Q and A with Kathleen Winter

Recently, I read the wonderful book Annabel, by Kathleen Winter, which I reviewed and posted earlier on this blog. After reading the book and thinking about it a lot, I wrote to Kathleen a few times with some questions and she was kind enough to indulge me and take the time to answer them. She also gave me permission to post them, so here they are. Hope you find them interesting and thought-provoking.

JD: Overall, I loved the book and found your writing so poetic. You really evoke a sense of place in your descriptions of the land and the wildness of Labrador and the hustle of St. John’s. Your portraits of the characters are all so strong and real, especially Wayne and Treadway. Even though I hated what Treadway did sometimes, I could always understand him because we got to know him so well. But, I was wondering why you ended up treating Jacinta the way you did. She starts off as such an important support for Wayne, yet she ends up becoming so withdrawn and eccentric (perhaps more than a bit crazy for awhile?) that she virtually disappears as an important element of his life. She goes from being the most important to the least, and we don’t really hear from her again. That bothered me because I found her so sympathetic and likeable in the beginning. I thought it was a bit unfair for Treadway to end up being the strong, important one instead of her.

KW: You're right about Jacinta - she does retreat. I'm not sure I know the answer to your question, except maybe to say that yes, it was a choice I made, to have Treadway emerge as the stronger one, and I can see why a reader might feel the way you do. It would be a good question for a book club! I felt that Jacinta's self-enforced repression of her wishes regarding Wayne, all through his childhood, made her feel ultimately that she had made a deep mistake that she didn't know how to fix. I already had a strong female character who didn't care what any man thought (Thomasina) and I guess I gave her the bravest female role.

JD: Images of bridges occur throughout the book. Thomasina sends Wayne postcards of bridges while she travels, she talks to Wayne about bridges, and Wayne and Wally create their own beautiful version of the Ponte Vecchio. In the end, Wayne decides to study and design bridges himself. I thought it was a wonderful metaphor for Wayne, as a bridge or transition between two worlds. How did you come up with this idea , or is it possible to pinpoint when or how the seed for an idea is planted? I thought it was a very beautiful image.

KW: I can pinpoint the instant bridges came to me. The Ponte Vecchio did not exist in early drafts; Wally and Wayne built a treehouse, but the treehouse didn’t feel right to me. For a long time I left it in there but I knew it wasn’t what the story needed. I didn’t have a clue what to do instead. I was having coffee outdoors at CafĂ© El Mundo with my husband and the idea of bridges flew gently into my head, and I knew then and there what was going to happen with bridges throughout the story. It was a gift, the idea. A lot of writing is like that, for me. There is author control on one side, and inspiration on the other. It is really important to me to admit that I don’t know the answer to something I’m writing about, and to let the question sit, over time, until the idea wants to come to me of its own accord, in a completely unexpected form.

JD:Both Jacinta and Thomasina support the feminine side of Wayne right from the start. Treadway tries his best to encourage the more masculine aspects of his son and in fact, seems to be afraid of seeing any signs of femininity. Do you think that women in general are more accepting of differences in people and are more inclined to take people as they are and not feel threatened? Or is that too broad a generalization? Is there any research that you found on this idea?

KW: One of the hardest things for me in the writing of this novel was to stand back and allow the concepts of masculinity and femininity to breathe. I think they are artificial concepts when it comes to the soul, or the inner person. So I did not want to polarize them, even in apparently polarized characters, like Treadway and Jacinta. Treadway has music in him; he sings, and he has intensely private moments in which he consults the wilderness about whether he has made a mistake in forcing Wayne to be raised as a boy. Jacinta and the other women in the novel have strengths that we often attribute to men. But yes, I have observed that while gender is more fluid than social constraints pretend, it often appears that a man like Treadway would have a harder time accepting that fluidity, on the surface at least, than Jacinta or Thomasina would.

JD: Why did you isolate Wayne quite so much? When Treadway dismantles the “Ponte Vecchio” Wally and Wayne are broken apart. Why did you make it so drastic? Surely Wally would have understood that Wayne was not to blame for Treadway’s actions? It was actually surprising that Wayne was not more depressed or even suicidal, given his lot in life and the isolation he had to endure for so long.

KW: I mentioned earlier that there is a tension between author control of a story, and what the story wants to do. I don’t decide ahead of time what is going to happen. Wayne’s isolation was an important part of the whole atmosphere of this story, which is, in part, about loneliness. Loneliness is an important theme to me, and I think it is one reason why readers read novels. There is an essential loneliness that affects us all, and that is why I love E.M.Forster’s epigraph in Howard’s End: “Only connect.” I think that in order for Wayne to connect, to belong, and to find his place in the world, he had to go through a dark night of the soul first.

JD: Wayne’s attack by Derek Warford and his crew really bothered me. Why did his first sexual experience after his operation have to be so horrific and devastating? I’m sure you must have had good reasons for the way the story progressed, so please forgive me but this just didn’t seem quite right to me.

KW: I did think of removing the attack scene from the book after I had written it, because it is so brutal. Then I did some reading about what happens to many intersex people and others who don't fit at extreme ends of the gender spectrum, and realized that this scene was mild compared to the brutality, torture and even murder that many people of ambiguous gender have to face. So I left it in. I was disturbed by it too.

JD: You’ve probably read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, another book about a trans-gendered young person, but treated in a completely different way. What did you think of it? In that novel, Cal ends up deciding to live out his life as a man. How do you see Wayne living the rest of his life? Do you think he will become more one gender than another, or do you prefer not to think about the rest of his life, or is that possible? I find it hard not to think about him a lot and I’m just a reader; I imagine that as a writer it would be even harder.

KW: I am just beginning the first chapter of Middlesex now, after finishing my own book, so I don’t have any thoughts on it yet. But I do have thoughts about how Wayne lives out the rest of his life. He has been through a lot. He has been through so much sadness and loneliness, but at the end of the book he has begun to find a place of wholeness and belonging. In my mind I see him as moving further into that place, where people in his life will love him for all his beautiful qualities, and where he can give love in return. I did not realize when I set out to write the book, which began as a short story, how much it would focus on his childhood and youth. By the end of the novel he has only just begun to find his place in the world, but I hope that for him it is a good place. I see him as living beyond gender. I see him as having a beautiful face and graceful way of walking. I see him as someone whose gender strangers will not be able to tell, but I see him as having a circle of friends and loved ones who understand that he is intersex. In the time of the novel (starting with his birth in 1968) and in the locations covered in it, I did not find him a satisfactory lover, although I did write intimate scenes that did not end up in the book, because he had not yet come into his final way of being, his new, whole self, and for real intimacy he would have had to find someone who responded completely to his real self. I think that happens later in his life, and I think it might have to happen in a big city, although I could be wrong about that.

JD: One final question, about Wayne’s best friend. Why did poor Wally have to lose her voice? It was her one true passion and it was taken from her in such a dramatic way. Actually, I thought you treated her a bit harshly overall. She was so confident and a leader without trying when she was young, then along comes Donna and Wally is “taken down”. What were your reasons for all of that?

KW: This question really interests me because it makes me think more deeply about where I came up with Wally’s harsh experiences. She remained a strong person, but by around grade five something happened to the social atmosphere at school. There formed a social hierarchy, with sophisticated and hidden forms of creating inner and outer circles, as well as outcasts. I have seen and experienced this, and I know it affects children deeply for life, so I felt it was important enough to put in the book. The scene in which she loses her voice comes directly out of this atmosphere of covert bullying. She lost her voice because she had the courage to speak out against the bully, who reacted with impulsive violence. When I wrote that scene, I wanted to take it out of the book. I told my daughter, who was the same age as Wally and Donna, about the problem: that I did not want singing to become impossible for Wally, since, as you say, it was her one true passion. My daughter replied, “Have her sing anyway.” So that is what I did.

Thank you for these great questions. They go deep into the book and I appreciate them. Kathleen.

JD: Thank-you Kathleen for taking the time for this. I really loved the book and found it a very tender story. So easy to love Wayne!

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