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.
Dear Evelyn has been translated by Beatrice Fassbender and is published by Verlag Klaus Wagenbach of Berlin as All unsere Yahre. The author/translator tour begins in Frankfurt on 19th and 20th of October and continues via Heidelberg, Dusseldorf and Berlin.
Almost a year after receiving the Rogers Writers’ trust Prize for Fiction, Dear Evelyn was awarded the City of Victoria Butler Prize on October 9th 2019.
From Jane van Koeverden at CBC: Kathy Page’s novel Dear Evelyn has won the 2019 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize, a $5,000 award given to the best book of fiction, nonfiction or poetry by an author from the Greater Victoria area.
The Victoria Children’s Book Prize, another $5,000 award, was given to Sterling, Best Dog Ever by Aidan Cassie.
Page’s historical novel tells the story of a marriage as it unravels over seven decades. Harry, a poetry lover, and Evelyn, the ambitious daughter of a drunk, get married shortly before Harry is deployed overseas during the Second World War.
The novel continues after the war’s end, as parenthood and career pressures widen the fissures in Harry and Evelyn’s uneasy marriage.
Dear Evelyn was inspired by the love letters Page’s father sent to her mother during the war.
“They were very passionate, emotional letters. I was struck by the huge distance between this beginning and where things had ended up in their 70-year-long marriage,” said Page in an interview with CBC Books in October 2018.
Page won the 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for Dear Evelyn.
Link to CBC content including “Kathy Page on how to write great fiction that’s based on real life.”
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.
Donna Bailey Nurse compares Dear Evelyn and An American Marriage on The Next Chapter, and talks to Shelagh Rogers about both novels, which feature passionate love letters, separation, and women who step out of their marriages….
Dear Evelyn has been translated by Beatrice Fassbender and will be published in the fall of 2019 by Verlag Klaus Wagenbach of Berlin. Details of author tour 18-23rd October to follow.
A thoughtful article about the way Dear Evelyn moves through its ninety year time span:
Dear Evelyn is one of five nominees for the 2019 Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction. The award is one of the BC and Yukon Book Prizes and the winner will be announced in May.
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.”
Dear Evelyn is the winner of the 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
The jury citation reads:
“Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn tells the tender and unsettling story of working-class Londoner Harry Miles and the ambitious Evelyn Hill who fall in love as the world around them goes to war. What initially begins as a familiar wartime love story morphs into a startling tale of time’s impact on love and family, as well as one’s complex search for personal meaning and truth. By integrating themes that are universally understood by readers and skilfully crafting endearing characters that surprise and delight, kathy page has created a poignant literary work of art. The result is a timeless page-turning masterpiece.”
VIDEO: Dear Evelyn Writers’ Trust video
Dear Evelyn is a Kirkus Book of he Year 2018, and she is in good company.
Dear Evelyn in Maclean’s magazine :
HOW I WROTE IT — Kathy Page interviewed about Dear Evelyn in CBC Books
BOOKS TO WATCH FOR in CBC Books
Elizabeth Lowry reviews Dear Evelyn in The Guardian: “Page’s eighth novel is many things: a love story, a coming-of-age story, and a brilliantly evocative sketch of Britain in the 20th century…..
Its picture of Evelyn herself is authentically troubling, a study of a woman in the grip of terrible compulsions. The warning signs are there from the start, in her panicky housekeeping (“things were much better after she’d spoken with Harry about the accumulation of books and the fussy, old-fashioned effect it gave a room, especially since his book jackets did not match”), her rigid washing and vacuuming schedules, her obsession with hunting down missing pillowcases. Later she is prone to sudden explosions and to punitive silences that last for days: “There was a line between strong-minded and outrageous that Evelyn now crossed with increasing frequency.” Harry, going into contortions to pacify her, says that while “he could bend, she could not”, but Page is after a darker truth. Under the cover of a domestic history, she has ambushed us with a chilling account of a disordered personality. Evelyn, trapped in her trophy house, is every bit as much a casualty of her time and place as her browbeaten husband. Page’s measured, intelligent novel treads nimbly around this bleak terrain.”
Dear Evelyn is a finalist for the 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced on 7th November in Toronto. Kathy Page’s fiction has previously been nominated for the Giller Prize (twice), and she has been a finalist for the Governor General’s and ReLit Awards.
From the Ormsby Review: Dear Evelyn, the 8th novel by Kathy Page of Salt Spring Island, concerns the courtship, love, and marriage of Harry Miles and Evelyn Hill from the tumultuous early days of the Second World War to their deaths decades later. I know of no contemporary writer who deals so convincingly with love,” writes Paul Headrick “Page consistently dramatizes the ways in which the feelings of intimate couples are puzzling mixtures of hope, lust, genuine caring, resentment, politics, and much else.”
Full text here (does reveal plot)
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:
“…a wonderful book, peculiar, intense, revealing, challenging, exhausting and above all riveting…I kept saying to myself, how could she know this?” Guardian (UK) columnist Erwin James (author of A Life Inside)
Simon Austen is serving a life sentence for murder. Intelligent but illiterate, charming but also damaged and manipulative, he admits to what he’s done but his motives are far from clear, even to himself. Then Simon learns to read and write. From his high security prison he begins an illicit correspondence with a series of women. The more he learns – about them and about himself – the higher the stakes become. Simon finds himself on a perilous and unpredictable journey as he stumbles towards self-knowledge and redemption.
“Alphabet is not just highly readable, but one of the strongest, most eloquent, most tightly constructed novels of the year…It is a measure of the quiet artistry of Alphabet that, out of material that would have been at home in the blackest of black comedies, Kathy Page has celebrated, with rare deftness, the resilience of the human heart.” Sunday Telegraph
“Sometimes novelists go too far – and sometimes they manage to demonstrate that too far is the place they needed to go.” Time Out
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, UK, in July 2004 UK; released October 2004 in Canada by McArthur & Company. Finalist for a Governor General’s Award in 2005. First published in the USA by Biblioasis, 2014.
“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.” Kirkus starred review
I began work on Frankie Styne and the Silver Man in Norwich, in 1990, and it was inspired by both my interest in monsters and my living situation at the time: a terraced house, as it is called in England (row housing), with very thin walls. Most of these houses were built in the late nineteenth century as housing for railway workers and other working class people. Little thought was given to privacy, and just a single course of bricks and a skin of plaster divides one home from the next. I could hear a great deal of my neighbours’ lives – and they mine, no doubt, though I was fairly quiet, due to writing so much. It was sometimes hard to reconcile what I had overheard with our polite exchanges in the street or over the fence. I began with the characters, and they, especially former runaway Liz and her baby Jim, came quickly to life.
I plotted out the basics of the story on flip chart paper. Once I began to write (on my Amstrad PC with its grey screen and blurry green type) the story unfolded at a fair pace. I was soon deeply into themes that have always interested me: how people use language to connect (or don’t), how the mainstream culture deals with outsiders, what makes us human, the complications of sexuality, how we depend on stories to make sense of our lives, and so on. I had a lot of fun writing Frankie Styne. It’s a literary novel, but there are elements of horror and touches of speculative fiction throughout, and, to my mind at least, large doses of a dark humour. I write in both a realistic and a more fantastic mode, and in this novel, I was able to combine both. I was also able to pay homage to Mary Shelley and, less directly, Fay Weldon, two literary heroines of mine. Frankie Styne came out in the UK in 1992 to great reviews, but quickly vanished in the publishing upheavals of the time. I always wished it had had more of a life and so I was both delighted and just a little apprehensive when, over twenty years later, Bilbioasis proposed to publish it for the first time in Canada and the USA.
This meant that I had to read it. Reading my own books is something I, like many authors, tend to avoid. By the time a novel is complete, I virtually know the text by heart and am heartily sick of it. The passing of time helped with this. I read Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, and even though (or perhaps because) I am in by now in many ways a different person to the one who wrote it, I did enjoy it. Still, I had to ask myself whether it was it still relevant, and did it matter that the characters use landlines and watch television, that a crucial scene would have been different if Viagra had been invented, and so on? How much to revise? I’d written this novel, which features a mother and baby, before having children of my own, and while it was mostly well imagined, there were places where I had things to add, and there were several important scenes I wanted to improve, but I left the era and as it was, and decided I was not the best judge of the book’s continued relevance.
Early reviews, see below, have answered that question. I’m delighted that Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is now finding such enthusiastic twenty-first century Canadian and American readers.
Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is dark and funny, painful and uplifting, marvellously satirical but never cynical, and thoroughly invested with good faith. Kathy Page is a marvel. This is the very best book that I’ve read in ages, and if I read another half as good in the next few months, that will constitute an extraordinary literary year… Read more: http://picklemethis.com/2016/02/10/frankie-styne-and-the-silver-man-by-kathy-page/
“Page (Alphabet, 2014, etc.) builds layers of meaning into her exquisite writing. Her favored themes are here—the stark dichotomies of life, the power of language, the way the social system tries and fails to help people, and how saving grace can come from unseen places.” Kirkus starred reveiw
“Frankie Styne and the Silver Man by Kathy Page is a fantastic novel. Character driven, claustrophobic, and deeply weird, it has a haunting, discomfiting quality that lingers with a reader….” Read more: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2016/02/08/kathy-pages-frankie-styne-excellent-oddball.html
“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. Mere words on a page, her creations linger in the mind long after the reading’s done….” Read more: Frankie Styne in Vancouver Sun
“Five years before The Post-Modern Prometheus aired, Page published her own twist on the Frankenstein story in her native Britain (Page moved to B.C’s Salt Spring Island in 2001), now published in Canada for the first time. In her novel, Page draws on similar pulp material – monsters; aliens; an unhappy, childless marriage – and takes her characters to equally dark places. What’s different is how Page’s monsters display a more complex relationship between inner and outer ugliness and find redemption in responsibility…. Frankie Styne still holds up almost 25 years later.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/review-new-fiction-from-gemma-files-kathy-page-and-more/article28743088/
“Kathy Page’s imaginative and crisply written Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is one of the creepiest novels I have ever read.” Largehearted Boy
“An amazing and unique read from beginning to end, Frankie Styne & the Silver Man by Kathy Page is a deftly crafted work of truly memorable literary fiction that is especially recommended for community and academic library Contemporary Fiction collections.” Midwest Book Review Bookwatch
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.
Kathy Page’s new collection of short stories explores the transformative power of one-to-one encounters.
IN THE GLOBAL VILLAGE, our world has grown so big. Our care and concern is called on by people from around the planet, and we are mentally and emotionally stretched in endless different directions. Locally, too, as Focus showcases, there’s no shortage of capital “B” Big issues to be aware of and involved in. Being engaged is one of the great parts of living in a vibrant community like Victoria, but it’s sometimes easy to lose one’s boundaries and bearings amid the tide of so much outward pull.
So I found it incredibly refreshing, especially as I was planning my wedding, to take time to breathe deeply within the covers of Kathy Page’s new book The Two of Us (Biblioasis, September 2016). In this collection of short stories, Page invites us to settle into a series of closer relationships, more homey twosomes, and to expand our awareness inside that smaller and deceptively simple dynamic by questioning who we see, who we are and what we might become.
Tucked away on a winding Salt Spring Island road, Page’s peaceful home is the perfect spot to talk about (and experience) the power of the one-to-one. Attention focuses, stories unfold, and the pattern of listening and responding teaches you something about the other and yourself. That transformative kind of intimate interaction is at the heart of Page’s stories in this 200-page collection, each of which relates to what she calls “the most fundamental thing”: the relationship between the self and another. Whether it’s a father and daughter exploring a cave, a visiting professor negotiating culture and communication with her contact in a foreign country, a hairdresser and client who is facing cancer, a young girl and a dog “big as a wish,” spouses, squatters, strangers, Page’s characters find themselves in pairs—some momentary and some lifelong—in which there is an opportunity to change one another and be changed.
“How relationships work fascinates me,” Page tells me: “How a relationship is structured and built, and what that does to you.” Originally from Bromley, England, Page has published seven novels, including a Governor General’s Award finalist and nominee for the Orange Prize, as well as the short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere, nominated for the 2014 Giller Prize.
But she has also, she says with a smile, had to improvise her day job and is trained as a carpenter and joiner as well as a counsellor and psychotherapist—drawing on an interest to know how she came to be who she was. She has worked in settings that vary from Vancouver Island University to Estonia, a men’s prison and a therapeutic community for drug users. What she has developed is a sharp-eyed and open-hearted curiosity about self and others.
“I’m interested in difficult characters, in when I run up against a difficult person. I find it surprising,” she explains with a lock of her intense but serene sky-blue eyes. “I’m interested to explore them without judgment.” That non-judgmental curiosity not only saved her from resentment when partnered with a somewhat stony carpentry mentor back in England but has made her a writer that pairs probing insight with gentle but direct handling.
For instance, she tunes into the kind of prickly honesty of thoughts and feelings many of us would feel guilty admitting and would never have the guts to say out loud. She presents an older woman who both loves and is bored—even appalled—by her husband and his now slowness in just putting on his shoes. And a husband, awaiting his wife’s genetic testing results, asks himself: “What if there is bad news? How will I be for her? What will I do, what will I say to her as she turns to me?” He wonders if he will change himself into what is needed or just run.
Page reminds us of the simple but important truth that we are mystery. We are always more than one thing at a time, and who we are and how we get there isn’t visible at the surface. “From the outside, no one would guess any of this, not in a thousand years,” one young man thinks while reflecting on his various abilities. In another story, a nervous, tongue-tied man turns out to be a surprising lover—“in the flesh, so articulate.” In a short two-pager, a child considers dragonfly nymphs, how “inside, they produced glittering wings, lungs, and enormous eyes” before splitting their skin and emerging new. She wonders: “Suppose we were just the beginning of something else?”
Skills, sorrows, incredible transformations—Page reveals the hidden and encourages us to look for it, to look differently at the people in front of us or beside us in our own lives, to understand, to forgive, and to wonder about our own new beginnings. A trip into her world is, as one of her characters says, “a day for seeing things.”
Sometimes, Page explains, she begins with just a person or a predicament, other times with something as simple as a staircase. “With short fiction you can improvise,” she says. “It’s freeing. Novels sweep you up in momentum. Short fiction is more like a plunge into the lake” where, Page hopes, you come up and out with a bit of a shock. “You can then sit back and keep the whole thing in your mind.”
Her swimming image recalls a description of free diving in the book’s final story, centred on a swim coach and his prized protégé—a description that applies perfectly to Page’s own writing: “Depth is about the water pushing in on you and separating you from the familiar.” Page’s skill lies in separating us from the familiar by taking us deep into the everyday, making the seemingly typical or unremarkable newly remarkable, from the clink of milk bottles against a step to the slightly moldy smell of damp summer towels and the lake’s response to its swimmers: “The thick green water breaking into golden streaks and swirls with each dive, then resealing itself, perfect each time.”
“All those things suggest human life,” Page says passionately, “and every human life is full of stories. Everywhere you look or listen, there’s a whole rich story.”
A plunge into the intimacy of The Two of Us, Page hopes, helps readers to feel they’re in a different place in the end, even if it’s just a change in what we’re able to notice as we come back up for air ready again for the wider world—“more alive,” she says, “and aware.”
Newly married writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig is extra appreciative of having a new perspective on the power of pairs.
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
A huge pleasure to have this review from Dan Vyleta in The Walrus.
Paradise and Elsewhere
Toward the end of Paradise and Elsewhere’s longest and structurally most intricate story, “The Ancient Siddanese,” an enigmatic tour guide to the ruins of a desert city invites the group to “close your eyes and explore Sidda by touch.” The narrator, an inhabitant of a near-future in which the sun has become humanity’s enemy, accepts the invitation and finds an unexpected perspective in his fumbling: that of a hypothetical interstellar tourist who discovers the dried-out planetary lump that was Earth and wonders at the creatures who left their marks on the dead world.
The whole of Kathy Page’s beautiful, daring collection can be read as an invitation to seek out new points of view, with all the discomfort implicit in the act. The opening story, “G’Ming,” stages an encounter between what we so confidently call the “developing world” (as though its primary marker were stunted modernization) and the “developed world” from the point of view of a village boy, whose close observation of tourist behaviour is as shrewd as it is disconcerting. Like all the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere, “G’Ming” remains elusive about its precise setting, sabotaging the reader’s yearning for certainties. It sets the tone for a collection that moves seamlessly from realist accounts of the here and now, to dispatches from our imminent future, to the timeless worlds of myth and dream. It makes for giddy reading: each story’s opening paragraph an unlabelled door that may lead anywhere at all.
In “Low Tide,” we find ourselves deep in Angela Carter territory, where fairy tales are reunited with their latent sexual content to take soundings of the treacherous depths of desire—Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” reimagined as an abusive relationship between a lighthouse keeper and the creature of the sea he seeks to possess. The next story, “My Beautiful Wife,” is a realist portrait of an eastern European intellectual who is unsettled to find that the democratic revolution has brought in, among its stock of fresh ideas, emancipation; he witnesses his wife becoming other to him, despite his love.
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. Like children at a sleepover, tucked beneath shared covers, the stories whisper to one another, providing a thematic richness to the book that far outstrips its page count. As with all good fiction, Paradise and Elsewhere helps us to see more clearly (though clarity is not without its dangers: in “I Like to Look,” the narrator literally observes her sister to death).
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. Page has rebelled against the provincial assumption that we readers care only about the familiar and understood. “We must learn to talk to each other differently now,” Liia tells her husband in “My Beautiful Wife.” It is the awareness of this need that sets this fine book apart from so many others.
Kathy Page’s guest blog on realism and the fantastic for fellow author Gail Anderson-Dargatz
The snow has long ago melted (or never really settled) here on the West Coast, and the nights are longer, yet not so warm that you want to stay out gardening: a perfect time for literary readings. I’m taking Frankie Styne and the Silver Man to some great local libraries and bookstores.
29th March, 7 pm, Kathy Page reads with poet Alexandra Oliver at Book Warehouse on Main in Vancouver
5th April, 7 pm, Kathy Page reads with Douglas Gibson at Cowichan Library, 2687 James St, Duncan
6th April 7.30 pm, Kathy Page reads with Douglas Gibson at Russell Boooks, 734 Fort St, Victoria
23rd April, Kathy Page reads in Sechelt
27th April, 7.30 pm, Kathy Page reads with Tricia Dower at Mulberry Bush Books, 28o Island Highway, Parksville
29th April, 10 am, Kathy Page on air with Sheila Peters on CICK 93.9
An Evening with Douglas Gibson (Across Canada by Story)
& Kathy Page (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man)
Frankie Styne and the Silver Man
When Liz Meredith and her new baby move into the middle rowhouse on Onley Street – Liz having lived for years off-grid in an old railcar – there’s more to get used to than electricity and proper plumbing. She’s desperate to avoid her well-meaning social worker and her neighbours Alice and Tom, who, for reasons of their own, won’t leave her alone. And then there is her other neighbour, the disfigured and reclusive John Green, better known to the world as Frankie Styne, the author of a series of violent best-sellers. When his latest novel is unexpectedly nominated for a literary prize and his private life is exposed in the glare of publicity, Frankie plots a gruesome, twisted revenge that threatens others who call Onley Street home. Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is unforgettable: a thrilling novel of literary revenge, celebrity culture and the power of love and beauty in an ugly world.
“A fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Page’s monsters display a more complex relationship between inner and outer ugliness and find redemption in responsibility.”—The Globe & Mail
“Frankie Styne offers a terrific showcase of Page’s singular style (with its attractive high-low mixture of genres), quirky unexpected invention, and attention to the nuances of psychology.”
“This book has the trappings of great pulp … Page’s prose is vivid and alive, with nary a scrap of throwaway writing to be found.”—Publishers Weekly
“Frankie Styne is a taut examination of the complex emotional ties that bind, the methods we employ to distance ourselves, and our ambiguous powers of imagination.”—Time Out UK
“Fresh and engaging. Her writing is crisp and her insights into human behavior are acute.”
—Lynne Van Luven, Monday Magazine
Across Canada by Story
Acclaimed McClelland & Stewart Publisher and Editor, Douglas Gibson, crossed “no man’s land” and entered authors’ territory when he wrote Stories About Storytellers in 2011. The memoir is a fond remembrance of Canada’s elite “literati”: Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Hugh MacLennan, W.O. Mitchell, Barry Broadfoot, Mavis Gallant, Pierre Trudeau, and others. Gibson calls it “a cheerful personal memoir of working with 20 famous Canadian authors, some of whom are still with us.” Gibson’s 2015 title, Across Canada by Story invites readers on a coast-to-coast journey following the Scotsman as he tours the nation with a stage show telling more tales. Often witty, at times tender, and always amusing, the memoir paints a portrait of Robertson Davies, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Terry Fallis, Myrna Kostash, Trevor Herriot and others, with accompanying illustrations by Anthony Jenkins.
His legendary stage presence radiates on the page and his wit, sincerity, and eloquence – a trait that earns him instant rapport with the reader – makes readers feel they are gossiping with an old friend returned from life on the road. Gibson absorbs the landscape, culture, and history of each province he visits, while treating readers to some amusing rendezvous with authors and other locals along the way: He rediscovers James Houston’s riverside distractions in Haida Gwaii; tastes the wine his wife, Jane, is partial to in Prince Edward County; munches succulent peaches and apricots on the Sunshine Coast; daydreams in the Deer Creek sunshine; goes bird-watching with Trevor Herriot on Last Mountain Lake; visits Anne of Green Gables sites in PEI; and you come along for the ride.
“Page’s imaginative powers are electric. She has the ability to analyze the often nightmarish qualities of the human psyche and as a result, Frankie Styne is a taut examination of the complex emotional ties that bind, the methods we employ to distance ourselves, and our ambiguous powers of imagination. She is at once poignant and provocative, stomach-churningly distasteful and yet compulsively readable.” Time Out
“Page is a fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life.” Kirkus starred review
I’m delighted to learn that Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is due for release in Canada and the US in February 2016 and has already earned a Kirkus starred review https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kathy-page/frankie-styne-and-silver-man/.
I’m very fond of this novel, which combines fantastic elements with a (mostly) realistic narrative, partly because it is funny as well as serious, stomach-churning, etcetera. It’s set in a terraced street in small town in the UK, where some very distinctive characters live side-by side and sometimes overhear and/or try interfere with each other’s lives. More details will follow, but here’s what the UK edition said:
“Frankie Styne, the successful author of a series of gruesome killer novels, has lived at 125 Onley Street for many years. Meticulous and obsessive, he lives a life of isolation, managing to keep both future and past at bay.
Next door, live Liz Meredith and her new baby, Jim. Liz has been told by her social worker Mrs Purvis that Jim has a rare disorder, and will never be like other children. But Mrs Purvis can’t see, as Liz can, that Jim already knows things no ordinary person could. Besides, Liz doesn’t want any help from the social services, or from Tom and Alice, the couple at number 129 who seem to want to adopt her – or is it Jim they really want? In any case, Liz yearns to be left in peace so that she can imagine her way out of how things are.
When Frank’s solitary anonymity is threatened, he hatches a real-life plot which, as he begins to enact it, unexpectedly changes not only his own life, but also those of Liz and Jim. Sifting through our collective nightmares, Kathy Page has written a novel that is powerful, humorous, tragic and thoroughly surprising…”
My recent novels, The Find, Alphabet and The Story of My Face, are suspenseful narratives about characters who struggle not only with circumstances, but also with their own natures. It was in Frankie Styne and the Silver Man that I began to explore questions about the nature of identity which have continued to animate my work, and to develop a fascination with the inner lives characters who are marginalized, extraordinary or in some way “other.”
“Exquisite writing .. Page is a fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life. ” Kirkus starred review
“Frankie Styne & the Silver Man resists being put down for the night… I read on, captivated and creeped-out. But this being Kathy Page, I always trusted I was heading away from a nightmare, towards a happier place. This is Felicia’s Journey, with a big dollop of hope.” Caroline Adderson, prize-winning author of Ellen in Pieces.
“Fresh and engaging. Her writing is crisp and her insights into human behavior are acute.” Lynne Van Luven, Monday Magazine
“Great story. Great writing too. You render down the monstrous, gently fold the abnormal into an embrace and make it human… fantastic!” Helen Heffernan
“Each character in the book is horrific, but each in a different way. I was even afraid of the baby! Was absolutely certain that a truly gruesome ending was in story but couldn’t put it down anyway. Ending was perfect. It’s a keeper. Will read again.” Barb Egerter
The Horse on the Road
The road is pretty much a straight one: highway, with various intersections and stop lights. It passes a small shopping mall, a tiny airport, various yards stacked with lumber , a used car lots, garages, two farmer’s markets. To the left: high ground, still snow-capped; to the right, glimpses of the ocean. Houses. Densely packed trees. Occasional fields. What you see most of all, however, is the road itself, signals, blacktop, crash barriers, signage, and, of course, the cars and trucks ahead, to the side, or glimpsed in the mirrors. It’s pass or be passed on a two-way river of metal and glass; the road reels out and on, suspending us drivers in the means to our ends, and active trance, a kind of super-alert sleep… Then the brake lights ahead go on and we’re down to forty, then twenty kilometres per hour. Ten. Gaps narrow. Traffic clots to a standstill, vehicles pack the road ahead solid until it disappears around a bend. All of a sudden we are going nowhere.
Some days, the sky is spectacular, cerulean, stormy, or multiply rainbowed, but today it’s an even grey. We sit under it and wait, each in our metal box. One by one, we switch off our engines, reach for the radio or phone. A grey-haired man in the Subaru next to me winds down his window, lights up a smoke. According to temperament, we rage or resign ourselves. Perhaps five minutes pass before the reason for all this appears: a perfectly groomed chestnut horse – so real that he seems like some kind of hallucination – appears between a piled logging truck and an empty a school bus and trots at a steady pace against the now-stilled flow of traffic. He does not appear to hurry. Choosing always the widest gaps, anticipating, never slackening his pace, he threads his way between the vehicles as if they were simply part of the landscape. His mane floats up and sinks again with each step. Unfettered by any kind of reins or bridles, he disappears behind another truck, reappears and is suddenly just feet away: I look up from my bucket seat at a being from the World Before Cars. I see something far larger than I am with long teeth, soft lips; deep, velvet nostrils; brown eyes fringed with a plethora of lashes. His coat glistens, and beneath it, every muscle seems independently alive… Oh, to climb up there and be joined to him, part of the fleshy world instead of the metal stream. My own, lesser musculature aches for that lost world, for movement itself. All I can do is wind down the window to catch the beat of hooves on the road, the tang of equine sweat as the horse passes, going where he wants to go.
Our engines cough into life. We pull away from each other, accelerate, drive to work.
TC The short story form is chameleon and shape shifting, filled with infinite possibility. The best short fiction, I think, comes into being seemingly fully formed, completely original, sui generis. Who are the short story writers you admire most? What short fiction writers have had the biggest impact on your own work in this form?
KP Yes—one of the wonderful things about the short story is the scope it offers for formal invention, how infinitely various and startlingly new (and at the same time ancient) it can be. Of course, the novel is a shape-shifter too, but brevity makes innovation and radical experiment more feasible, and it certainly makes it possible (though not required) to play around with the way plot is put to work. The short story, in its intensity and in the ways it is structured and read, is as much related to poetry as it is to the novel.
Oddly enough, many of the short fiction writers who have meant most to me have names beginning with C: Carter (Angela), Carver, Calvino, and Chekhov… These are writers who do very different—indeed, almost opposite—things with both the story and the sentence. Carter, for example, plays with folk and fairy-tale motifs but writes in an intricate, baroque fashion, whereas Carver is distinguished by the pared-down style he and his editor arrived at, and by the sheer ordinariness of his characters. Calvino is playful enough to tell a story from the point of view of a mollusc. Chekhov’s characters are so convincing that he can get away with anything: think of the ending of “Gusev,” where the protagonist dies and the perspective shifts to a shoal of fish, a shark, and finally the ocean itself. British writer David Constantine, just beginning to be read this side of the pond, is another C, and then of course there is Joyce Carol Oates, and (moving on to other letters), Kafka, J.G. Ballard and Olivia Butler. Since moving here I’ve encountered wonderful Canadian short fiction writers—to name just a few, Caroline Adderson, Alice Munro, both of the MacLeods…
As for your “fully formed” hypothesis, this is probably a very personal thing. For me, some stories arrive almost complete and others are a struggle to excavate (it’s often a matter of stripping out extraneous parts), but I don’t think you’d be able to judge which is which from reading them.
TC You’ve had a varied career—teacher, carpenter, therapist, lecturer, just to name a few. You’ve also lived and worked in several countries—the U.K., Finland, Estonia, and now Canada. How do the various threads and themes of our lives make their way into fiction? How should we, as writers, treat this real-life source material? Why fiction and not memoir, for example?
KP I don’t think there is a “should” here. What you do with your material and how much you use your own life experience or observations of others depends on whether your interest is in the story and where it can go, or in coming as close as you can to the experience, or the facts, and the meaning they have for you. Intention is important, but I’d argue that even when we try very hard not to, most of us write some degree of fiction. Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest” pretty much sums the situation up, I feel. I’m by nature a fabricator. I sometimes write memoir, or stay close to my own experience in fiction, but I tend to feel uncomfortable doing it. I want to shape things, edit and exaggerate, and I feel restricted if I don’t, and sometimes guilty when I do. It’s better to feel free.
TC If you could spend a full day with one of your literary heroes, who would you invite, and what would you do?
KP Perhaps I’d go for a hike with Edward Thomas, an English First World War poet with “Eco” leanings. He figures in my forthcoming set of linked stories. My caveat is that we’d go in the landscape of his time and place, not mine. Thomas wrote a few short stories, though his poetry is on the whole more interesting than they are. He’s a fascinating character. Often depressed and conflicted at home, he was at his best outdoors, walking or cycling, and was supposedly a great wayfaring companion. Like most heroes, he might be a disappointment, but the landscape would not.
TC In your own career, you had early success, and then stepped away from writing for a time, disillusioned by the publishing world in the 1990s. Eventually, you found your way back, and have enjoyed great success and recognition, winning or being shortlisted for major literary awards. Dire prognostications of the future of books have been sounding in the literary world for some time—publishers going under, bookstores closing, reading numbers seeming to decline in the age of the virtual world. Given this backdrop, why continue to write?
KP I did step away from writing novels, or I tried to. I flirted briefly with writing for film and TV, and looked into a career in social housing management… However, I continued to write short fiction, and in many ways those years were very productive since the screenwriting side of things taught me a great deal about structure, and I made real progress with my stories. A big part of my problem then was that I was with a big publisher who was then bought by a bigger one. I didn’t really satisfy them in terms of sales. The industry was becoming much more focused on the idea of each title being very profitable, rather than the business simply making a profit over all, as in the old days. So I had a feeling of being a disappointment to them: Could I not just do something differently, though they did not know exactly what, and would I please never write a short story again? I felt bad about it. Now, none of this seems so problematic. Short fiction may not be viable in the new hyper-commercial atmosphere, but nonetheless, I and others (including a few very wonderful publishers) love it, think it’s of huge value and know that it connects powerfully with readers: so yes, this is very much worth doing. The readership may be smaller than it is for best-selling novels or blockbuster movies, but that does not mean its cultural value is lesser. We’re so used to the Hollywood model that we irrationally assume everything should be measured and valued that way.
With a novel, the reader steps into a vast and fully imagined world and may stay there for hours or days on end, pulled along by the emerging storyline, character development and so on. I think this is what many of us want a lot of the time, and it can be a wonderful thing. Short stories ask something different of the reader—a particular, concentrated kind of attention and the ability to sense and absorb the story as a whole. Reading a good story is both intense and very satisfying, but it is not the same as being “carried along.” It’s more like a dive into the lake.
Of course, in the current market, short fiction is unlikely to pay the writer a living wage for the time put into crafting it, and yes, there are many competing forms of entertainment. Even so, I think that the important thing is to make good work and get it out, to build and sustain a short fiction culture, which is exactly what we’re doing here, with this contest.
TC In a follow-up question, what do you think is the state of short fiction in Canada today? Are you optimistic about the short story’s future?
KP Yes. I see many wonderful short story writers and a great deal of respect for the short story in Canada. There’s a tradition of story writing, and some pride about that tradition. Canada’s wealth of independent presses, and journals like this one, are a huge force for the good, ensuring that a huge variety of short fiction can appear. There’s a sense of the Canadian short story moving beyond its traditional confines, especially in terms of subject matter. So all in all, I think the ecosystem is very healthy.
TC You’ve written successfully in both short fiction and in the novel. How and why does a project find a particular form for you?
KP My novels often arise out of a combination of a character or characters who won’t go away, a predicament of some kind, and a big question that needs to be explored and elaborated (rather than answered). The beginning of a novel is rather like making a snowball: more and more seems to stick to what I already have; the thing accumulates, grows, and eventually begins to move, still growing as it rolls along. In a novel, I’ll often be interested in the fruits of a particular action over time. My short stories tend to foreground shorter periods of time, and even when they are full of event they are more likely to focus on the architecture, quality and meaning of a particular experience. I always know when I am beginning something whether it is a story or a novel. Once, I did return to a published short story and use the main characters and events again in a novel. In that novel (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, which comes out in Canada this fall), the material from the story is not much changed, but there are many other characters and a much longer timeline which stretches either side of the original idea.
TC Finally, what are you looking for in this year’s contest? Any tips for the short story writers who will be entering their work?
KP I want to be surprised, moved, or made to think, and perhaps all three—to read vivid, original stories that have a powerful effect of some kind, whether that is achieved by subtle or spectacular means. One tip: Leave as long as possible between revisions.
FRANKIE STYNE AND THE SILVER MAN
A pulp-fiction writer, an unwed mother, and a couple with marital problems live as neighbors in connected town houses and correct course in their contiguous lives.
Page (Alphabet, 2014, etc.) builds layers of meaning into her exquisite writing. Her favored themes are here—the stark dichotomies of life, the power of language, the way the social system tries and fails to help people, and how saving grace can come from unseen places. Page sets a theatrical stage of three connected homes, with young unwed mother Liz Meredith living in the middle under the watchful eye of a social worker, Mrs. Purvis. Liz stays up late at night listening to the arguments, the sex, and the reconciliations of her neighbors Alice and Tom while feeding her newborn son, Jim. On the other side of Liz’s house, novelist Frank Styne, disfigured from birth, follows precise routines and writes another book. He is shortlisted for the Hanslett Prize and dreads it, fantasizing a hideous revenge on his agent for the embarrassment of his now-very-public persona. While he writes his pulp, Liz ruminates about her son’s silence. Jim has Spinney’s syndrome and will never speak. She adores her baby in spite of this hardship and calls him the Silverboy who will one day become a silver man—the silver lining her beloved Grammy talked about. This is a pained and damaged clutch of people living within hearing distance, drawn into each other’s lives. “Other lives. It was frightening to think of. Because anything was possible. Really anything,” Page writes. The options come quickly at the end, and “anything” does transpire, all because Liz stayed the course, true to herself and to her “silly boy.”
Page is a fierce writer; her relentless imagination and pure writing skills bring a broken, nightmare world fully to life.
Kathy Page’s story The Last Cut is online at The Walrus:
“…It’s not often that I read a book set in prison. It’s even less often that I read a book set in early 1980s Britain. Even more rare is that I’d enjoy the combination of the two, but Alphabet is a stunningly well written and deeply human book. The nuance of relationships and character development is hard to equal…. even if Alphabet falls as far from your normal reading subject matter as it does mine, I highly recommend trying out this book.”
Read the entire review here, on this thoughtful and wide-ranging site, A Geography of Reading:
While drinking coffee at the Cornerstone Café in Fernwood, I noticed something flickering in one of the trees across the road. The tree grew in the paved area by the Belfry Theatre–it was some kind of ornamental cherry, I thought–low and unusually broad, the lower ends of its branches either trimmed straight, or growing in remarkable harmony with each other, so that they all ended a foot or so above head-height. Labels or tags of some kind had been fixed at the ends of these branches, rather like fruit, and they were blowing in the breeze, drawing attention to themselves. I soon crossed over to look.
There were at least a hundred labels, probably more. Most were the old fashioned kind made of cream-coloured card, with a punched hole threaded with brown string. Others were improvised from pieces of paper and card, torn or cut to size and fixed with anything that came to hand. I took hold of one of them and read: “For my mom to get better and be big and strong like she used to be.” I let go and chose another, which read, “I wish that mermaids were real.” A wishing tree! I spent a while reading, moving through “For a day off,” “Mum and Dad to be happy and healthy for ever,” “To be able to fly,” “That Jake reads this!” and “To be an awesome father,” to “For Fernwoood to stay as it is and not be spoiled.” There was an interesting mixture of childish, righteous, simple, complicated and often deeply personal wishes, and I read on until I came to “I wish my daughter knew me.”
There I stopped, brought suddenly close to tears by the suffering inherent in those six words, and by the way the wish was both enormous and modest at the same time Not loved, but known. Was it written by a mother or by a father? In either case, someone who had given up their child, or someone who had been kept from their child. I remembered the drug users I used to work with in a London rehab. Some of them had lost touch with their children, often out of shame, or given them up to foster care or adoption, and dreamed of finding them again one day when – or if – they were living well again. The wish, bobbing on its scrap of paper, was a door into someone’s life story, and an invitation to imagine. The tree was a book, full of lives and possibilities.
What we wish for should be what shapes our future. It should,at lest. Did any of these wishes lead to action or to some kind of choice? Did writing them down make them more likely to be acted upon? What did it feel like to have a wish out there on the tree with everyone else’s, rustling together in the breeze, instead of buried, perhaps unspoken, in a corner one’s heart or mind?
I can’t answer those questions but I can say that it was exciting and moving to stand under the tree, reading what people wished for. The wishing tree energizes the entire space around it with human desire. It reminds me powerfully that everyone I pass in the street is full of yearnings, large and small, and that this is a wonderful thing, even though the gap between reality and desire is sometimes painfully wide.
How did the wishing tree come about?
The funny thing is that no one I asked seemed to know, and neither does the internet, though it seems that is it has been there in some form since 2013. Was there a visiting community activist or artist, or did someone just dream it up or hear of something similar, like the idea, buy a packet of labels and stand in the street to get it started? Did it happen during a festival of some kind, or on a regular afternoon, or over a week or an even longer period of time? Are people still adding wishes? No one seems to know. “It was probably just someone from the community,” the servers in the café told me. Fernwood is a place where people do things such as plant community gardens, start festivals, give things away, so that makes sense. I noticed that no-one else was stopping to read the wishes. Perhaps they had simply grown used to the sight of them fluttering there, or felt they were or should be private. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to read them all; my thanks go to those who thought of the Fernwood wishing tree, and to all those who joined in and made it real.
What would you wish for?
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.
Leland Cheuk reviews both Alphabet and Paradise & Elsehwere in The Rumpus.
Studies have shown that reading literary fiction increases a reader’s ability to empathize. In her first books to be published in the U.S., Giller Prize-nominated British author Kathy Page puts that theory to a rigorous test. Would you like to spend 300 pages in the mind of a murderer? How about fourteen stories replete with the vengeful whispers from those vanquished by the injustices of globalization? In both the novel Alphabet and the story collection Paradise and Elsewhere, Page demonstrates that she is a master provocateur, unafraid to ask unpleasant questions about contemporary society, even if she risks being didactic.
Originally published in the UK and Canada in 2004, Alphabet is set in a high-security men’s penitentiary during the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Simon Austen is serving a life sentence for strangling his girlfriend. Twenty-one and barely literate, he develops a hunger for learning in order to combat prison boredom. He learns to read and write. He completes courses that give him the equivalent of a high school education. He begins to answer newspaper ads under a false name from women seeking pen pals. To circumvent the prison censors, he purchases help from a fellow inmate using cigarettes and batteries. Page, who spent a year as a Writer-in-Residence in a men’s penitentiary, does not spare the reader from the cruel horror show that prison is intended to be. Eventually, Austen drops his false identities and sends out letters of increasing honesty. His foray into confessional correspondence can be read in a number of ways: as desperation, as self-education, and as a melancholy search for connection—just as it is for those who purchase newspaper ads and walk around free in the outside world.
When his letters are discovered by the prison regime, they are so surprisingly articulate and intelligent that Simon is chosen to participate in a psychiatric program meant to help address his past, ameliorate his dysfunctional relationships with women, and prepare him, possibly, to one day be free. When Simon develops feelings for his psychiatrist Bernadette, the reader glimpses how far Simon’s emotional intelligence has come in one of his letters:
You are turning me inside out.
When I am with you I feel as if I could become the best of me that has been hidden for so long, and I burn with wanting to. I feel I could pass through an eye of a needle.
So how is the reader supposed to feel about Simon Austen, the murderer-cum-tortured-poet? Page thoroughly captures the voice of a man who has dissociated himself from his crime. She challenges the reader to forget and forgive the crime’s brutal nature and empathize with this bottled-up young man struggling to find the language to confront his disturbed psyche. Despite being repeatedly humiliated and victimized within the prison system, Simon doesn’t want to leave. After growing up in failed foster homes, prison is the best home Simon has ever had.
I could not help but feel deeply sympathetic to the narrator—a testament to Page’s skill. But the reading experience was harrowing. I’m interested to see what the reception to Alphabet will be in the US, where over half of the states have legalized some form of capital punishment. As a society, Americans have by and large accepted that the worst offenders in our legal system do not deserve rehabilitation—certainly not murderers of young women like Simon Austen. And yet the central question of Alphabet, both for society and for Simon himself, is whether he deserves to be rehabilitated.
In Paradise and Elsewhere, Page again asks the big questions, dramatizing interactions between modern societies and less developed ones to address issues of globalization, climate change, and feminism. The stories are very short. Many are under ten pages. They exist between genres, as Page leaps from realism to fable and back, often from page to page. The writing is totally distinct from Alphabet—a testament to Page’s range. In the 3-page gem “Lak-ha,” a family is dropped in the midst of a desert where an ancient tree stands. The wife dies of dehydration, her last tears wetting the wood, making it fibrous enough to braid into rope. A stranger arrives by sea and asks the starving widower for the rope’s price. In this amazing passage, Page hops from the mythic to the real, evoking the rise of civilizations:
Every year more strangers came by sea bringing food and goods in exchange for Hetlas rope.
This explains the name of our village, Lak-ha, which some say means in the old language, “The place where the bargain was struck.” Others say other things. They ask, did the woman know the purpose of her weeping? Who invented the Hetlas rope—the woman, the man, the stranger, Fate? But I say forget it. Come inside. We have everything now: television, internet, iPod, cellphone, denim jeans, Barbie doll, same as you.
Paradise and Elsewhere, likeAlphabet, is about society’s fraying ability to connect with people. In Alphabet, strangers try to connect via the written letter. But in Paradise and Elsewhere, people try to connect through money, through material goods, and through perceived power dynamics. In “Saving Grace,” a news crew travels to a rural town to film a famous soothsayer only to find that what she has to say is not what they want to hear.
“I do apologize. Your fame has travelled, so to speak. Can we please watch you work?” asked Libby, smiling as hard as she could. “We’ll pay,” she added.
“I know that. Stay as long as you like. That won’t be long. None of your plans will come to fruit, you’ll fail completely.” The woman’s baleful stare seemed to enfold them all like a thick, stifling blanket. “You think you’re lucky to live in the cities. You think it’s kinder there and people are more generous, but that’s only because they’ve got more. You’re stupid, and you’re deeply mean. You don’t like your friends drinking too much of your wine. You count up favours and drop people if they don’t pay you back. You’re jealous of your sister Phil.”
“Saving Grace,” like most of the stories in Page’s collection, wears its themes like loud clothes. Each story is a cage fight between the rural and the urban, the tourist and the touristed, the modern and the ancient. In today’s increasingly polarized society, Page’s ironic paradises, so dense with vital questions, will echo and leave you wondering how you measure up to Page’s expansive empathies. Are you like her characters: only able to empathize selectively with so much day-to-day injustice on the planet?
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.