Writer and performer Catherine Kidd is a familiar face on the Montreal literary scene, but now brings her work to far-flung venues in places like Whitehorse, Edinburgh, Cape Town, and Glastonbury.
Her one-woman show Sea Peach, a series of interconnected performance pieces, was first mounted in 2002, and a CD-book version released in that same year. The DVD-text compilation Bipolar Bear was published in 2005. And in spring 2007 her novel Missing the Ark was published with Conundrum Press.
carte blanche‘s Patrick McDonagh spoke with her in March.
cb: When your first novel Missing the Ark was launched at the Blue Met literary festival in spring 2007, I remember you saying it felt good to get it detached from your head. It’s a year later now—how do you feel about it today?
Kidd: In a lot of ways I love the book even more. It’s hard to resist the child metaphor there. I’m sure with kids that when you are going through a bit of a rough patch you just want to wring their ruddy necks. And I did have a bit of a tousle with the book over the ten years I was writing it. There were all kinds of issues there, what with it changing publishers so many times. And even though I loved it, I was annoyed after all that time for the actual release to seem sort of not clean and, I don’t know what, triumphant? So I felt like I wanted to run away and hide. And for about a year, I changed my pace entirely. I went out a lot less, I became really interested in nesting, finding a place for myself, and I didn’t feel like being in the public eye. I just wanted to go and live in a cabin in the woods, frankly, after the book came out. I think part of that was a sort of ironic embarrassment, all of a sudden, of having this personal thing out there, and yet at the same time I was very surprised if anyone said they had read it. But a year later, I’ve sort of got past the awkwardness.
Your book moved through a lot of publishing houses. What was the trajectory?
I signed with Patrick Crean, who was at the time with Somerville House, in 1997. And then Somerville House started to go under, and he was going to Key Porter to open a fiction imprint with them, so I went there. And later he got an offer for an even better job at Thomas Allen, so I went there too. Patrick Crean is an excellent fellow, but I think maybe at this point—he might even agree—he might have dropped the ball there a bit, and didn’t realize that the editorial inconsistency that I was dealing with was quite so stark. Every time he went to a different house, I had a different editor. There was just no continuity; it was like all of a sudden there was a different director in the film. I only met one of my editors; I didn’t even meet the others. It all happened over the phone. Someone would call, saying “I’m your new editor, and you should so this …”
It was a really good decision to decide to just get the book away from the publishers in Toronto and go with Conundrum because it just seemed much more tangible all of a sudden. As soon as I made the decision to go with Andy [Brown, Conundrum’s publisher] I felt I had taken control of it back, and that in itself made it seem much clearer what had to be done. So I cut a character out entirely, and I lost about 150 pages. But it was also much more difficult to publicize the book; Andy has a very good distribution, but in the end I didn’t have a publicist.
What was the process when writing? Do you sit down for hours and write, or obsess and stay indoors for weeks on end, or…?
There were times in writing this when I did obsess and stay indoors for weeks at a time. At the very most difficult, it really did start to feel like this diabolical thing that was sucking the life out of me [laughing]. But not all of it was like that. It’s hard to answer that question because my whole writing process is changing. I used to be a morning writer – I would get up and write and the closer I was to REM sleep, the better I was. But now I just try writing at different times of the day.
With this book, one of the biggest process concerns was deciding on exactly the order to reveal events, because it takes place in three different time periods, and I had this series of different editors who all had different ideas. At one point an editor asked why don’t you run the whole thing chronologically, so I dismantled it and put it all back together chronologically, and hated it. So then I had to go back and try to find an order of things that made sense to me. I knew there was sort of a chiropractic alignment that just had to happen and then it would all just ripple down, and it wasn’t until after I got the rights back and signed with Andy that that happened. And I thought, “Yeah, that’s what it’s supposed to be!”
I was struck by the way you make language and imagery move. The metaphor that refers to another metaphor creates a real circularity, a spinning sequence of images which I find intriguing. So depending on how you are feeling when you are reading, it can make the character seem neurotic or give a deep sense of magic.
That’s what I was looking for: the same phenomenon is a kind of mystical sensibility as well as a crazy one … I wanted to create a sort of primordial soup of the mind, that phenomenon where everything seems to have this kind of iconic weight to it and where you are reading symbolism in everything. I didn’t want to pin that down or diagnose Agnes [the lead character] too strongly. Her mother thinks she is in a depression or a kind of psychic breakdown, but it could also just as easily be that creative rush of thought when somebody is on the threshold of learning something or changing, inside their mind it is kind of like that primordial soup from which something must emerge. Agnes is sort of pregnant with herself in a way, and has to change. She has to come out into the world as a choate person, but as to what that thing is…
How did you go about developing your characters? They all seem to be generously constructed, they all have something going on…
As a child Agnes is more grown up than she should have been, registering all the emotional climate of her family’s house. I was exactly the same as a child, astonished that there could be these huge unsaid things sitting in the middle of the room and grown-ups just wouldn’t refer to them, whereas to me they were practically tangible. But I wanted to bring that same intensified sensibility into that character as a pseudo-grown-up. In the beginning of the book Agnes is probably, I don’t know, 19 or 20, and I wanted to try to create the world in her point of view, where the internal life was as rich and contradictory and detailed and lush and fast-moving as the outside world. Because that’s the kind of thing that isn’t visible from the outside. Like a duck, when you see a duck floating on the water and he looks so peaceful, but you look under the water and the legs are going like mad.
The character who is most like a living person, although no longer living, is Agnes’ father, who is a lot like my father. And I did have to rewrite my understanding of that person posthumously. When I was growing up he seemed just odd, and not able to maintain relationships with people very well. He did spend a lot of time in a basement room, and he did speak in tongues …
The most amalgamated character is the Buffalo Man, definitely. I was thinking of different traits I had seen in people, particularly men in relationships—that’s where I’ve been close enough to see their psychodynamics, anyway. There is a one side of the Buffalo Man that is very much this animal thing himself. He’s got this heavy physicality, but spiritually or emotionally, he is very sad, so there is a kind of cynicism about him that ultimately doesn’t expect things to work out. That’s what I wanted to get across with him, that’s why I had him divorced from a woman with almost the same name as Agnes, to make it clear he is trying to do the same thing again that he has done before, and failed, and he is doing it in the same way, as one does. I was interested in that kind of dumb animal going through the same motions. There is an aspect of human relationships that I think is very like that. I imagined him as 38, 39, 40, while Agnes is 19, 20 … I didn’t want to be specific.
The only thing I am specific about is Agnes’ eleventh birthday, and the rest of the time becomes fluid, which I insist is how memory works. I wanted the 11th birthday to be the only pinned-down date because in the beginning of the book she says she could start anywhere … so from there she decides to go back to her relationship with the Buffalo Man, and even further back to her father leaving, and realizes “That’s where I have to start. He left, and on this day, and it was my birthday.” That’s where she connects with the emotional truth she is seeking.
When you were writing this, how much discovery was going on for you in terms of how the character was going to learn things? Did you know when you were writing that she was going to go back to her 11th birthday, or were you writing and thinking “I wonder, where is she going to find that starting point?”
Yes, I did know, because … I wanted to illustrate an internal process of change, a coming to a realization and changing because of it. I think the task I was setting for Agnes was kind of like that same thing I had just gone through. I moved here to Montreal from India, and my dad died shortly after in 1992. I was going to return to India but got a scholarship to do my MA at Concordia, and the thing that was my masters thesis ended up developing into this novel. So the biggest thing that was happening to me between moving here and starting this writing was dealing with my father’s death. At first it seemed like an absolutely devastating catastrophe, not because we got along so well but because we didn’t. And now I was realizing how similar we were, and thinking—he wanted to be my friend. So then he died, and I couldn’t really talk with my mother about my father’s death because they hadn’t been together for some time. Dealing with it ended up being very depressing and mostly in my own head. And you know how the child always figures its their fault? Well, if I’m a child in this situation, there is part of me thinking “What if I had been more present? What if I had cultivated my relationship with my father? What’s my ownership in this thing?” I had my own shamanistic journey, to India, and then got back here. And do you get laurels at the end of your shamanistic journey? No you don’t! In fact, someone just dies as you get back, that’s the truth of it, so I guess I also did have to go back into my own past and find a way to write my memory of my father in a way that felt true.
For me, fiction is true, that’s what it is for. There is a big difference between truth and fact. So to me the past is that malleable. If you just look at history and the ways it has been recorded, and then think about the ways it hasn’t been recorded, that past is as present in each. The relativity of truth and therefore the choice you have in it is very interesting. I could tell that story of my relationship with my father as the saddest story in the world, and it would be the saddest story, all about missed opportunity and the irony of thinking someone is the opposite of you who is in fact very like you. It’s full of very tragic things. But on the other hand I could look at it as I ran away from his example to see if I could find anything better, and then ended up coming right back home. There are many different ways of looking at the same story.
I do intend a kind of homage to my father by this book, because his father told him he “was of no real use and would never amount to anything” when he was about six, and my father told me “if your father tells you when you are a wee thing that you are of no further use and would never amount to anything, you’re apt to believe it.” And yeah, that was a problem. My father apparently had some sort of neural-chemical blips, as I have, but I think one of the really damning things is that his father had already predicted the end for him, and he believed it. If he were in this generation, he might have become a performance poet.
You spent a significant chunk of time in India. How did that experience influence your writing?
I went to India from Vancouver, where on the surface it looked like I was supposed to fit in, but inwardly I didn’t fit in at all. So when I went to India, my external reality conferred that I was a stranger in a strange land, and I think I’m more comfortable that way.
I lived in India for a couple of years, and at the end of that trip found myself in a mission hospital for the poor in Katmandu where I was being told by a doctor that I probably wasn’t going to live. I was one of those people who fell through the cracks. I didn’t have any money, passport, any kind of identification, I couldn’t phone anybody because you needed money to put down, and there was no internet at the time. I was screwed—I was one of those lost foreigners. And I was looking out the window at the Himalayas, in this room full of grey dying people, and I had this experience when I thought “Well, how do I feel about being told I am going to die?,” and I realized I really didn’t feel much of anything at that point. There had been this whole existential whittling away of self. I looked out at the mountains and thought “Well it could just as easily be here as there”—there isn’t any difference between over there and right here, with the bedside table and the cup of tea, it all just became one … gestures in this single cosmic entity, or energy, or something. I cannot really say “My life was forever changed by that moment” [melodramatically], but I knew what the bottom was, and felt I had stared down into the abyss.
Before going to India I had been disillusioned with acting, after going to acting school, and then disillusioned with how philosophy was taught in university, because acting was presented as all body and no mind, and philosophy was all mind and no body. At that point I started reading eastern philosophies, which might be what made me decide to go to India. I was reading a lot about these Zen monks who would just go off into the wilderness, and they would often just wear away to almost nothing, and have some kind of vision, and then come back with a light around their head and a story to tell. That shamanistic journey is all very well, so long as you don’t die. And I think one of the things I wanted to do with Agnes was send her on a shamanistic journey.
This fear of the threatened child is the “elephant in the room,” which seemed to me like a Hitchockian McGuffin, a strategy for distracting the reader’s attention, but later it comes back very forcefully in the mother’s history.
I believe that you could inherit the memories of your parents or grandparents. Furthermore, I believe that you can inherit the unconscious memories of your parents and grandparents. That’s what I was trying to do with Agnes: that there is some child that she has to go back and rescue, somebody’s child will come to harm. Her mother is reacting to that as well, which is why she is trying to steal Rose from Agnes. But Agnes is thinking “Is it me? Am I the child who might come to harm?” She has to rescue herself first before she can have any clarity.
When I was growing up there was all kinds of concern about how my brain worked. I think I was probably rescued from rather than deprived of the normal high school experience, because I wasn’t in high school a lot. I was put in an institution. I don’t mind talking about that now… I used to think you really shouldn’t, because there is too much stigma attached, but times change and now people are more apt to take you seriously than not if they find out that you have been institutionalized. So I was weaned on psychoanalysis when other kids were studying Canadian history. I don’t know Canadian history to save my life, but I sure know psychoanalysis. I was subjected to tons of it. So my whole life I have been studying my reasons and my family’s reasons for things, trying to trace things to source, and then you get that moment when you realize a certain amount of psychoanalysis is also a crock. The idea of what if … there actually isn’t—ta daaa!—any elephant in the room at all! It’s that sort of gothic sensibility where you are going to find something under the floorboards or behind the curtain—but what if it is just not there and that feeling is part of the trope of suspense; it’s just fear, that’s all. But if you don’t remember, you don’t know.
Agnes seems to understand herself through animal metaphors, in which one animal kind of moves into the next and you do have a breaking down of all those taxonomies—it makes for a very fluid pool of life. And your other work draws on similar ideas—the bipolar bear, Mr Bumpy the Iguana, among others. Why is that?
Sometimes I refer to it as a poetic taxonomy, a way of qualifying or quantifying the natural world that includes the impressions of the subject, and would admit intuitive information and emotional information as true sources of knowledge. I think children use metaphors a lot too. They see something and don’t know what it is, they’ll ask questions about it until they are able to say “oh, like a … whatever.” And that’s not seen as scientific but that is interactive and poetic. I’m interested in those kinds of expansions of the idea of classifying the world. It is less like a hierarchical flow chart, and more about the interaction between the human subject and other living things.
I call it metaphormosis. I’m really interested in the idea that if consciousness is also matter, which we’ve decided, it makes me wonder whether you can change yourself at a cellular level by meditating on the qualities of other species, rather than as a taxonomist categorizing them. It implies a whole other relationship with the natural world, rather than being able to name and classify all of nature’s qualities, that being something absolutely vast that we can’t classify and should learn from. It’s nature as teacher rather than as subject. I find it irresistible when you look at the success of something like an ant colony … how are they doing that? I wonder whether if you watch and observe and absorb what it is like to be one of those, that consciousness or imagination can eventually change you at a cellular level so that you become more like whatever it was you were noticing, more in tune with your environment in that way, functioning in your community in that way, rooted to the planet in that way, and in accordance with the natural patterns of things. I don’t think that humans, as a species, are acting in accordance with nature, and the proof is how many species become extinct every single day.
One of my biggest motives in this whole animal thing, the reason why I do all that in the first place, is because at root I believe that the only way humans are going to be able to turn around or fix a lot of the mess we made is by redefining our greatest strengths not only as a species in ourselves but as a species in relation to other species. And I think we are much more suited to compassion and collectivity than to acquisition or competition. No-one on their death bed wishes they had been bossier. And compassion, or empathy, is nothing but the ability to meet another being by trying to imagine how they are feeling by putting yourself in that situation. It involves very childlike qualities of imagination, meeting other beings in terms of what you have in common with them, and being interested in the differences.
A lot of your writing you end up performing on stage. How do you see the connection between writing and performing?
I like the physicality and collectivity of performance. Writing by itself is way too solitary, and I already have a very cloistered reclusive streak. If I were only writing, I would indulge that way too much. So performance does a whole bunch of good things. It saves me from just spinning wheels in my head, and you cannot learn anything from the wheels in your head spinning. I don’t believe one person alone is able to learn anything without interacting somehow with something from outside; there has to be some other thing and it’s usually a person. There’s also the fact that performances are fun. Writing isn’t always fun. Some of it is incredibly fun, but sometimes it’s so frustrating and there is nobody else there … you can scream at your computer, that’s all you can do. But with a performance, you get this immediate exchange. It feels like a conversation, and something I’m performing will be different every time depending on who is in the room. So it is very much an interaction. The audience decides what kind of mode the show will be in.
I also think an artist is an artist, and you try these different media. And most people are better at one than the others, but … I used to think you had to make yourself kind of uncomfortable: “What I really want to do is sing, therefore I’m going to write …” But I don’t think that any more. I used to think I’m writing and performing because part of me is a frustrated blues singer, and now I’m thinking, “Why be a frustrated blues singer? Why not start singing blues if that’s what I want to do?” I just keep trying to find more ways to weave together what I like to do. I think that’s how I ended up doing what I was doing with the performance. Writing alone wouldn’t be enough, and I like performing, I like acting. But I want acting with some cerebral grappling, too. When I read Hamlet in grade 12—I did go to school in grade 12—I thought, “This is fantastic! You can do this with words!”
What’s next for you?
At the moment I’m trying to finish a new series of poems inspired by the wildlife footage we took in South Africa. We saw lots of lions and leopards and rhinos and hippos and elephants; it was incredibly mind-blowing for me. These will probably be a book-DVD compilation, because we have all this footage. But in terms of future shows, I have another idea but I can’t talk about it too much, because it’s way too in the idea stage. But I do have an idea for a show where I would be several generations of voices, my mother and grandmother speaking on certain topics. Maybe it would be good to bring it home a bit. I’ve written a lot about this exotic stuff, so maybe I should try writing about things that are literally close to home. But I don’t know.