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Katherine Govier: ‘To me it was a novel begging to be written’

Katherine Govier is the author of 12 previous books, including Fables of Brunswick Avenue, Creation, and The Ghost Brush. She is a past recipient of the Marian Engel Award and has twice been a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. Govier, who divides her time between Toronto and Canmore, Alta., recently published a novel, The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel.

Why did you write your new book?

I wrote this book because I've long been fascinated by characters around Banff, where I spent time in my teens, and again in the past decade. Here was a giant wilderness park that was supposed to be an Eden, and into it, carried by the railroad, flooded a collection of runaway aristocrats, wildlife artists, coal miners, remittance men, Quakers, cowboys and women escaping the strictures of domesticity. They created a miniature society ruled from Ottawa but quite a distance removed from it. They worked with the native people, made trails, maps, a town, and made history – but they didn't make it into the history books. To me it was a novel begging to be written.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

I don't like advice. If I've been given it I doubt I've listened. Still, there are bits of folk wisdom that make a lot of sense to me. My late friend Sandra Gwyn used to say: "You don't get your second choice too." That has come to seem more and more true as time goes by.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Anna Karenina. Full of passion, brave and foolhardy in following her heart, a woman for the future conceived in the full knowledge of a social system that confined her, and doomed her. A woman whose spectacular death made a whole social class stop, feel ashamed – at least for a day.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?

My brushes with invisibility have left a bitter taste. You feel it coming on, as a woman, as you get older; if you are in a wheelchair, as my daughter has been this past year; if you speak with an accent that makes you difficult to understand. People look through you. You aren't deemed to be capable. You don't merit consideration. No thank you, give me visibility any day. Time-travel? Maybe. But we can do so much already through books and documents and film, as aids to imagination. I feel lucky to have been born when I was, coming of age at the end of the sixties, being a young single woman in the seventies, writing and having children in the eighties – it seems to me very lucky timing. But maybe we all feel that way about our eras. I admire writers who look into the future. But I would rather look back and pull the past up into today, so that we have some depth and perspective.

Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?

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I suppose the last two years has been the darkest period of my life – not dark, but certainly the most difficult. My mother died, my adult daughter was stricken with Guillain Barré syndrome and only last month I lost my father. In the airport on my way to Calgary, when I still hoped to see him alive, I picked up a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. It's a strange fantasy set just after King Arthur's death in the sixth century where knights wander in a fog of forgetfulness and a duplicitous boatman waits to ferry the elderly off to an island of isolation. It sounds dark but it's about love, really, and whether love can be sustained alongside memory. I found it comforting – large questions considered on a long journey, dressed up with a bit of swordplay. In times of stress I shy away from realism. And by the way, my daughter is regaining her mobility, a little every day.

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