A dif­fi­cult his­tory

Au­thor with a hard­scrab­ble past ex­am­ines com­pli­cated mil­i­tary fig­ure

The Daily Observer - - BOOKS - JAMIE PORT­MAN

Lost in Septem­ber

Kath­leen Win­ter

Knopf Canada

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 bro­ken­hearted 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.”

ROGER LEMOYNE

“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.

LI­BRARY AND AR­CHIVES CANADA

Gen. James Wolfe, seen in a paint­ing by Joseph High­more, is the sub­ject of au­thor Kath­leen Win­ter’s new novel, Lost in Septem­ber.

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