Over a body of work that moves from non-fiction to fiction and back again, Kevin Patterson has carved a place for himself and his characters on the edges of the world. The cold of the Arctic in his 2006 debut novel, Consumption, gives way to the heat of Afghanistan, captured in his sophomore novel, News from the Red Desert – to give but one example from a literary output in which science and art, city and tundra, solitudes and multitudes alternate. Life’s extremities have a hold on Patterson.
In person, the Manitoba-born, B.C.-based writer of these narratives of extremes seems fairly centered, perhaps even middle of the road. Gone is the thirtysomething, heartbroken guy who, in 1999, documented an ocean voyage from Canada to Tahiti and back in The Water In Between. That sailor is 17 years and several lifetimes removed from the 51-year-old father of three (aged 16, 11, and nine) he is today. When we met in late June in the Toronto headquarters of his publisher, Penguin Random House Canada, he solidified this impression with his loose-fitting, white linen shirt, the official uniform of middle-aged dads in the summer.
“That was the younger, wilder version of me,” says the author and internal-medicine specialist with a grin when I show him the bearded, shaggy-haired man in the publicity photo that ran with glowing reviews of his travel memoir.
The Water In Between bestowed a certain Byronic quality on Patterson among the literary types in Canada. It marked his first foray into the publishing scene, but he kept his distance from that milieu – or, at least, from Toronto’s “cappuccino-swilling, black-turtleneck-wearing Queen Street boys,” as he quipped to a reporter from the Winnipeg Free Press.
Perhaps it was the combination of his literary voice and the roundabout way he arrived at it that cast Patterson in the role of an outsider. He put himself through medical school by joining the Canadian military, which meant working on a base in northern Manitoba after graduation and tending to hundreds of perfectly healthy young soldiers. He started writing short stories there to pass the time, he once said, and many of them appeared in respected literary journals soon after. (He paid his own way through a masters of fine arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia.)
Despite the memoir’s success in Canada and the U.S., Patterson stuck to his day (and night) job as a practising doctor – he works in the ICU of a hospital in Nanaimo and, two or three times a year, as a visiting internist in Rankin Inlet and Repulse Bay in Manitoba. And he kept writing, following his first book with a collection of short stories, A Country of Cold, in 2003, and a debut novel three years later.
And then there was silence. Sure, you’d see his name crop up in essay collections as a contributor or editor, and his byline attached to opinion pieces advocating for better understanding of PTSD or tearing into an ineffectual Senate, but a book proved elusive. For several years and over five drafts, Patterson slaved away on a non-fiction project chronicling yet another voyage down the South Pacific, but it “never really gelled right,” he says. So in a typical Patterson move from one extreme to the other, he turned his back on water, embraced sand, and began working on his eagerly anticipated second novel. News from the Red Desert is a masterful and essential meditation on war, terror, and the media’s complicity in feeding both.
Set in and around an airfield in Kandahar, the novel draws on reflections and conversations Patterson took part in, or eavesdropped on, during a two-month voluntary stint as a doctor for the Canadian mission in early 2007. It is told from the perspectives of multiple characters, from high-ranking commanders to non-combat personnel to a group of Afghanis, Thais, and Pakistanis whose lives have been upended by the first major war of the 21st century: the war on terror. The main character, however, is Deirdre O’Malley, an American journalist whose career ambitions and gender identity connect the novel’s various philosophical and political dots. The fractured structure goes hand in hand with the fractured lives it chronicles, and the backdrop of an Afghanistan breaking apart despite global efforts to stabilize it.
While News from the Red Desert will probably be labelled a war novel, Patterson shifts its focus away from combat to the theatre of racial and sexual relations that unfold in the everyday turmoil and boredom of a war zone. Thirty pages into the novel, the narrator captures the essence of modern wars in a wry but very telling observation: “Though killing defines it, war is mostly not that. It is mostly eating and shitting and driving and washing and watching.” For Patterson, the internal lives of soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire sidesteps the pornography of violence and hero worship that films such as Saving Private Ryan or American Sniper perpetuate.
“As a novelist the one arrow in your quiver that nobody else gets – filmmakers or non-fiction writers – is access to interior lives,” Patterson says. “Nowhere is this more important than in war novels. War, as depicted on any screen, will always have a dramatic, entertaining way. The screen imposes a moral narrative or coherence on the story that’s really a fiction. Novels can get at the moral chaos, the interior chaos of war, in a way that no other media can.”
This chaos, particularly in relation to the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, is further complicated by moral ambiguities and doubts about the point of the whole enterprise. Despite claims by former U.S. president George W. Bush, and assurances to his allies, the line between good and evil – “them” and “us” – was never clearly drawn. It was always a con, and Canada fell for it.
“By any objective standard, it was an American show and to a degree that Canadians would be uncomfortable acknowledging, we became co-opted to an American enterprise,” says Patterson. “We did things the American way, made our peace with torture, doing transaction with torture, which is not a Canadian value.” The moral and military shortcomings of the mission, Patterson says, may explain why it has little traction for the general public or Canadian novelists. “I think we all understand that [the mission] failed. None of us in our personal or political lives dwell on our failures.”
News from the Red Desert puts the most Canadian stamp possible on the war narrative by giving ample space to what, in the eyes of the American military, would be considered peripheral figures at best and, at worst, collateral damage: Afghanis and assorted brown people from border countries who work at a café inside the airfield. Notwithstanding one defining and horrific encounter, the scenes in the café supply some of the novel’s light-hearted moments and also provide Patterson’s most searing indictment of the American media machine that has, literally, turned this war into reality-TV fodder.
Though the novel’s large cast doesn’t include any physicians as central characters, Patterson can’t entirely escape his medical training. Traces of the doctor are all over the novel – in a deep understanding of mental breakdowns among combatants and a defiant refusal to shield readers from the physical damage the human body incurs in war zones. “Her abdomen was a mess,” the narrator says about one gunshot victim. “Two of the three bullets had gone through bowel and had spilled feces throughout the peritoneal cavity. The surgeon washed out the abdomen and performed a colostomy and a small bowel repair.”
“These are the two things I do: I write and I practise medicine,” Patterson responds when I ask about the overlaps between his professional training and his art. “The act of constructing narrative is essential to the practice of medicine. Medicine is all about stories, but doctors call them histories. We take the patient’s history and we get a sense of who they are and where they come from and why they’re addicted to what they’re addicted to.” Literature works in a similar way, he explains. “Constructing a narrative out of that tumult can make it a little bit more bearable and perhaps help you find the way forward.”
That “wild combo of creative [artist] and diagnostician” is how Anne Collins, Patterson’s editor and a vice-president at Penguin Random House Canada, describes her impressions of first working with him. She recalls “long-ranging editorial conversations” about narrative flows and characters, at the end of which Patterson would come up with a list of suggestions, “like a doctor creating a differential diagnosis.”
Collins’s career at Random House, which began in 1998 after successful stints as a magazine editor and author, overlaps with Patterson’s life as a book author. His proposal for The Water In Between landed on Collins’s desk shortly after she started at the house, and became her first Canadian acquisition. “That was the gods dumping a big bucket of luck on me,” says Patterson.
Over the past 18 years, the pair’s professional relationship has survived shocks in the publishing and bookselling industries and numerous changes in Patterson’s family life, including fatherhood. Despite critical acclaim and steady sales in paperback, Consumption, their previous collaboration, didn’t take off on the award circuit, a fact that still bewilders Collins. “Inside these walls, you’ll find people who think that Consumption was one of the best Canadian novels ever written, and who feel the same way about this one,” she says. News will be getting a “running start on the noise” of the fall season by appearing in late August, before the glut of award-season books begins to crowd store shelves.
With the writing of the novel behind him, and the promotional campaign about to kick in, Patterson is insulating himself by digging deep into his next book, a novel based on his relationship with his late twin brother. “Fiction is really working for him,” says Collins. “I was really worried that he wasn’t going to write again in any significant way.”
That’s unlikely now. The “sort of neurotic” part of Patterson has devised a way out of writing blocks. “When a book is being launched and appearing, it’s useful for me to have started another project that I’m thinking about,” he says. “That way I’m a little less invested or caught up in the tumult of a book being released.”
For Patterson, who, depending on his mood, flips between doctor and writer when introducing himself, there will be one fewer tumultuous moment as he visits literary festivals or talks up his new novel. “This autumn I’ll say I’m a writer first.”