Kathleen Winter discusses her first novel, Annabel
Can you talk about the origins of the novel and, specifically, how you came to write about an intersex child?
I listen to my postmistress, my friends, people I meet on the subway. People like to confide in a person who is genuinely listening. The first time I heard of an intersex child, I realized I knew nothing about intersex children and I resolved to find out more. What I learned haunted me until I began the novel.
Did you do any research or talk to any intersex people before or during the time you wrote Annabel? Did you feel any pressure to represent the life of people who are intersex accurately, or did you just focus on Wayne as an individual?
I did research. I read academic papers and medical essays, and I read accounts intersex people had written about their lives. But I soon realized these did not give me the key to the world I was looking for, because these journalistic research methods were unveiling bare facts on one hand, and extremely painful scenes on the other. So I relied, once I had read these accounts, on the artist's imagination. I relied on my human ability to see into profound questions. You can see this in the internalized nature of the character of Wayne. He is more internally written than the other characters are, in the novel. He is less an external character and more of oneself. Intersex and also transgendered readers who have discussed the novel with me say they appreciate this.
Annabel is set in a beautifully evoked, harsh locale: the Labrador region of Newfoundland. Indeed, the landscape is evoked with such precision and resonance that it almost functions like another character in the book. What is your connection to this region? Did you mean for the setting to have such thematic importance in the novel?
I first stayed in Labrador while making a documentary film about a young aboriginal woman and her songwriting. I stayed in the bush, in the hunting tents of the Innu people, and the land spoke to me powerfully. I decided to go back numerous times, teaching and visiting people I had come to know there. I wrote journals there but had no intention of setting any fiction there until I began writing Annabel. The power of the land in Labrador and the power of Wayne/Annabel's story came together intuitively.
The novel is set in the recent pastthe 1970s and 1980s, mainly. Do you think Wayne's story, and thus his situation, would differ much if you had set the novel in the present day? And what if you set the story in a different location?
I gave Wayne the birthdate of 1968 because I thought society's methods of dealing with gender ambiguity would have been more primitive then than they are now. I imagined we would be more enlightened now. But I have come to learn that even today, parents of newborn intersex children are made to feel they have to decide upon one gender for the good of the child. In notable cases where the parents are doctors, or scientists, or have inside knowledge, there is more of an open mind. If I had set the story elsewhere, I might not have been able to explore some of its themes of isolation and beauty as thoroughly as I have done.
You write from varying points of view throughout the novel. Which were the toughest for you to write, and why? Were some points of view easier to tackle than others?
Wayne's point of view was the hardest. I have mentioned that I tried to write into his very being, so that the reader is looking through his eyes. To do this I had to look into a dangerous precipice with Wayne. I think that in fact he would have gone over the precipice, which I was not equipped to do. I went as far into his life, physically and psychologically, as I could. It was easier for me to tackle points of view like those of his father, Treadway, and his mentor/teacher, Thomasina, though these were also complex.
So many of the characters in this novel haunted me, especially, of course, Wayne. But the character who truly surprised me was Treadway. I started out hating him, and then he slowly broke my heart. Did his growth as a character surprise you as you wrote, or did you know from the outset that he would have this sort of emotional journey?
Treadway surprised me as much as he did you. I had to learn his motives, forgive him, realize he was bigger than I thought he was, and follow him until he showed me things I did not know about him at the outset. I came to love him and feel he is a real person. I think about him all the time.
Annabel was a finalist for the three major Canadian literature prizes this fall, a rare and amazing accomplishment. What was has this experience been like for you?
These nominations were a surprise and an honour for me, and they led, in part, to the book's becoming a #1 Canadian bestseller. I had to learn to be comfortable under television cameras, and to really think about why I had written the book and what it is trying to accomplish, so that I could answer media questions without too much public introspection. It has been an exciting time, sometimes harrowing but always good for the life of the book.
Your first book was a collection of stories. Having now published a novel, can you talk about the differences between the two forms? Do you prefer one over the other?
It took me many years and a lot of study and good editors for me to learn how to make the overarching structure of a novel. I loved learning that and am working on a new novel. Having said that, I will always love the short story form because it is exciting and you can innovate and experiment and risk a lot without using up two or three years of your writing time. The short story is, for me, a fiery, radical form, and I adore that about it.
Who are some of your favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?
My favourite writers include Heinrich Boll, Roald Dahl, E.M.Forster, Katherine Mansfield and Gretel Ehrlich. I love Boll's The Bread of those Early Years, Dahl's Boy, and Ehrlich's This Cold Heaven.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a comic murder mystery, and a non fiction book about the Arctic.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic.