HALIFAX, N.S. - “There's almost nothing harder than having to live a different identity than the one you feel you actually personify,” says Kathleen Winter when discussing her first novel, a novel that, although published eight years ago, has such relevance to the social issues of today that it was chosen as the One Book Nova Scotia selection for 2018.
One Book Nova Scotia is a province-wide initiative for adults to read (or listen) and discuss the same book. The program is organized by Libraries Nova Scotia with the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage.
The novel, Annabel, started off as a short story sparked by a conversation over afternoon tea. An acquaintance of Winter's mentioned that they had recently befriended a young person who was working delivering meat door to door at dusk. The reason for the odd job and odd hours was the person in question was intersex and was transitioning from one gender to another and wanted to avoid unwanted attention.
“I kept thinking about that and wondering if I wanted to try to write a short story about this idea...The more I read the more I became surprised that decisions were made on the behalf of babies about which gender to be and that is how the story went from there,” says Winter.
Stories about intersex individuals are not yet mainstream subject matter, and were even less in the social consciousness when Winter wrote Annabel. Attitudes and awareness have changed in the time since the book was published, so much so that Winter says she doesn't think she'd be able to write this book today.
“I look at this book now, this book that was really written a decade ago, as being at a point in a continuum in the evolution in how we talk about this. I actually wouldn't be able to write the book today because of how I feel the conversation has evolved and because I would rather it be voiced by a person who has experienced this. At the time I think we were in a different place. So the challenges for me then were not insurmountable. Today they would be.”
Looking back, one plot point that Winter says she would cut from Annabel, and that she has advised against including to those who have taken up the story in film and stage treatments, is the self-impregnation scene.
“I was looking at it from the point of view of story and humanity, and character and social setting within a framework of story. And now I would look at this within the framework of story, yes, but also when a voice is marginalized and only just beginning to be heard, it’s important that anybody that writes about that realm, or that territory, think about the effects that it has on different kinds of readers and I guess my advice to my former self would be that sometimes story isn’t everything.”
“I look at this book now, this book that was really written a decade ago, as being at a point in a continuum in the evolution in how we talk about this. I actually wouldn't be able to write the book today because of how I feel the conversation has evolved and because I would rather it be voiced by a person who has experienced this." Kathleen Winter
Annabel is set in a small community in Labrador and in the city of St. John’s, N.L. The land and its people are familiar to Winter who spent most of her formative years there having immigrated to the area with her family from England when she was eight years old. The move was instigated by Winter's father who she says, “had a life-long dream to have land and be self-sufficient in hunting and fishing and vegetable growing which he did and continues to do. He spends a lot of time in his log cabin and still hunts and fishes – and has a vegetable garden... My mother followed along. Certain aspects of that are played out in the couple who have the child in this book, Treadway and Jacinta.”
Since writing Annabel, Winter has published several other titles, including most recently the novel Lost in September which was released last year. When asked if Annabel changed her writing process, Winter says it had a dramatic effect.
“That was the first attempt I ever made to write a continuous narrative that went beyond my natural strength in atmosphere and character and looked at structure and plot and ways to make the reader turn the page... this book was my apprenticeship in writing a book that the reader would actually want to read from start to finish and it has made me more conscious, not of the rules because there are no rules, but of being generous to the reader and understanding that the reader is a co-writer of the book. It's the reader's imagination that comes to meet the imagination of the author and you need both and the author needs to respect that.”
Part of writing also includes a space in which to write. Winter says when she started writing Annabel she didn't have that space defined but soon acquired a room of her own.
“I didn't have a room to write it. We were in a little house in the woods and I had two daughters and I said to my husband, 'I need a room.' And he dug, by hand with a shovel, an entire basement and in that basement (that he dug with a shovel and a jackhammer that he rented) a room and he put Mexican tiles on it and I said, 'That's not enough. I need a wall and I need a door that I can close.' And he made that too, so God bless him.”
As for her writing process, Winter says it always starts with a small notebook that she keeps in her wallet. As if to demonstrate the truth of this statement, she pulls out her wallet and extracts a small, red covered booklet that looks like a miniature created for a doll's house.
“See, this is Dorothy Wordsworth,” she says opening the front cover of the petite volume where pasted therein is a reproduction of the lady's portrait.
“I've been given the honour of publishing the late, unpublished journals of Dorothy Wordsworth for the Wordsworth Trust in England... I am hoping to write something around the activity of doing that transcription. It would be fun to write a novel.”
“For me reading has always been about being able to escape your own small, individual view and to be able to enter into the perspective of someone else." Kathleen Winter
Reading unpublished works and personal correspondence never intended for publication is one of Winter's great pleasures in addition to reading her favourite authors which include Katherine Mansfield and Anton Chekhov. “I still love both of those writers. I love the letters of Katherine Mansfield and of Virginia Woolf; the letters and diaries of many people, even Colette. I read not only her letters and diaries but also her recipes. I love the ephemeral trappings of other people's lives.
Speaking of reading, Winter says she hopes readers of Annabel during this One Book Nova Scotia season, will come away with a better understanding of a world which may be unfamiliar in their experience to date.
“For me reading has always been about being able to escape your own small, individual view and to be able to enter into the perspective of someone else. That is something that has not changed for me today or when I wrote the book about this issue, about the story of being gender fluid and marginalized and having to struggle in a society where there are mainstream ideas of male and female that are quiet polarized, quiet opposite.
“Even though we've evolved in the last 10 years ... there's still bullying, there's still suicide, there's still violence, there's still murder around people who are trans or who are intersex, or who are in any way different from mainstream, polarized gender. I would hope that people would take away from this story, a new way to look at what they consider to be normal and acceptable and human.”