Nestled on the west coast of British Columbia in Salt Spring Island lives writer, Kathy Page with her family. Page has been writing professionally for twenty years. She also teaches writing one day a week, does the occasional workshop and one-on-one mentoring when the opportunity arises. She has written seven books with a lot of short fiction in between. The Story of My Face was long-listed for the Orange Prize (one of my favourites) in 2002. When she’s not busy writing or teaching she’s otherwise occupied with her husband and their two children, aged seven and ten. Please enjoy getting to know Kathy Page.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Kathy Page: I had always written. I regularly won writing contests as a child and teenager, and yet it was just something I did: I never thought of becoming a writer until the first novel I wrote was accepted for publication. At the same time, though, it’s true to say that I had avoided becoming anything else. I think writing is both a craft and a vocation. A privilege too – though I am still sometimes ambivalent about it, and have periodically tried to escape and do something different.
Moe: What inspires you?
Kathy Page: Change. The intricacies of our lives; the extraordinary situations people find themselves in, how they make sense of them, what they’re driven to do and what becomes of them as a result. I’m drawn to imagine and explore lives very different to my own.
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Kathy Page: On an ideal day, I go first thing to the cabin I have in the woods, light the fire if needs be, then walk for an hour. Then I work for several hours. I re-read what I have recently written, and then push ahead further. I have no phone or internet in the cabin, so I do internet research and answer emails when I return to the house in the afternoon. Many days, of course, are not ideal. I have small children, so things crop up and writing can get squeezed. But I try to keep up a regular rhythm of work.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Kathy Page: It takes a minimum of two years to get the work ready for a publisher, though I do have friends I will share early work with. Having said that, how long a book takes is actually quite hard to quantify. They often incubate for long periods of time before I begin writing, and while that’s happening I might be spending a fair bit of time on research, taking notes or just meditating on the possible story. And sometimes there is a break in the writing process. For example, I worked on Alphabet for almost a year, and then abandoned it because I knew something was not working but couldn’t see what it was or how to progress. Ten years later, clearing out my London office for the move to Canada, I picked up the old, forgotten manuscript, and knew exactly what it needed; it took another eighteen months or so, and needed only a little editing.
I tend to revise as I go along, but I try to fight that tendency! Writing straight through has many advantages, not the least being the sense of accomplishment and certainty that comes at having a first draft, something to work with.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Kathy Page: I didn’t think about this very much when I started out – I did what I did instinctively. But since then, I have certainly asked myself what I’m doing and who it is for. I aim to enrich and open up the world by providing an imaginative experience, and I do want to reach as many readers as I can. My work is fundamentally optimistic, but since I’m drawn to strange and serious subjects, and since I occasionally I want to take the reader where he or she might not want to go if asked point blank, I feel it’s important to entertain as I go along. It’s fun too, to play with genre, and in my recent novels, I’ve enjoyed combining the pleasures of a suspenseful plot with a thought-provoking story.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Kathy Page: I began as a ‘freefaller’, writing to find out who the characters were and what the story was (this approach is wonderfully described by Joan Didion in her essay Why I Write). Nowadays, I plan in advance, but quite loosely. It does save some wasted effort, though I find the characters rarely do exactly what I’ve planned for them (which is only natural, since they only become ‘real’ as you write them). I revise the outline as I progress. For me, there is a tension between planning and discovery; I want a workable balance between the two.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Kathy Page: This depends on the book, but I generally do a great deal of research. Alphabet was based on my own experience, working for a year as a writer in residence in a men’s prison in the UK. I had extensive notes of my time there, and had read widely about the psychology of crime, but I still found that I had to do a great deal of finding out – which was challenging from the other side of the Atlantic. I need both broad, big picture research to give me a sense of context, and minute, concrete detail to make the settings come alive. I do visit anywhere that is going to be significant in the story, and when I do so I often find a person who I can email later if there is something I didn’t notice or have forgotten.
I often invent places, but then again I always base them on real ones, so even this doesn’t free me from research. I continue researching even as I write, so my reading pile can be themed for years at a time, which is something of a joke in the family. Researching like this is very time consuming but I really enjoy it and it often throws up new ideas and bits of storyline.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Kathy Page: How characters arrive can be quite mysterious. Sometimes they arrive more or less fully fledged, as did Natalie, from the The Story of My Face; other times I create them deliberately. In Alphabet, the main character was inspired by several people I had met, blended them together into one unrecognisable person. I am often inspired by real people but normally what appears in the book will be some aspect of them, not the whole person.
I think the way I appear is indirect – in making the character, I draw on and magnify some part of me that is like them, however small it might be, rather as an actor does.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Kathy Page: Yes, I have, but I think it was a general life block rather than just writing! I was depressed and lots of things lost their appeal. What worked was making some quite drastic changes in my life, plus taking up running. While all this went on, I left the door open to writing without insisting on it.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read one of your books for the first time?
Kathy Page: Moved. A heightened awareness of the rich complicatedness of life; a connection to other people (the characters in the book), even though they may be very different to themselves.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Kathy Page: Like it or not, publicity is dreadfully important.
Persistence – of vision, and in the face of adversity – is as important as talent because writing, as a business, is a rather brutal one.
Feeling that one has connected with readers is hugely rewarding.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Kathy Page: Alphabet is the story of Simon Austen, a young man in a high security prison who learns to read and write and then begins, illicitly, to write letters to a series of women outside the prison. His motives are quite murky and he thinks he is the one calling the shots in these long distance relationships, but he’s wrong about that. He is on an unstoppable journey, opened up to all the perils of communication, to choices about honesty, moral decisions and so on – all the kinds of interaction that he once wanted to avoid.
Simon Austen is a very complex character: charming, intelligent, but also damaged and capable of brutality. Many of his strengths are also weaknesses, and vice versa. Both character and story were inspired by the time I spent working as a writer in residence in men’s prison in the UK. I was fascinated by the whole question of change. Do people change? How drastic can that change be? I set out to imagine that process for Simon.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Kathy Page: I like fiction that is well crafted, with a strong emotional core. I like to read about places and lives that are foreign to mine.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Kathy Page: Spend time with my husband and children, garden, swim, cycle, read, go to theatre performances; I really love drama.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Kathy Page: It takes a long time, and you never stop learning how to do it.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Kathy Page: It is hard to imagine but it would have to involve communication in some way.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Kathy Page: I’m sorry, I like them all.
My interview with Kathy Page was originally published 10/16/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.