Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer in conversation with Sally Cooper
Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer: Sally, thank you for the opportunity to read and immerse in your compelling new novel, With My Back to the World. I have a lot of questions about the subject matter and the impulses that drew you to it. My first one is about art-making and motherhood. I loved reading about Agnes Martin’s art—and Rudie’s documentary filmmaking—processes. Is there, do you think, an analogy to be made between the urgency of art-making for Martin and the willful desire toward motherhood for Rudie?
SC: I love this first question as it touches the heart of what’s driving these two women and what draws Rudie to Agnes. For Agnes, the impetus to make art is at the core of who she is. She shapes her life around making room for new paintings to the point of walking away from a successful career and choosing not to have children nor to live with a full-time partner. Her mental illness (she had schizophrenia, undisclosed in her lifetime) shapes some of her choices but her art-making comes from some place different. Rudie’s desire to become a mother seems to define her more than her art-making, though it may be that as we meet her in the final hours before she meets her daughter at the end of a harrowing adoption journey. Like Agnes with her painting, Rudie cannot talk herself out of wanting to be a mother, and because she is adopting, her path has been about as deliberate as one can get. With both art-making and motherhood, there is that delicious blend of conscious planning (think Agnes’s grid) and intuitive surrender.
KWK: The psychoanalyst and artist, Marion Milner, writes about the act of art-making as a “dangerous plunge” (On Not Being Able to Paint, 1950) and I think when you use a term like “intuitive surrender” you are aiming at the same idea. Milner, like you and like Martin, also felt that structure was necessary to making this plunge into the egoless space of art creation. Can you talk about your own experience of the delicious blend?
SC: I like to fool myself that the idea for With My Back to the World came to me fully formed, for in a sense it did—the characters and their situations were there at the beginning—but mostly I started with a vision of the kind of book I wanted to write. It wasn’t until I imposed restrictions and tasks for myself that I could start writing. In my own life, I had the structure of new motherhood, being home full time with a two-year-old and a one- year-old. Every morning from seven to eight, I wrote at a local greasy spoon. As my children grew older, I wrote during the two hours they went to pre-school, falling right into the story with one eye on the clock, a feeling I hadn’t experienced before motherhood, with all of my unspoken-for time. Despite averaging five or six hours a week, I was writing more than I had in years. Then there were structures I imposed on the narrative: Agnes’s, Ellen’s, and Rudie’s stories each unfold during the course of one day, and their chapters have mirroring moments and objects. Working this way allowed me to strike that exquisite balance. With such constraints, life-imposed and self-imposed, I could surrender.
KWK: You have two strong women artists in your novel but there is a third woman. I wonder to what extent this third character – a black woman homesteading in Canada in the 19th century — was a formal artistic and structural decision? I ask because, while important to the way the plot torques, Ellen is not an artist, but a mother (an ambivalent and tragic one). How did Ellen come about in the envisioning of With My Back to the World?
SC: Ellen’s presence in the novel is intuitive, her character part of my original vision for the novel, perhaps a bit subconscious. She is young, in her early twenties, has survived tragic loss and has journeyed north to make a life in the woods. In different circumstances or later in life, Ellen might have become an artist, but in With My Back to the World she is more of a life alchemist, thinking quickly on her feet when faced with death and change. Telling her singular story echoes the presence of the much-anticipated Haitian child in Rudie’s narrative, a black child who doesn’t have a voice in the novel, but whose life is every bit as uprooted as Ellen’s, if not more.
KWK: The story of Haiti and the ethical dilemma of a white couple adopting a black child is a question that With My Back to the World poses. Who is saving whom?
SC: The answer to this is not that simple. There is a popular narrative that adoptive parents save the child, especially when a child is adopted from foster care or an orphanage. “Well-meaning” people will often comment that an adopted child is lucky to have found parents, should be grateful. I’m an adoptive mom. People have made similar remarks to me. If anyone is lucky or grateful, it is the adult who has the wished-for chance to parent a child. All adoptions have loss at their base. For a Haitian child adopted by white Canadian parents, that loss is especially profound as it is the loss of an identity, a culture, and a homeland. Yet life in an orphanage is no substitute for the love of a parent. So it’s tricky. It is on the parents to build bridges to the child’s culture, an issue Rudie grapples with insofar as the earthquake has thwarted her plan to meet her child in Haiti. Rudie will have to step outside her comfort zone to make connections with black and Caribbean organizations for her daughter. To answer the question, I think both are saved by a love fired in trauma and loss, but I think personally that we would do well to build fewer orphanages and focus on supporting families in countries like Haiti.
KWK: I know we are trained as writers to eschew speaking of the personal but I want to go outside the box here (in part because I think that the act of writing is at its core unconsciously intimate) and probe a bit into where things may have surprised you as an adoptive parent as you wrote these sections. How did your adoption process inform this novel?
SC: I suppose only the writer knows just how intimate their work is, and mine is always surprising me with what it reveals. My adoption process was astonishingly fast: seven weeks after we were approved, we received a match. We’d been told we’d have to wait two years. My older daughter was two when we adopted her, the same age as Roselore in the novel — a deliberate creative choice. Like Rudie, I keenly felt the difference between anticipating a newborn and scrambling to prepare for a toddler. Rudie’s father complains about not having enough time to prepare himself for the baby. Adoption placement is very exciting, challenging, and all-encompassing. There was so much I wanted to write about: how you fall in love with your child immediately, what it’s like to have institutional involvement and to not be your child’s first mother, how it feels to not have others’ stories to support you. This last piece may have motivated me the most. The story of adopting a toddler is not often told, at least it wasn’t ten years ago, and I was starved to read about others’ experiences. I’ve written essays about adopting but wanted to make something up, too, to connect Rudie’s experience to those of other women, to open up and elevate what we assume about making families and making art.
KWK: I’m also curious about the idea of loss, especially as an analogue for the creative process. Does creativity emerge from or integrate in loss? How does loss inform the other women in your novel? How is loss fundamental to creation: of family, of art, of the past (as you create it in Ellen’s sections)?
SC: Though there are very real losses in the novel (in Ellen’s story especially), the loss of an idea or an object of desire intrigues me. Rudie lives with the loss that infertility brings (the inability to have a biological child) and of a passionate love. While Agnes has lost her friend, she has also lost her sense of self and her ability to trust reality, as a result of mental illness. In Agnes’s case, the losses have seared everything but pure intent, her mind like a mesa, a washed canvas, free and ready for experience, for creation. What gets created— the family, the art—is merely everything that hasn’t been lost—the dreams, the lovers, the embryos, the places, the self not chosen. As writers, choosing which story to tell means a constant falling away, of the parts we don’t show, the parts we infer, the parts we change and shape to bring it all together. It is what we all do with the past.
KWK: This novel is a triptych with threads of one story being elliptically picked up in one or the other sections. It’s a fascinating study of womanhood, independence but also maneuvering. Rudie’s situation is most fraught in the fictive present of her story as she manages an old passion against her marital stability but each woman has a battle to wage between these two polarities. Can you talk more about this?
SC: The struggle between passion and stability plays a part in Ellen’s and Agnes’s stories, only more subtly so. Each story involves physical death. Ellen’s is almost the inverse of Rudie’s: Ellen’s husband, her stability, has died, possibly as the result of foul play. She’s faced with more limited choices given the constraints of time and place, but what she chooses will determine who she is for the rest of her life. You mention maneuvering. Ellen, the youngest of the characters, does skillfully move herself into the most desirable and true situation, the way we must when faced with great, sudden change. Agnes mourns lost passion and struggles to push herself out of stability and routine into exceptional creativity. She, too, is constantly trying to maneuver herself into place: routines, materials, light, timing, solitude—all are key in her mind—but she is thrown off course by regular life. I love and am inspired by books like Cloud Atlas and The Hours that show the delicate connections that unite vastly different lives.
KWK: I love to think of these delicate connections as uniting—as a web that somehow supersedes the complexities and pain of that intimacy I asked after earlier. Can human striving—the pain and complication that ensues through a life lived—be elevated to art through these connections?
SC: I wonder, because art is made, no matter how intuitive the artist. Art can pull forth truths that elude us in life because of its sheer onslaught and mundaneness. I think there is a commonality in our pain, despite its convolutedness, that art speaks to and that stories reveal. For Agnes Martin, art was about beauty and joy, she’d been an abstract expressionist but was also a classicist influenced by Eastern philosophy. She writes about artists (classicists) as “people that look out with their back to the world” and art as “something that isn’t possible in the world.” (Writings, 1992) I love that artwork as deceptively simple as an Agnes Martin painting, can resonate long after one observes it.
Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and teaches creative writing at Colorado College.