Shelly Kawaja talks to Toronto novelist Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer about her latest book.
Shelly Kawaja (SK): First of all, congratulations on your Giller Prize nomination! This must be a very busy time for you. How do you feel?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (KK): Thank you! I’m very excited for Wait Softly Brother and for myself, of course.
Shelly: This novel pulls the reader into two different worlds, two different timelines, and two different stories. There’s the world Kathryn lives in, modern-day Ontario, and the mystery she tries to unravel about her still-born brother and the story she writes about her ancestor, Russell Boyt, during the Civil War. Eventually, the two stories merge and the fictional story begins to unlock the mystery of the real one. This book raises a lot of questions about the nature of fiction and how it can lead to the truth when sometimes real life can’t. How important is the interplay between imagination and reality in this book, and in your writing in general?
Kathryn: When people say to me that they have no imagination, I am baffled. Isn’t imagination just our minds conjuring the material already residing in our bodies? We experience so much in our lives and, to me, imagination is really just us digesting those experiences each in our own idiosyncratic way. In other words, when I write, I believe that whatever emerges on the page is a hodge-podge of whatever happens to have composted over time in my mind. If I let myself write freely without worrying about reception and without concerning myself with shame (without editorial), then it’s always the case that unusual and startling things happen. I suppose, for me, those things are “imagination” and so, logically, everyone has it. It’s whether or not they dare to let themselves. The ability writers have is the willingness to risk shame and rejection in the face of the discoveries they make when they write. For this reason, it’s very important to me to write. It’s an ethical prerogative. If at least some of the citizens in any culture are willing to take these difficult risks, then society will flourish. It will be vibrant and lively and it will have safeguards on vulnerability and care and beauty. In Wait Softly Brother I’m trying to demonstrate that the unconscious and reality are the same thing. The reason that they bleed into one another in the text/plot is that they are one another. The unconscious always informs reality. It’s just whether we are brave enough to acknowledge it.
Shelly: The two worlds in this book are so vastly different that they are almost in opposition, and yet the reader moves back and forth between them and becomes immersed in both. Why choose such vastly different worlds?
Kathryn: The worlds were chosen for me by my writing mind. I wrote parts of the Civil War section “live” on a beta social media platform that allowed other writers and critics to comment on the draft as I wrote it. I wrote more of it at Yaddo and at the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts (artist residencies) and in cafés in Toronto and at the farmhouse I then owned north of Belleville. I wrote fast and longhand. The Civil War bits were uncanny and alienating to me. I knew nothing about the war or not much (just the concept of substitution, which was obsessing me) and so I was researching as I wrote, letting the research I did in the afternoons act as prompts for the next day. I wrote longhand in the mornings and transcribed evenings. The frame story kept changing. It took me a while to figure out that I was fanatically writing about the Civil War because I myself was experiencing a big transformation in my life – I suddenly after about 7 years (okay, not so suddenly) realized that the concept of civil war was an amplified metaphor for the struggle going on inside me. And that is how the autofictional framing story began to emerge.
Shelly: Was it challenging to keep it all straight?
Kathryn: No. It was a challenge to write, though, because the material is violent and/or personal.
Shelly: This is your fifth book, and you also teach creative writing at the University of Toronto. What role has persistence and routine played in getting you to where you are now?
Kathryn: I write doggedly when I have a project I am excited about. I think that this was harder when I was younger and didn’t have an entrenched practice but, nowadays, I find I have to write daily (or as near to it as I can) to just feel good in my body. That said, I tend to write really quickly so it doesn’t take as long as one might expect. I can write one or two thousand words in a few hours and that is plenty in a day. It’s plenty because typically writing is exhausting emotionally if you write like this but also plenty because if I write a thousand words a day, in three or four months I have something like a draft. Of course, it might then take me years to shape it into something I would show anyone but I don’t mind that. Well, I hate it sometimes but I still don’t mind it. I like finishing things – it gives me a great deal of satisfaction – and so I will puzzle with the draft and tinker until I am happy with it.
Shelly: How has your writing process changed since you wrote your first novel?
Kathryn: When I started writing, I was quite stiff and perfectionistic in my first drafts. I wanted every word to be in its place and I wanted the whole to work the first try. Mistakes and misdirected ideas plagued me and shamed me. I was locked down and often horrified by my own failure to be perfect. This was way too much pressure. And also not productive. I have since learned that my best writing comes when I dismiss the editor on my shoulder and just trust that quickly drafting will present me with something of use. Maybe only a sentence or two but that is fine. The fact is that writing without expectation is more fun more exploratory and more freeing. I want to be curious about my own writing – what might happen today?
Shelly: Who do you think your writing is in conversation with? Has this also changed?
Kathryn: My writing is in conversation with my writing and myself. And if readers engage with it, it is also in conversation with them. Reading is an intimate act. In the 18th century in England, there was a lot of handwringing about this new fad of silent reading. The middle classes were suddenly literate and young women were reading fiction and no one even knew what dangerous ideas might be entering their minds. Scandalous! It seems wild to think that this was a real concern but it was. And it is still a radical act. When we read we are in communion in a very intimate way with the mind of another person. Think of the concept of interiority in literature. In no other arena do we get the privilege of knowing another person’s thoughts as they think them. That is the wonder that literature affords us. It’s magic.
Shelly: What is your definition of a successful piece of writing? Who decides that?
Kathryn: Every reader decides that. I have no idea about that at all.
Shelly: If you were to give a new writer a piece of crucial writing advice, what would that be?
Kathryn: I mean it is so cliché but – read wantonly. Draw a picture on an index card of your oppressive self-critic and annex that a-hole to a locked box somewhere while you write. That fella is not going to help you write that novel. You do not need that monster on your shoulder telling you that you are boring. The truth is that your self-critic is only trying to safeguard your secrets. Your monster is scared. If you must, let it out when you begin to edit. It’ll be a bit tame by then and it might help you shape the text.
Shelley: This book opens with, “The Dead Poet,” by Al Purdy, in which we find the book’s title, Wait Softly Brother. How did you come to this poem, and that line in particular? Was it a source of inspiration or something you arrived at later?
Kathryn: The book was originally titled The Substitute but by the time of publication another book had that same title. So I was really flailing around for a new title. I began looking at Purdy because of his poem “The Country North of Belleville” because that is where the frame story takes place. But that poem didn’t offer up a title. My publisher, Paul Vermeersch, is a poet and he knows Purdy’s work very well and he sent me a few poems and “The Dead Poet” was one of them. It caught my breath, especially for the first stanza and we got permission to use it. I love the title. I am happy things happened in this way.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels Wait Softly Brother, All the Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner as well as the short story collection, Way Up.
Her recent novel, Wait Softly Brother is longlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She teaches at Victoria College, the University of Toronto, in the Creative Expressions and Society Program. She also mentors private clients in the craft of creative writing.