Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner, as well as the short story collection Way Up. Kathryn’s short fiction has been published in Granta Magazine, The Walrus and Storyville. Kathryn will be in Thunder Bay for the International Festival of Authors on November 6th.
Shauna Kosoris: Your newest book, All the Broken Things, is about a Vietnam boat person living in Toronto who becomes part of the bear wrestling circuit. It’s also about his little sister who was severely disabled because their parents were exposed to Agent Orange. What inspired you to put these two things together for All the Broken Things?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I had read an op-ed in a local rural paper where my parents live about a bear wrestling circuit in Ontario in the 1970s and was trying to conceptualize about a boy who wrestled bears with this carnival company. Sometime during the period of thinking about this I discovered in a footnote that Agent Orange was manufactured under contract with the US military at a small chemical factory in Elmira, Ontario. These two details became linked somehow in my mind and the boy who wrestled bears became a Vietnamese boy and his sister, this girl you speak of, began to tell me her story. Of course, in the end, the novel is told from the point of view of the boy, but it started differently. There was something between the idea of bear wrestling and Agent Orange that sparked story. That is often how creativity ignites for me. The novel is about war, its effects, family, love, responsibility, carnival, freak show, and seeing.
SK: Why did the narrative switch from the girl’s perspective to the boy’s?
KK: I shifted to Bo’s point of view because as I wrote from Orange’s I began to know how limited the world would be and I wanted the novel to feel more open, and more broadly drawn.
SK: What was the most difficult thing about writing All the Broken Things?
KK: It was very difficult and painful to research Agent Orange and its devastating effects. I wrote quite a lot of the novel sitting in cafés, sometimes weeping as I watched video clips of children and adults affected by Agent Orange. I felt a horrible guilt and a sense of deep desolation that Canada had been involved in this atrocity, and I still maintain that Canada has a debt to repay to Vietnam as a result of its economic involvement there. There are plenty of videos on Youtube if any of your readers are interested.
SK: For your novel Perfecting, you wanted to maintain control of the cover’s design. Was this difficult to do?
KK: It wasn’t so difficult because I presented the designer with the perfect image. It was her insight to wrap it around the back. The novel is largely set in New Mexico and follows a Canadian woman as she sets out, post 9-11, to uncover the lies and deceptions of her former lover, a man who has fled as a conscientious observer from soldiery in the Vietnam War, but who has in fact run away from a criminal past. I wanted an image that was by a southern artist, and I wanted something that resonated faith, and a kind of dark love. Thematically, the novel is about betrayal, about family, faith, the perversion of these things, too — and also about the relationship Canada has to the US. The photographer, Polly Chandler, is from Austin and I love the vibe of her work.
SK: Did the Flemish folktale “The Nettle Spinner” inspire your novel of the same name?
KK: The fairy tale “The Nettle Spinner” basically gave me a way to write about my experiences tree planting. The fairy tale is set in a verdant European forest, with a duke, castle, a girl being pursued and her lumberjack fiancé. Northern Ontario (well, Thunder Bay was one of the places I planted, actually) has these forests that have been clear-cut and scarified. The contrast was marvelous to my mind, and allowed me to play around with the idea of the earth body as a feminine space, and to talk about the novel as a tradition of repetition, of story being handed down. So, the fairy tale gathered by Andrew Lang and his wife, is retold first by the protagonist, and then retold again this time as it begins to magically influence her own storyline. I’m glad you asked about The Nettle Spinner. It’s my first novel and I’m still very fond of it!
SK: No problem! Along with writing novels, you also write lots of short stories. Do you prefer one medium over the other?
KK: No, I like both but it’s very fun to write short stories when they arrive in my mind. There is a certain pleasure to the short form. The novel is a different time investment, but I really like its challenges, the way the pieces have to speak to each other, and the way memory works inside the pieces. It’s an echo chamber.
SK: Can you tell me about the first short story you had published?
KK: The very first story I published in Canada is called “The Vastness of the Lie” and was published in a really really small journal edited by Ailsa Craig and George Murray called Smoke. The story is a coming-of-age story about a girl realizing some dark secrets about her best friend. It can be found in my collection of stories, Way Up.
SK: What are you working on now?
KK: I am working on a PhD! I’m also writing a novel set in part in the American Civil War.
SK: How exciting! What’s your PhD in?
KK: The PhD is a literature degree at the University of Toronto and I am interested in the way novels create a space upon which readers attach their belief. My PhD will be focused on the way that credulity operates in the novel form and more broadly addressing and theorizing the question: what is belief?
SK: Good luck with that! To finish up, I’d like to ask you about the books you read. What book or author inspired you to write?
KK: That’s a tough question and I’m not sure I have a ready answer. I learned to read at a young age and was writing stories very early on – certainly by grade one. I’m not sure if books inspired me to write in the beginning or if I simply had a rich imagination and lots of time. I have two older sisters who often played together and so I spent plenty of hours playing on my own. I grew up in the country and we were sent outside quite a bit, too. I would make up stories. I did love Rudyard Kipling as a child. And also C.S. Lewis. I also read fairy tales. Most of my own work emerges in some way from early stories. The Nettle Spinner is the obvious example, but Perfecting uses the story of Parsifal (from the Arthurian Legends) as parallel story, and has a vested interest in character as archetype. All The Broken Things uses Sir Orfeo as a structuring device. Sir Orfeo is based on the myth of Orpheus. And all my recent stories trade in the idea of re-inserting fairy tale strangeness into a realist text – we must never forget how very strange fairy tales are, I think.
Some of your readers might enjoy my most recent story in The Walrus: http://thewalrus.ca/care-and-feeding-of-the-amish/
SK: Thank you for that. Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
KK: No, not a particular book. But I do think everyone should read novels and short fiction. Reading fiction is an exclusive entry point into our deepest humanity. We have so much to learn about the mechanisms of why this might be, but at the very least, it enlarges our capacity to know one another.
SK: Finally, what are you currently reading?
KK: I am currently reading a delightful debut novel by Christine Fischer Guy called The Umbrella Mender, a brilliant manuscript by the American writer Stephen O’Connor, and as much civil war material—especially diaries—as I can fit in.