Dialogue is your friend: a conversation with Kathleen Winter

With her 2010 novel Annabel Kathleen Winter accomplished a feat few writers ever do—the novel was shortlisted for all three of Canada’s major literary awards (The Scotiabank Giller Prize, Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize, and the Governor General’s Award for Literary Merit). In 2011, the novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

In 2014, Winter has plans to release two more books. The first is a short story collection to be titled The Freedom in American Songs released through Biblioasis. The second is a travel memoir titled Boundless to be published by House of Anansi Press and Jonathan Cape Publishers.

Winter will be at Trent October 3 as part of the 2013 Writers Reading Series. The reading takes place at Scott House at 7pm. A reception will follow in the Trend. Arthur got a chance to chat with her in anticipation of this event about her upcoming books and the writing process in general.


You’ve written award winning fiction—long and short—creative nonfiction, a documentary, and so on. Is there any genre or medium that’s off-limits for you?

I was asked lately by a producer who’s shopping the idea of Annabel as a film if I’d like to do it as a film script and I said no. I don’t want to do a film script of my own work because I think that’s too big of a leap. There’s too much I’d have to learn and find out. Maybe that’s because I already wrote the story; maybe it would be okay to write a film script of a story I hadn’t already written, or of a story that someone else wrote. I always want to be working on something new.

I’ve always thought I would like to write a play too. I find when I’m editing my own manuscripts that the parts that I wrote as dialogue are fine and it’s the parts that aren’t dialogue that make me cringe and I have to work hard to fix them. The dialogue is always so fresh and I hardly do anything to it. I don’t know what kind of play it would be, but I do know it would be all dialogue and that would be good.

Before I wrote Annabel and before my short story collection I used to say to my brother Michael that I find dialogue really hard to write, I’m scared of it. He just answered in one sentence and he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He said, “Kathleen, dialogue is your friend.” And now I know what he meant.

Do you think some stories are better served by some genres or media than others?

I guess a short story is a different kind of energy—it comes to me with short term effervescence, like a bottle of kombucha or beer. A novel is much more difficult and it has to have much more mystery. I have to feel that there is a big body of water there that I have to dive under and find out more about. It’s not bubbling up or effervescing. That’s what it feels like.

You have a story collection, The Freedom in American Songs, coming out next year. Is there something that binds these stories together for you or is it just sort of a coincidence that they’re appearing together?

I had chosen the title because it was the title of one of the stories. I think the idea of “freedom” might bind them together, but there was definitely not a conscious decision to bind them together with anything. They come to me from a lot of different directions. If anything they’re bound together by the editor. My editor John Metcalf will, on occasion, send one back to me and say “this just isn’t going in,” so you’d have to ask him. He maybe has more of a vision of how they go together than I do. I just write them, give them to him, and see what he says.

Are these all new stories or are there some that have been published before?

They’re almost all new. The first time I wrote a collection I would send them to places while they were being written. This time I didn’t. I would have, but my agent told me not to and seemed to think that people want to read stories that haven’t already been in other places, so there’s maybe three or four that will have been published. However, they are much newer versions and have been changed a lot since then. The rest are completely new.

So even the ones that have been published before are quite new.

Yes, they have been quite transformed.

What’s it like to rework a story like that? How does the original version compare to the final one?

At first, when a story has been published in a good literary magazine I would think that story’s done, it’s already had an editor look at it, it already exists finally, it’s done. But my editor John Metcalf would point at this and that and say “maybe we could do this.” At first I was resistant when a story was already published, but by the time we were finished I would be eternally grateful to him because it would be way better.

How does the feeling of coming out with new books now that you’ve been through that process a few times compare to the first few times you released one?

It’s not less exciting at all; I’m really excited in a different way. The first time, there’s no doubt about it, I was really excited, just because I was really old to have my first story collection come out. I was in my thirties and had been writing for my whole life, so it was like “finally, thank god, I’m going to have a book.” This time it’s different because I know a little bit about what it’s like to have readers and connect with people through writing. I feel so fortunate that that happened with my books. It’s a real excitement because not only do I know that I have a book coming out, but I know that it’s not going to disappear. I feel so incredibly grateful to be in that position.

Before I would go and do a reading and there would be nobody at it, and I mean nobody, just the librarian and me. It was funny the first time it happened, funny and sad, but that’s not going to happen again, unless it happens in some sort of comical way. It’s hard for anybody to have readers in the world the way that it exists now, and I’m just really happy about the books coming out and what people will get out of them. The excitement is more to do with the work itself and how to share it.

Your second book next year, Boundless, is a memoir about your travels through the North. I was wondering why you chose to write a memoir instead of fictionalizing it.

It took me two years to decide how to write it, and one of the possibilities was to fictionalize it. I nearly did, but the thing that happened to me in the North, the things that the land, animals, and people told me, were so important that I didn’t want anyone to think I made it up. It was so unexpected, the whole trip was unexpected. I was invited at the last minute to replace another writer who couldn’t make it. The whole majesty and the power of that land and everything in it completely ambushed me. I was going along my merry way until this happened. I felt that even though fiction can intensify the truth, I wanted it to be understood in no uncertain terms that this had been a real-life experience that I wanted to share with people and write about.

I guess to answer this last question one would have to read the book, but what was it that changed you so much?

I don’t want to talk too much about it because I really worked hard to say it in the book, and it is hard to say. But I could start by saying it called into question the whole way I see the mind and its relationship with the planet.

About Pat Reddick 85 Articles
Pat was co-editor of Volume 49, along with Matt Rappolt. He's primarily interested in arts coverage, often editorializing on arts issues. He graduated from Trent with a Bachelor's degree in English Lit. Pat hosts or co-hosts several programs at Trent Radio, such as Media Are Plural. You can follow him on Twitter, or watch him eat through his kitchen window. In his spare time Pat reads a lot (q.v. English major), plays video games, and writes fiction. He has a blog or something but I couldn't find out too much about that.