Really Seeing: An Interview with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer about All The Broken Things

978-0-345-81352-7SP: In your remarkable and moving All The Broken Things, Toronto’s CNE, bear-wrestling, Agent Orange, and Bo’s family life and history all work together to filter sadness, rage, love, regret, guilt, and joy to a pure and human core. What was the writing process like? Did you ever find a tension between the documentary facts you use and writing the fictional story?

KK: With the work I’ve been doing in the last few years—short fiction and this novel—there’s a tension between mythologizing and globalizing the part of Toronto I have lived in for fourteen years called “The Junction.” It’s easier in short fiction to make a credulous space than in a novel for a range of reasons, and time and space are two of the most devilish problems. A novel develops over time and in space and it’s tricky to break these rules and hold the reader over a longer stretch of text. And of course the timing and even the space I’ve used to construct the story are only partly “real;” these things are also fabricated and stretched and compressed and basically massaged like crazy to make it feel real and to let me “get away with” many things that without the real feeling, would truly collapse belief. So the tension was around what I could reasonably hope a reader would believe, and I had to have faith at the end of the day that I had enough real-feeling to gain that privilege—the privilege of the reader’s attention.

SP: I think it definitely holds real-feeling, especially as the novel mentions cross-streets and spaces in Toronto that anyone living in Toronto (or anyone familiar with Toronto) would know.

KK: The novel space is circular. It starts at the tracks and rotates through High Park, the Exhibition grounds, the lake, then back up the Humber River. There are wee excursions to small towns in Ontario, like little sun rays off the main rotation. That was fun. I imagine Bear circumnavigating the city, still. A ghost bear watching.

SP: Why is stretching and fabricating time and space important to you as an author? Do you think that contemporary readers and writers need to stretch their imaginations more?

KK: In a way I’m not that interested in whether people stretch their imaginations. I was curious about the importance of belief to story—how far will a reader acquiesce the normal controls around what is real and what isn’t and then if that line is elastic, and what that might mean. It’s also interesting to me that we need to believe, and that we bring that need to how we read a story. In a way, that curiosity is secondary to wanting to bring certain global political and ethical issues into the physical space of a story. I’ve invited the feral dogs of Petersburg into the subways of Toronto, and a Belarussian ex-soldier into High Park to sunbathe, and enacted a final crusade based on the Song of Roland across Roncesvalles. I want to invite war and global events into the space of my work and let it agitate a bit. These stories are: “Laikas 1” (Granta), “Yuri of the Park” (Riddle Fence), and “Song of Otto” (Filter Literary Journal).

SP: In All The Broken Things, the Vietnam War haunts Bo and his family in many ways. Does the war behave like a major character in the novel?

KK: The war comes through the characters. I have never really understood the idea of a thing or event as a character. It’s an academic red herring. There are aspects of the war experience that cling to Bo and to his mother, Rose, and to Teacher, and, of course, to Orange, who is severely disfigured as a result of her parent’s exposure to Agent Orange.

SP: Yeah, I see. The novel isn’t really about the Vietnam War and isn’t a Vietnam War novel.

KK: No. It’s a novel about people. And some of those people happen to be bears.

SP: I love Bear the most. Can you talk a bit about the cast of misfits and “freaks” in the novel?

KK: I did not know until well into the book that it would have anything to do with freaks. I wrote about 200 pages and then left it for about 6 months. And when I went back I cut half of that and started again with what I liked. It was really strange to me when the character Max appeared. It’s like it had been sitting waiting there in my head. I am a very process-driven writer and basically I wrote that scene—the one in Max’s trailer—and shocked myself.

SP: That’s fascinating.

KK: After that happened I started looking into carnivals and freak-shows and—of course—there are some great scholars on disability and—of course—they write on freak-shows. So I started looking at freak-shows differently. And the more I looked and read, the more I also knew that I was writing a book about seeing—about spectacle, but really about really seeing. I made an archive of some of the disability research and little things I saw as I read and became more aware of what I was doing. It’s here.

SP: Fighting is also a spectacle in the novel. Bear-fighting and people-fighting. How did the fighting come about?

KK: Bo came out with his fists ready. [Fighting] also defines him in a crucial way. He only feels satisfactorily ‘there’ when he is fighting. When he fights, he presses up against people who typically ignore him. And with that contact, there is a kind of conversation and intercourse. And he feels alive and real to them.

SP: Is the physical body important to the experience of the novel?

KK: When I got more deeply embedded in the writing of the novel and knew it was so much about looking, witnessing and seeing, then it began to play out everywhere. All my work is physical— certainly it has been noticed by critics. My prose has been called ‘brawny’ and ‘muscular.’ It’s been written that I write like a man. I don’t understand why the body would be the purview of male writers. I don’t do it consciously. It just happens that my characters have bodies, I guess.

SP: Do you think the non-verbal, with the emphasis on the body, is sometimes more powerful than verbal communication (in reference to the use of sign language in the novel)?

photo by Ken Woroner
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (photo by Ken Woroner)

KK: When I see people signing it looks like dancing to me. It’s gorgeous. It’s physicalized language. Yes, it probably stands out against the incessant babble and therefore has a certain power. In the old tales, the characters could speak to inanimate objects and to animals. I sometimes wonder whether humans could communicate before language. And whether that might not have given us a wider range—more empathy and less arrogance.

SP: I think that’s why Orange and Bear have such a strong presence. They are constantly communicating. And when what they are meaning gets across, it definitely quells arrogance. How does All The Broken Things differ from other novels you’ve written with both finished product and writing process?

KK: I’m not sure I have an adequate answer for that question. It felt different but I couldn’t say how really. But then it always feels different with whatever characters I am working with. It’s like having a deep conversation with different people. Maybe, it’s different kinds of communion? I think the same question might be asked of the reader. And likely the answer would be similar.

SP: The Nettle Spinner is different than All The Broken Things because it’s an all-together different conversation with different people.

KK: And I was in another epoch! I do not recognize myself in The Nettle Spinner. Someone else wrote that. I can’t write sentences like that at all anymore. It’s a bit of an affront to look at it.