Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Don't Staple: Ten Questions with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

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Don't Staple: Ten Questions with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

OBT:

Tell us about your new book, Perfecting.

KK:

Perfecting tells the story of Curtis, who commits a heinous crime, and avoids the law by posing at the Canadian border as a draft dodger and Vietnam War peace activist in 1972. He atones his crime by involving himself with a group of back-to-the-landers and building a religious commune. Thirty years pass, when his lover, Martha, discovers a gun under a floorboard. She returns to Curtis’s home in New Mexico to unravel the truth.

The plot is a simple one of one man trying to reunite with his renegade lover, in order to explain himself. The story, though, is more complicated. It takes as its poles then (Vietnam) and now (Afghanistan) and talks the space between them – the story revolves around the issues of religion, politics, war, Truth, perspective and belief, as well as the age-old story of a child becoming an adult.

A novel, to my mind, should always have a reason to be told, and mine was, to a large extent, a response to what the media was saying about the U.S. post-9/11: that it was going to have to grow up, that it was a nation moving out of adolescence, etc. The story of America’s involvement with Afghanistan, at least on a superficial level, is the story of Communism, and so the novel deals with small c communism, as well as Communism. Those two ideas shook hands in the making of this book.

OBT:

Perfecting involves a broad range of human perspective and experience. Did you need to research while writing this novel?

KK:

Yes, I researched almost every aspect of this book, which is why it took me so long to write it. Eight years all told. Not much of the history and the personality types were in my normal purview. And a great deal of it made me quite uncomfortable.

The typical scenario was research, absorb research, research, absorb research, imagine, find voice, write, verify, go back and edit.

I read broadly: texts that I thought the hippies might have read (Thoreau’s On Walden Pond, etc), books about cults, books about early American religions (and there were many), epics (I wanted to manufacture an epic sensibility in the narrative so I read and reread The Epic of Gilgamesh, portions of Old Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Qu’ran, Beowulf, The Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, and bits of other long national/cultural epics). I also read books about Afghanistan and Pakistan (including Who Shot Daniel Pearl? by Bernard Henri Levy, Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile and Ghost Wars by Steve Coll). I also spent a lot of time trawling the internet for information on guns, covert activity, war rugs, MANPADS, etc. It was all a bit obsessive.

I also made contact, through a friend, with former U.S. senator Brooks Douglass who helped me find the voice of the rogue soldier, Michael Dama, and whose story, weirdly, coincidentally, mirrored my character’s. This interview was worth ten books, and I am grateful for it.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote Perfecting?

KK:

It’s been said I do not handle my reader with kid gloves and, I must say, I don’t like to be handled this way by other writers. I want my reader to participate in the thing I am creating, in its plot, and in its story, its sentences, and its theme. All good novels are puzzles; it’s the job of the writer to make them solvable, and the job of the reader to respect that enough to fully engage in the game.

My ideal reader thinks about the book once its last word has been read and wonders, “What just happened there? Wait a sec—” and takes some time to line things up.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

KK:

The only things I need to write are paper, pen, a decent library and complete silence.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

KK:

I published an awful little short story in The European (a European Union newspaper) for a large sum of money. I made more on that short story than I earned on my first book publication.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

KK:

That’s a very funny question. Roughing it in the Bush by Susanna Moody (to let them know what they are in for), The Oxford Canadian Dictionary (to help with variant spellings) and an illustrated Kama Sutra (for the cold nights). I am practical.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

KK:

The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde, The Interrogation by J.M.G Le Clézio, In Other Rooms Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin and The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

KK:

I don’t recall ever receiving advice, which may sound disingenuous, but I don’t mean it so. I do remember a catechism class that advised me, and my classmates, to be true to our talents. That we all had a special purpose, etc. I bought into that – the idea that individuals need to honour whatever gifts or talents were bestowed upon them.

I could read and write at a very early age, and I made up stories (lies, actually) all the time. In Catholic elementary school, I was caught out any number of times in really lousy lies: lying in confession, etc. I once terrified a neighbour child with an elaborate lie involving a giant owl. The lie lasted weeks and was revised and filigreed to the point where I almost believed it. So, I suppose, in writing fiction I have been true to my superpower in lying.

OBT:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

KK:

I had a reader who confessed she’d cried while reading one of my stories. I took that as an extreme compliment – that she had cried, and that she’d told me so. She must have been very engaged in the piece to cry, and her engagement made me proud.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

KK:

Don’t try too hard, rather try to write from the very well of yourself, please yourself and then your inner critic. Send the work out only when you are quite certain it is beautiful. And format properly. And don’t staple.

For more information about Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and her new book, Perfecting, please visit her website.

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