KfC note: When House of Anansi Press offered me a copy of Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, Annabel, they asked if I would be interested in doing a blog interview. I’ll admit that in my previous life in journalism, I did enough face-to-face interviews that I am left wanting no part of doing e-mail ones. So I declined, but said that I would welcome a guest post from Kathleen Winter — and I am delighted with the result that follows below. She not only gives visitors here an insight into writing her novel, she does an even better job of introducing a number of books that influence her writing. (My review of Annabel is right below this post.)
House of Anansi has kindly offered a copy of Annabel for a KfC giveaway. So if you are interested please indicate so in a comment on this post — after you have offered your observations on Kathleen’s thoughts, of course. Deadline for entries is midnight GMT, July 4. Unfortunately, the giveway contest is restricted to residents of Canada.
My personal thanks to Kathleen for this valuable contribution to KevinfromCanada.
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
A lesser-known detail about E.M.Forster is the fact that he liked to crochet, and one item on my to-do list has been to find out if some museum has any samples of his crochet work. I imagine it different from the regular doilies and other decorative dentelle of his era: maybe he made a case for his glasses, or veils for his summer hats, or for the hats of his associates. Whatever he made I have long hoped someone has saved some of it. I’d like to see, preserved in its frayed stitches, some three-dimensional echo of his themes: the barricades of class and gender, and the longing of the heart to get back to its native land where there are mysteries yet unlabeled. I hoped his hand-made fabric might tell me secrets about how he wrote.
One day in Afterwords, a second-hand bookshop on Water Street in St. John’s, I saw something of Forster’s that I had not known about: small, tatty and the colour of a scrap of old crochet, his 1927 booklet Aspects of the Novel sat between a biography of James Joyce and some tome about Wordsworth eating pies in The Lake District. I don’t know who Joyce Jefford is, but her name was written in blue ink inside and I am glad that she either died or found some other reason to part with the book, because it has helped save my writing life.
Aspects of the Novel is not the only book that has saved me: others have helped me work my way through writing problems as well. I’m thinking of Brenda Ueland’s If you Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, which my brother Michael gave me one birthday and which I have worn out several times so that I am now on my third or fourth copy. Ueland nails the difference between writing that is alive and writing that is dead, and she’s funny too. Then there is Donald J. Borror’s Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms, which I found in the biology section of Memorial University’s bookstore, and which presents the Greek, Latin and other origins of biological terms and scientific names in a way that blows up language to show a fiction writer worlds within our world. Then there are my technical darlings like my Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a classic since 1918 and reinvigorated in the glorious 2005 version illustrated by The New Yorker’s Maria Kalman. These are books that make me happy and grateful, and I often silently thank C.T.Onions, editor of the etymology dictionary. “How aptly you were named, Doctor Onions,” I call through time, “dissecting language into its coded layers piquant enough to make a girl cry.”
But Forster’s Aspects of the Novel goes deeper than these. It is a book about which I feel emotional, because it comes from Forster whom I love, and because, in it, he addresses certain aspects of technique in a way that transcends the technical. A writer can know about life, about meaning and clarity, but these can suffocate unless the writer also knows about story and structure. Here is an example of the depths to which I sank as I wrestled with the difficult last third of Annabel. Imagine how desperately I must have needed a lifeline from Forster when I found myself writing the likes of this:
” There were some corridors and he got lost until he saw a man
coming out of the men’s washroom. The man told him to go
up three stairs and down the corridor to the practice room. There
were felt banners on the walls. It was a Presbyterian church and
children had entered drawings in a contest and all the drawings
were on the walls. Each drawing was an illustration of the verse,
“Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The thing that
interested Wayne about the drawings was all the forms that were
anything but children. The children had wanted to draw striped
snakes with zigzags, and ice cream cones, and an orange cat
wearing green horn-rimmed glasses, and had inserted these things
and more among the pastoral scenes of children listening to
Jesus. In one of the drawings was a spaceship with some aliens
who had also come to hear what Jesus had to say.”
Of course I threw this in my wastebasket, but later got out of bed and retrieved it, thinking I could whip it out now and then and read it if I ever wanted to feel a frisson of incredulous hysteria.
The next morning I turned to Forster, and was able to breathe properly again on reading this: “In the novel, all human happiness and misery does not take the form of action, it seeks means of expression other than through the plot, it must not be rigidly canalized. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels bored?”
This was my own lament. I didn’t need Forster to solve it for me. Just hearing him voice it as a lament of his own saved me from despair. “After all,” Forster went on, “why has a novel to be planned? Cannot it grow? Why need it close, as a play closes? Cannot it open out? Instead of standing above his work and controlling it, cannot the novelist throw himself into it and be carried along to some goal that he does not foresee? The plot is exciting and may be beautiful, yet is it not a fetich, borrowed from the drama, from the spatial limitations of the stage? Cannot fiction devise a framework that is not so logical yet more suitable to its genius?”
Reading Forster’s Aspects of the Novel felt like having a fairy godfather comfort me after falling off the neighbour’s garden wall. I was still sniveling and still had skinned knees, but someone understood.
One of my hopes is that a person’s greatest weakness can turn into a strength if that person works on it carefully enough. My leanings are toward character and atmosphere. Story and structure have tyrannized me but I have tried so hard to pay attention to them that I think we have come to some sort of coexistence. Forster’s lovely little manual on the novel has helped me do this, not by answering questions but by sitting in company with me until their torment turns into something else. I’m not sure how this happens.