Quill and Quire

Kathleen Winter

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Kathleen Winter envisions a 16th-century officer reincarnated as a modern-day vet

(Rachel Idzerda)

A few years ago, looking to publish a book in conjunction with Canada’s sesquicentennial, Knopf Canada settled on the story of James Wolfe, the British major general who led his army to defeat the French at Quebec’s Plains of Abraham in 1759 and died from wounds sustained in the battle. The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library had purchased a trove of Wolfe’s personal correspondence for nearly $1.5 million in 2013, and Knopf received permission to use the letters as source material. When the writer originally commissioned for the project was forced to abandon it, Knopf’s publishing director Lynn Henry approached Kathleen Winter. “I thought Kathleen would write an unusual sort of non-fiction book out of this material,” says Henry, who worked with Winter on her acclaimed 2010 novel, Annabel, when Henry was publisher at House of Anansi, which also published Winter’s 2014 non-fiction book, Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, about the ill-fated Franklin expedition of the 1840s.

Winter didn’t have a clear picture of what her final result might be when she accepted the assignment, but assumed it would land somewhere in the vicinity of literary non-fiction. Instead, the author ended up with a novel, Lost in September. “Originally, she delivered a manuscript that was indeed non-fiction, with some fictional techniques mixed in. There was a point where it became clear to both of us that a non-fiction–fiction hybrid wouldn’t work, and that Kathleen really should take the plunge and fully inhabit the characters she had created.”

Lost in September still conjures the life of Wolfe, but in a narrative sleight-of-hand, he is reincarnated in the present-day form of Jimmy, a red-haired Afghanistan war veteran whose post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms include the conviction that he and his famous historical namesake are one and the same. “I wanted it to be set now and then,” explains Winter, who spent two weeks poring over all 233 letters in the Fisher collection, many written by Wolfe to his mother. “I really wanted [Wolfe] to see Canada today. I had to figure out how to get then and now in the same book. That was a real evolution.”

Along with the letters and books about Wolfe and his time, Winter immersed herself in literature about the experiences of soldiers fighting today, and began to see similarities between past and present. In one letter, a traumatized Wolfe describes not being able to leave his tent for two days after a particularly gruesome battle, a possible symptom of what we now call PTSD.

Winter, who lives in Montreal, detected another parallel while visiting the city’s McCord Museum, where she was able to grasp a preserved lock of Wolfe’s famous red hair. The museum also owns a letter by Wolfe’s mother. In it, she complains bitterly of the British government’s failure to pay out the pension to which she was entitled as the mother of a general. “The whole way we treat veterans and the families of veterans who have died or who have come back injured or with PTSD is the same now as it was in 1759,” Winter says.

During her research and writing, Winter kept a journal of her personal feelings about Wolfe, which she originally tried to incorporate into the narrative. She and Henry discussed various ways this might work, before Winter settled on the idea of a fictional stand-in for herself – a researcher who corresponds with Jimmy after encountering him at Fisher. “For a long time Lynn and I thought this book was going to be a novel interspersed with journalistic bits,” Winter says. “Even though I loved the journal, I thought that kind of approach would be really annoying for the reader.”

Winter, also the author of two short-story collections, remains best known for Annabel, which was told from the perspective of its intersex protagonist. When it was published, Winter conceded she had misgivings about her authority to delve into a subject so far outside her own experience. In retrospect, it was a gamble worth taking. The novel was a finalist for all three of Canada’s major literary honours – the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize – and was shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize. Annabel’s resonance has continued to grow in the interim, as transgender issues have become more mainstream.

“I couldn’t have foreseen where everything would go when I wrote the book,” Winter says. “I’m really happy and proud that my book has been a part of that conversation, and that a lot of people are still reading it and taking courage from it.”

If there is a common thread that binds both of Winter’s novels, it is the encouragement she received from Henry to take creative risks. “Lynn said that with [Lost in September] both of us were going to the edge of what is possible the whole time,” she says. “At one point I told her that maybe it will fail spectacularly but it’s going to be so interesting and great if it doesn’t. I just have to try it.”