The Story of My face, the first of Kathy Page’s novels to appear in Canada is now available again in a new edition from Biblioasis. “A marvellously well-crafted book, subtle and measured yet with the powerful tug of deep and dangerous water…” Sarah Waters.
Dear Evelyn has been nominated for the City of Victoria Butler Prize. Nominees are as follows:
Robert Amos (non-fiction) – E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island (TouchWood Editions)
Lorna Crozier (poetry) – God of Shadows (McClelland & Stewart)
Esi Edugyan (fiction) – Washington Black (Patrick Crean Editions)
Darrel J. McLeod (biography) – Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre)
Kathy Page (fiction) – Dear Evelyn (Biblioasis)
The nominees will be celebrated and the winner announced at a Gala in Victoria on October 9th beginning at 7:30 at the Union Club in Victoria. Tickets available. Full details here.
A thoughtful article about the way Dear Evelyn moves through its ninety year time span:
Kathy spoke with Sheryl Mackay on CBC’s North by Northwest in early December. Here’s the episode. The interview begins at 02:09:03
The Literary Hoarders’ end of year review:
Harry and Evelyn are 1 in Most Memorable Characters, the book is 3 in Most Beautifully Written Book, 5 in Best Books Read and 5 in Top CanLit….Even the jacket gets an honourable mention. Thanks, Penny! http://www.literaryhoarders.com/pe…/2018-year-end-in-review/
A Globe 100 Best Book of the Year:
“Although the historical events of its backdrop, the Second World War in particular, clearly influence the family’s lives, the story remains personal and intimate in focus. What this painstaking and painful account of a marriage relies on, as much as its period detail, is its precise ruminations on the nature of affection and resentment, and on how love can persist in the face of cruelty.” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-the-globe-100-our-favourite-books-of-2018/
One of five Quill & Quire Critics’ Corner Books of the Year:
“Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn, a beautifully crafted portrait of a marriage, is definitely one of my books of the year. The novel depicts its characters’ journey from love to alienation with ruthless clarity, but it also fosters the kind of tenderness toward them that we all hope to find in our own imperfect lives.” https://quillandquire.com/omni/books-of-the-year-2018-critics-corner/?fbclid=IwAR3bOQtfaO4cpWNRX5KhHtqgM1IaE-B3icOkmFkF6oDzN9-i7Uzmy3GMROQ
CBC Books Winter Reading List: 15 Canadian Books to Read This Season:
“Winner of the 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Dear Evelyn is the story of a war-time marriage that withers over the course of 70 years. Harry Miles is an English poetry lover who falls in love with Evelyn, the ambitious daughter of an alcoholic, before shipping off to serve in the Second World War. “ https://www.cbc.ca/books/the-cbc-books-winter-reading-list-15-canadian-books-to-read-this-season-1.4914771?fbclid=IwAR3Vst4C5vq8pVoKN3BflDpIvUsyI4rscG6U61iJLpKGZ47aR_qWEFcKbow
The Toronto Star’s Top Ten Books of 2018:
“Page won the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize for this book, an historical fiction novel that was at once deeply personal, based, as it was, on her own parents’ letters, and that touched a profound emotional chord…. ”
Kirkus Best Fiction of 2018
“A searching, and touching, depiction of the places where married lives merge and the places where they never do.” https://www.kirkusreviews.com/issue/best-of-2018/section/fiction/?page=9&fbclid=IwAR0l3EF90YcoUg7ApGnTjivEFO0fcoFvPgF1lQAKA6gzFkzkO-39WmM09vc
49th Shelf Books of the Year 2018:
“Kathy Page has written a story of a marriage that spans the time period between the WWI and WWII and after, a lifetime of this couple, Evelyn and Harry, whose characters are so well drawn that you feel you are inside of their story. Their relationship just barely gets started when Harry, after enlisting, is sent off to fight in Tunisia. And we follow Harry there through his letters home to Evelyn. This is not a perfect marriage, but this is a perfect telling of it!”
Winnipeg Free Press Top of the Pile:
“Dear Evelyn is a smartly written portrait of a 70-year marriage between Harry and Evelyn set against a backdrop of a world war and the decades that came after. Sometimes sweet and sometimes painful, it is likely to leave readers with a tear in their eye.”
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:
For some time now I’ve had to turn down requests to work with other writers on their MS, but here is a wonderful opportunity: Banff Writing Studio. I’ve taught at Banff before and can’t wait to return: dedicated students, gorgeous environment, and no distractions—other than the great hikes and delicious meals.
“This program is designed to offer the freedom of unstructured time in accordance to each individual participant’s needs and desired outcomes, in addition the opportunity to work with our esteemed faculty mentors during the five-week program.
Writing Studio also features a weekly reading series, as well as one-on-one sessions with a voice and relaxation instructor to help participants develop their public reading skills.”
As part of Canada 150 celebrations at Blackburn lake, Salt Spring Island, on 2nd July at 10 am, Kathy Page will be reading from her story “We the Trees” and and talking about the inspiration for the story, as well as offering a nature-writing workshop. This is part of a two day program of arts and nature events organized by the Salt Spring Island Conservancy. All welcome, free event.
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.”
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
The snow has long ago melted (or never really settled) here on the West Coast, and the nights are longer, yet not so warm that you want to stay out gardening: a perfect time for literary readings. I’m taking Frankie Styne and the Silver Man to some great local libraries and bookstores.
29th March, 7 pm, Kathy Page reads with poet Alexandra Oliver at Book Warehouse on Main in Vancouver
5th April, 7 pm, Kathy Page reads with Douglas Gibson at Cowichan Library, 2687 James St, Duncan
6th April 7.30 pm, Kathy Page reads with Douglas Gibson at Russell Boooks, 734 Fort St, Victoria
23rd April, Kathy Page reads in Sechelt
27th April, 7.30 pm, Kathy Page reads with Tricia Dower at Mulberry Bush Books, 28o Island Highway, Parksville
29th April, 10 am, Kathy Page on air with Sheila Peters on CICK 93.9
An Evening with Douglas Gibson (Across Canada by Story)
& Kathy Page (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man)
Frankie Styne and the Silver Man
When Liz Meredith and her new baby move into the middle rowhouse on Onley Street – Liz having lived for years off-grid in an old railcar – there’s more to get used to than electricity and proper plumbing. She’s desperate to avoid her well-meaning social worker and her neighbours Alice and Tom, who, for reasons of their own, won’t leave her alone. And then there is her other neighbour, the disfigured and reclusive John Green, better known to the world as Frankie Styne, the author of a series of violent best-sellers. When his latest novel is unexpectedly nominated for a literary prize and his private life is exposed in the glare of publicity, Frankie plots a gruesome, twisted revenge that threatens others who call Onley Street home. Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is unforgettable: a thrilling novel of literary revenge, celebrity culture and the power of love and beauty in an ugly world.
“A fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Page’s monsters display a more complex relationship between inner and outer ugliness and find redemption in responsibility.”—The Globe & Mail
“Frankie Styne offers a terrific showcase of Page’s singular style (with its attractive high-low mixture of genres), quirky unexpected invention, and attention to the nuances of psychology.”
“This book has the trappings of great pulp … Page’s prose is vivid and alive, with nary a scrap of throwaway writing to be found.”—Publishers Weekly
“Frankie Styne is a taut examination of the complex emotional ties that bind, the methods we employ to distance ourselves, and our ambiguous powers of imagination.”—Time Out UK
“Fresh and engaging. Her writing is crisp and her insights into human behavior are acute.”
—Lynne Van Luven, Monday Magazine
Across Canada by Story
Acclaimed McClelland & Stewart Publisher and Editor, Douglas Gibson, crossed “no man’s land” and entered authors’ territory when he wrote Stories About Storytellers in 2011. The memoir is a fond remembrance of Canada’s elite “literati”: Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Hugh MacLennan, W.O. Mitchell, Barry Broadfoot, Mavis Gallant, Pierre Trudeau, and others. Gibson calls it “a cheerful personal memoir of working with 20 famous Canadian authors, some of whom are still with us.” Gibson’s 2015 title, Across Canada by Story invites readers on a coast-to-coast journey following the Scotsman as he tours the nation with a stage show telling more tales. Often witty, at times tender, and always amusing, the memoir paints a portrait of Robertson Davies, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Terry Fallis, Myrna Kostash, Trevor Herriot and others, with accompanying illustrations by Anthony Jenkins.
His legendary stage presence radiates on the page and his wit, sincerity, and eloquence – a trait that earns him instant rapport with the reader – makes readers feel they are gossiping with an old friend returned from life on the road. Gibson absorbs the landscape, culture, and history of each province he visits, while treating readers to some amusing rendezvous with authors and other locals along the way: He rediscovers James Houston’s riverside distractions in Haida Gwaii; tastes the wine his wife, Jane, is partial to in Prince Edward County; munches succulent peaches and apricots on the Sunshine Coast; daydreams in the Deer Creek sunshine; goes bird-watching with Trevor Herriot on Last Mountain Lake; visits Anne of Green Gables sites in PEI; and you come along for the ride.
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.
Alphabet, first published in the Uk in 2004 and in Canada in 2005, when it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, is now available in the US for the first time, and receiving great reviews, including stars from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal. It was a pick for the Indie Next List in December 2014: http://www.bookweb.org/news/december-2014-indie-next-list-preview
Back in Canada, Biblioasis are including it as part of their new and ambitious reprint series, and so the book comes in two jackets: for the USA an edgy one based on typewriter fonts (the main character, Simon, acquires typewriter early in the book), and in Canada, one that suits the overall design for the reprint series.
Biblioasis are re-issuing Alphabet as part of their new reprint series. It will be available in print and e-book and is all set to reach to a new readership south of the border this fall. We wrestled briefly with how to present a book that is steeped in British slang, idiom, culture and history in the USA: should we”translate” phrases and words that might be unfamiliar, or trust the reader to enjoy the difference and bridge the gaps? We chose trust, and so far the response has been very positive. Information has gone up in Publishing Perspectives, interviews and reviews are in the pipeline and the book can be pre-ordered online.
In 2004, years before Orange Is the New Black, Canada’s Kathy Page published, to great acclaim, her novel Alphabet, a ground-breaking look at prison and transgender issues. This fall, Biblioasis will be publishing the first American edition, a book that Kirkus Reviews recently called, “A moving novel about knowledge, self-awareness and the power of words, set in the purgatory of prison. This young man’s life demands our attention and refuses to let go … powerful … simply an epiphany.”
The author recently sat down for an interview with her publisher where she discussed the creation of the lead character, Simon Austen, writing transgender characters, and the possibility of change.
You once commented that it felt like you “spent the three years it took to complete Alphabet co-habiting with a dangerous man,” and over the course of the novel it becomes clear that you have both extraordinary sympathy and affection for him, as well as a (perhaps personal?) understanding of why the other characters in his life keep him at arm’s length. Were you ever tempted to walk away?
Simon’s ability to set alarm bells ringing and evoke profound sympathy at the same time – that combination of vulnerability, charm and dangerousness – is where the book began. It was the thread I followed all through the story, and the experience of ambivalence, of attraction and wariness or even revulsion, is what I hope to create for the reader. The book arose from a year I spent as Writer in Residence in a men’s penitentiary in the UK. The men I worked with were serious, violent offenders, and many of them were themselves the victims of child abuse, neglect and so on. One young man serving a life sentence told me that the that the penitentiary was actually the best place he had ever lived in. Since I was in a supportive role, providing an activity that helped the time to pass, those I worked with were often appreciative of my efforts with them. I could feel very sympathetic. But I had access to the records, too, and I chose to look at them (many of my colleagues in the education department preferred not to), so I could also be utterly horrified by the actions of that very same person I felt so sorry for. So it was not a matter of either or, but of both. I knew that already, in an intellectual way, but in the penitentiary, and in writing Alphabet, it was a matter of experiencing it, and in his case, of wanting him to come through, but knowing he might not. Now to answer your question simply, yes. I began the book not too long after my experience in the penitentiary, and I wrote the early material in the first person. This made me inhabit in a very intense way the more dangerous side of the character; it or he was too much for me, and that was one of the reasons I put the book aside. When I returned to it later I used a close third person which gives me and the reader a little more distance.
One of the key conflicts in Alphabet derives from Simon’s longing to connect with someone, and the ways in which that longing is misunderstood, mistrusted, deemed inappropriate, or outright rejected by the people in his life. To what degree is this conflict a universal one? What makes Simon’s case unique?
Well, the drive to connect does seem pretty much universal. But as the reader gradually learns, Simon has committed a horrific crime and it is quite possible that he could do the same again. He may have been unfairly rejected, but he’s also very manipulative. He may want to connect, yet he has much to learn. One section of the novel takes place in a therapeutic prison for sex offenders where the authorities blunderingly attempt to fix him.
It’s only been recently that the needs of trans persons, trans children, and particularly transgendered inmates have received attention—some good, some bad—within policy and health care debates. Some of this is attributable to the popularity of trans actor Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and some from the controversy when, in January of 2014, a Massachusetts federal court of appeal mandated the reassignment surgery of convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek. Could you comment on the character of Charlotte (formerly Vic)? Where did she come from? Why was it important for the person who helps Simon through his intimacy issues to be transgendered?
I didn’t know, when I began the book, how it would end, though I sensed it would not be a walk in the sunset with everything tidily resolved. At one point I thought he would end up working in a laundromat. Charlotte came along when I was more than halfway through writing the third person version of the book. I came upon a newspaper report about someone in transition who was marooned in the hospital in a men’s penitentiary “for his own protection” while fighting a legal battle to be incarcerated with women. It seemed such an extraordinary thing, and a situation that demanded extreme courage and openness. I don’t want to romanticize trans people, but in my imagination at least there can seem to be an almost mythical quality to those who, with tremendous effort, cross gender boundaries and move from one life to another. Change, whether it’s possible at all, and if so, how much we can transform ourselves, has always fascinated me. So I was very curious as to what would happen when Simon woke up in his hospital bed with Victor in the process of becoming Charlotte in the bed opposite. It’s one of those encounters that comes at the right moment. Simon has struggled and suffered considerably by the time the two meet; he feels a connection with Charlotte because of what she is going through. She is open-minded, brutally honest and kind, at the same time, very fierce: that’s key. She would never be afraid of him. I felt and thought about it mostly in terms of character as I wrote, but in retrospect, I can see that perhaps what Charlotte does is allow him to reinvent his relationship with the “opposite” sex. Since it is not longer exactly or simply opposite, and it can be seen as a made thing, there is freedom for them to begin again, and make it their own.
The concept of change and transformation is important to this novel, yet often it seems as if both Simon and Charlotte, rather than changing in an essential way, instead alter the learned behaviors and/or physical traits that previously have inhibited their self-realization. How deep do their changes go? By the end ofAlphabet, do you see Simon and Charlotte as new people, or rather as people more free to be themselves? And if the latter, how does that complicate the way we think about prison, rehabilitation, and therapy?
This is a very interesting set of questions. I see both characters, but especially Simon, as just beginning to become what they might be. Nothing is certain. He might still regress or lapse; he could continue inching forwards and become an ordinary decent person who will always struggle with a terrible past, or even someone who does something extraordinary, a hero of some kind. In the end, I’m somewhat optimistic about him because the one quality that seems fundamental him is his desire to connect. I intend to write about him (and Charlotte) again. I was struck, when I worked in the penitentiary, by the sheer scale of the stated task: to take dangerous offenders in at one end of the system, and have them emerge decades later not worse, but better, and ready for reintegration into society. In practical terms this means dealing with traumatic childhood experiences, gaining an education of sorts, at the same time as unpicking and unlearning whole ways of being and thinking, and learning how to have relationships—all of this in an environment that’s both physically and psychically very challenging, actively hostile, even, to the kind of openness and trust required. So living up to the mission statement is very, very difficult. I wondered whether it was even possible and what it would be like to go through so much change. I wrote the book to imaginatively explore those questions. During my time “inside” I decided to give up smoking, something I had been meaning to do for a long time. I found it very difficult indeed. So I have great respect for those in prison systems, staff and inmates, who do try to bring about positive change.
You’ve spent time in a high-security men’s penitentiary, and spent considerable time thinking about Simon’s experience of incarceration. What does prison reveal about people that other settings and conditions may not? Do you think the way we think about incarceration has changed much since the late eighties, and if so, how?
What do we do with those who hurt us and why? The answers depend on where you live: Turkey or Sweden, for example. Even within the UK or USA institutions and regimes vary a great deal. Even in its milder forms, however, incarceration is something that will test a person’s resources to the utmost. In that sense it makes great drama. An inmate has to fight for survival and will discover how able (or not) she or he is to make something of what little is there. The senses are starved, relationships are limited and involuntary, it’s brutal, dangerous, depressing and tedious. Incarceration, while it keeps the offender off the street, tends also to be very destructive. For some, like Simon, it may sometimes also present an opportunity in terms of new learning. Simon is illiterate when he enters the system, and learning to read does open many doors for him: though again, given who he is, that’s a double-edged sword. On the whole people think very little about incarceration: it’s a matter of out of sight, out of mind. But when populations rise, or when there are clear inequalities in the way people end up behind bars, the issues and choices become harder to ignore. Given the enormous costs, human and economic, of locking people up, it’s clearly important to consider what we are trying to do with it, and how successful it is.
In a piece for Storyville you comment that, when you wrote a story called “The Kissing Disease” (Paradise & Elsewhere, 2014), you were thinking of HIV/AIDS. “That pandemic surfaced during my twenties,” you commented. “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.” How does the AIDS crisis of the 80s figure in Alphabet? What is it about that period you find so compelling?
Well this was a time of great struggle, ideological, political and religious too; the way we responded emotionally and in terms of public health to HIV AIDS was caught up in all that. In the UK, Thatcherism was in the ascendant. In many ways it felt like the end of civilization as we had known it. There were riots on the streets and in the prisons, too. At a time when we needed to act together, we were being told there was “no such thing as society,” but fortunately the department of Health and Social Security in the UK did not take up the mantra and the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign with TV ads and posters reached pretty much everyone, including inmates in penitentiaries. AIDS is a huge issue behind bars, though it’s not a major theme of Alphabet; you get a sense of it as part of the eighties though, through the bits of news, posters and so on that make their way “inside.”
2014 will mark the first American publication of a prison novel that appeared in Canada and the UK in 2004, was written between 2001-2004, and draws on direct experience from the time you spent with inmates ten years prior to that. Do you think readers are more willing to approach this story in 2014 than they would have been in twenty years ago? If you were to approach Simon Austen’s story today, how do you think it would be different?
I think that people are more open thinking about the issues and questions at the heart of Alphabet than they used to be. On the other hand, I don’t think Simon’s story would be much different now, though Charlotte’s would be.
If you could choose one thing for your reader to take away fromAlphabet, what would it be?
A rich sense of complexity and possibility. One of the things that drove me wild when I worked with inmates was the way they used phrase “end of story.” It would be used to suggest what was to follow and its inevitability: a man caught his wife in bed with someone else, and so, “end of story,” beat her to a pulp. Or he opened the door to the arresting officer, fought, was overpowered and ended up inside, where nothing more would happen until he was released. I hated the phrase because it seemed to me that a) something else could have happened, and b) the story was never over. Even inside the penitentiary, a new story could begin, which is what Alphabet is about.
‘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
ISBN ( Paperback ): 978-1-927428-93-1 Category: Fiction
by Kathy Page
Simon Austen is serving life imprisonment for the murder of his girlfriend in a fit of uncontrollable rage. It’s Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s England, but he is lost in time, attending sessions with institutional psychiatrists who might be able to help him gain parole. He learns to read with the aid of a prison volunteer and writes letters for his fellow inmates to lawyers, mothers and lovers, considering it his job. He also writes his version of his life story, tattooing his body with the words others have called him in spite and hate: “ARROGANT,” “WEIRDO,” “BASTARD,” “COLD,” “MURDERER.” Then “COURAGEOUS,” inspired by Bernadette “Bernie” Nightingale, a counselor he fantasizes about and works with to enter an experimental program that may move his parole forward. Page writes fiercely, drawing a fine portrait of a man who lives daily, routinely, fragilely in an environment that can erupt in violence at any time. It does, in a powerful scene where Simon is gang-beaten, has bleach poured down his throat, and is sent to a hospital, where all we’ve learned about him is dramatically, but tenderly, unsettled. Vic is his roommate in the prison hospital and an unforgettable character as he transforms into Charlotte, disrupting Simon’s view of life’s predictability and moving him to a greater understanding. Charlotte is freed, figuratively and literally, but writes letters and visits Simon, giving him strength and a vision of life outside the cement and steel of incarceration and the confinement of his own history. The words that are inked over Simon’s body are simply prologue to the next chapter of his life. Page doesn’t sentimentalize the cruelty of life in a prison system but manages to transcend it through Simon, who writes his own story in tattoo ink and letters. This powerful novel is simply an epiphany.
Publisher’s Weekly, starred review:
Vicky Grut has been a friend and colleague of mine for almost as long as I’ve been writing. We first met when I was living at Carlton Mansions in Brixton, and later lived next door to each other. She’s a wonderful teacher and writer , and even though we live thousands of miles apart we still occasionally exchange work for a critique and appreciate each other’s eagle-eyes.
Writing Lives is fun, practical weekend workshop for anyone seeking a fresh approach to writing from real experience – their own or other people’s. Over the course of the two days, using a mix of writing exercises, feedback and focused discussion, we will experiment with story-telling techniques, pace, theme and characterization, as well as exploring different ways of structuring material. We’ll also help you decide whether the story you want to tell would work best as fiction or non-fiction. Sunday morning will be set aside for a writing exercise inspired by a specific London location. We reconvene in the afternoon to hear the resulting pieces of writing, give feedback and share final thoughts. The group is limited to 12 participants, and the central London venue, near Blackfriars, is close to trains, busses and tube.
Workshop times: Saturday 15th: 10.30am – 5pm. Sunday 16th: morning for writing; 2pm – 4.30pm for the final session.
I’m looking forward very much to workshops in Scotland, Norwich and London all taking place in June 2013. I’m delighted to be co-tutoring with Marilyn Bowering at Moniack Mhor, and with Vicky Grut in London.
14th June, 2013: Workout for the Novel, day workshop at Writers’ Centre Norwich
15 + 16 JUNE 2013: WRITING LIVES: memoir, creative nonfiction, fiction a weekend workshop with Vicky Grut and Kathy Page
Venues and self-organized groups are very welcome to be in touch regarding workshops and courses in 2013/2014. I have to protect my writing time this year, and while I will have some time for mentoring/MS consultancy, I don’t plan to offer my online or face to face workshops unless the venue, registration etc. is already organized, leaving me with just the fun part to do…
This piece, published in Carte Blanche, centres on a day out with two nonagenarians: one of the last excursions my parents and I took together. http://carte-blanche.org/the-perfect-day/
In the late afternoon, our pale blue boat slipped away from the bleached wooden jetty. Pekka rowed; Markku picked in slow motion through the jumble of fishing gear. No one in the Ålands uses outboards unless they have to and the absence of human noise is one of the special virtues of the place. You can hear only the birds, the wind in the pine and birch trees, the oars as they dip into the water.
Tuija and I sat on the jetty and watched the boat slip into a narrow channel of deepish water marked by sticks planted in the fine soft mud below. It wove its way between several islands, some no bigger than the boat itself, others half a mile or so in length, and then entered the narrow corridor that passes through the middle of a reed bed. No doubt Pekka and Markku would be disturbing the oily and agile water rats, sending them skeltering to their muddy burrows in the reeds’ matted roots. The whispering reeds, which rise to six or seven feet, cast the water in rich green shadow and the boat’s blue deepened from eggshell to aquamarine. It became more difficult to see, and then, as the passage turned slightly to the left, disappeared from sight. We walked back over the rocks, too hot now for bare feet. The wooden sauna hut cast a welcome strip of shadow.
“We just have to wait, now,” said Tuija contentedly. “If you go off, make plenty of noise because I saw snakes this morning.” She closed her eyes, signalling her desire to enjoy solitude; something every Finn understands. Finland is a relatively empty country, but having so much space seems only to create the appetite for yet more, especially in summer. Life in the almost antiseptically clean cities is highly civilised. The freezing, lightless winters necessitate hermetically draught-proofed buildings: layer on layer of concrete, glass, trapped air and insulation between each person and the world. But here, in summer, the horizon stretches away creating an almost limitless sense of space. The light is intense, very white, and the days are long. At midnight the sky is dusky: by three a.m. it is light again.
We have been on the island for over a fortnight now, spending the hours between breakfast and supper respectfully apart; one with the binoculars, another with a book, someone else in the boat.
Only the largest of the hundreds of Åland Islands have names; this one does not. Like many of the others it is owned by a fisherman. The only sign of modernity is the solar panels on our cabin roof. None of the nearby islands are inhabited by human beings, though plenty of birds set up home.
Opposite, a pair of swans have nested. The nest, about a foot high, is as neat as a wicker basket. The swan sits, statuesque, winding her head watchfully through the whole 360 degrees while her mate swims in shallows thick with tiny fish. Our fish, when it arrives two or three hours later is a three kilo pike, muddy green. It has a bony, tapered head and a huge, sulking jaw. “Go on,” Pekka says to me, “open its mouth!” I’ve never seen a mouth so full of teeth. There are double rows around the edges of the jaw, and then six or seven other rows crossing the roof of the mouth in orderly lines. The teeth are triangular, pointed, hard as bone and sharp as needles. The pike, Pekka tells me, grows new teeth all through its life: as one gets worn down, so another sprouts beside it. Some of them move in their sockets, making it almost impossible for prey to escape.
As if performing a ceremony, we pass the pike from hand to hand and everyone examines it. It still has the sheen of life about it, a green gleam.
“Pike are monsters,” Tuija says, weighing it in her hand. They are the epitome of greediness, she explains. They can eat prey their own size in a single protracted gulp. They are solitary creatures and lurk like death itself in dark places, waiting… the really big ones, which live in the depths of inland lakes can drag you by the line out of your boat or take hold of your leg as you swim after sauna and pull you under. Which is believable: even in death this one looks dangerous. It seems fitting to eat them. Pekka hesitates with the knife poised where the gullet meets the head. Then he slips the point in, opening the fish from head to tail. The innards tumble cleanly out, bar at the ends, where he has to saw and grapple. The teeth, which continue right into the throat, draw blood on his hands.
“Something else you must see.” Pekka picks through the glistening pile of marbled guts and roe. And there it is, a brilliant pure red blob, perhaps an inch and a half long: the pike’s heart, the engine that drives a killing machine. Pekka clears a space. The heart jerks to one side and then another, unconstrained by the organs normally packed around it. “See?” Pekka says, “Even though we caught it hours ago!” And as we watch, the pike’s heart seems to twitch even harder, as if it was an entire creature trying to pull itself towards the edge of the hot stone, over it, and back into the sea. When it does fall still, Pekka touches it softly with the edge of his knife and it begins again. Markku rinses the fish and begins to fillet it. You have to admire his skill, but I do tend to admire the pike’s heart more. On and on it goes, despite being separated from its owner, excavated from the cool dark interior of the pike and laid in full midsummer sun on a dry hot stone.
The fish smoker is an old oil drum burnt clean. Pekka and I fill the bottom few inches with chips of alder, then set the fillets of pike on a rack, which we suspend above the wood chips. We seal the drum with a thick, well fitting lid. Smoking is indirect: we set the drum on stones above a small fire of birch logs. It will take about half an hour, or maybe an hour, depending on how much the breeze disturbs the fire. The others are carrying the table and chairs up to the highest point of the island, a flat plateau of pinkish rock which gives uninterrupted views all round. Beer and wine have been retrieved from the cool spot under the jetty. This is to be our last meal on the island and we have been preparing for it, very slowly, all day. Afterwards we will have our last sauna in the wooden hut by the sea, and in the morning we’ll climb into the pale blue boat and leave the place behind for another year. So at last we sit on our rocky plateau and eat the pike with potatoes and dill. The once fearsome flesh breaks moistly into soft, greenish grey flakes, tasting, beneath the smoking, of pondwater. The sea is, as they say here, greased: flat and shining. On the pinkish grey rock, a succession of yellow and green stripes mark the progressively diminished water levels of recent years. The Gulf of Bothnia: frozen in winter, calm, warm and slightly salty in summer: and perfect for boiling potatoes. We have some salad, a dessert of yellow berries beaten into quark, coffee.
At ten o’clock the sun is still high and golden. Now and then the others lapse into Finnish: it’s a slow language with big flat vowels and a heavy stress right at the beginning of every word, like a heartbeat. And as I watch, a blackheaded gull swoops down over the jetty, seizes something from the stones and rises back into the air. The pike’s heart, I realise, is in the gull’s stomach now. I imagine it beating on, even there.
Copyright © 1992, 2004 Kathy Page
Winner of the Traveller Writing Award 1994
A day’s prospecting leads palaeontologist Anna Silowski to make an extraordinary discovery in a remote part of British Columbia. At the same time, the tensions below the surface of her successful career are exposed. Pushed towards breakdown, she finds herself unexpectedly dependent on high-school drop out Scott Macleod, and recruits him to help on the excavation of her find. Scott the excavation itself teeters on the edge of disaster. The Find is a compelling story about discovery, inheritance and fate, and a moving exploration of the possibilities that hide within a seemingly impossible relationship.
“Kathy Page is one of our most daring writers. Once again she delivers a riveting, superbly paced novel of great complexity. Like a palaeontologist herself, she chisels away at the layers of a story that initially reads as a thriller, meticulously and precisely laying bare the tender love story underneath. If you don’t know Page’s work yet, she’s a find.” Caroline Adderson, winner of the 2006 Marion Engel Award, author of Pleased to Meet You, Sitting Practice and A History of Forgetting.
“Kathy Page reminds us what a novel can do that almost nothing else can: take elements as different as dinosaur hunting, landclaims, inherited disease, and abuse of power, and link them with grace and necessity. Above all, this is a love story of the rarest kind: one with something new to say.” Fred Stenson, Giller-nominated, award-winning author of eight novels, including The Trade & The Great Karoo.
Playing with genre is a feature of Page’s writing. Of Alphabet, she said: “Most crime stories are full of suspense, and end with the criminal being caught and incarcerated. Alphabet is about what happens after the sentence – no crimes, no chases – and I wanted it to be just as gripping.” In The Find she has combined an adventure story with a novel of ideas, and created something new: “What is the ‘real’ story here?” she asks. “Some readers may prefer one or the other aspect of the book, or think they do – and then be drawn into unexpected territory. For me, it’s a story about discovery, and all that means.”
“The Find offers the best of all worlds: descriptions that draw you in without distracting from the story, realistic characters who face difficult choices, and a complex plot that keeps you turning the pages until the very end—with the added bonus that it’s published on one of the greenest types of text paper available…” Full review at:
“The clash of conflicting desires, subterfuge, uncomfortable triangling and a profound difference in values with regard to the past, all keep us turning the pages… And the abundance of information about pterosaurs, archeology, native political struggles, academic rivalry, alcoholism and Huntington’s disease is woven into the story seamlessly, only adding to the pleasure of its satisfying, un-clichéd conclusion.” The Globe & Mail review of The Find