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
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 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.
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.
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.
This is an unashamed plug for Jackie Jaques, whose novel The Colours of Corruption, just published by Honno Press has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize in the UK.
I look forward to reading it!
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…
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