Interview with Janice Kulyk Keefer in Saturday Night, early 2004. Her novel Thieves, about Katherine Mansfield, had just come out.
The act of writing fiction, mostly made up of pondering and chin-stroking, can by no stretch of the imagination be considered a dramatic one. So it’s no surprise that popular culture has fixated on other fields, like police forensics. Still, the writing life continues to hold an endless fascination for – well, writers.
Authors have always made up an unduly high proportion of fictional characters. But the current trend goes one further by drawing on real-life scribes. Michael Cunningham’s homage to Virginia Woolf, The Hours, was a blockbuster hit; this spring Irish novelist Colm Toibin will release The Master, a novel about Henry James. And Toronto writer Janice Kulyk Keefer has just given us Thieves (HarperFlamingo Canada), which centres on the life of New Zealand-born short-story writer Katherine Mansfield.
One knock against books like these is that they tend to over-rely for their effect on the reader’s own knowledge of, and feelings for, the writer in question. Against this charge, though, Keefer is fairly secure: it’s unlikely that most of her readers will be familiar with her subject. In her lifetime, Mansfield was a literary rival to Woolf, known for pointed domestic dramas and frank treatment of subjects like childbirth. Today, though, she’s a cult figure, lacking the iconic status of many of her contemporaries. Still, her life story is rich in material: she moved from crisis to crisis with various lovers and fought a long, losing battle with tuberculosis. (Mansfield died in 1923, at the age of 34.) “She was a classic bad girl in some ways,” says Keefer. “The thing that fascinated me was her incredible zest for life.”
That fascination began at a short-story conference in France in 1988 (the centenary of Mansfield’s birth), where Keefer saw a short film about the author’s life. From there, she devoured journals, letters, and biographies, gradually zeroing in on one minor figure: Garnett Trowell, a former lover of Mansfield’s who settled in Windsor, Ontario. Trowell, it turned out, had kept a cache of letters from the author, which were donated to the University of Windsor’s library after his death. Those letters inspired Keefer: Thieves alternates an account of Mansfield’s life with a contemporary storyline involving a failed academic’s search for lost letters.
While Thieves was gestating, though, Keefer was busy with other books. A professor at the University of Guelph, she’s published poetry, short fiction, novels, and literary criticism. Her most recent subject has been eastern European immigration to Canada, explored both in her Governor General’s Award-nominated novel The Green Library (1996) and in a biography of her family, Honey and Ashes (1998).
On the subject of Mansfield, Keefer is voluble and excitable, though also clear-eyed about her subject’s personal and literary flaws. “I tried to restore the full humanity of this person,” she says. And if comparisons to Cunningham’s The Hours are perhaps inevitable – Mansfield’s own publisher is only too happy to get them started – that has Keefer a little uneasy. “I think I’m doing something very, very different,” she says, adding that Cunningham’s attempts to capture Woolf’s prose style left her irritated. “Who can write Virginia Woolf except Virginia Woolf?”