First-time novelist Kathleen Winter discusses her celebrated debut, the mighty Annabel
By Emily Landau
November 2, 2010
First-time novelist Kathleen Winter discusses her beloved debut, the mighty Annabel
You might call Kathleen Winter the darling of this year’s book-awards season. After years as a short story writer, television writer, and journalist, she released her debut novel, Annabel, in June. The narrative, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in the 1970s and ’80s in a remote Labrador village, the fictional Croydon Harbour, follows Wayne Blake, born with both female and male parts. He is raised as a boy, but caught between his father’s desire for a masculine son, his mother’s secret mourning for the daughter who’s stifled inside him, and his own desire for identity and independence outside the shackles of his hometown culture.
Annabel, a sprawling book filled with musical prose and local character, has been shortlisted for the Rogers Writer’s Trust Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. During this year’s International Festival of Authors, Winter spoke to The Walrus Blog about her experience writing it.
Emily Landau Why did you set Annabel in Labrador?
Kathleen Winter [Years ago,] I made a documentary about a young Innu musician in Labrador. I had to go there for a week and stay in Mud Lake and around Sheshatshiu in the hunting tents with her family. When I decided that I wanted to write about an intersex child born in a remote place, I realized I could use Labrador as the setting because I knew the land. I happened to have all these memories and notes that I was able to use.
Hackles have been raised about some reviewers’ using the term “hermaphrodite” to describe Wayne Blake, when “intersex” is the preferred classification. However, it seems to me that the novel’s tendency is to move away from labels entirely.
I really wanted to get away from labels. I didn’t want to write anything clinical at all. I didn’t want to write about any surgery or anything like that, but I had to, otherwise the reader wouldn’t know what was going on. I felt like I did the bare minimum so the reader would know all these psychological or life implications were happening, but that idea of not wanting to label was very, very strong, and I felt that way about everything, not just Wayne.
Speaking of Wayne, he’s a very passive character throughout most of the book, letting things happen to him without really taking agency. What went into developing his character?
All of the other characters are very visible to me, and I would like to say that Wayne is also real. But in a way, he is the person that… the reader inhabits when you’re reading the book. He’s not the same as the other ones. Now, that’s not a conscious thing I tried to do. Ideally, I would have liked to have made him as tangible as everyone else, but I didn’t, and I think it might be in part because of my own character being passive. But maybe it’s partly because when you get the central character in any kind of drama, sometimes there is that quality of transparency.
Before Annabel, you published boYs, a collection of stories, in 2007. What was it like to not only shift to the novel form, but to write a novel so large in scope and size?
I’d written a lot of novels before that didn’t work. This time, I started with a short story. It was longer than my other stories because there was more going on in it, so it was about thirty pages. My short story editor, John Metcalf, didn’t like it. He just said it was too unbelievable. I love John Metcalf — he is an amazing mentor. He is just a giant in my life. But he didn’t like the story, and we have a very honest relationship, so just for spite, I thought, “I’m going to do something with the story, and because I have this problem with all these unpublished novels” — I didn’t understand the structure of the novel and I couldn’t make it work — “now I have something with a structure. I’ve got a beginning, middle, and end. All I’m going to do is take these thirty pages and methodically change each page into ten more pages.” That’s what I did for my first draft.
It’s the total opposite of the way I normally work, which is going into the dark, intuitively, [not knowing] where this is headed. But once I made those 300 pages, it got me through that mystery of “How am I going to make a structure here?” All my life, I could never write anything more than 200 pages long. I thought, “How do people do it?” But the 300 pages happened, and then it was really easy for those 300 pages to become 450.
Although the subject matter is, of course, quite different, Annabel’s form and style — omniscient narrator, linear narrative, high realism — reminded me a lot of the old-fashioned, traditional nineteenth-century novel. Was that conscious on your part?
The novels that didn’t work, the ones under my bed, and also my short stories, are not like that at all. They have really experimental voices and structures and weirdness — they’re downright crazy sometimes. I wanted to see if I was capable of creating an old-fashioned story with an omniscient narrator that was consecutive in time, from beginning to middle to end, and didn’t splay off into any time warps. My natural inclination is to go crazy with time. I just restrained myself to that. [However,] there is authorial intrusion. I thought, “My editor’s going to make me take those parts out,” but she didn’t.
The narrator has such a distinctive voice. It becomes so familiar, so warm, that by the end, it’s almost a character itself.
Even though the book has some very disturbing loneliness and sadness and not much humour, I wanted to write a book that was about the reader not being lonely — and also, me, the writer, not being lonely while I wrote it. [Annabel’s] world is a lonely place, but a writer is now going to reach out to a reader and encompass this lonely character, and together, we won’t be lonely anymore, as long as you’re reading the book. As a young person, that’s what books were to me. I was isolated — my parents moved from where we lived when I was a kid to Newfoundland, where I had no friends for a long time. I was really lonely. Books were my source of family or communion with the world of the imagination. I wanted to make a book like that myself.
*This is an older interview, but I wanted to share it as Kathleen Winter is still getting alot of press for this novel. I appreciated that they asked her questions about her novel writing process. I plan to read her book in the near future and will provide a review.
Does anyone else look forward to books set in Canada?
Or to novels about unique circumstances?