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The Globe and Mail

Kathleen Winter on boys, girls and writing Annabel

Kathleen Winter in her back alley in Montreal on June 24, 2010.

John Morstad/john morstad The Globe and Mail

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.

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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?

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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.

G & M: So it was never a question whether or not to write Wayne as a boy?

Kathleen Winter: No . . . And I don't know why that is. It might be because when I first heard about intersex children, I was told stories about boys. It might also be that it allowed me to include femininity and to let ideas of and questions about it unfold as Wayne unfolded.

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But I'm not very conscious about what I'm doing when I write. Like, when people ask [my brother]Michael what he was thinking, he knows, he's really conscious. But I just wait for ideas and I write them, and if it feels like it's alive, I'll keep it, and if I feel like it's dead, I won't.

G & M: What's the age difference between you and Michael?

Kathleen Winter: I'm five years older than him.

G & M: I ask - it's interesting - because I just realized that since Annabel, I've recast you as twins, or the male and female side of the same person. Yet it makes a kind of sense. You bear a striking resemblance. And of course you both have books out this season, and are each up for awards. And he's out there coaching you through this very public side of things. Do you ever find yourself speaking through Michael?

Kathleen Winter: That's a very strong . . . and I was thinking, I thought, I can't answer that . . . and then I thought about how Michael would answer that. So. Maybe.

I think he's more academic about what he's doing. There are layers. At least, that's what it feels like. And it's not that I don't know what I'm doing. Like, I know when I feel like something works . . . Like, earlier when you asked me about Thomasina - [I'd asked Winter where the name of Wayne's teacher came from. It's a nickname Winter's grandmother gave her - Doubting Thomasina]- I never consciously decided. I just liked the sound of the name.

I feel like I'm sounding completely incoherent! [laughter]

G & M: No, no!

Kathleen Winter: . . . but the twin thing. We've always had the same kind of glasses. And one time, we said, let's go surprise our mother with some lobsters. I was in Montreal, and he was in Toronto and mother was in Newfoundland and it was her birthday . . . And we went and we had some lobsters and we were dressed identically! We were dressed exactly the same, and there's a picture of us and it's hilarious! There's lots of that. We definitely have a lot of something the same going on.

G & M: When you read to various audiences, have you gleaned which character speaks most to readers: Wayne or Labrador? Because your Labrador is a very present character in the book.

Kathleen Winter: There are Wayne People and there are Labrador People. Actually, there are Treadway People (Wayne's father) and there are Labrador People. Nobody talks about Wayne . . . right?

But a lot of people talk about the landscape. And, actually, Treadway is the landscape. He's the character that's most connected to the land. So I think those aspects of the story - the land, the wilderness, and being a trapper - a lot of people like that. And I do too. The book is about two completely separate things.

G & M: Do you feel that having lived in smaller communities that there are readers out there who find you and your voice familiar?

Kathleen Winter: I've lived in little, tiny places. One place was St. Michaels, a fishing community and the fishery was still there. I wrote a book while I was there, a book about the place. And I wrote some stories about the place too, that appeared in Pottersfield Portfolio and Fiddlehead, this is 10 years ago. And when I first got there, I thought that I'd gradually let people know that I was writing about the place, but I didn't want to let them know yet. But the day Pottersfield Portfolio came out, the fisherman's wife across the road came over to me and said, "I read your story." Now where, in the name of God, did she find that? It just spreads like wildfire if people learn that you're writing about their place. If I'm writing about their place, then someone's going to tell them. It's like gossip. It's not like "I read a review in the newspaper about a great book I might like to read," or seeing a book in the window of the local bookstore. It's "I heard someone wrote about us." So, in that way, word of my writing spreads in a really different way, and much faster.

Also, I wrote a column in the newspaper for 15 years. People in Newfoundland know about me through the paper, and I wrote very, very personally. I'd write about the goat cheese I was walking, or going for a walk. So, the network of why someone decides to read something . . . there's a localness to it.

G & M: I hadn't thought to ask, but maybe I will. Has anyone known to you tried to read you into Annabel?

Kathleen Winter: People have asked if there's anything about the character of Wayne that's autobiographical. The thing is, with this book, I talked before about not being conscious of stuff, but I am conscious about how I modeled each of these characters on composites of real people. I absolutely have to be able to close my eyes and see a character if I'm going to be able to write about them. Like Thomasina, her physical being is modelled on a certain person. She was one of my kid's teachers. Treadway was modeled on four different people. And I suppose some of my own experience is in some of the characters. How could I not be in it?

But the Wayne character? I couldn't see Wayne. You were asking me about that. I couldn't close my eyes and see him for nearly the whole book. And then I saw a film, and there was a person in that film I knew was the grown-up Wayne. So I found an image online and used it as my desktop so that for the last third of the book I could see Wayne. I don't know for the reader if Wayne becomes more visible, but for me he did.

I only had the internal life. And to get back to the question, for that, I did imagine myself completely into Wayne. Because I began to research intersex people journalistically, but it was all so clinical, raw, painful, and completely unhappy, tragic . . . I wanted it to be . . . I had to become Wayne myself. I didn't find that hard. I don't find it at all hard to close my eyes and imagine that I am both male and female. That's not a stretch at all. I mean, I don't know what everyone else feels like, but I could be a guy as well as a woman.

And so I was worried about people who are really in Wayne's situation that would feel that that was a shallow interpretation. Would they feel, oh, well, what does Kathleen Winter know? She hasn't had to live through this. Even though it's a fiction book, I had that fear. Now, I've had some responses from intersex readers and I'm really relieved that they actually relate to the book.

So, I think that thing of internalizing and becoming Wayne so that I could write it - and I don't mean that he's me - but to become him for the writing, instead of trying to look at him from the outside by interviewing people . . . Yeah, I couldn't do it that way.

G & M: There are a number of scenes in which gender is played out, not as binary opposites, but there are roles, interesting in a book that features a character who is socialized as one gender over another, with resulting tensions. I suppose, in a way, Wayne echoes different aspects of the people around him, his parents in particular, more son than daughter, or daughter than son, depending on each circumstance. There's also a lot of restraint, particularly in the development of Treadway's character who never becomes a brute, even thought he's capable of brutality.

Kathleen Winter: My parents are one of the models for Jacinta and Treadway. I'm very close to each parent in very different ways. One time, I had a conversation with my father, and I asked him why our household had to be organized in the way it had been, which, I think, had been very hierarchical and patriarchal with a chain of command that went from him down to the dog, right? And he said, "Well, somebody's got to be the boss." That's the way he thought the truth was.

With Jacinta and Treadway, there is this undercurrent that the wife respects the decisions of her husband and that's why Wayne became . . . Wayne. Even though Jacinta felt so strongly that it was wrong [that Wayne not be raised as a girl, Annabel]she allowed it to happen. And it's why, in the end, she became a weak character who lost all her power. And I feel that that is probably something that a lot of people don't experience any more.

But, in my short stories and in this, they reflect that thing that is pretty old-fashioned but I still see it in a surprising number of marriages . . . where the husbands control all the money and the wife just had a credit card. So if they wanted to buy a bag of chips they used the credit card. I just can't stand it. Because it means that the husband reads the credit card statement and knows every bag of chips that she bought, right?

It's not the same with Jacinta and Treadway. But at the same time, I started out with having Treadway as a one-dimensional character. Yet by the end of the book, he was my favourite character. So I went through something where a part of me was learning to forgive my father for things I saw as controlling behaviour.

G & M: It sounds like you like to write for yourself first?

Kathleen Winter: I like to write for myself first so much that I have seven unpublished novels that nobody would want to read. [laughter]So I really have had to modify that and I very much tried to think about the reader in Annabel. The reader is sitting there with this book. What is she or he getting out of it?

And you used the word "restraint" earlier, and I think that's my favourite word. I really, really admire restraint in other writers . . . when there are undercurrents and things bulging to get out. I haven't been told anything, but I've been told just the right amount. I love restraints in all parts of life. I don't know why; I just find it really exciting.

G & M: This extends to my read on Wayne and perhaps why he functions so well as a voyeur. Or a vessel. I, too, feel as if I was able to pour myself into Wayne in order to move throughout the story as he would. Not to react, but to witness. That restraint is what, for my experience, makes him very real - flesh.

Kathleen Winter: That's the reader's position into the book, do you think?

G & M: Maybe . . .

Kathleen Winter: Yeah, 'cause I was always looking at the other people. Whereas Wayne . . . yeah, Wayne is just way more internal.

G & M: Do you think this story could have been told 10 years ago?

Kathleen Winter: There's a strange layering of knowing that does span time, that goes through this story even. If I was the same age 10 years ago, the times themselves would have meant that I would have a much more one-dimensional view of this whole story, which would make this story artificial - because I wouldn't have known as much as I do now - and much more sensational. There would have been more labeling. It would have been the story of blah, blah and blah, and you could paint it flat. I would not have been able to get into that depth of understanding that I feel I wanted to get into.

G& M: Do you think this story could be told 10 years from now?

Kathleen Winter: Ten years from now? One thing I did when I was writing the ending of the book, I listened to Antony and the Johnsons, over and over again. To me, that was where the emotion was coming from in the story. And I think 10 years from now we'll be in a place where this story might seem . . . hopelessly old-fashioned.

But it might not, either. Because if my kid is looking at the latest Christmas commercials for toys, and she's looking at the girl toys and the boy toys, it makes me want to throw up. And that's just a shallow example but, still, in ordinary life, for kids growing up now, in 10 years, I don't feel that we will have evolved in the same way that I feel the general, overarching cultural perspective will have evolved. To be a kid growing up in a small town school . . . I mean, we're looking at the news now and they're throwing themselves off bridges, they're murdering one another. It's worse than it was, not better, if you don't fit into the norm.

There's a conflict. And, really, the important part is when you wake up in smalltown-wherever and you have to go to school and you're in grade nine and you're going to be beaten to shreds on the way home because you don't fit in. I don't think that's any better than it ever was.

Which feels like a really weird answer to the question.

G & M: I feel the same, so I'm weird too.

[laughter]

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