KAREN SMYTHE ON 'THIS SIDE OF SAD'
Karen Smythe is a Toronto-based writer.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
What are your earliest memories of writing or storytelling?
When I was very young, I developed an interest in the sounds of words and I liked to write rhyming “poems.” When I was about ten years old, I published a poem in the (a community paper in the Toronto community where I grew up); it was called “Windfields Farms,” named after the estate where E. P. Taylor raised horses. Our back yard looked out on its fields and we had horses at our fence every day, until the land was sold to developers. It was a protest poem, I guess you could say! I also remember being about ten or eleven and sitting in the back seat of my father’s car as he drove our family home, after a visit to my grandparents in Campbellford, Ontario; I told my parents that I wanted to write a book but didn’t know what it should be about. It only took me another twenty years or so to figure out what my themes and subjects of interest might be!
What specific stories did you gravitate toward as a child?
Stories about children, vulnerable and creative children, always interested me.I loved L.M.Montgomery’s Emily series (especially ); but I also loved and both of which I read at a pretty young age (eleven or twelve). At public school, we were given an opportunity once to order from a catalogue of books about different professions, and I still have my copy of somewhere (I wanted to be a pediatrician until I was about twenty years old). From my parents’ bookshelf I also remember reading, as a child, Solzhenitsyn’s , Hugh Garner’s , and , a popular tome about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution.
What were you reading as a teenager?
My high school was unusual in that our teachers could make up English courses by theme, as long as they covered the curriculum; my favourite class was called, “The Concept of Self,” or something along those lines. That’s where I first read , , and You know, nice light stuff.
What does your writing space look like?
I have my own small writing shed, which I had built soon after I started to work on my first novel. It was the best investment I’ve ever made. It’s insulated, and I have a space heater for winter and a portable air conditioner for summer. I use a standing desk, which is really a large, heavy architect’s table I got at the ReStore for $10. Other than that, there is a coat stand, one comfy chair for reading, and a three-shelf bookcase.I have pinned up some photos I took in Mexico for a bit of colour, but a white-board and bulletin boards for notes, timelines, and narrative mapping take up most of the wall space.
Do you have a writing routine?
Yes, now I do. I retired from my office job in 2014, and I’m not a morning person, so I write in the afternoon (usually after going to the gym or doing errands or spending time with/helping my parents). I need to have a three- or four-hour block of writing time, ideally, which means I might not finish my day before 8 pm. Anything less than two hours, and I find it hard to settle into my work quickly enough to make the time in my shed very productive.
What role does day-dreaming play in your writing practice?
Not a lot in the early stages of a project, which might seem a backwards way of going about it; but once I’m into a story or a scene I’m working on, I’ll think of the characters all the time: while I am driving; watching baseball (the only TV I watch); walking; in the shower—anywhere and anytime I’m alone. I’ll imagine them in a conversation, or I’ll come up with sentences to capture their thoughts, or I’ll think about which character would use a metaphor that I like and want to use somehow.
Could you tell us about how you decided you were going to write your first novel? What first steps did you take?
After I published my first story collection, I worked on drafts of longer pieces that seemed to be heading towards novellas. My writing career was interrupted for many years, but I knew when I returned to it that I was interested in writing a novel-length story. Before I started to write I had the name of my narrator and what would happen to her husband figured out; I also knew that it would have 3 threads or storylines (based on three major relationships). The first step I took was to sketch out the triple time-lines and figure out the years I was going to work within, and who the characters would be.
With the complex themes I wanted to tackle—time, memory, how we create identity through stories we tell ourselves—there was no other way to write it other than in novel form, to allow the space for all of that. How I’d accomplish that took much longer to figure out, and I drastically changed the form I was using mid-way through the process.
What systems do you have in place to keep track of all the smaller details of your story?
I’m a very organized person and I love to create systems to keep track of information. Before and all the way through the first draft of my writing process, I write down ideas, phrases, sentences, character traits and experiences as they come to me, not knowing where or even if they belong; with TSOS I ended up with bulletin boards all around my writing shed walls and I’d move these scraps around according to the flow I was figuring out for the narrative—which was not linear or chronological, but associative, following the logic of memory, grief, love… And I had timelines, too—multiple timelines, configured in a few different ways so I could check them for accuracy but also for how events related to each other at different points in the novel.
With my current novel-in-progress, I’m using the same methods to sort and organize the little paper bits, except I’m using file folders for themes instead of bulletin boards—the timeline is much simpler in this book, so I can do that this time around. I also have file folders with details about each of the main characters (there are many more of them this time). I will write freely and then dip into my file folders and pull out interesting bits or ideas for scenes that I haven’t yet written out, so the system not only helps me organize but also to remember things I’ve thought up earlier and don’t want to lose track of or forget to include.
What core ideas are you exploring in your novel This Side of Sad?
On the most basic level, TSOS is about a marriage, the story of which is told in first person through Maslen’s (the wife’s) point of view after her husband, James, has been killed somewhat mysteriously. But it is really about the different kinds of love a person can experience in different relationships, and how we form our sense of self through our interactions with the world, with other people in our lives, and with memory, all through storytelling. Memory and time are major themes that the book delves into, and the form of the novel reflects them: it is not linear or chronological, as mentioned, but follows Maslen’s mind in motion, as she works out a lot of issues in the aftermath of her loss. Maslen is examining and re-examining her life, and she brings a lot of her past back to life, mentally, to accomplish the task and to find answers to questions about what happened to her husband, her marriage, and her previous relationships—but also about how to move forward, how to keep living.
Your novel centres around a marriage. Did the truths and nuances of this partnership come easy to you, or was it a challenge to capture the realities of this shared life?
Since the marriage is entirely made up (my husband is alive and well and is nothing like Maslen’s!), it was challenging to write about the partnership. I wanted to explore a relationship wherein the depth of feeling that one person has outweighs that of the other—not enough that the two could not be happily married, but enough that the person who has less invested keeps that secret from her spouse (or so she thinks). It was so rewarding to immerse myself in the minds of my characters and eventually to feel, as I was writing, that what I was creating between the two of them was authentic.
The story also centres around loss. What did you learn while writing about Maslen’s experience of grieving?
During the writing of the book, I learned a huge amount about grieving—not that I’m a stranger to it myself, of course; but the way Maslen worked through grief led her from one loss to another to another, backward and forward in time, and as she experienced day-to-day life as a widow, she tried very hard to reconnect to life in the present as a way of managing her grief—by putting it into the larger context of life and death, of the origins of life on earth, even. Her decision to return to pottery, to simple hand-built clay objects, is an example of this effort. Also, Maslen’s use of memory taught me a lot about consolation. As I wrote in her shoes, I discovered, as she did, new ways of thinking about the loss of loved ones. And I found her insights very comforting—insights I would not have had, had I not been writing in her voice, and writing her story.
What non-literary art forms do you turn to for inspiration?
I am an art lover—I respond most strongly to oil paintings, especially portraits, but sometimes landscapes and even still lifes, too; it all depends on the techniques the artist uses, and the texture the paint creates, and the colour of the images. Favourites are Kandinsky, Herta Muller, and Vermeer. I also respond viscerally to some forms of modern dance: a performance I saw in Brooklyn by the Israeli company Batsheva floored me, as has some by Mark Morris and some of Ronald K. Brown’s work. Artists like these accomplish with their materials what I want to accomplish with words: to move people.
Why are stories important?
They move people! They translate our thoughts and feelings to make us see and feel differently, to help us reinterpret and understand our world. Stories not only portray experiences and the inner lives of characters, but they directly touch the inner lives of readers. They teach us who we are, as individuals and as a species, but they also show us how we might be, what we might become—for better or worse, you could say.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m getting close to finishing Draft 1 of my second novel, and I’m really looking forward to printing it all out, digging in, and revising—which is a continuation of the writing process, of course but it’s the most fun part, for me, because the initial creation is there. The fictional construct exists, once Draft 1 is done; it just needs to be enhanced, improved, clarified, excised, expanded upon, etc. It’s not as easy as I’m making it sound, but it is completely engrossing and rewarding, to be working on one’s latest invented world.