads, little music, just wonderful voices. Between the drama, poetry and news, panels of experts and pundits would discuss in intricate (sometimes exhaustive) detail the controversies of the day. My family and I frequently joined in and I still sometimes listen online. Gary’s position as the story opens is so vehement that it implies his eventual willingness to enjoy what he thought repugnant. That’s the seed from which the story grew.
Men and masculinity interest me a great deal, as does the way in which, generally speaking, we deal with otherness by separation, as if it was contagious — which brings me right back to disease. Bodies — our relationship with them, the ways in which they may betray or overtake us or be dramatically transformed — are a preoccupation of mine. One of the protagonists in my novel Alphabet is in transition between genders; The Find centres on a woman’s struggles with the onset of Huntington’s disease, and there lies yet another of my many preoccupations: identity. How much can we change and still remain who we are? At what point do we become someone else?
The first reaction to Paradise & Elsewhere: thanks to Charlene Van Buekenhout for a great review, and for the care she takes not to spoil readers’ experiences of the stories by giving away too much.
“…realistic, feminist, apocalyptic, fairytale, cautionary tale, origin story, mystery. She’s got it all, and she is unapologetic about delivering the goods. Author Kathy Page gifts us this incredible collection marking a departure in style for her. She has no trouble fitting in, as though she’d been writing like this for centuries…”
A book about imagined lives, imagined world circumstances, with outcomes imagined using some of our own realities to create clear connections to our own times? I know what you’re thinking: really original — “imagined” worlds? That’s what writers do, right? Well, not like Kathy Page does.
All at once the stories in this collection are realistic, feminist, apocalyptic, fairytale, cautionary tale, origin story, mystery. She’s got it all, and she is unapologetic about delivering the goods. Author Kathy Page gifts us this incredible collection marking a departure in style for her. She has no trouble fitting in, as though she’d been writing like this for centuries.
Yes, centuries. One of the major themes in this book is beginnings. The beginning of a civilization, the beginning of Man (after Woman), or the beginning of the end of the world, or of a relationship. Many of the stories have an ancient feel to them, like parables without lessons. Change, too, is a constant theme throughout, like perpetual Spring (if it ever arrives). So even though the stories deliver some dire news, there is always a little hope buried in there to feel out and hold close, to carry through the journey of the book. In The Ancient Siddanese, Page seems to tell us what she has intended:
I feel how in these last hot days and years the world is full of parables, prefiguration and correspondence. Even half-truths or outright lies hide lessons and examples, and somewhere, beneath one of these dry stones, curled like a bug, is hope.
The first few stories, G’Ming, Lak-ha, and The Ancient Siddanese rely on imagined locations to force us to engage in the story without the layer of real circumstance, economy, politics or history of a real world place. These ancient or underdeveloped places are then fast forwarded to our present technology, greedy, convenience driven, self-destructive times, contrasting sparseness, necessity, and inconvenience with their opposites. Saving Grace is near the end of the collection, but its apocalyptic feel, complete with a desolate future landscape and jaded humans, fits in with these first three. This one involves the media in pursuit of “The Truth. Here. Cheap, Plus free gift!” It highlights the great themes of sensationalism, greed, and destructive curiosity. Plus, free gift, right?
29th April: Long Story Short at The Cultch, 1895 Venables Street, Vancouver, 7pm.
Join short story writers C.P. Boyko and Kathy Page as they launch their latest collections. Kathy Page, nominee for the Governor General’s Award and the Orange Prize, presents what Barbara Gowdy calls a “vibrant, startlingly imaginative collection” in Paradise and Elsewhere, while the Journey Prize-winning C.P. Boyko (Novelists, 2014) will have you rolling in the aisles with what Russell Banks calls “proudly, gloriously, gleefully old-fashioned” literary satire. Hosted by Cynthia Flood, recently shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, “Long Story Short” will be an evening showcasing the work of two of the finest writers in the genre. Free event with bar (drinks not free).
1st May: Salt Spring Island Public Library, 7pm Salt Spring Launch of Paradise & Elsewhere with Kathy Page, free.
May 26: Biblioasis, 1520 Wyandotte St. East, Windsor, 7 p.m. Kathy Page reading with Nadia Bozak
27 May: Barbara Frum library, Toronto, 7 pm Eh-List reading with Kathy Page, free.
28 May: North York Central library, Toronto, 7pm Eh-list reading with Kathy Page, free.
Books will be available at all events!
Paradise & Elsewhere
Stories by Kathy Page
Biblioasis, April 2014
“The rubble of an ancient civilization. A village in a valley from which no one comes or goes. A forest of mother-trees, whispering to each other through their roots; a lakeside lighthouse where a girl slips into human skin as lightly as an otter into water; a desert settlement where there was no conflict, before she came; or the town of Wantwick, ruled by a soothsayer, where tourists lose everything they have. These are the places where things begin… New from the author of The Story of My Face and Alphabet, Paradise & Elsewhere is a collection of dark fables at once familiar and entirely strange; join the Orange Prize-nominated Kathy Page as she notches a new path the through wild, lush, half-fantastic and half-real terrain of fairy tale and myth.”
“Kathy Page embraces and illuminates the unknown, the creepy, the odd, the other and the rest of us. Her unforgettable prose is moody, shape-shifting, provocative and always as compelling as a strong light at the end of a road you hesitate to walk down…but will.” Amy Bloom
“This vibrant, startlingly imaginative collection reminded me–as few collections have done in recent years–of both where stories come from, and why we need to tell them. Kathy Page is a massive talent: wise, smart, very funny and very humane.” Barbara Gowdy
Paradise & Elsewhere is up for a CBC Bookie award in the short fiction category. Voting is open until Feb 23rd: http://www.cbc.ca/books/bookies2015/
This collection has been on some great lists, including the long list for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Dan Vyleta selected Paradise & Elsewhere as his book of the year in the Walrus “Short List.”
“The whole of Kathy Page’s beautiful, daring collection can be read as an invitation to seek out new points of view….It makes for giddy reading: each story’s opening paragraph and unlabelled door that may lead anywhere at all… Attempts at communication across lines of gender, wealth and even species; sudden changes in points of view and their implied reshuffling of certainties — despite the book’s many shifts in genre, protagonist and setting, the collection has a startling coherence… The result is a collection that while neither flawless nor comfortable, is always intriguing, often dazzling– and for all the bleakness it unearths — immensely fun to read.” Dan Vyleta
Read the whole review here: http://thewalrus.ca/the-short-list/
The same issue of the Walrus also includes, along with the above-mentioned review, a link to the last and perhaps most poetic story in Paradise & Elsewhere, My Fees, and a short story of mine, Red Dog (one of the more regular, realistic kind).
It’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.
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.
The New Quarterly is one of my favourite literary magazines and I’m delighted they’ve included “Desperate Glory” in the forthcoming winter issue, TNQ 128. Set in 1933, “Desperate Glory” is one of a series of stories which feature my character Harry Miles; this time he is a boy confronted for the first time with poetry, death, love, loss and the like. Earlier this year I spent time researching for these stories, several of which are set in London, and was able to visit the school that inspired this story, Emanuel School in Battersea. Halfway down the stairs and towards the end of the visit, I had the strangest feeling of being simultaneously in an imaginary/historical version of the school, where boys sat at wooden desks and fought out their differences in the cloakroom, and in the actual co-educational institution it is today, with huge art rooms and all the benefits of modern technology. The story had become real. Here’s how it begins:
He had a window seat, at the front. Morning sun fell across his desk, picking out its fine coating of chalk dust, the marks of his fingers. Stray tendrils of Virginia creeper, a deep scarlet, framed the wooden sash window, the top arch of which was made from four pieces, the careful joints just visible through white paint. He could see the railway lines running to Clapham Junction, the sports fields, fence, trees and buildings beyond. To his right sat Gorsely, behind him, Fitzgerald. He had a close-up view of their new teacher, Mr Whitehorse: of the gravelly texture of his skin and the jagged white line that ran from his cheekbone to the corner of his lip.
“Miles,” Whitehorse said as he marked Harry present, “Do you know what your name signifies?”
The title, of course, comes from Wilfrid Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est.
Thanks to Carole Miles (no relation to the character!) for the picture.
20th June has been proclaimed International Short Story Day – by whom, I’m not quite sure, but the thinking is good: this is the shortest night or shortest day of the year, depending on your hemisphere. UK publisher Comma Press, who emailed me about the day and the celebrations planned, is a passionate champion of the form, which sadly is less than popular with more commercial publishers.
I’m not sure why that is, because the short story really does have it all. It fuses poetry and narrative, can be plot, character or language driven, suspenseful, meditative, funny, sad or all of them at once. In return for fifteen minutes of your best attention, it will crack open a single moment, or offer up an entire life. You can listen to it in its entirety, or absorb it from the page in a single sitting, then carry it whole in your heart.
From the writing point of view, too, short stories come highly recommended. You don’t have to plan. It’s possible to begin with an image, a line, a snatch of dialogue, a character, a feeling – and find the story it belongs to. And the turnaround is so much faster: a novel might take a year or more to draft, but you can have a story down in week, or even a day, then put it aside to read and revise in some slack time three or six months hence. It’s possible to perfect it, and on the way, you can share it easily, ask for an opinion: no-one minds test-reading a few thousand words, and if it ends up in your bottom drawer, that’s all right, too.
Short fiction was once very commercial, and it may be so again. But meanwhile, let’s celebrate. There are so many wonderful short stories: Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lap Dog”, of course. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” “Where Are You Going, Where have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, Italo Calvino’s “The Spiral”. A contemporary short story I recently read and loved was Caroline Adderson’s “Poppycock”, published in the Canadian journal TNQ. The one I loved before that was from the same magazine: “Dialogues of Departure”, by Stephen Heighton. I could go on, and on… But do you have an all time favourite? What is the last short story you read and loved?
Or is it a while since you read or listened to short fiction? If you have fifteen minutes to spare, Comma Press offers some wonderful author readings posted in celebration of International Short Story Day. Long may it continue.
Kathy Page’s short fiction has been widely anthologized, translated and broadcast on BBC Radio. A new collection, Paradise & Elsewhere will be published by Biblioasis in April 2014.
“The rubble of an ancient civilization. A village in a valley from which no one comes or goes. A forest of mother-trees, whispering to each other through their roots; a lakeside lighthouse where a girl slips into human skin as lightly as an otter into water; a desert settlement where there was no conflict, before she came; or the town of Wantwick, ruled by a soothsayer, where tourists loose everything they have. These are the places where things begin… New from the author of The Story of My Face and Alphabet, Paradise & Elsewhere is a collection of dark fables at once familiar and entirely strange; join the Orange Prize-nominated Kathy Page as she notches a new path the through wild, lush, half-fantastic and half-real terrain of fairy tale and myth.”
“Kathy Page embraces and illuminates the unknown, the creepy, the odd, the other and the rest of us. Her unforgettable prose is moody, shape-shifting, provocative and always as compelling as a strong light at the end of a road you hesitate to walk down…but will.” Amy Bloom
“This vibrant, startlingly imaginative collection reminded me–as few collections have done in recent years–of both where stories come from, and why we need to tell them. Kathy Page is a massive talent: wise, smart, very funny and very humane.” Barbara Gowdy
Early stories are collected in As in Music. Her story The Second Spring After Liberation was awarded the Bridport Prize for short fiction in 1994.
By turns poignant and bizarre, shot through with unexpected humour, but also provocative and disturbing, these stories negotiate a skillful path through the border territory between realism and fantasy. In “Just Dial This Number,” Madeline, anger personified, fights a losing battle against the onset of love; in “The Silver Man,” a teenage mother struggles to come to terms with her baby son. A haunting and eloquent collection of short stories, which confirms Kathy Page’s power and versatility as a storyteller.
Published by Methuen, UK.
‘A collection of writings which, through a sophisticated cast of lost souls, studies the meaning of love, civilization, sex battles and kissing. Funny, poignant and bizarre by turn.’ New Woman
‘Accomplished and imaginative stories….show that Page can be every bit as good as Ballard.‘ The Guardian
‘Page has a rare insight into those moments when characters confront the shape and meaning of their lives. The writing is sparse, often bleak, but always poetic and provocative.’ The New Statesman
‘Page’s style is scalpel sharp.‘ The Observer
Other stories by Kathy Page can be found in:
Canadian Notes and Queries, 2013
The New Quarterly, 2012, 2013
Ars Medica, Fall 2009
Great Expectations, eds.Crane & Moore, House of Anansi 2008
Gas and Air, eds. Dawson & Daly, Bloomsbury, 2002.
10 British Women Writers, ed Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, Reclam, 2000.
Signals, ed. Jane Rye, London Magazine Editions, 1999.
Cheatin’ Heart, eds. Longinotto & Rosenthal, Serpent’s Tail, 1999.
Wild Ways, eds. Margo Daly & Jill Dawson , Sceptre, 1998.
New Writing Six, eds. A.S Byatt & Peter Porter, Vintage, 1997
The Bridport Prize Anthology, 1996
New Writing Five, ed. Christopher Hope and Peter Porter, Vintage, 1996.
Back Rubs, ed. Alison Cambell et al, Serpent’s Tail, 1996.
Class Work, ed. Malcolm Bradbury, Heinemann, 1995.
The Bridport Prize Anthology, 1994
Outsiders, ed. Michel Blackburn, Sunk Island, 1994.
The Wild Woman Reader, ed. Sue Thomas, Overlook, 1994.
Best Short Stories 1993, eds. Giles Gordon & David Hughes, Heinemann, 1993.
New Writing Two, eds. Malcolm Bradbury & Andrew Motion, Minerva, 1993.
The Minerva Anthology of C20 Women’s Writing, ed. Judy Cooke Minerva, 1992