Interview: Karen Smythe

Karen Smythe’s new book, This Side of Sad, may be her debut novel, but it’s hardly her debut in the world of Canadian literature. She’s taught literature at the University of Regina, written fiction and criticism for journals and magazines, and been the fiction editor at the Pottersfield Portfolio. She’s written and edited academic books on the subject, and she’s also published a short-story collection called Stubborn Bones (Polestar/Raincoast Books, 2001). This Side of Sad, then, is less a debut than a shift in direction for a writer who has already been working in Canadian literature for some time.

Written under the mentorship of Diane Schoemperlen, This Side of Sad is a woman’s extended meditation on her own life in the wake of her husband’s death. It’s a story about memory, and it attempts to create stylistically the experience of remembering, of following the mind’s associative paths through the events that make up a life.

Karen lives in Guelph, where she’s working full-time on a second novel from her writing shed. I recently had her over to my place for tea and conversation about the new book.


Jeremy Luke Hill: This Side of Sad is structured as a series of remembered moments, most of them quite short, often but not always interlinked by the kind of mental associations that characterize the workings of memory. How did you come to use this structure? What did it allow you to do with the narrative?


Karen Smythe: Well, I came by the structure the hard way. I began writing the novel in a more traditional mode, a more linear mode. It did move around in time, but it was a more linear narrative, with chapters set in certain places and scenes following chronologically. But by the time I got to chapter three, which was about page eighty or ninety, I wasn’t really liking it, and I realized that I wasn’t getting at the narrator’s mental process in the way I wanted to. I wanted to get into her head in the sense of following her consciousness and her thoughts rather than just presenting her in scenes.


So, in conversations with my husband about this, we were tossing around ideas about different ways that you could present memories and consciousness, that kind of thing, and I decided that I didn’t want long stretches of narrative. I wanted very brief episodes. Some of the things I had written in those first pages were kind of getting at it, and I liked some of it, luckily, but what I did was take a pair of scissors and cut out chunks from what I had written. And I started organizing them, not chronologically, but in terms of what links there might be between this episode and that episode, and started to find a flow of how I wanted to represent this person’s mind and its associative logic.


I ended up being able to use a fair bit of what I had already written, just organized in a different format, and from then on that’s how I wrote it. I didn’t try to write linear sections that went from A to B. I would write episodes. For some of them, I knew where they would go right away, and some of them I’d write and then – on the wall I’d have this big map of where everything went – I’d try to find the right spot. I spent a lot of time actually on bulletin boards with thumbnail tacks and little paces of paper, moving them around. So that’s how it came to be.


JLH: And what did that mode let you accomplish in the telling of your story, in your development of the Maslen’s character?


KS: That character has obviously found herself in a very dramatic, traumatic situation, and I needed her to have access to her past, to have the people in her past come into her mind and into her present without having to tell the whole story, without having to go back and say, you know, this is what happened, and this was her life, and these were these people she knew. So I thought that by having this mental flow, this episodic flow, that I’d be able to bring enough of that in without having to tell the whole story, which is how I wanted the narrator to experience her present.


At that point in her life, that’s how the flow of her mind is working in the aftermath of her husband dying. She hasn’t been a very introspective, retrospective person, until this trauma when her husband is killed, and so she has a lot to uncover and unearth about herself, and about her past, so that the reader can follow where she’s going. And then for her character this structure allows her to build a story for herself. She’s reinventing herself as she goes forward, which she is what she finds she has to do.


JLH: Maslen, who narrates the novel, explicitly rejects the idea of writing a journal or a diary to process the grief of losing her husband, but the story’s structure does take on some of the elements of a diary – direct address of a nameless audience, exploration of personal thoughts and emotions, revelation of intimate secrets. Why was it important for the novel not to be a “journal” despite these journal-esque qualities?


KS: That’s a really good question. That was intentional. It couldn’t be a journal, because when you’re writing a journal, even though you’re writing privately, you do edit as you write, and I didn’t want her to be editing. I wanted it to be more of her thought process. That doesn’t mean that the subject matter and the content of what she’s thinking aren’t similar to a journal, but I wanted it to feel more spontaneous. Which is a hard thing to do when you’re writing a book, because it’s so not spontaneous.


JLH: Right. She might not be editing, but you certainly are.


KS: Exactly. And I was also interested in this form in terms with how to experiment with it. At the time I was reading a lot of memoir and experimental fiction and auto-fiction kinds of things, which were really popular at the time, and I liked that. I almost wanted to call it something like, A Fictional Memoir, where it would be Maslen’s memoir as a novel, but it started to feel too cutesy. I didn’t want to get hung up on that kind of stuff. I just wanted to write the book.


But back to your point, the book does have that journal feel. It’s not as spontaneous as our thoughts feel, as our thoughts are. It’s certainly not stream of consciousness. It’s kind of a hybrid of things, I guess.


JLH: In many ways you construct Maslen as a feminist. She describes herself in those terms and several times relates how others see her in those terms. On the other hand, the life that she recalls in the novel has largely to do with three men, the loss of whom almost causes her to have a break down in each case. Can you talk a bit about this conflict in Maslen, where she professes a feminism but nevertheless seems to work her life out through and against her romantic relationships with men?


KS: Well, people are contradictory. And, yeah, she does see herself that way in terms of her values, and in terms of her outsider role in her family. It would be kind of hard for her not to be a feminist in the family she grows up in, just because of who the people are.


But on the other hand, she’s also a person who is very much a creation of the relationships she finds herself in, including her family relationships. In her family, as she was growing up, she found it very difficult to be the person she was becoming, but that becomes part of her identity too. As does the fact that she looks to other people, often men in her case, to become family for her, and so in a way she’s still trying to establish her own identity and selfhood through other relationships.


It’s something she isn’t very self-aware of though, at least not until her marriage. She has all these different elements to her personality, but she doesn’t really comment on or think about the contradiction between her feminist perspective and these roles. It’s almost as though, whether they were men or friendships with women or whatever, it wouldn’t have mattered. She would be this person struggling to define herself against other people, within relationships, whether or not they were romantic ones.


JLH: That idea of working her way through different kinds of relationships leads well into my next question, because the three men seem to represent very different kinds of love: Josh, an unconsummated love that eventually presents as an almost sibling affection; Ted, a love at first sight that begins as obsessiveness and wanes into disinterest; and James, a more mature love that grows into something larger than the protagonist even realizes until after he passes away. What were you hoping to draw out by juxtaposing these relationships?


KS: I think the book in a lot of ways is an exploration of varieties of love. These are different kinds of relationships that have huge impacts on Maslen, just like the relationships in all our lives have major impacts on us and on the way we feel. These three relationships, the ones she’s working through and the ones the reader is exposed to in the most detail, they have the most to teach her about herself. It’s the age old human quest for love and what that means. And obviously that means different things for different people, and at different times in their lives.


I think that’s really the thrust of it. She’s trying to measure what she had with James, and to do that she has to look at the other relationships she’s had. And possibly she’s coming to realize that she’s mis-measured those relationships, or didn’t measure them with enough awareness of what was really happening, what they really meant to her.


JLH: Another experience that Maslen reflect on is her breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy, and recovery, which she describes in a very factual, technical way. She even recognizes this in herself, and wonders whether it might have instigated or at least accentuated some of the problems in her marriage with James. Talk about how you went about presenting Maslen’s cancer and her response to it.


KH: Maslen is very matter of fact about her cancer, with herself as well as with James. Partly that’s a realization on both their parts, when that situation arises and she’s diagnosed, that the emotional life each of them is living isn’t exactly synchronized. I think her matter-of-factness emphasizes that and draws that out. Perhaps she could have chosen to enter into James position a little more, but she wants to keep that strength, that position of strength for herself, and not get drawn in into his sadder way of seeing things.


I think it’s important to her, just for her own mental health at that point, but more importantly, in terms of the book, in terms of the character. It’s kind of taking a stand and being clear on where she is emotionally and in the marriage and how far she’ll let James go down that road. She’s a very self-defensive person. Even within the marriage she’s very self-protective. So she takes that stand and continues with that perspective.


In terms of writing it or presenting it, I thought that writing a kind of a journal at one point–by betraying her statement that she won’t write a journal or a diary–was an interesting way for her to track the facts and establish what going on in her life. It also reinforced her character; though it’s very personal, what she’s going through, she’s also taking a detached perspective on what’s happening to her, and that reinforces her character and her position in the novel, about what’s going on for her health, but also in the marriage.


And all of that pressure about whether to have a mastectomy and whether to have reconstruction—it’s about society’s construction of what womanhood is, and what femininity is, and attractiveness, and why it’s important – the hyper attention to the female body, and how it defines who a person is, if they happen to be female. Which has always been, in my opinion, overkill, but that’s not how the rest of our society looks as things.


JLH: I really like the image of the wall that James builds at the back of their farm property. I’ve done a fair bit of dry stone wall building myself, and it absolutely can be a kind of therapeutic exercise. It can also be, as you imply in the novel, a way to mark the boundary between the wild and the domestic, but one that actually makes use of what the wild itself makes available. I’m interested to know why you chose to work through that image.


KS: That wall is metaphoric on so many levels. As you say, it’s a means of gaining control, of separating what you can control from what you can’t. So much feels out of control for James, with Maslen’s illness, and the anxiety that takes him over, and the fact that he’s no longer the teacher he was for years, which is another huge identity shift. He’s grown up in a semi-rural environment, and Maslen’s very urban, so it’s also connected to that difference between their experiences and personalities.


Metaphorically, it’s also creative. It’s building. It’s a way of being present in the moment and not being perhaps as effected by negative things going on around you or in your life. But it’s also a symbol of loneliness in the novel. The same wall that’s separating James from the uncontrollable is also separating him from his wife. Physically and geographically he spends his time in this environment where he’s not comfortable. In a sense it’s kind of a balance between what has been discovered internally in the marriage, what’s disruptive, and what perhaps is more of a natural way of responding to life for James.


It also shows the differences between them in how they respond to things. James responds to what he’s experiencing by becoming more physical, and Maslen’s response is much more to become analytical and thoughtful. So all those things go into what the wall means to them.


JLH: Connected to that separation metaphor, by that point in the relationship she’s spending most of her time at their place in town while he spends most of his in the country on the farm. You represent that as having its stresses, but also not as being an entirely a bad thing. It’s just a case of two people is being where they’re comfortable, finding places to be themselves. This runs counter to the common assumption that in order for a couple to have a functional relationship they need to be living in the same house and sleeping in the same bed. What ideas are you working through there?


KS: That’s a really good point, because there are lots of places where they do come together and find common ground where they’re comfortable, and those are the moments that Maslen is really enjoying remembering in the aftermath of James’ death, perhaps finding them even more meaningful after the fact. But even at the time, the way they’re relationship is depicted, it’s a tentative coming together. There are things that could be built on perhaps, so it’s not necessarily that their relationship has been doomed because of how they’ve chosen to live their lives. There could have been other alternatives.


I think that’s one strand that runs throughout the book. There are alternate stories and other possibilities. It’s just that we won’t know, because we haven’t taken them, and things haven’t gone that way.


JLH: In several places the book makes references to literary theorists and philosophers. Simone Weil (one of my personal favourites) is quoted more than once, along with Hannah Arendt, and you also mention people like Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes (two more favourites), Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault. What influence did these kinds of thinkers have on the book?


KS: Maslen is thinking about these people because of her previous life as a student, and the “almost”  path she took, doing more studies and graduate work. I think in terms of the character though, she’s attracted to philosophy and those kinds of thinkers, but she’s not one herself. She’s not a thinker like that per se, and she doesn’t live her life that way or live philosophically day to day, but these things are coming back to her as she’s reflecting on her life, on the meaningful messages that have stuck with her through her reading.


Particularly Simone Weil who deals with relationships, friendship, suffering – suffering is the big one – and finding way to get beyond the suffering. How human beings have done that over time, and how they continue to do that. And Hannah Arendt’s work on time and memory and all the big philosophical questions. They’re fascinating, not just in terms of the subjects themselves, but in terms of narrative form–for people who write fiction to be exploring notions of time and memory and storytelling.


I’ve always been interested in playing with time and representing time in fiction, and in this novel in particular, where I was trying to create a new way of representing these different times and layers of stories in a non-traditional way, I found that those kinds of philosophers, those kinds of writing and language and writing and time, came to mind a lot.


On the other hand, I didn’t want to make Maslen an academic type, having conversations and dialogues about these philosophers or these subjects. But having them float into her mind I thought was appropriate, because the novel was structured that way, to allow her to have things float into her mind. So I felt like that was an appropriate way to introduce those kinds of things.


JLH: Were there any more or less novelistic influences that informed the novel? Do you see it as coming out of a particular tradition or heritage?


KS: The writers I’ve always been influenced by the most are Alice Munro and Virginia Woolf, two writers of very different forms of narrative, but whose interests and subjects are very similar – the passing of time and the experience of capturing time in story. Those will always be a part of how I respond to other writers and how I take influence forward into my own writing. But as I was writing this novel, as I said earlier, I was reading a lot of memoir, and I was really enjoying a couple of books that play around with that form.


One of them was called The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavitz, It was a kind of diary that she wrote, but it was all shuffled up, so the dates weren’t chronological. I’m trying to remember now if she even put in the dates, but that was a really fascinating way for her to write. I think she said in an interview that it was kind of like a rolodex form, where each story didn’t have to be in any particular order. I really enjoyed that approach to memoir, and I thought that it was really something to think about structurally, to think about how to do that with fiction. I had already started to chop up my writing, so that was already underway, but that book was definitely an influence.


I was also reading Chris Kraus, an experimental writer from the States. She was playing a lot with autobiography, fiction, letter writing, and layering characters with real people in her life—again, an auto-fiction kind of element. And I did find those new forms exciting, and I was finding traditional forms less so.


JLH: Drawing some of those influences together, is it possible to look at the novel as the traditional Alice Munro collection of linked short stories except fragmented, where Munro’s discrete stories have become fragmented by the kinds of storytelling in Julavitz or Kraus? Is this calling back to Munro in a sense?


KS: Yeah, I would say definitely. Those moments throughout Munro where those links happen, and they echo back to previous moments in the story, those are profound moments to me. And even though my narrative sections are shorter – I call them episodes – some of the associations go from episode to episode, you see a thread – hopefully you do – that links one episode with the next episode. Some of the links go further back and make this big spiral mess.


And speaking of spiral messes, the spiral timeline that opens the novel is tied to your question about form as well. When I first wrote the novel, I kept a timeline for myself. It was difficult to keep track of every episode and every year and every relationship, to keep the time consistent and accurate. So I had a timeline, and I initially included it at the beginning of the first draft, but I didn’t like it, because it was too boring. It was a boring timeline!


So then I decided that I would do it like a map. I’m also interested in consciousness and neuroscience and that kind of stuff, so I had the map shaped like the outline of a head and inside was a kind of spiral timeline, with the oldest episodes at the core of the brain, spiralling out with key events that the reader might need to be aware of, something that they could go back to if they got confused.


Then I thought, well, if the reader needs that, then maybe there’s an issue with the book, so I thought about taking it out. Some people said it helped, while others said, no, you don’t need that in there. But I also liked the idea of the visual representation of these linked events, the narrative being represented in a visual way, and I talked with the designer at Goose Lane, and we came up with this other kind of spiral, which is more flowing and doesn’t look as prescribed–even though it is chronological if you follow it all the way out. But I think it gives the right impression, that they’re flowing thoughts, that there are going to be connections and echoes that you might not expect based on just a series of events.


JLH: Is there anything else that you might want to say about the novel, something we didn’t end up covering?


KS: Just that this is a book about how we construct ourselves, about how we know ourselves, and how we become ourselves through our relationships with other people. Perhaps a lot of books could be described that way, but this is a very intimate approach to that kind of subject, which is what I think the book offers and what I hope readers will respond to.


Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Vocamus Press, a micro-press that publishes the literary culture of Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director at Friends of Vocamus Press, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph.

He has written a collection of poetry, short prose and photography called Island Pieces, a chapbook of poetry called These My Streets, and an ongoing series of poetry broadsheets called Conversations with Viral Media. His criticism, reviews, and poetry have appeared in places like The Bull CalfCV2Free FallThe GooseThe Rusty ToqueThe Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.

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