The stories in Kathy Page’s new collection Paradise & Elsewhere revel in discontinuity. Whether exploring the ruins of a fallen civilization, finding unexpected tension in the interactions between tourists and the residents of the place they’re visiting, or borrowing from folktales to illustrate a tense, wrenching relationship, Page’s fiction rarely goes where you might expect. I checked in with Page via email to learn more about the book, along with her recently-reissued novel Alphabet.
“The Ancient Siddanese” is evocative of many things at once: both an ancient culture and the myriad ways that tourists can take in ancient cultures. Were you inspired by any particular spaces or societies as you wrote this, or was your aim to create something more impossible?
My father had an interest in archaeology, and a quirky sense of humor. He once included some Roman mosaic tiles stolen from a dig he had been part of in the paving in front of our garden shed, with the aim of confusing future archaeologists. But I think it was when travelling in Mexico that I first understood how the explanations concerning archaeological sites depend on the skill and the point of view of the interpreter. Deserts are elemental and extreme landscapes, very compelling, and of course desertification is something that has brought more than one civilization to an end. I’ve been to the Sahara, and other very dry places, but the desert in this story is imaginary. It’s in the future, as well as in the past, because climate change is part of this story: these are tourists right at the burnt-out end of human history, and that gives the narrator, who seeks to create her own understanding of the site, a very particular perspective.
Tourism also arises in “G’Ming.” When did you first realize that the state of being a tourist could inspire compelling fiction?
I do find tourism fascinating: the interpersonal relationships and transactions, the meeting of cultures… In England, where I grew up, lower cost air fares made holidaying in Europe possible in the late sixties. The “package tour” was born…The premise was that everything would be cheaper there and you could live like royalty, as well as see exotic things. I remember playing with local kids I couldn’t speak to, and wondering about their lives. Very soon it was a huge industry. Many of the stories in the book feature travelers of various kinds and look at what happens when they turn up uninvited, or with an agenda of some kind. It’s a huge question: how do we treat the stranger at our gate, or behave towards the local community we are moving through. How does all this change us?
The way that “We, the Trees” evolves over time, paralleling philosophical explorations with an air of menace, made for one of the collection’s most memorable experiences. Where did that juxtaposition come from?
I was fascinated by a recent research from the University of British Columbia, which shows that trees use a fungal network to communicate nutritional needs and to share nutrients. In the story, the idea is pushed a stage further, in that the trees, given the desperate situation they are in, begin to reach beyond their own community into ours. I combined that with the idea of self-sacrifice, and some of my observations of young people at the university where I teach. There’s a huge amount of political frustration about ecological issues.
“Low Tide” has echoes of a number of folk tales, but there’s also a sense of Gothic isolation there. How did you come to bring these two together?
The stories in this collection are instinctively written, more so than is normal for me. I find the starting point, get inside the story, and let the subconscious do the work of finding out where it goes. But looking back, yes, there is something very gothic about lighthouses: isolated towers in remote, storm-tossed and dramatic landscapes. I had wanted for a long time to set a story in a lighthouse. And I was very interested in the Selkie myth, which also calls for a watery setting. So it began with the land/seascape. The lighthouse and the rocks and the water allowed the woman, and then the story to emerge.
Your publisher also reissued your earlier novel Alphabet this year; do you see any points of comparison between it and this collection?
On the face of it, they’re quite different since Paradise & Elsewhere is in the fabulist tradition, and Alphabet is a grittily realistic contemporary novel. But I do see connections, quite a few. Alphabet may not be obviously mythological, but beneath the surface is it features an archetypical struggle: a man who has to face his (inner) demon. It’s a story about transformation: the slow progress Simon makes through the prison system and in his understanding and remaking of himself and also, of course, the other, more dramatic processes that another prisoner, Victor/Charlotte undergoes. I think there’s a gothic element to Alphabet, too: the closed world of the prison. Both books look at the question of how we understand and deal with the other, which as I mentioned, is one of my themes. And Alphabet was of course an exercise in entering into a reality very different to my own, just as the stories were.
Of the societies, philosophies, and cultures detailed in Paradise & Elsewhere, which was the most difficult to create?
I had such fun with this book and none of them were difficult to invent. But the subsistence sheep-framing community in “Lambing” was the hardest to spend time in: very harsh and patriarchal, and perhaps rather too real in a way.