Giller nominated story collection full of surprises

Saltspring author Kathy Page has had a most interesting fall: her latest book of short fiction Paradise and Elsewhere (John Metcalfe Books/Biblioasis,) was nominated for the Giller Prize, and her novel Alphabet, first published in 2004 and shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award in 2005, has been reissued in Canada by Biblioasis Books. Alphabet is a compelling story about freedom and responsibility told through the consciousness of a character named Simon Austen. The busy author, who also teaches creative writing at Vancouver Island University, talked online recently with Lynne Van Luven about how her work and life intersect.

Kathy, I love these new stories of yours in Paradise & Elsewhere because they nicely disconcert the reader. Can you talk a little about how this particular assembly of stories came together: do you think we are indeed living in disconcerting times?

Yes, indeed, though perhaps we always have! It’s true that there’s an element of surprise, of unpredictability, in many of these stories and I’m glad of it, though it was not a deliberate policy, but one of the many common elements which I discovered as I put the book together.

I’d been thinking of a collection of stories, but putting off the task of gathering, arranging and selecting. When I at last got down to it, I realized that the two kinds of writing: the regular realistic, contemporary kind of story, and other stories that have a mythical, magical, uncanny, futuristic or fable-like quality, did not mix particularly well. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I had two collections, not one.

It was exciting to put the two books together at once, and especially so to see the many ways the fabulist stories in Paradise & Elsewhere connected with and amplified each other. For example, there are recurrent motifs and themes: travel, trade, money and sex – what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate, or on the shore. What are we looking for when we make journeys? What kind of relationships do we create? In one story, a group of media people venture out of the city in pursuit of a story – a journey which only one of them will, barely, survive. In others, travelers return home after many years, arrive at a desert oasis, or visit the relics of ancient civilizations. The stories began to talk.

These stories are so well-honed; there is not an image or a word wasted. Do you find yourself writing in a more abbreviated fashion in your short stories than you do in your novels?  (Not that I am saying your novels are verbose!)

Thank you, Lynne. One of the many great things about short stories is that they lend themselves to continuous honing. It’s easy enough to open up the file six months or two or ten years after the story was originally written, read through and make a few changes. But of course another thing about the short story is that it’s often read in a single sitting and absorbed whole, like a poem, and because of that, readers may well be more aware of the detail of the writing. For the same reason, readers are also more aware of form in the short story.

My opinions as to my “favourite” stories in Paradise & Elsewhere tend to shift with each re-reading.  First I thought I liked “G’Ming” the best.  Then I thought it was “Lambing.”  Next week, it may well be “My Fees.”  Was it difficult to decide how to order these stories within the collection, and did you have certain criteria for which one went where in the book?

The ordering of and seams between the parts that make up a book is always very important and how to orchestrate all this is a part of the writing process that I really enjoy. I know you’ve read The Story of My Face – there, I was cutting between the three story lines, regularly, but not in an systematic way. There’s an emotional logic to these decisions that is hard to completely explain. In Paradise & Elsehwere there is a kind of chronology to the stories the book, a movement from the myth-like stories that deal with the origins of particular invented civilizations, like “Of Paradise,” to the speculative fictions which take place in a not-too-distant future, such as “We the Trees,” “Clients,” or “The Ancient Siddanese.” There is a drift forwards in time but I chose to break that “rule” and began the book with “G’Ming,” which is a more contemporary story. The point of view is unusual but the situation is at base one with which many tourists will be familiar; I felt it was gentler, more subtle way into the book, and then I realized that it also sets up many of the themes and motifs that are developed later: the idea of paradise, the way we relate to strangers, the couple, money, trade, et cetera.

 The short stories in this collection have a sort of untethered tone, when it comes to realism. And yet I have always loved the psychological realism of your novels. Are you heading in a different direction as a writer, do you think?

I think I can reassure you there. The stories are set in vivid, real-seeming places: a desert, a story sea shore, a walled garden, a coniferous forest, but you won’t find them on the map, and sometimes what happens may not conform to expectations of reality. But I do think there is a great deal of psychological realism going on. It’s not so much either or, but rather both and more, and I should explain that the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere were written over a long period of time, so this kind of fabulist writing really isn’t a new development for me. It’s putting the stories together and letting them talk to each other that’s new.

Realism is the dominant mode in literary fiction, and it can be a wonderful thing. At the same time, more imaginative approaches do persist and they have always fascinated me. When I sent my two short story collections to Biblioasis, the editor, John Metcalf, was in touch within a week to acquire the realistic collection. I asked about Paradise & Elsewhere, but he hadn’t read it. Three months later, we began editing the other book, The Two of Us and he still had not. When pressed, John admitted that he had a prejudice against non-realistic writing, and said that he tried to discourage his authors from taking that path. Still, I begged, since I already had taken it, would he not take a look? Dreading both the read and the letter he would have to write to me, he agreed to at least run his eyes over the MS.

“Actually,” he told me two days later, “I like them very much. I think we should do them first.”

In the end, the distinction between realistic and imaginative writing, like all distinctions, breaks down. There’s a strong mythical undertow to all my novels, even the grittiest of them, Alphabet, which Biblioasis are reissuing this fall.

When I first interviewed you, shortly after you moved to Salt Spring Island (in 2001), you commented that transplanting a writing career from the United Kingdom to Canada was not an easy thing to do.  Do you now feel properly “re-established,” the way a plant does after a few seasons in a new segment of the garden?

It’s interesting you mention this, given that the arrival of a stranger is one of the themes of the book. I’ve found Canadian writers to be very open and friendly, but even so, moving any kind of life and finding your place is bound to be difficult. I’m beginning to feel more part of things here, and oddly enough this book has a great deal to do with it. Because it includes stories written when I lived in the UK, along with others that originated here, I can feel that I’ve brought at least some of my past into my new life, and integrated the two. The wonderful response to the [collection], and appreciation from Canadian short-fiction writers whom I very much admire, has certainly helped…