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Kathleen Winter in her back alley in Montreal on June 24, 2010. (John Morstad/John Morstad for the Globe and Mail)
Kathleen Winter in her back alley in Montreal on June 24, 2010. (John Morstad/John Morstad for the Globe and Mail)

Kathleen Winter on boys, girls and writing Annabel Add to ...

I show my copy of Annabel to Kathleen Winter and she's clearly moved. Towards the end of the interview, she takes it again in hand, flipping through, as if to say, yes, yes, yes. As if to say, yes, I'm relieved, relieved to know that I succeeded.

Upon entering the media room, Winter immediately launches into a tale of adaptation, the mental and physical gymnastics that come with throwing oneself into the path of conversations with people at any one of the many events she'll attend this season. With guidance from brother Michael, a master at such things, such skills on display as recently as the Penguin 75th anniversary party, sister Kathleen seems more comfortable alone in a room with a relative stranger, at home in the jeans she confesses she picked up off the street one day, than in a roomful of industry people on point to step out and congratulate her on her trifecta of award nominations for her debut novel, a story, among other things, about an intersex child who is raised as a boy against the wishes of his mother.

Annabel is nominated for the Roger's Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country's most lucrative and prestigious prize for fiction. Every book on this year's Giller shortlist has already been deemed worthy of winning by nomination alone. But should Annabel take the prize, I solemnly believe that this country's readership will, overnight - pardon my candour - grow a clue where one didn't exist before.

In Annabel, all are welcome.

It's not a perfect book. It's far from imperfect. And I can say this about all my favourite books, the ones that needed to be written, the ones you talk about precisely because room was left for the reader to step in, almost as if to say that, your work here is not done. In this case, the reader is asked to occupy the shoes of a child who lives both in the mainstream and on the fringes.

Below is a partial transcript of my conversation with Kathleen Winter, not an unlikely one - I was still at House of Anansi Press when Annabel was acquired, where Winter and I had corresponded briefly. Our chat felt more like a catch-up, my ongoing curiosity for the text finally finding an outlet on a windy day down on Harbourfront.

Globe and Mail: Does Wayne, in your mind, actually exist?

Kathleen Winter: Wayne is the only character in the story who doesn't actually exist. Nobody's ever really asked me that before. And I don't consciously think he doesn't exist, but it's like how the main character in a lot of books doesn't actually exist. It's the characters that he plays off of, they're the ones that have to be as real as possible.

But if I look at Wayne, I can see right through him, he's transparent, he's made of insubstantial things. I don't know if that's a fault or not, but that's true, it's very true.

Globe and Mail: Because one of the things that I like about Wayne is how plainly he speaks. And as I got further into the story, I started to wonder, what if Wayne had been a precocious child? How would that have changed the tone of the story? Or, if there'd been a locker-room scene. It felt integral to the story that Wayne's truth be revealed to him, and by whom, in the order in which it occurs. However, in earlier drafts, did you consider constructing a scene in which it's another child who points out Wayne's difference?

Kathleen Winter: That would have been great. I kind of wish I had now. I don't know why I didn't do that. I feel like going home and writing that scene right now. [laughter]

G & M: I'm just thinking back to my own youth, that very conscious age, especially among girls, where it's clear someone, a mentor, has told them that it's time to start shaving, for instance. It shifts among cultures, but it's a distinct memory for me.

Kathleen Winter: You know, maybe if Wayne had been written as a girl, I would have . . . known more. I would have remembered more. But because I wrote him as a boy . . . right? I don't know what boys are like with each other about their bodies when they're kids. I didn't think about it.

There is one scene in which he tells the doctor, I know that other boys only have two balls and I only have one. So, he's noticed it. But if I'd written him as Annabel and the Wayne part of him had been hidden, I definitely would have written a scene like that because, to me, that's just the first thing you'd think of. As a child, I went swimming and everyone looks at each other's bodies . . . the whole thing is very up front.

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