Malahat volunteer Francesca Bianco talks with Kate Cayley about artistry, identity, and the notion of truth as portrayed in Cayley's story, "The Ascent," which appears in the Spring Issue (#194).
Kate Cayley’s first collection of short fiction, How You Were Born, won the 2015 Trillium Book Award and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.
Photo credit: Carmen Farrell.
In "The Ascent," we find a woman—sometimes called "Lady"—who renounces herself ("I am not that woman any longer") and puts on a metaphorical habit in order to perform another character. She embarks on a pilgrimage of self-fabrication that ultimately saves her. Writing can be a kind of performance. What is the nature of that performance for you when putting pen to paper?
I think it depends very much on the form. I find short stories probably the most performative because it is possible to sustain a different voice over that briefer journey. With anything longer, the author intrudes. And of course, like Lady finds, the performance becomes itself a real thing. That said, I’m a pretty nuts-and-bolts writer, and I often keep my distance from my own material—as in, there’s a part of me refining it from a technical standpoint even as I’m most present in it, so I don’t think I’m immersed in the performance in the way Lady is. I suppose it is a kind of salvation, in the sense of something that transforms experience.
Sister Bernadette creates a comment section on her blog and begins an exchange with her followers. Maybe this rings most true for your plays but do you find pleasure in feedback from an audience or in collaboration? Whether or not the dialogue is "guileless, faceless, mysteriously full of love"?
Yes, very much. When I switched my focus from playwrighting to fiction I found the lack of immediacy both fascinating and perplexing—it was like a work went out into the world and vanished. But it also had a personal intimacy to it: it felt more direct from writer to reader, whereas the production of a play is so mediated, so filtered. But both are mysterious.
The internet figures prominently in "The Ascent." There is a moment in the story where Sister Bernadette takes photos of herself for her blog; it is a kind of validation. Like, this is who I am now. What do you think of these manufactured versions of self we show the world on social media? Can they be dangerous?
Yes, of course they are dangerous. But also imaginatively rich. I like to think that people are ingenuous in the face of technology, and able to transform and transform and transform, so the thing we seem to passively interact with is also a tool for that transformation. And of course there is always an element of self-manufacture in our lives, up to a point. That said, I try to avoid social media as much as possible, though more because it’s a time suck for an undisciplined person who spends a lot of time at a desk, than because of the temptations of self-presentation…
In your poems, women are often left alone. In "Girls Watch in The Mirror at Midnight for Future Husband," you write that "if she’s asked in the right way in the right way with / obedient breath, with smooth tongue, she’ll show in the mirror / a man, husband, bright spark, a rescue, .…" I read the poem in one breath without pause: like a woman getting her last-ditch, word in edgewise before "there will be no man there." In "The Ascent," there’s the feeling if Sister Bernadette-the-facade can keep it together enough, she will find that kind of rescue. Why is it important to destabilize conventional visions of women in writing?
Because women are written about in extraordinarily conventional ways, even now. I am often amazed by the way men write about women in fiction, including very talented male writers, because I can’t imagine the position being reversed. As in, if women wrote about men in the way men write about women (I’m making an unforgivable generalization here, I know), it would be relegated to romance novels or perhaps some more extreme branches of radical feminism. Whereas a limited or patronizing vision of women is alive and well in the most mainstream literary fiction. Which is a loss to fiction, as one of the homes of individual, specific experience. So I hope to be part of articulating that sense of individual experience rather than type. Thanks for the kind words about the poem.
In many ways, Lady becomes an artist. While her inhabiting of Sister Bernadette is "more like a story of a life" than life itself, her self-expression moves people and moves herself to carry on, regardless of truth. In your opinion, how should an artist be? Is it the writer’s duty to tell the truth?
I don’t know quite how to answer this, because I want to be a little bit cagey about truth. It seems like a pretty tall order, and maybe claiming something for fiction that it hasn’t earned. I can’t find the quote, but Muriel Spark said something about fiction as a pure entertainment, in which truth is unknowable, because the whole truth is known only to God. Not being religious in the way she was, I’m not sure how I’d rephrase this, or if I would, but it’s definitely something to ponder. I think the writer has a duty to be truthful to the reader, in the sense of not toying with them, and a duty not to take themselves too seriously, while taking the work itself seriously, I suppose.
In life, we sometimes say people wear many hats. Sister Bernadette bears hers until she can shed new skin. The story is in many ways about a self-pilgrimage, a way to worship oneself. What’s next for you? Do you find yourself gravitating to one field of writing? Is there a place you feel most comfortable?
Increasingly, I am most comfortable in fiction, but I am also working on several poetry/play related things. Ideally, I’d like to keep creating in all these forms, I think they’re good for each other, and keep me on my toes, even at the risk of being a jack of all trades.
The last scene reads cinematically. Have you considered adapting the story into a play or short film—or is it best not to mess with a good thing? In other words: is a story for you ever finished? Do you feel unease or liberation in releasing it to the world?
I think I’m very shallow. I just like getting it out into the world. And this is a story that came very easily (most things don’t). But nothing is ever finished. I can’t really imagine it as a play because almost nothing in the story is face to face, and so much exists in the imagination. Fiction allows for that elasticity, that openness. Anything made physical is made literal, and of course the story itself is about the mystery, the space where Sister Bernadette can be said to exist.
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