Today we're in conversation with author Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, whose novel Wait Softly Brother (Wolsak & Wynn) was longlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The Winnipeg Free Presshails the novel: "Wait Softly Brother is a suspenseful, complex and unusual work with writing both captivating and intelligent."
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All the Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner. She is also the author of the story collection, WayUp. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Walrus, Maclean’s, The Lifted Brow, Significant Objects, Storyville and other publications. Kathryn teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Toronto.
Wait Softly Brother combines two narrative threads—a writer named Kathryn leaving her marriage to shelter with her parents during apocalyptic weather, and the fictional story she writers during this time about an ancestor named Russell Boyt. When did you know you had a novel on your hand, and how did the story come together?
I knew almost right away that this would be a novel. I was freewriting the Civil War sections more or less automatically (in the surrealist mode) without detailed knowledge of the Civil War and, because the writing immediately suggested a scope that was wide and detailed, it seemed clear to me that the text would not be able to be contained in a short story, a form that tends to be condensed, metaphoric and epiphanic rather than plotted and immersive. I also knew that the Civil War parts would be embedded in a frame, but I did not know yet what that frame might be. For years I tried out different ideas, meanwhile analyzing why my unconscious was so fascinated with this Civil War story.
For years I tried out different ideas, meanwhile analyzing why my unconscious was so fascinated with this Civil War story.
I knew that to some extent the violent outpouring was a reaction to the media coming out of the US and infiltrating our national psyche during the rise to power of Donald Trump. This was, for me, a dark period marked by constant shock that the narrative I believed and in which I had deep faith could be shattered by forces that clearly adhered to a completely different, and to my mind, sinister set of plot points. I knew from research I had done while writing my novel Perfecting, which at its heart is about the colonialization of America — early domestic communism (communal living) and utopian thinking — that dogmatic ideologies tend to put humanity at risk. I could see how Trump’s rhetoric was leveraging racist undercurrents that were very old distortions of fact. It seemed to me that the trauma of slavery – as a true thing in history but also as an epigenetic illness at the heart of things in America – was worth pursuing as a story. That impetus was certainly a driving reason for the early writing. We heal by addressing the wound, and the Civil War seemed to me the root of it — this moment in history, this event, that looks noble but that is so very much more complicated than that. The Civil War is one of America’s unreconciled injuries in that the abolition of slavery led not to instant emancipation for enslaved people but instead to racist Jim Crow laws and redlining and police profiling/brutality and all the rest of it. Slavery was abolished but racism clearly proliferates. The symptom always rises.
Slavery was abolished but racism clearly proliferates. The symptom always rises.
But I also wanted Wait Softly Brother to be personal — autofictional at least in tone. I wanted it to address my own symptoms: the issue of my stillborn brother and my fascination with violence and maleness generally (all my novels and stories seem to hover at the edge of this obsession). It took me a long time – years – to see that the Civil War sections were also an analogue for the strife I was enduring in my marriage, and how the disintegration of my marriage was a microcosmic battle between duelling narratives, very different but also, for me, urgent, and life altering.
The novel takes place during nearly biblical flooding, literally cutting Kathryn and her parents off from the outside world. It’s such a powerful metaphor for the ways we are cut off from one another, from the past, from the complicated truth. Why was it important for you to bring in this sense of apocalypse and doom into the story?
I see climate and the environment as the most pressing event of my lifetime, and so I wanted that to legible in the novel. I liked how a devastating flood suggests the end of the human world and also a metaphoric cleansing. The urgency of a flood crisis in the book is a truthy parallel for my own crisis of faith in my marriage. But most pertinently, water is the unconscious mind. There is psychoanalytic jargon that names "the oceanic" as a churning outside-to-subjectivity, a phantasmatic space that resides between and interstitially to language, where a presumed wholeness might be attained but only at the cost of the individual’s subjectivity. In other words, we are human because of language and our propensity to meaning make and our humanness rests on our brokenness, our split-ness. This theory plays a larger role in the underpinnings of the novel as Kathryn finds her truth and her family’s truths by probing in the muck of story. The flood is her unconscious mind made manifest.
The historical sections of the novel take place during the American Civil War. How did you approach writing these sections, and what kind of history was involved?
I researched while I wrote. Much of the Civil War story was written at Yaddo and the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts, two residency fellowships I won in 2013 and 2014. Because I knew so little about the particularities of the American Civil War, I was reading constantly. The University of Toronto has a vast Civil War library and I availed myself of that (I was a PhD student there during much of the writing of early drafts of this book). In fact, I first learned about the concept of "substitution" in a course on the early American realist novel. I think the concept stuck in my mind because it echoed some of the language of psychoanalysis, which was my passionate area of study at the time). There is so much Civil War material online—photographs, old documents, and quirky data. This material worked as prompt and inspiration to the Civil War sections. In the end, a lot of the detailed research I did into battles and timelines fell to the side in favour of character and plot momentum. I am sure an American Civil War buff would be appalled at my liberties.
Of course, I also used archival material in the book – not just with the Civil War sections but also in the contemporary frame story. I used images of soldiers, photographs of hospitals, and images from my family’s archive to lend veracity to the story. I wanted the reader to be brought closer to a feeling of witnessing something as evidenced by the images, even if some of them are cheekily inaccurate. One of my guiding questions was: what is truth?
Congrats on being longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. What did that feel like, after so many years spent working on the book?
It was very exciting. I guess it felt like a validation. I was happy that others could see something in the strange hybrid text that is Wait Softly Brother.
I’m always curious about the parts of our writing that land on the cutting room floor. Was there anything you discovered in your research that you hoped to include in the novel that didn’t make it into the final draft?
So much ended up on the cutting room floor, but most of it was trial and error with the frame. There was an early frame story that involved a gamer – the Civil War sections were to be the game he was playing. Another involved a group of nuns and girl who exits her relationship to live a life of incessant prayer, with prayer being a weird portal for her to the Civil War story. And then there was frame that scrolled through childhood memories. This one was the closest to what I ended up with and, I think, led me to understand how the frame would be a woman—me—leaving her marriage and getting caught in a story that unravels her own truth, how story always does this if you listen to its sonic honesty.
** Excerpt from Wait Softly Brother
The pig shed boxes contain multitudes. A photograph of Mum, twenty years younger than I am right now, newly married and just before she became pregnant with Wulf. I hold it up and she grabs it from my hands. “In the Poconos,” she says, “they had these honeymoon packages. Heart-shaped beds, everyone there newly married. It was a place of blissful beginnings.”
“We have the same body,” I say. “Those are just my legs.”
“Well, I certainly do not have that body anymore.”
“No,” I say. “Nor do I, I suppose. But what a babe you were.”
“I was a catch,” she says, squinting at it.
“And so happy.” I peer into the frame, willing it to give me more, to offer up its story. I have never seen my mother smile so openly as in this picture. “Maybe we can put the best pictures aside and make an album, and get rid of the rest.”
But no, she will not get rid of photographs. There is something particular about them, some magic to them that makes them impossible to burn or bury. “We will archive them,” she says. By midmorning we have worked our way through one and a half small shoe boxes. The material in the pig shed seems suddenly insurmountable. We will never succeed in cleaning it up. “Wasn’t it one of Hercules’ labours to divert a river to clean out a barn?”
“No, Mum, he was the guy with the rock.”
“That was Sisyphus, I think.”
“At any rate, maybe the question to ask is. ‘Will you miss it?’ Or maybe, ‘Will someone else enjoy it more than you?’”
“How can you know what you will miss before you miss it? Just when it’s too late?”
And I can feel the dig, so I stop and glare at her for a bit. She’s impervious to my moods, though. She has been barricading herself from them for as long as I can recall. I am her creation, so whenever I misbehave, she just carries on until I adjust to whatever she expects. That way, I get to maintain my role as transgressor instead of occupying the one I would much prefer – that of being myself.
“What exactly are you working on these days,” she finally asks, by way of oiling the crank in our conversation.
“Autofiction,” I say.
Mum’s eyebrows flare. “Whatever that is.”
“It’s a sort of memoir.”
“And how do you expect to write a memoir? Given your memory, I mean.”
Mum and Dad used to say that if my head weren’t screwed on to my body, I’d forget where I left it. “There will likely be lacunae,” I say. “That is kind of the point.”
“Since it’s about Wulf,” I say, and I can see her freeze again.
“We keep telling you. There’s no story there.” She huffs a bit and then shrieks a quiet, “That’s my story,” which is factual. Wulf is her stillbirth, her old wound, her story. “I do wish you’d stop all this nonsense.”
“The nonsense of the writing or the nonsense of leaving Matthew?”
“It’s all the same, isn’t it?”
This is a curve I hadn’t expected. The thought that she sees clearly how one thing unleashes the next. How thoughts cascade into actions. How vulnerable we are to our looping traumas, as we write. One is the other; it’s all tangled together.