A DIFFICULT HISTORY
Author with a hardscrabble past examines complicated military figure
TORONTO There was a time — before the international acclaim, before the short-listings for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, before the moment financial security actually became a possibility — when Kathleen Winter was destitute and wondering whether she would ever make it as a writer.
But those fears came to an end, which is why Winter is in her publisher’s office, discussing Lost in September, her time-shifting new novel about Gen. James Wolfe — and also about a troubled young veteran named Jimmy who wanders the streets of modern-day Montreal like some mysterious reincarnation of the hero of the Plains of Abraham.
It’s now her fourth book — yet Winter remains haunted by her own past.
“We all need to be rehumanized in some way,” she says urgently. She’s referring to the fascinating journey that took her deep into Wolfe’s complicated, sexually ambivalent life, and especially into this brilliant young officer’s strange relationship with his mother. But she’s also driven to talk about her own life journey and those terrible times when she lived an impoverished existence.
She would achieve a breakthrough in 2010, with the publication of the bestselling Annabel, her Giller-nominated novel about a mixed-gender child born into the Newfoundland of the 1960s. But today, she insists on putting that success into perspective.
“I was almost 50 when Annabel came out,” she says. “So I’ve come to a successful life as a writer quite late. Before that I lived hand to mouth — by choice.”
Born in England, Winter grew up in Newfoundland with a compulsion to write. She had a journalism degree from Ottawa’s Carleton University, but that was not enough to feed her need.
“I could have had all kinds of jobs, but I was writing unpublished work the whole time,” she says.
She remembers “scrambling over ditches” in a harsh Newfoundland winter to reach the back entrance of a bakery where she could buy five loaves of bread for 50 cents every Monday. This would supplement what she received at the local food bank.
“But again, I emphasize it was through choice. Every time I tried to get a job, I needed to write so badly that I couldn’t keep going to work every day in an office. I couldn’t do it.”
She did get a job for a time when her daughter was born — writing entries for a Newfoundland encyclopedia — that paid a proper wage. “But then my first husband got sick and before he died I got penniless again looking after him.”
She was close to abandoning her ambition, but her brother Michael Winter, today a respected Canadian writer but then also fighting for recognition, urged her to keep going. In fact, they inspired each other not to give up.
There’s no self-pity in Winter’s narrative today — just a certain pragmatism.
“It feels like it’s never going to happen when you’re younger. Then, when it happens when you’re older, you’re kind of glad — because there’s a lot of earlier stuff that maybe should never see the light of day!”
Winter has three previous books to her credit — Annabel; a short story collection titled The Freedom in American Songs; and Boundless, a non-fiction Arctic memoir.
“But this book, Lost in September, is the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on in my life,” she says.
She’ll never forget the experience of visiting the Fisher Rare Books Library at University of Toronto and holding the actual letters that Wolfe had written to his adoring mother, Henrietta.
“I was very emotional,” she says simply. Later, when she took a break from her research and was sitting on a British Columbia beach those emotions suddenly resurfaced.
“My husband was with me and I started to cry. I felt that nobody was thinking about James Wolfe these days, that nobody cared about him, that nobody loved him. I had become so connected to his personal losses and tragic circumstances and psychological difficulties that I was genuinely broken-hearted over him.”
When Knopf Canada first approached Winter to write a book about Wolfe, she was immediately interested.
“But I’m not a historian,” she warned her publishers. “Are you OK with the fact that this could turn into anything?” What if it turned into a work of fiction?
“Do whatever you want,” she was told.
Two worlds began to emerge in her manuscript — the modern world of Jimmy, a troubled, PTSD afflicted veteran of the Afghan campaign roaming the streets of Montreal in search of meaning; and the world of the brilliant young military tactician who comes to life in a powerful evocation of a pivotal moment in Canadian history. That both characters have more than a resemblance to each other is one tantalizing aspect to the novel. But no, Winter isn’t venturing into magic realism here. Definitely not.
“There’s a realistic explanation for everything that happens in the book,” she says. “James Wolfe does inhabit Jimmy in a way, and I don’t mean it supernaturally.”
She was struck by the contrast between the historic Wolfe’s military prowess and his private melancholy.
“He called it ‘bad vapours’ and I’m sure his early battle experiences left him with PTSD. It permanently disabled part of his psyche.”
But Winter also discovered other conflicts.
“He had a really strange and psychologically complex relationship with Henrietta, his mother. It didn’t take long to see from the letters that there was an intensity and inordinate mother-son connection that went beyond what we could call a normal relationship.”
In fact, Winter senses a certain sexual ambiguity in Wolfe.
“I think if you looked at the way he described men and also the way he described his lovers, who were women, you find a very sensual aspect to the way he describes men and the way he describes women has no sensuality whatever.”
What emerges in these pages is a doomed hero who once sadly declared, “I’ve never been a young man.”
Winter feels a pang when she thinks of those words.
“His teeth were crumbling and he had an old man’s body long before he died. He was 13 when he first became a soldier.”
I had become so connected to his personal losses and tragic circumstances ... that I was genuinely broken-hearted over him.
“Every time I tried to get a job, I needed to write so badly that I couldn’t keep going to work every day in an office,” Kathleen Winter says.
Gen. James Wolfe, seen in a painting by Joseph Highmore, is the subject of author Kathleen Winter’s new novel.