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In Conversation With: Playwright and Novelist Kate Cayley on the Jump from Stage to Page

Kate Cayley chats with Host Julie Wilson about the transition of a stage play to debut novel.

Kate Cayley, author of The Hangman in the Mirror (Annick Press).

This summer, I visited poet, playwright and novelist Kate Cayley in her home beside the train tracks where we recorded her reading from The Hangman in the Mirror. It was like sitting side-by-side on stage with an actor whispering to reach the back row. I had the same experience when I recorded Marina Endicott, in town for The International Festival of Authors, reading from her latest novel The Little Shadows. Both women have a performance background, so I went back to Kate to ask her about this distinction and how she went about adapting a stage play into what would become her first novel. We also talk about growing up unschooled and its impact on her artistic pursuits. (Please do listen to Kate read from her novel at the end of our interview.)

Julie Wilson: Your play After Akhmatova, opens with two women reciting lines of a poem to one another to commit it memory. Then they burn the poem. When we met this past summer, you had some interesting thoughts on poetry and performance. Am I correct that you desire more performance in poetry, rather than something understated?

Kate Cayley: This is an interesting question, especially when I think of "Requiem," the Anna Akhmatova poem which the two women recite to each other at the beginning of the play. In that instance, they are helping each other to remember a poem because it is too dangerous, under Stalin, to preserve a written copy. I was drawn to that image because it’s poetry in extremis, which must transform into an oral form in order to exist at all. Of course, that’s specific to a horrific time and place, but the spoken life of poetry is something I often feel is lacking. So much contemporary poetry seems very “written” to me—I don’t exactly mean this as a criticism, but I do wish I read more poetry that seemed to have a strong oral voice, in which the writer was engaged with questions of voice, rather than the interplay of texts and intertextuality and all that jazz. Because I wonder if poetry that is concerned with the text on the page rather than the potential spoken sound of the words risks becoming professionalized—as in, poetry written mainly for fellow-poets. Which of course much poetry already is, if we were all honest about who our readers might be. But still, it becomes self-fulfilling.

To expand: the poetry I find most interesting is poetry that flirts with theatre. I don’t mean poetic drama, which is often soggy and dreadful: theatre needs really clean language and clean lines, it’s one of the sparest written arts (as a playwright I often struggle against my own overly poetic impulses.) I mean poetry that has a strong narrative voice beyond the personal, that has a character separate from the author, and that lends itself to being spoken aloud. Examples off the top of my head would be Gwendolyn MacKewen’s T. E. Lawrence poems or (more recently) Steven Price’s biography in poems of Houdini, The Anatomy of Keys. These are books that have an epic, declamatory feel. Reading them, I think of a roomful of people, listening, and I feel less alone in my role as a reader. Maybe I just like the heroic.

JW: You're playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre, which gives you a space in which to work. What do you get most out of this space? Discipline? Community? Clarity?

KC: I get all of the above out of my relationship to Tarragon, on a good day. Playwrights in residence come and go, and what they are working on is not necessarily for production at the theatre. But the fact of having a space to write is huge, as well as the fact of being surrounded by people working on plays: having meetings, holding rehearsals, building sets. Sometimes I can find the hive of activity distracting, but other times I get an almost magic sense that I am feeding off the focus and energy of the people working on the other side of the office wall. Writing is solitary and lonely, and nothing can change that. But knowing that this theatre I have huge respect for has put faith in my work-that makes it less lonely. Practically speaking, I also have two young children, and so having a place to work that isn’t home for part of the week is easier on them and on my partner. So that’s life saving too.

JW: I ask in part because you grew up "unschooled," outside, not only a formal institution but the formal notions of a set curriculum as well. I'm wondering how that extends to your professional pursuits as a creator.

KC: It’s hard to know from the inside. Of course, habits of discipline grew out of my upbringing, and I think it was a good childhood for a writer, since it made me learn how to structure my time and drive myself forward, without the framework. I learned to work without a net. That said, childhood is another country so I find it difficult to know what comes from where. I’m in my thirties now, a parent myself, and that time seems pretty far away. That said, I’m a major dilettante, switching between poetry and prose and drama and with no sense from day to day of what is the primary focus, and it’s possible that a childhood without so many external demands aided this sense of drifting between disciplines and paths.

JW: Your first young adult novel, The Hangman in the Mirror (Annick Press, fall 2011) started out as the play The Hanging of Françoise Laurent. To flip my first question, I'm curious to know how the story made its way off the stage and onto the page. When did it stop performing in the realm to which you're most accustomed? And was it an easy transition?

The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley (Annick Press).

KC: The two things are not as linked as they appear. The play grew out of the same story as the book, but from a very specific theatrical process of performer-driven creation. Meaning the play was created entirely on our feet, through rehearsal, through a physically based process of improvisation, questioning, testing. I wrote the words of the play (and also directed it) but the arc of the characters, the nuance and focus of the story, came largely from the three performers who were my collaborators and co-creators. The text was a response to what they were doing. Because of this, and because of my own preferences as a playwright, the play was very focused (I would actually like to expand it later on if we can find the time and resources) and did not have more historical detail than was strictly necessary for comprehension. We were interested in the fantastic, the silent, and the forbidden in the relationships between the characters, and the play we made was very much about the theatrical: storytelling, image, spectacle.

By contrast, the book was so expansive that I found it almost relaxing to write. It’s my first novel, and I actually wrote it at the same time as making the play, so the two things came into being simultaneously. In fact, I think writing the book helped the play. A lot of the writing I was generating in the rehearsal studio was too literary, too descriptive, not spare enough for spoken text. So I got to give it a home somewhere else. Some of my favourite passages from the book grew out of discarded texts from the play. The fact of it being a novel meant I suddenly had all this freedom to describe, to fill in the details that wouldn’t fit into a play or poem, both by definition made stronger by limitations. I got to explore the whole life of a character, rather than the particular dramatic circumstances.

The transition was easier than I could have hoped for, but maybe it wasn’t really a transition. The play and the book were always more fraternal twins.

JW: Growing up, there was a lot of reading in your household. Did you share books among your siblings, or were they treated as personal possessions?

KC: We shared books in the sense that books were read aloud every night, mostly by my father, from when I was very small until I was maybe eleven or so. So this experience of hearing books read aloud predated my solitary reading, and grew along with it, until solitary reading took over.

I thought of books as stories rather than objects for a long time. Later, of course, I fetishized the books I owned, as most readers do. For a period as a melodramatic teenager I carried around Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke wherever I went, possibly with underlined passages. Which is definitely covetous.

We talked all the time about books we read. I still have to be discouraged from giving point for point descriptions of the plots of things I’m reading. It’s a terrible habit.

JW: What's a play you'd recommend to readers?

KC: A play I recently read and think everyone should read is The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard, about the life of A. E. Housman. It does things plays aren’t supposed to be able to do, that I thought only novels did. Like link the pursuit of classical translation with the pursuit of an unattainable object of desire, without heavy handed parallels, and still be vivid, dramatic and immediate. An amazing play.


Kate Cayley is a playwright, poet and fiction writer. She is the artistic director of Stranger Theatre, and has co-created, directed and written eight plays with the company, most recently The Hanging of Francoise Laurent. She is a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, and her play After Akhmatova was produced at Tarragon this past spring. Her first book, a young adult novel called The Hangman in the Mirror, was recently published by Annick Press. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, on a play about art forgery, and on her first collection of poetry, Signs and Wonders, which will be published by Brick Books in spring 2013.

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