Published June 2010
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Memoirs of a forgotten master
Katherine Govier's latest novel explores why there are so few great women artists in history
Dashing out of the spring rain and into Katherine Govier’s Toronto home, it’s clear I’ve stumbled into a book and art lover’s paradise. Govier greets me warmly as I gape at the tasteful, almost opulent, surroundings. The walls are painted vibrant colours, and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves showcase what happens when two bibliophiles fall in love (Govier, who is about to publish her ninth novel, The Ghost Brush, shares the house with her partner, Nick Rundall, vice-president of Whitecap Books).
Standing in her open-concept kitchen, amid magnificent bright green cupboards, Govier serves coffee in blue and white china cups with gold edging, while her black terrier nudges me for attention. A wall in the front room displays a checkerboard of framed Japanese paintings – which is fitting, given that the 61-year-old author’s latest novel is written in the voice of Oei, the enigmatic daughter of iconic Japanese artist Hokusai, whom Govier speculates produced many of her father’s later works (art historians consider those works to be forgeries). The Ghost Brush is, at its heart, about forgotten female artists. “What does it mean to live and work without recognition?” Govier asks. “How does it feel? Is it important? And do we need it?”
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Born in Edmonton in 1948, Govier is not your typical boomer-generation writer unenthused by the changing tides of technology. In addition to a well-maintained personal homepage, she’s launched a website dedicated to The Ghost Brush with a number of online marketing innovations, including a series of short e-mails she sent friends and fans while researching the novel. She says she’ll likely ditch her laptop for an iPad soon, and admits a healthy addiction to the online Facebook word game Lexulous.
Given her comfort with Web 2.0, it’s not surprising to learn that The Ghost Brush (published on May 15) is appearing as both a trade paperback original and an enhanced e-book, the first one HarperCollins Canada has ever designed and released. The e-book differs dramatically from the print edition in that it features a contemporary storyline narrated by Rebecca, a fictionalized version of Govier herself, about the considerable undertaking involved in researching Oei’s life.
Govier initially conceived of the novel as comprising two alternating storylines – one contemporary, one historical – but her editor, Iris Tupholme, wasn’t enthusiastic. “She said, ‘Oh, you know, everybody tries that. Nobody succeeds,’” Govier recalls. In the end, HarperCollins suggested extracting the contemporary storyline from the print version and making it an e-book exclusive.
Govier says she’s thrilled to be at the forefront of digital publishing in Canada. “The novel form is not a holy thing: we can play,” she says. She’s also enthusiastic about the streamlined print book. “To tell you the truth, I’m glad to have a smaller book that doesn’t intimidate a lot of readers,” she says. “I’ve got the best of both worlds.”
Govier, who has travelled to Japan on numerous occasions since the early 1990s and practices classical Japanese martial arts, has been fascinated by the country since childhood. The Ghost Brush isn’t her first novel set in Japan: her previous book, 2005’s Three Views of Crystal Water, was about 19th-century pearl divers in the Far East. But while the earlier novel dealt with Japan, it did so through the eyes of a Canadian narrator, and Govier admits she is wary about being a white Western author writing about the exotic East. Writing from the perspective of Rebecca, the western narrator of the contemporary plotline, was Govier’s way into the story. “Then I thought, ‘I don’t really need Rebecca.’ She was my way of discovering and befriending Oei, and then I began to feel the strength of that character,” Govier says. “When an Italian writes a story about a western Canadian cowboy, maybe we laugh, maybe there are some things that are wrong, but I think in this case, the story really is about great lost women artists.”
With 14 book-length works under her belt – besides the nine novels, she has published three short story collections and edited two travel essay anthologies – Govier is undoubtedly a successful author. But while her books have sold well, and she has a solid literary reputation, she’s hardly a household name. Thirteen years ago she won the Marian Engel Award for a writer in mid-career, and she won the Toronto Book Award in 1991 for Hearts of Flame, but she hasn’t been nominated for a major literary prize in Canada since.
When I ask if she hopes The Ghost Brush will change all that, she replies,“No, let madness lie.” Rather, she hopes the book will have some impact on art history and contribute to an understanding of why there are so few great women artists in the canon. Germaine Greer, an acquaintance of Govier’s, has examined the same question in her work, though she never tackled Eastern art. When Govier asked her why, Greer replied that it was too complicated. “[Greer asked me,] ‘How did you do it?’ Well, I used translators and experts, and people were very good to me.”
One of the reasons Govier has been overlooked by awards juries may have more to do with sexism among literary gatekeepers than with merit. “When I wrote Creation, someone said, ‘This is really going to make your mark because it’s about a man,’” laughs Govier, who says that early in her career she was told her niche was “intelligent women’s fiction.” Her books have gone on to do extremely well in book clubs – a desirable and rewarding market, but one that doesn’t always get a lot of respect. Govier admits chauvinistic attitudes are still out there. “It can be obvious in prize lists; I’m not the only one who thinks that,” she says. “But there’s always an exception to the rule, so it’s hard to demonstrate. Women are the chief readers of fiction and I go to book groups.… I have to say, they’re not stupid readers.”
With Three Views of Crystal Water, Govier made the move from Random House to HarperCollins. Govier’s editor at Random House, Anne Collins, was a “wonderful editor,” she says, who worked hard on Creation, Govier’s 2002 novel about the bird painter John James Audubon. But she can remember the exact moment her relationship with Random House soured. While having dinner with her parents in Canmore, Alberta, Govier got a call from Collins explaining that Romeo Dallaire’s ghostwriter, who was at work on the soon-to-be-published Shake Hands With the Devil, had committed suicide and that Collins would have to take over writing duties.
After that, Collins simply wasn’t there for Govier. At a huge company like Random House, Govier says, your book can get tossed aside if your editor isn’t around to fight for marketing money and attention. Creation was well received in the U.S. and was listed as a notable book by The New York Times, but Govier felt let down by its reception in Canada. “After Creation, we talked and I just said, ‘I don’t think I can come back to this.’”
Govier has nothing but kudos for HarperCollins. “What I like about HarperCollins is that it’s a big publishing house, so it has some resources and some clout out there, but it’s small enough so that everyone who is working on your book can meet in one room.” As for her next novel, she says she will never take on such a complicated book again. “But people tell me I say that every time,” she admits. “So it should be taken with a grain of salt.”
In the meantime, Govier is focussed on new projects, which will likely keep her distracted when this year’s awards season rolls around. At the end of The Ghost Brush, Oei, after a lifetime of struggle, becomes a Buddhist, something Govier says she completely identifies with. “Recognition is a huge issue for women,” she says. “You are crazy if you’re a writer and you say it doesn’t matter.” At the same time, she is able to put such considerations out of her mind by immersing herself in her work. “I do martial arts. I know with martial arts that the minute your ego enters, your technique suffers.”