Books by Katherine Govier:
There is something regal about Katherine Govier -- something very elegant -- as she sits across from me at a trendy eatery and delicately makes her lunch disappear. Her motions are thoughtful. Considered. And her answers, while articulate and seemingly given easily, are thoughtful and considered, as well. She is not a surprise to me. Like her work, Govier is quietly vivacious, witty but not hilarious and perfectly turned out in an entirely casual way. While these things might amount to unpleasant contradictions in another, Govier makes it all work very well. In her work and in her mien, Govier is a writer without compare.
Comparisons are made anyway. In articles about Govier, Margaret Atwood's name comes up a lot, though the comparisons seem unjust. Both women are Canadians and both have decided to strike where no genre exists to tell stories that are close to their hearts. Also, both women's work occasionally slides into the historical but their styles -- personally and in writing -- are very different. In 1989, in a Toronto Star profile, Catherine Dunphy wrote that, "if there were no Margaret Atwood in the forefront of the Canadian literary scene, Govier would be in her place." Twelve years and several important books later, Govier -- now 51 -- seems even more ready to bypass the comparisons.
Govier's latest novel, The Truth Teller, is a beautifully rendered story that deals with illusion and how people use it to color their lives. Govier says that, to her, it is "a coming of age book of an outcast teenage girl."
Set in Toronto and Greece, The Truth Teller's main players are attached to The Manor School for Classical Studies in a toney Toronto enclave. The school is led by the ageless beauty Francesca Morrow and her husband of 50 years, Dugald Laird. Cassie is The Truth Teller in question, the outcast new kid who will ultimately be the catalyst of change for the Manor School, for Francesca and Dugald and anyone who has ever based illusion as a shield.
The holder of a green belt in Kobuto, Katherine Govier lives in Toronto with her two children, Robin, 18 and Emily, 17.
Linda Richards: Your own parents have been married for a really long time.
Katherine Govier: They have.
Is there resonance of that in The Truth Teller?
There is. Although their marriage has not -- to my knowledge -- crumbled. [Laughs] But it is true that I have always been fascinated by those really, really long marriages which are life partnerships in many ways. In the case of The Truth Teller, it's a partnership in a mission with their school as well as a romantic partnership. The marriage is a creature, really, and both people have poured themselves into a mold so that they fit. So they become one creature. I don't know whether I'd look at them with awe or envy or... I think there are things against that working today. But it is kind of a marvel.
Something you've been interested in because of your parents?
Maybe because of my parents. There are other instances where I've seen that. I was taught by Sheila and Wilfred Watson at the University of Alberta. They were like that. No children. Both writers and dreamers and teachers. He was deeply eccentric and she kind of ran things, but she constantly deferred to him.
In some ways a model [for Francesca Morrow]?
In some ways, but Sheila was not at all a Francesca. For instance, she had no waistline and she wore little flat shoes and had little gray short hair. And Francesca's waist is a statement, not an accident. Francesca's waist is a culmination of many years of effort.
What was The Truth Teller about, for you?
For me it's a coming of age book of an outcast teenage girl. At the same time she comes of age so do the 80-year-olds who have been teaching her and the 33-year-olds and so everyone decides to come of age at once. Each character doesn't seem to have his or her own story in a really strong way. More so than in other books that I've written. Why is that? I don't know. Because I set out to bring this girl [Cassie] into herself and in a sense as she comes into herself so does everyone else.
That process involves self-knowledge and that took me into Greek mythology and took me to Delphi where the twin models are "everything in moderation" and "know thyself." Part of the book reflects the fascination that I have with myth and language and great works of art and the way they seem to be disappearing from us. And part of it is an act of preservation.
Disappearing from us...?
Well, in that we don't learn them or remember them or look at them enough. There's two very opposite worlds. The world of the teenage girl -- which I have observed intimately. I have two teenagers. The world of those teenagers is a junk world. They dress like junk, they listen to junk, they eat junk. And what they eat is truly grotesque. They treat themselves like junk. They carve in their bodies, they walk in back alleys. It's an ugly, trashy kind of a scene. And [in The Truth Teller] the world that they're being introduced to through this eccentric older couple is a world of great beauty and language which can go into your heart's blood, as Francesca likes to say. And the wonderful achievements of two millennia of human beings. So there are those huge contrasts and it's a bit of a lament, in a sense, for the beauty.
Do you feel it's disappearing, or not being paid attention to?
I feel it disappearing. I don't know if it's a temporary thing. I feel that there is much to sustain a person in that. And I wanted to give that to these troubled girls. And it does in a sense sustain them, although it gets a bit twisted.
Have young people responded to The Truth Teller?
One thing that's been great with this book, for me -- because I'm a great fan of young people and people in development -- and they like the book. That's a nice thing for me. I think sometimes you get this sense that you're a CanLit [Canadian Literature] kind of case study and that these books are kind of stuck away in some archive like Margaret Laurence or something. With this book I can just tell when I meet people under 30 that they really get the book. They get the attitude, they like the language, they think it's funny. Where some people who are older, who are my age, are so concerned with the end of all and have a really despairing look at life. But it's the energy of those young people that kind of animates it. I think younger readers know about that. They know about crumbling mythologies. So that's been fun with this book.
How old are your own children?
Robin is 18, that's my son. And Emily is 17.
I saw them on your Web site. You have a very evolved Web site.
Oh, thank you! I'll tell Kenneth [my Web guy] who made it.
Are you actively involved with the site?
Well I try to be. I mean, I know that it's there. I got it started a few years ago thinking it would be really fun. And then I have to pay for its maintenance and I wonder if I should just quit. But I think within a year or two everyone will have them so I've sort of just been a bit ahead of the game.
I try to get Kenneth stuff to use. I mean I hate Web sites that are dead, that are out-of-date. And he'll do all of it as long as I field him the stuff. For instance the reviews of the book that have come out and I've got to get big chunks to him so he can put it up there.
You've also been really active with the Writers in Electronic Residence program.
I'm not. But I'm very happy to say that it goes on.
Because you were the goddess of that.
Well, Trevor Owen -- who was the teacher who really designed it in his classroom -- and I mounted the thing. Trevor Owen is another one of these inspired teachers. Trevor had a classroom in Toronto, teaching English. He decided to hook up a Canadian writer with this computer, take his English class into the computer lab and let them communicate with Lionel Kearns, the poet in Vancouver. And that's how it began. He didn't have any money or really any means to make it bigger and in 1988 or 1989 you'd say to people: We do this by modem. And they'd say: What's that? Well it's telephone technology. You don't realize that 10 years was that long ago. But people had no clue at that time. So I was then Chair of the Writer's Development Trust and I took the program to the Trust any they said: Terrific. Let's try to mount it nationally. So we raised money for it. At one time it was in 75 or so schools, all over the country. Especially up North and in places where it's hard to get English and creative writing classes. Susan Musgrave has been very active and different writers have been taking roles -- you know, explaining their work and they can comment on a student's work and showing them that writers are alive and well. It's been a great program. I had to withdraw from it. It took tons of time. But it carries on. I wanted to write. Writers write.
You spearheaded the program?
I did. And I spearheaded the kind of national aspect of it, which meant raising money.
Another project that you were involved with that I found very interesting was Without a Guide. And that's a book that's done very well for you.
Without a Guide just sells and sells and sells. It's really interesting. It's gone into other languages. It's a collection of essays by women writers about their travels. Without a Guide as opposed to without a guy. Which is what a lot of people think it is. [Laughs]
Annie Proulx wrote a piece in that. Before she got to be really famous. She was just about to win the Pulitzer, I think when I contacted her. I really enjoyed editing that book. I've always meant to do another one, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.
One of the things I've read about that book is that, for you it wasn't so much about physical travel, but about...
...who you're with. For women. One of the things that happened when you do something which is only women. If you do start to reflect on: Well, how is this different than it would be if it were only men or women and men and -- what I recognized after reading all of these pieces and selecting them -- women seem to travel more for who they're with rather than the actual destination. The journey is the journey that connects. Rather than just a physical journey. It was interesting and not something that I particularly wanted to find out. I was interested in adventure. I was interested in bravery and the quest for knowledge and all of that is there. But it seemed to me too that they'll travel with their mother to repair or deepen that relationship. Or they'll travel with a lover or travel with a child -- a younger nephew or something -- to make connections through a destination.
Interesting. Have you thought about doing a book like that again?
Yes. I had this idea I was going to do a pilgrimage. When I read over Without a Guide I thought: the most interesting journeys in here are pilgrimages of a kind. Irene Guilford who was then an unknown writer -- she's published a novel since then, she's a wonderful writer -- she went to find the displaced persons camp in Europe where her mother had spent a number of years after the war. Or Clare Boylan took her Irish mother -- who'd lived in a tiny little Irish suburb all her life and had an incredibly domineering, drunken husband and had never been able to go anywhere -- to London to see the sights. Those were pilgrimages in a way. So then I thought: let's just do pilgrimages and I was going to do that, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.
Are you working on anything right now?
I am. I have a new book.
Can you talk about it?
I'll just tell you that it's the animal kingdom. I have left behind the lippy and gone into quack quack. [Laughs]
All those teenagers. And I'm building a collection of short stories, but they just seem to kind of build in the back room. At some point I'll find I have a dozen.
Were you working on short stories while you were writing The Truth Teller?
I'd written a couple.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Less than I was. When I first began I thought that if I didn't write every day I wasn't a writer. I wrote Random Descent every day. I never left my notebook behind. I had a tiny little Olympia portable typewriter that I took with me everywhere. But, really, having children does this to you in a sense, too. You work around school holidays and so on. But I learned to leave it and then to work very intensely when I did have the time.
When it was quiet in the house?
Yes. And I've learned to work around my kids' schedules and I can put on a burst of steam and get a lot done now, but I'm not as disciplined as I was.
You don't write every day anymore?
I don't, really. For instance, on this whole tour I did bring my laptop, but all I have got to show for it is an extremely sore shoulder. [Laughs]
I've noticed that photography has played a large part in some of your work.
Yes. I'm really interested in photography. Not taking pictures, but I love to look at them. I think my interest in photography began with doing historical research. About half of my novels have a big historical connection. Doing the research for Between Men, for instance. Doing the research for Angel Walk. I just gazed and gazed and gazed at photography. I learned a lot about it. I have a friend in Toronto who has a photography gallery and she taught me a lot about photography. I just go down there and look at really great photographs. So, "Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery," the story was the first major piece that I wrote that anyone ever saw that had to do with photography. And then of course the novel, Angel's Walk, about a photographer.
I love photography. I think it's the art form of the 20th century. It's just endlessly fascinating to me. I like the fact that it's about light. I like the fact that it has to do with stealth and pursuing and capturing. In other words, I like the process. I like how it's made. | July 2000
Linda Richards is editor of January Magazine.