We’re pleased to see that K.D. Miller, who will run a workshop and take part in other events at the Festival, is shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for her book, Late Breaking. This book of short stories also made the list for the Giller Prize.
The following interview with K.D. was conducted by Kim Aubrey — poet, author and book fair coordinator at FOTA.
Could you describe the moment that first sparked your idea to write the stories in Late Breaking?
It was August, 2014, and I was attending the Alex Colville exhibit at the AGO. I was between projects, and feeling very much at loose ends. I remember standing in the middle of one of the rooms of the exhibit, surrounded by those meticulous, evocative, disturbing paintings.
The phrase, the Colville stories came into my mind. It became like a mantra as I roamed the gallery – the Colville stories. I knew I had my next book. I had no idea what the stories would be, only that I would somehow pull them out of those paintings. It was a profoundly inspiring and joyful moment. A friend I was with asked me if I was aware that I was dancing.
In what way(s) did writing stories inspired by paintings differ from your usual fiction writing process?
Usually, I start with a detail of dialogue or gesture – something I may have heard in the subway or observed on the street. Something that won’t leave me alone. Frequently, these bits of memory become the first sentence – the way in to a story. In the case of Late Breaking, I browsed through the exhibition volume that I had bought at the AGO, and let certain paintings jump out at me and become the seeds of stories. It was very much a case of the paintings choosing me.
I found that, as a result of working this way, my characters tended to roam further afield – geographically and psychologically. In some cases, I identified with them hardly at all, but wrote about them in order to get to know them – satisfy my curiosity about them.
Who is your favourite character in the Late Breaking stories, and why?
Actually, it’s Morgan Pettingill, who is dead before the book starts and never actually appears in real time. She comes into the stories as part of someone’s memory, a vision or dream they might have, a ghost that might haunt them. So the reader experiences her indirectly, as when her aged mother is reading excerpts from her dead daughter’s diary. I was almost finished the book when I realized that Morgan was the common denominator of the stories. One way or another, she puts her mark on every other character.
Some reviewers have described your stories as revealing the “tip of an iceberg.” What is your sense of the base of the iceberg in your characters’ lives? Is that what drives you to write more stories about certain characters?
Iceberg tips are part of the joy of writing short stories as opposed to novels. You must choose the single telling gesture, and be very aware of subtext driving the dialogue. The fun is that there is always more to work with. You never exhaust the character or situation. I might someday revisit some of the characters in Late Breaking. They’re still out there, living their lives. In my previous book, All Saints, I caught up with Kelly twenty years after she first appeared in A Litany in Time of Plague.
Your use of animals in Late Breaking is intriguing. What attracts your writer’s mind to these creatures (ravens, octopi, horses)?
Thank you for noticing my animals. I’m very fond of them, and they do play small but significant parts. Alex Colville greatly admired animals, considered them essentially innocent and incapable of evil unless driven to it by humans. His paintings are full of dogs, cats, horses, cows and ravens, among others.
In my stories, Sister the dog, Frank the horse and Ella the octopus have a profound effect on the lives of the humans they interact with. Sister is Len Sparks’ companion, and, in a way, his conscience. Frank awakens Marion to her need to change her life and take more control of it. Ella touches the lonely and isolated Eliot in ways that people simply can’t. I also wanted to embed a raven in every story, and almost succeeded. Writing about animals is tricky. There is much more to them than we give them credit for; on the other hand, too much anthropomorphizing results in a sentimental “Disney” effect.
Congratulations on Late Breaking being chosen as a finalist for the Giller Prize!* What were your first thoughts on hearing the news?
Well, my publisher Dan Wells phoned and gave me the news. Otherwise, I think I might have concluded that some kind of clerical error had been made. Not that I don’t think Late Breaking is worthy. But the Giller is so big, I think many writers have a stab of imposter syndrome when they hear they have gotten anywhere near it. How do I feel? Mainly relieved that Late Breaking seems to be the book I hoped it was. It’s a lovely affirmation.
*Late Breaking was announced in competition for the Governor General’s Award after this interview was conducted.
To register for K.D.’s workshop or other ticketed events at FOTA: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/festival-of-the-arts-2019-tickets-66677208325