Alphabet by Kathy Page is now available in German. Translator Beatrice Fassbender, publisher Verlag Klaus Wagenbach. https://www.wagenbach.de/buecher.html
“…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
“…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:
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.
You can read/see Tobias Carroll’s interview with Kathy Page for Volume 1 bookstore in Brooklyn here, on their excellent site:
“The stories in Kathy Page’s new collection Paradise & Elsewhere revel in discontinuity. Whether exploring the ruins of a fallen civilization, finding unexpected tension in the interactions between tourists and the residents of the place they’re visiting, or borrowing from folktales to illustrate a tense, wrenching relationship, Page’s fiction rarely goes where you might expect. I checked in with Page via email to learn more about the book, along with her recently-reissued novel Alphabet…
“The Ancient Siddanese” is evocative of many things at once: both an ancient culture and the myriad ways that tourists can take in ancient cultures. Were you inspired by any particular spaces or societies as you wrote this, or was your aim to create something more impossible?
My father had an interest in archaeology, and a quirky sense of humor. He once included some Roman mosaic tiles stolen from a dig he had been part of in the paving in front of our garden shed, with the aim of confusing future archaeologists. But I think it was when travelling in Mexico that I first understood how the explanations concerning archaeological sites depend on the skill and the point of view of the interpreter. Deserts are elemental and extreme landscapes, very compelling, and of course desertification is something that has brought more than one civilization to an end. I’ve been to the Sahara, and other very dry places, but the desert in this story is imaginary. It’s in the future, as well as in the past, because climate change is part of this story: these are tourists right at the burnt-out end of human history, and that gives the narrator, who seeks to create her own understanding of the site, a very particular perspective.
Tourism also arises in “G’Ming.” When did you first realize that the state of being a tourist could inspire compelling fiction?
I do find tourism fascinating: the interpersonal relationships and transactions, the meeting of cultures… In England, where I grew up, lower cost air fares made holidaying in Europe possible in the late sixties. The “package tour” was born…The premise was that everything would be cheaper there and you could live like royalty, as well as see exotic things. I remember playing with local kids I couldn’t speak to, and wondering about their lives. Very soon it was a huge industry. Many of the stories in the book feature travelers of various kinds and look at what happens when they turn up uninvited, or with an agenda of some kind. It’s a huge question: how do we treat the stranger at our gate, or behave towards the local community we are moving through. How does all this change us?
The way that “We, the Trees” evolves over time, paralleling philosophical explorations with an air of menace, made for one of the collection’s most memorable experiences. Where did that juxtaposition come from?
I was fascinated by a recent research from the University of British Columbia, which shows that trees use a fungal network to communicate nutritional needs and to share nutrients. In the story, the idea is pushed a stage further, in that the trees, given the desperate situation they are in, begin to reach beyond their own community into ours. I combined that with the idea of self-sacrifice, and some of my observations of young people at the university where I teach. There’s a huge amount of political frustration about ecological issues.
“Low Tide” has echoes of a number of folk tales, but there’s also a sense of Gothic isolation there. How did you come to bring these two together?
The stories in this collection are instinctively written, more so than is normal for me. I find the starting point, get inside the story, and let the subconscious do the work of finding out where it goes. But looking back, yes, there is something very gothic about lighthouses: isolated towers in remote, storm-tossed and dramatic landscapes. I had wanted for a long time to set a story in a lighthouse. And I was very interested in the Selkie myth, which also calls for a watery setting. So it began with the land/seascape. The lighthouse and the rocks and the water allowed the woman, and then the story to emerge.
Your publisher also reissued your earlier novel Alphabet this year; do you see any points of comparison between it and this collection?
On the face of it, they’re quite different since Paradise & Elsewhere is in the fabulist tradition, and Alphabet is a grittily realistic contemporary novel. But I do see connections, quite a few. Alphabet may not be obviously mythological, but beneath the surface it features an archetypical struggle: a man who has to face his (inner) demon. It’s a story about transformation: the slow progress Simon makes through the prison system and in his understanding and remaking of himself and also, of course, the other, more dramatic processes that another prisoner, Victor/Charlotte undergoes. I think there’s a gothic element to Alphabet, too: the closed world of the prison. Both books look at the question of how we understand and deal with the other, which as I mentioned, is one of my themes. And Alphabet was of course an exercise in entering into a reality very different to my own, just as the stories were.
Of the societies, philosophies, and cultures detailed in Paradise & Elsewhere, which was the most difficult to create?
I had such fun with this book – none of them were difficult to invent. But the subsistence sheep-framing community in “Lambing” was the hardest to spend time in: very harsh and patriarchal, and perhaps rather too real, in a way.
Kirkus feature on Kathy Page and the writing of Alphabet
ISBN ( Paperback ): 978-1-927428-93-1 Category: Fiction
by Kathy Page
Simon Austen is serving life imprisonment for the murder of his girlfriend in a fit of uncontrollable rage. It’s Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s England, but he is lost in time, attending sessions with institutional psychiatrists who might be able to help him gain parole. He learns to read with the aid of a prison volunteer and writes letters for his fellow inmates to lawyers, mothers and lovers, considering it his job. He also writes his version of his life story, tattooing his body with the words others have called him in spite and hate: “ARROGANT,” “WEIRDO,” “BASTARD,” “COLD,” “MURDERER.” Then “COURAGEOUS,” inspired by Bernadette “Bernie” Nightingale, a counselor he fantasizes about and works with to enter an experimental program that may move his parole forward. Page writes fiercely, drawing a fine portrait of a man who lives daily, routinely, fragilely in an environment that can erupt in violence at any time. It does, in a powerful scene where Simon is gang-beaten, has bleach poured down his throat, and is sent to a hospital, where all we’ve learned about him is dramatically, but tenderly, unsettled. Vic is his roommate in the prison hospital and an unforgettable character as he transforms into Charlotte, disrupting Simon’s view of life’s predictability and moving him to a greater understanding. Charlotte is freed, figuratively and literally, but writes letters and visits Simon, giving him strength and a vision of life outside the cement and steel of incarceration and the confinement of his own history. The words that are inked over Simon’s body are simply prologue to the next chapter of his life. Page doesn’t sentimentalize the cruelty of life in a prison system but manages to transcend it through Simon, who writes his own story in tattoo ink and letters. This powerful novel is simply an epiphany.
Publisher’s Weekly, starred review:
”A complex book, and splendidly written, Alphabet is an intensely compelling reading experience that speaks to the power of words and the significance of language in all its dangerous subtleties.” Marc Horton, The Edmonton Journal
“Kathy Page knows that the things we can’t understand are often the things that terrify us the most. In her dark and lovely seventh novel, she takes us places we may not want to go…” Cherie Thiessen, January Magazine Nov 15 2005
“Simon is real. Simon gets under your skin. You’ll keep reading Alphabet because you’ll want to understand how Simon got to Z from A.” Pam Burkette, Times Colonist, Nov 13 2005
“It’s not hard to guess what got Page onto the GG shortlist: sheer chutzpah. ” Joel Yanofsky, the Weekend Post, Nov 12 2005
“Alphabet is a stunning tour de force. I have rarely encountered a novel so compelling, so disturbing, so ultimately satisfying as this new work by Kathy Page.” WordWorks.
“Alphabet is not just highly readable, but one of the strongest, most eloquent, most tightly constructed novels of the year…. Out of material that would have been at home in the blackest of black comedies she has fashioned a fable about redemptive love. She has celebrated, with rare deftness, the resilience of the human heart. “ Sunday Telegraph, UK.
“One of the most complex characters I’ve ever met in a novel. His attempt to win redemption is totally engrossing.” Victoria Times Colonist.
“Sometimes novelists go too far – and sometimes they manage to demonstrate that too far is the place they needed to go….” Time Out, UK.
“Page brilliantly captures the brutality of prison life.” Scotland on Sunday.
“Late in this sharp and splendid novel, Kathy Page has her incarcerated protagonist think: “It’s a story you could tell… if you had someone to tell it to.” And that – an inability to communicate, to find an outlet – is what Page seems to be telling us keeps Simon from rehabilitating himself…. The story is told almost entirely form Simon’s point of view; it is terse, rhythmic and, dare I say it, almost effortlessly masculine. Her greatest achievement is Simon himself. He knows there is no justification for his crime and even as he comes to understand the reasons for his offence, he knows he is guilty. Page looks at him firmly, objectively, compassionately.” Sunday Telegraph, UK.
“It is only because Page is such an accomplished writer that I forced myself to care, and hurried to return to the book when I’d been forced to put it down… Page throws mixed up hope into a world where only fantasies and delusions dare to grow… when I got to the end of Alphabet, I found myself longing for more.” Globe and Mail, Canada.
“Intensely compelling.” Edmonton Journal.
“Alphabet is a hopeful story, even though its subject, Simon Austen is a disturbed, inarticulate, illiterate murderer who is spending his life in a British Prison…. Simon has no miraculous breakthroughs; he doesn’t even get out of jail. But the baby steps he takes towards understanding himself give both him and the reader hope. Page’s writing is tight…her depiction of prison life is believable and enthralling.” GEIST, Canada.
“The strength of Alphabet is that it examines the complexity of providing answers.” Times Literary Supplement, UK.
“Her understanding of the prisoner’s frustration, loneliness and anxiety is exceptionally portrayed… a profound insight into the workings of the prison system as well as the minds of the prisoners… a truly gripping novel.” Sunday Business Post, Ireland.
“I found this a truly compelling read, right to the last page. Whatever you think of Simon and his crime the issues of prison, punishment and redemption make this book an excellent book group choice.” New Books Magazine, UK.
You could say that I have spent the three years it took to complete Alphabet co-habiting with a dangerous man. Someone brutal and manipulative, but also damaged, intelligent, and, occasionally, charming. My family were forced to be close to this man as well. It was something of a roller coaster ride and from time to time, all of us felt we had had more than enough of him. The fact is, though, that when a character like this arrives, you can’t throw him out. Just as in a real relationship, you have to keep going until whatever you came together for is complete. It’s only afterwards that you can look back and put it into perspective.
In this case I have to go back about ten years. I was offered of a writer’s residency in a category B men’s prison at a time that meant I had to chose between it and a coveted place on the scriptwriting course at the National School of Film and Television. Most of my friends were horrified when the idea of prison finally won out, but I felt that I couldn’t turn down the chance to see and engage with part of the world I (hopefully) wouldn’t encounter otherwise. I went to gaol, spending about three days a week there for the next year – encouraging the inmates to write, and supporting other creative projects, such as a play and a literary festival behind bars.
The prison had a huge effect on me. It was both fascinating and dreadful. It was a place of frighteningly intense feelings, and, at the same time, given there was no outlet for them, one of utter stultification. It was about as hard a reality as you could get, yet nowhere else could fantasies and delusions grow so thick and fast.
I was eventually given a set of keys and allowed to roam the prison quite freely. I talked to inmates in their cells, in solitary, as they worked mending TV sets or sewing tee shirts, or outside in the yard with its geometrically patterned flowerbeds. I went to the office and read inmates’ files. The experience was emotionally exhausting but at the same time imaginatively very stimulating. What was it like to work here, year in year out? What was it like be a man who had committed murder and who must serve out his time in a place like this? What kind of relationships are possible for him? Which was the ’real’ man, the one in the record, the neglected little boy he wrote about in class, or the once charming the socks off me over a cup of tea and raising hundreds of pounds for charity? How much can a person change? Why do some women seem so drawn to romantic attachments with prisoners? And, to take a more abstract approach, what exactly do we mean by justice? How should we deal with people who have hurt us? There are of course no simple answers to any of these questions. If nothing else, I learned that.
After the residency, I returned gladly to my ordinary life. I began to write about the prison, but at least half of me wanted to get away from the place, and in retrospect I can see that the material was too raw. It was simply beyond me at the time to find the shape for it and do it justice – or, you could say, I wasn’t ready to or capable of living with a man like the one I had begun to invent. Other, easier projects came up. It was almost ten years later, when packing up my office to move house that I came across the few chapters I’d written and the boxes of notes, cuttings and mementoes from my time ‘inside’.
I sat on the floor and read it all through. Time had performed its magic – a kind of alchemy – and it was suddenly easy to see what to jettison and what I had to keep: the main character, Simon Austen, serving life.
Photos courtesy of Prison Reform Trust, UK
Copyright © 2004 Kathy Page
Commercial uses: Contact literary agent, Lesley Shaw of
Gillon Aitken Associates, London, UK (insert email address firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reproduction for educational purposes, etc: www.accesscopyright.ca
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
There’s no chair, even. The room is blue-grey, fluorescent-lit, like the rest.
‘Property ?’ the man at the counter asks. Well, they’ve already taken his proper clothes: Simon’s standing there in a striped shirt, a pair of thin jeans that won’t stay up. ‘Anything that might get nicked or trashed,’ the man says, ‘Give it here – ’ he’s done this a thousand times, has the timing just so – ‘We’ll seal it up nice and tight… then we’ll lose it for you good and proper… Ha ! Seriously, there’s no liability…’ Oh, he’s proud of himself, all right. His white shirt glows almost violet. The breast pocket is stretched over a pack of twenty fags. The top of his bald head shines in the light. He taps the side of his nose, leans forwards:
‘What you got then,’ he says ‘Mummy’s ashes ? The bleedin’ crown jewels? Spit it out, we don’t have all day/’ There are six more behind me, Simon thinks, there’s fuck knows what ahead.. In the end, it can’t matter much what happens to these two particular items of his. Except that this way he doesn’t have to look after them and if the are lost, whatever this bald bastard says, it won’t be his fault… Plus, the sooner he gets through this the sooner he might get to lie down. He could sleep on a bed of knives in an earthquake, so long as he was lying down… So, he grins back at the big-headed, fat-fingered man with a sense of his own sense of humour; he keeps his thoughts to himself and puts his goods on the counter. First, the envelope.
‘It’s sealed,’ he says. Well, says the slow look he gets back, opening your sodding correspondence is the last thing on earth I’d do, because, like you, it’ll be a piece of –
Simon’s too beat up to react. His eyes are so sticky he can hear every blink, feel it too. He had the shower after the strip search, but it was cold and he can still smell his own sweat. He stares at the counter top, dirty oak edging with Formica inset, remembers how the envelope was given him by a washed-out dyke type woman who watched him tear it open, unfold the single sheet inside, then read it to him, all two lines of it: ‘I am sorry. This is the way things had to be. I hope things turn out well for you, Sharon.’ That’s what the woman said it says. Then she said he needed counselling, gave him a list of phone numbers as long as an arm; he was so fucked off with her that he nearly binned the thing, but in the end he smoothed it out and resealed the envelope, kept it for years in the lining of his pilot jacket. Well, as a matter of fact, things turned out just about as badly as they possibly could, and this lot can lose the fucking thing if they want to, he thinks. He’s moving on. In.
‘One watch,’ fatfingers observes.
‘It’s a Rolex,’ Simon tells him. But it’s not. He got it with his first month’s proper pay, from someone he met in a pub. It looses. He was ripped off. So, good riddance. He’ll travel light: washing things, plate, mug, bowl.
He does his squiggle with the pen. The joker opposite turns around to lock up, then pushes over an empty envelope: brown with black type, official looking.
‘Your Free Letter,’ he says.
‘What for?’ Simon asks .
‘Well, son, you can wipe your arse with it if you want!’
‘Right, mate. Maybe I will,’ Simon spits back. His hands are fisted and he’s woken right up now.
‘Keep you head down’ the man says, pleased, turning away. Simon shoves the envelope in his pocket, collects two sheets and a blanket, stuffs them in the pillowcase, moves on.
The man in front of him has a moustache, the one behind a full chin’s worth of hair. He can hear the creak of both of their pairs of shoes, the rattle of their key chains, their breath, his own. They pass through the next pair of doors, solid, then barred and the next, and the next, pausing each time to wait for the key to slip in and do its work, two openings, two closures. He thinks how he could die here. Be killed. Start using drugs and do the job himself. Just get old… and all of a sudden, how badly he wants what he’s not had, all of it, even not knowing what it is! How much he wants to throw the switch, de-materialise, re-appear somewhere else. His heart is already fighting to escape from his chest when the last set of doors opens on to the wing and the stench and echo of captivity smashes into him. It’s like the opening of a furnace door. A wall of heat. They have to push him through.
‘Go on,’ says the bearded man behind, ‘go on now, son, this here is a one way street.’
Extracted from an article about Kathy Page’s experience as Writer in Residence in Nottingham Prison, published in The Big Issue, 19 July 2004
A neatly dressed, balding man with some alarming facial scars leaned back in his chair and treated me to a list of already familiar complaints about the state of the prison showers and so on. Suddenly he brightened, changed tack and told me: ‘But of course, there’s one good thing. My marriage is far, far better since I came in here.’ We both laughed; he went on to explain how, inside, he had become more thoughtful about his wife and their relationship. He had plenty of spare time and could give her the kind of attention she had always wanted. They wrote every day; he had begun to know her in ways which he never had before. ‘The honesty can be heavy. She has to have her say. But it’s like a kind of honeymoon,’ he aid, cutting the conversation midstream to take up his turn at the computer.
I soon realised that a man being in prison is of course far more likely to have a negative effect on romantic and family relationships: economic hardship, lack of contact, the stress of travelling to visits and the jealous imaginings of the inmate can be a fatal combination. Nonetheless, over the coming weeks I met others who felt their relationships with their partners had been improved by incarceration, and I became aware of the many ways in which men inside actively sought out and found new attachments while serving their time.
In any workplace there are attractions between people; men in prison have few other flesh and blood options. The barriers between prison staff and inmates, in theory strongly demarcated, may, for some, be a catalyst to romance. I was both shocked and touched when one of the inmates I worked with sought me out to explain that he had a ‘crush’ on me, knew it wasn’t reciprocated and would only be a wind-up, and so would be dropping out of the writing workshop.
Because it is such a harsh reality, prison is a place where fantasy flourishes. Any woman coming into a men’s prison is liable to become, as another man informed me with a frankness I could perhaps have done without, ‘wanking material’. Likewise, a female member of staff may well find herself teaching a class full of semi-clothed men who spend hours a day working out and who, despite their dangerousness are, in many ways, under her control. All the same, it seems that a surprising number of ‘real’ relationships do develop inside. While meetings between men and women in a men’s prison often take place in a grim, highly regimented context that is the very opposite of romantic, they can, because of the context, be surprisingly emotionally intimate. There is frequently a degree of vulnerability on the part of the man that would be unusual outside. Relationships spring up between inmates and female lawyers, teachers, probation, officers, visitors and even governor grades. And, I discovered in my year at Nottingham, many inmates seek out official or unofficial pen friends who may later become visitors, partners or wives. Many men put an extraordinary amount of time into their correspondence.
Some of these prison relationships are no doubt duplicitous, exploitative, or plain bizarre (for example, those women who seem only attracted to violent offenders behind bars), but some were genuine. As Angela Devlin shows in her study, Cell Mates, Soul Mates, many prison marriages last and survive the transition to the outside. I found myself thinking a great deal about these relationships. What would it be like to be a man negotiating, for the very first time, an encounter with a woman that was not entirely on his terms? What would it be like, as a woman, to have to cope with the reality of a lover’s terrible past and all the questions it posed?
I could easily see the advantage of a relationship for the man inside. What was in it for the woman? As with every question I asked myself in that year at Nottingham, there were no simple answers. Some women are compulsive rescuers. On the other hand, roles in prison relationships often seemed to me to be to some extent reversed, with the woman appearing to have more control and more rights than she might outside. Another thing to consider – and this was interesting to me personally, since I was involved in a long-distance relationship at the time – was that the writing of letters and the restrictions on meetings created by the regime impose on the would-be lovers an old-fashioned courtship very different to the fast pace of modern relationships. This makes for a particular kind of verbal intimacy and at the same time allows fantasies about the other person to remain unchallenged by everyday reality.
Occasionally I would hear talk from prison professionals as to how a prisoner’s relationship was causing concern. I could see the logic and there is no doubt that some prison relationships are dangerous. Anyone being hurt or abused by their partner needs, in my view, to get out. But increasingly, during that year and afterwards as I wrote Alphabet, I became interested in the grey areas, in the flawed relationships that were also, somehow, good. I came to realise that even downright destructive partnerships contain shreds of contact with another, and are potentially catalysts for transformation. Our sense of self arises out of out intimate relationships, and one of the most irreducible aspects of our humanity is that we do, as Ethel Spector Person writes in Dreams of Love “desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others.”
Copyright © 2004 Kathy Page
Commercial uses: Contact literary agent, Lesley Shaw of
Gillon Aitken Associates, London, UK (insert active link for Lesley’s email address email@example.com)
Reproduction for educational purposes, etc: www.accesscopyright.ca
From one surreal moment to the next…
The trip was part family, part business. Melatonin did not work and for several days we had walked in an exhausted, dreamlike state through the shade of galleries and museums taking in old favourites and seeing strange new things, such as the National Portrait Gallery’s video loop of David Beckham, sleeping. He was artfully lit and shot to emphasise the musculature of his shoulders; the image, poised midway between soft porn and religious icon, drew a steady stream of female voyeurs who settled themselves on the bench provided and watched the whole thing through. Teenage school-boys on a field trip blundered in now and then:
“Think he’s really asleep, Matt?’ ’
“Na. Can’t be, not with that effing light shining right in his face.” Continue reading Sales Figures
Maria hasn’t arrived. I refuse to panic myself by checking my watch but I know it’s after 7pm, and I’m supposed to read at Pages at 7:30. I peer out at the glitter of passing traffic; nothing even slows down, and finally I cave in and call her.
“Hi, Maria, how are you?”
“Kathy, I have a problem.” Her voice is subdued, unnaturally even. “The restaurant I was in threw away my glasses! I can’t see very much. I’m a bit flustered, but it’ll be all right. Can you tell me again where you are?” I repeat the address; all I know is that it’s somewhere in the southwest of the city, not far from downtown… Graham, the proprietor, steps in. I notice his forehead pucker as she explains to him about the glasses.
“Get on to Second. You’ll see a large crematorium on your left, with yellow and gold neon signage. Turn left. Left again. All our lights are on. There’s a big sign. Some flags. We’re the only low-rise in the street. You can’t miss it.”
Let’s say time passes. A vehicle pulls up. Continue reading The Reading
The Book Arrives (Alphabet)
Strawberries. Sunbathing snakes. The first garden vegetables, the first swim in the lake, the last days of school, the long, golden evenings… I write in the garden, lying in a hammock that’s shaded by an old cherry tree; in a branch above me a robin pecks at the fruit, splattering my legs with tiny drops of juice.
The house is sunk in shade. Someone has been to the mailbox: waiting on the kitchen table, along with a wad of junk mail, is a padded envelope that I know must contain a finished copy of Alphabet. I was told it was on its way but all the same the actual presence of it – the book, the final object, here in my house, gives me a jolt. I feel it’s something to be handled with care: will it be the colour we discussed, as opposed to the anaemic hue that showed up on my computer screen some weeks ago? Will the text have survived the printing process or will there be some terrible mistake, such as a chapter upside down or an overlooked typo in the blurb? Will I look at it and want to run away? After all, it’s over a year since I sent the manuscript to W&N and nine months since we finished editing it. And that’s just the recent history. It is also at least ten years since I first conceived of the book, over three since I started it for the second time… And now this thing has arrived!
I’m about to put it back on the table and leave it for a while when Jim, four, appears and asks ‘Have you got a present, mummy?’ Becki, seven, is close behind: ‘Can I open it for you?’ she says, and Richard, following them both, laden with all the stuff they can’t or won’t carry for themselves realizes straightaway what I’m holding: ‘That must be your book!’ They are all three staring at me, so I go for it, rip open the seal.
The colour is right (spooky, Becki says) – I can see that much straight away. A flick through shows that the layout changes were made, that nothing is upside down and all the chapters are there. It looks good. I can breathe again, but I’ll need to screw up a little more courage in order to actually read it. Before long, of course, other people will be doing that too. The story will have a life of its own. It’s wonderful, terrible. Both.
Snakes & Ladders.
The phone rings at 7.40 am: I’m easing the kids into raingear and out of the door along with their lunches, books, sports equipment and a recently discovered sheep skull for Show & Tell. Yes? I say, thinking it’s either a UK emergency, another cancelled soccer match or the dentist again – but no: it is the Canada Council telling me my novel Alphabet has been short-listed for a Governor General’s Award. The day – the month – is transformed into a mini roller coaster of interviews and trips. The kids bid for a float plane ride if I win; naturally, I agree – but sadly for them it doesn’t fall out that way. Even so, Alphabet and I have a good time.
There is a silver sticker on my book jacket to draw people’s attention to it and I can tell myself that I must, at least to some degree, be succeeding artistically if three of my respected peers, in a country I am new to, sat together for a day arguing over this and that point and agreed to put my book on a list of five.
So it’s very good. All the same time, this moment in the sun cannot but remind me how strange and difficult the writer’s life mostly is. Not long ago, I was talking with a talented, well-respected writer who, when I asked about her work, burst into a hurricane of tears because she had been suffering an unexpected rash of mid-career rejection letters. We hugged, and I commiserated and but there was nothing to say except that this can be a tough job, and that’s after you have written the book. Whilst writing itself can be difficult, most of us would agree that overall it is both a pleasure and a privilege. Being a writer is a different matter; it requires us to develop skills that have nothing to do with putting words on the page. The sad truth is that while some kind of verbal or story-telling talent is a prerequisite for writers, being able to cope with the psychological hazards inherent in being a writer is at least as important.
Success stories like JK Rowling’s haunt the public imagination but the reality is that most writers write into a void (no one knows or minds much what they are doing until, years later, it’s done) or even face outright discouragement (rejection letters, family disapproval, low sales). You have to be able to sustain yourself, emotionally and financially, under these conditions. You dedicate your time to what others may seem as an insane or lost cause; you must take the solitude you need to work, but at the same time you must not allow yourself to become utterly isolated or totally crazy (a little craziness is fine, even necessary). It’s important to generate ways of looking at the bizarre situation you are in which keep you going rather than stop you in your tracks. As John Gardner pointed out in his mordantly funny piece Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Novelist?, a writer needs to be “at once driven and indifferent” – passionate about the book, but also, I’d add, hard-nosed and realistic about his or her circumstances. This is not an easy combination.
Another difficulty is that in order to write, you must be sensitive, but to be a writer, you need rhinoceros hide or a good supply of bandages: rejection in all its nasty varieties is the biggest hazard of all, and spreads itself like Kudzu over the entire profession. Again, some rarely encounter it, but they are a tiny minority. Most writers must find a way to deal with constantly being judged, ranked and sometimes rejected or not even considered in the first place. Your name is not on the short list… a magazine editor declines your story… the year’s list of recommended books does not include yours… you receive a swingeingly bad review in a major publication just before you have to stand on a platform and read the damn thing aloud to 500 people…
Add to this that if you are so inclined, there is always some other book or writer to compare yourself with: a massive snake this, if you let it grow. You can feel either overwhelmed by his or her superior talent, or grow bitter and twisted because he or she has been rewarded for something that to your mind amounts to lesser achievement than yours. Prizes can have an especially infantilising effect: the chosen few step suddenly up into the limelight, leaving the rest behind. It can take a determined effort not to give in to this kind of thinking, even though anyone who has ever sat on the jury for an award will tell you that another five books could just as easily have been selected.
These are the snakes, and as you slide down their slimy gullets, it’s a good idea to remind yourself of the ladders, the biggest of which is having done what you wanted to do, being pleased (even temporarily) with the result, and then having someone read it and sees/enjoy/be moved by what you have done. Or, better still, having many people read it and see/enjoy/be moved by what you have done.
Just as in the board game, it is possible to go for long periods where there is a chronic imbalance between snakes and ladders: far too much reptile. At other times, each inviting ladder is followed immediately by a pair of wide open jaws and you never seem to get anywhere at all: the editor loves it, the book is published, the jacket is great – but your book receives no reviews at all, or your book gets great reviews and wins a prize – but for mysterious reasons just doesn’t sell, and your publisher doesn’t want to put it out in paperback/won’t commit to your next.
Again, there is nothing to do but remember: you are writing because you think it is important, because it gives you pleasure, because you want a particular story to be told, because you want to make people laugh or make them think, because it is part of the way you relate to the world, because in the end you can’t not write (all or some of the above). Yes, working in an atmosphere of encouragement, feeling that readers actually want the results of your hours at the desk – basking, even, in their appreciation of your work, is far pleasanter than the opposite and will set you up for better few hours at the computer. Yes, being paid well helps too – and both together is brilliant, but it is only likely to happen some of the time. Meanwhile, find a way to keep on working: denial, distraction, and meditation, laughter, weeping fits, philosophy or simply writing itself… You do whatever works.