Kathleen Winter almost seemed predestined to take a trip to the Northwest Passage, given her seasonal last name, and fascination with the North after publishing her award-winning novel, Annabel.
Even though her latest books, Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage (House of Anansi), a non-fiction account of journeying to the Arctic, and The Freedom in American Songs (Biblioasis), a short-story collection, are worlds apart in terms of subject and format, she recently brought them together at the Saint Mary’s Reading Series in Halifax.
“Boundless came first—the journey that inspired it occurred in 2010,” says Winter. “While I was writing it my former short fiction editor, John Metcalf, asked if I had any more stories. I did have a few, and these eventually grew into the collection The Freedom in American Songs.”
Boundless, Winter’s first work of creative non-fiction, follows her journey to the Canadian North, a land of Arctic ice, deep quiet, profound isolation, and unspeakable beauty. The Freedom in American Songs is a collection of unusual short stories charting day-to-day life, small-town gay teens, love, and modern loneliness.
For Winter, writing simultaneously in fiction and non-fiction remains an unconscious process. Both forms are essentially storytelling, though she can throw caution to the wind while writing fiction, and must maintain an emotional structure or imaginative truth telling when working in non-fiction.
“During the writing, I enjoyed sweeping between non-fiction and short fiction,” she says. “The stories gave me a rest from the sustain discipline of structuring Boundless. It felt like going to a party after long days in the workshop. During the editing it was different: the stories required a lot of disciplined concentration. Both books did.”
Winter, whose brother is novelist Michael Winter, has family ties to Newfoundland and England. Not coincidentally, the Atlantic coast inspires her. “I find that I’ve unconsciously internalized that ruggedness and wildness of Newfoundland so that when I’m just about anywhere else, I feel I’m in a place that’s tame and domesticated in comparison,” she says. “This has surprised me [because, as you put it], sometimes the harshness there feels unbearable.”
Recently, Boundless was shortlisted for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction. “The journey changed how I see the world and my place in it,” she says. “The land, animals and people in the far North taught me that what we think of as our consciousness—our thought, imagination and intellect—is not really inside our heads at all, but part of a universal stream. The land is intelligent, and the sooner we learn to listen to it, the better it will be for us all.”