Some 30 years ago, author Kim Echlin was quietly reading a book at a Paris flea market when three street thugs accosted her and demanded money. Echlin, a plucky student of about 24 at the time, refused. One of the would-be muggers then asked her about the book she was reading, and she told him it was a collection of North American native stories. He asked her to read one. Echlin translated the story from English into rather shaky French, and when she finished there was dead silence.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, they are going to steal my money, they hated it,’” says Echlin now. Instead, they told her, “That was pretty good,” and left.
That was when Echlin first truly understood the power of a good story. “It can transcend three languages, transcend two continents, transcend all of the differences that were between all of us and somehow create a point of contact that allowed us to exist together,” she says, sipping a black coffee in a café in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood.
This month, the 53-year-old author releases her third novel, The Disappeared, about a passionate affair between a Canadian and her Cambodian lover, set against the backdrop of Pol Pot’s killing fields. The book, published by Penguin Canada, got great buzz at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair and has since sold in 16 foreign territories, including Spain, China, Greece, Romania, and Germany. According to Penguin rights and contracts director Lisa Rundle, the only other titles Penguin has sold in a larger number of territories are the popular Dreamhealer series of self-help tomes. “It’s highly unusual…. Fiction is always a tough sell internationally,” Rundle says. “Foreign publishers were coming up [to us during Frankfurt] and saying, ‘I need it right now.’ That’s where the frenzy started.”
Echlin believes the novel has taken off abroad because of its universal themes, such as the tension between the individual and the state. “I think that, as a world culture, we are still struggling with that tension, and there are few countries that don’t have their own secrets and buried bodies – Canada included.” She adds that the first seeds of the novel were planted some six or seven years ago on a trip to Cambodia with her husband and two daughters. A Cambodian woman approached her in a market and began speaking to her in English. “She said to me, ‘My whole family died during Pol Pot,’” Echlin says. “I didn’t know how to respond.” A few minutes passed before Echlin asked the woman what she could do. “She said, ‘I only want you to know.’”
Born in Burlington, Ontario, Echlin completed a doctoral thesis on Ojibway storytelling at York University, and also studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and in Montreal at McGill University. Upon her return home, she worked as an arts producer with CBC’s The Journal and taught creative writing at several universities. Her first novel, Elephant Winter (Viking Canada, 1997), is about a young woman who returns to Canada to be with her dying mother, only to fall in love with an elephant keeper. Her second novel, Dagmar’s Daughter (Viking Canada, 2001), draws on ancient myths to tell a tale of three generations of women on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Echlin is still not able to make a full-time living from her prose, so she teaches at the University of Toronto School for Continuing Studies and does most of her writing between 4:45 and 7 a.m. “I find that’s a really nice time to write because it’s untainted,” she says. “It’s about keeping the pot on the backburner boiling….Then it’s working always inside you somehow.”