Q & A
Kathleen Winter‘s first collection of short stories, boYs (2007 Biblioasis), won both the Winterset Award and the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her first novel, Annabel (2010 Anansi), won the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the 2010 Governor General’s Awards, and the Orange Prize. A long-time resident of St. John’s, Newfoundland, she now lives in Montreal and is currently serving as the Mordecai Richler Writer in Residence at McGill University. You can read the story “Jolly Trolley” from boYs, in this issue of carte blanche.

carte blanche’s Joni Dufour interviewed her by email in October 2011.

cb: What kind of writing are you doing these days?

Winter: I have completed a draft of a murder mystery and am also working on a piece of writing about the Arctic.

What was writing a “genre” piece like? Do you read a lot of murder mysteries?

My latest manuscript is, I suppose, not strictly a “genre” piece, although there is a murder and it is a sort of whodunit with a “detective” character. I guess I like the idea of blurring the lines between what we call genre and what we don’t. I always find it strange, for instance, to see a writer like Neil Gaiman or Ursula K. LeGuin ghettoized on their own “science fiction” shelf in bookstores. The whole question of what is or is not “literary” also entertains me. I read all kinds of fiction and nonfiction, both within and outside supposed “genres”.

On Trevor Cole’s site, you had a wonderful way of describing how to go about getting your characters through conflict and then resolution by comparing the process to turning the heel of a sock in knitting. Are you an outline writer, that is, do you have a pattern that you follow? Or do you knit away and then, upon arriving at the heel, have to find a way out?

I used to knit away and hope for the best but found out the hard way, after 45 years of fruitless endeavour, that this does not work for me. Still, I can’t work with an outline, because I can’t stand the idea of working in a closed-ended frame. I have to feel the writing process is exploratory. So I have worked out a compromise. I actually got the compromise from a conversation at a writers’ festival with the wonderful thriller-writer Linwood Barclay. But I won’t give away his secrets here. I also gained a lot of insight from my editors John Metcalf and Lynn Henry.

I understand that Annabel started out as a short story and that after it was rejected for publication you realized that you could use it as an outline for a larger piece. Is there anything you can tell us about your experience of developing that short story into a novel?

I did use that story as an outline for my first draft: I made each page into approximately ten pages. This changed a 25-page manuscript to a 250 page one. But after that all hell broke loose – the thing got smashed and rewritten over and over again until it was unrecognizable. It became much better but I would never go that route again. I’d cut out a few steps and try to remember what I learned along the way. But of course the process will be different with each book. I remember the author Joan Clark told me to read a book I admire several times: first to enjoy it, then to pick apart how the writer did it. I have found that is very good advice.

As a book seller and a fan of Annabel, I’ve suggested the book to many people, but it’s been my experience that when they hear it’s about a family that gives birth to an intersex child, many of them literally recoil. Do you recognize the reaction I’m referring to? Do you have any thoughts on the nature of this repulsion?

I have always loved exploring the intersection of maleness and femaleness and I have no idea why these readers feel this way. I do know that many readers told me they felt an aversion to the story but surprised themselves by loving the book, once they found it was about realistic people to whom they could relate. I really wanted Wayne/Annabel to have a tactile, lovely, ordinary aspect to daily life, not be some kind of anomaly. I’m happy that the book can make readers drop preconceptions and labels.

You’ve said on your blog that “Annabel(’s)… success has opened doors and given me income that will let me write my next book with greater freedom, but it has also changed my relationship with my world in ways I’m not so sure I like.” Do you mind sharing a bit of what you mean?

I may have been referring to the way a book’s success means the solitary writer becomes, in part, something of a public figure. In many ways I am happy to engage publicly in person with readers, and I never take for granted that having readers is a blessing. Perhaps when I wrote that in my blog, I was feeling a bit perplexed by the publicity around the awards season, which I had not experienced before. It is one thing to have your written words given a wide readership, but it is another thing entirely to personally make public appearances and to be on camera. I am, at the same time, grateful for the publicity my book has received. It’s a learning curve.

You are in love with the North, aren’t you? What are some of the things about the North that pull you?

The North is, to me, the great, silent, powerful mind of the world. It is so powerful yet so fragile that to think of it makes me feel a huge tremor. It is poised, and we are poised with it, to decide the fate of the world. I don’t like to use the word environment, because that word is a clinical word, and it implies a surrounding separate from ourselves. There is no separation between the great being of the earth and ourselves: its breath and our breath are one – the illusion that we use it or inhabit it or dwell upon it is an error in thinking. The North is powerful because it is one of the parts of ourselves we have not yet violated with stupidity and blindness. We have violated it, but not entirely. It is still part of our own visionary being and remains a source of warning and hope.

We chose to print “Jolly Trolley” from your collection boYs. It’s the story of an impromptu chat between working-class neighbours. Do you have any thoughts or memories about writing “Jolly Trolley”?

I wrote all the Marianne [recurring character throughout boYs] stories when I was in my early twenties. There are others that did not make it into my first collection. One day I would like to publish them all together in their own volume. It would be a slim volume, but cohesive. I well remember writing “The Jolly Trolley.” I lived in the tiny community of St. Michael’s on the south shore of Newfoundland just before the moratorium on the inshore cod fishery. Everything about this story, and all the Marianne stories, is taken from my observations of character, landscape and story from that place and time. It was the first time I’d ever lived in the country and I was deeply affected by the power of the red willows, the moonpath over the ocean, the phosphorescent plankton glimmering at the wharf-end, the goodness of people.

Can you describe what kind of plans you have as Writer in Residence at McGill this year?

I’m looking forward to working with McGill students and seeing what they have to bring to writing, and how we can work together to help them explore their own creative territory. It is an honour for me to be the first Richler writer in residence. The city of Montreal is a wonderful city for fiction and I will use my time there to write as well as to work with the McGill community. After living here three years, I feel I’m only just beginning to know the city. This residency will give me a chance to know it better through re-reading Richler’s work while connecting with a local academic and creative community.

You’ll be participating in a workshop for beginning writers in Halifax shortly. Can you give me an idea of the kind of advice or lessons you’ll be sharing?

I’ll be doing a workshop on beginnings, middles and endings. I’ve learned a lot about these stumbling blocks in my own writing career, and I’ll enjoy taking some time to demystify them with workshop participants. I guess you could say I’ll be talking about structure – how to use it to support the poetry of character and atmosphere.