Intuitive Surrender: Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer Interviews Sally Cooper

Intuitive Surrender

Kathryn Walsh Kuitenbrouwer in conversation with Sally Cooper

Sally Cooper’s third novel,  With My Back to the World , published by Wolsak &Wynn, was released in spring 2019. She is the author of the story collection  Smells Like Heaven  (ARP Books, 2017) as well as two acclaimed novels. Sally is a senior editor with  Hamilton Review of Books .

Sally Cooper’s third novel, With My Back to the World, published by Wolsak &Wynn, was released in spring 2019. She is the author of the story collection Smells Like Heaven (ARP Books, 2017) as well as two acclaimed novels. Sally is a senior editor with Hamilton Review of Books.

Sally Cooper.  With My Back to the World . James Street North Books. $22.00, 376 pp., ISBN: 9781928088806

Sally Cooper. With My Back to the World. James Street North Books. $22.00, 376 pp., ISBN: 9781928088806

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.

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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.

What We'll Be Reading: Editors' Picks, Spring 2019

Here are some titles from CanLit and beyond that our editors are especially excited to read this spring.

Recommended by Sally Cooper

Recommended by Sally Cooper


Knopf Canada, May 2019

"Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell's murderer was acquitted--thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante's trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more years working on her own version of the case.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country's most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity."

Recommended by Jessica Rose

Recommended by Jessica Rose


UBC Press, March 2019

"Bridget Donnelly. Charlotte Reveille. Kate Slattery. Emily Boyle. Until now, these were nothing but names marked down in the admittance registers and punishment reports of Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s most notorious prison. 

In this shocking and heartbreaking book, Ted McCoy tells these women’s stories of incarceration and resistance in poignant detail. Locked away from male prisoners in dark basement wards, these women experienced isolation and segregation, along with the worst elements of prison life – starvation, corporal punishment, sexual abuse, and neglect. Yet they met these challenges with resistance and resilience.

Although the four women served sentences at different times over a century, they shared experiences that illuminate how the most marginalized elements in society – the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged – reckoned with poverty and crime and grappled with the constraints placed on them by shifting notions of punishment and reform.

The inhumanity suffered by these four women stands as profoundly disturbing evidence of the hidden costs of isolation, punishment, and mass incarceration.

This book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of crime and punishment or the history of women."

Recommended by Dana Hansen

Recommended by Dana Hansen


Book*hug Press, May 2019

"Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being is the debut collection of essays by Amy Fung. In it, Fung takes a closer examination at Canada’s mythologies of multiculturalism, settler colonialism, and identity through the lens of a national art critic.

Following the tangents of a foreign-born perspective and the complexities and complicities in participating in ongoing acts of colonial violence, the book as a whole takes the form of a very long land acknowledgement. Taken individually, each piece roots itself in the learning and unlearning process of a first generation settler immigrant as she unfurls each region’s sense of place and identity."

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson



"Storms and flooding are worsening around the world, and a mysterious immune disorder has begun to afflict the young. Sophie Perella is about to begin her senior year of high school in Toronto when her little sister, Kira, is diagnosed. Their parents' marriage falters under the strain, and Sophie's mother takes the girls to Oxford, England, to live with their Aunt Irene. An Oxford University professor and historical epidemiologist obsessed with relics of the Black Death, Irene works with a Centre that specializes in treating people with the illness. She is a friend to Sophie, and offers a window into a strange and ancient history of human plague and recovery. Sophie just wants to understand what's happening now; but as mortality rates climb, and reports emerge of bodily tremors in the deceased, it becomes clear there is nothing normal about this condition--and that the dead aren't staying dead. When Kira succumbs, Sophie faces an unimaginable choice: let go of the sister she knows, or take action to embrace something terrifying and new.'

Tender and chilling, unsettling and hopeful, The Migration is a story of a young woman's dawning awareness of mortality and the power of the human heart to thrive in cataclysmic circumstances."

Recommended by Dana Hansen

Recommended by Dana Hansen



"In Disquieting, Cynthia Cruz tarries with others who have provided examples of how to “turn away,” or reject the ideologies of contemporary neoliberal culture. These essays inhabit connections between silence, refusal, anorexia, mental illness, and neoliberalism. Cruz also explores the experience of being working-class and poor in contemporary culture, and how those who are silenced often turn to forms of disquietude that value open-endedness, complexity, and difficulty.

Disquieting: Essays on Silence draws on philosophy, theory, art, film, and literature to offer alternative ways of being in this world and possibilities for building a new one."

Recommended by Krista Foss

Recommended by Krista Foss


Biblioasis, September 2018

"Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.

Following a cancer diagnosis, forty-year old Prin vows to become a better man and a better Catholic. He’s going to spend more time with his kids and better time with his wife, care for his recently divorced and aging parents, and also expand his cutting-edge research into the symbolism of the seahorse in Canadian literature.

But when his historic college in downtown Toronto faces a shutdown and he meets with the condominium developers ready to take it over—including a foul-mouthed young Chinese entrepreneur and Wende, his sexy ex-girlfriend from graduate school—Prin hears the voice of God. Bewildered and divinely inspired, he goes to the Middle East, hoping to save both his college and his soul. Wende is coming, too.

The first book in a planned trilogy, Original Prin is an entertaining and essential novel about family life, faith, temptation, and fanaticism. It’s a timely story about timeless truths, told with wise insight and great humour, confirming Randy Boyagoda’s place as one of Canada’s funniest and most provocative writers."

Recommended by Jessica Rose and Jen Rawlinson

Recommended by Jessica Rose and Jen Rawlinson


Strange Light, May 2019

"An experimental fiction, I Become a Delight to My Enemies uses many different voices and forms to tell the stories of the women who live in an uncanny Town, uncovering their experiences of shame, fear, cruelty, and transcendence. Sara Peters combines poetry and short prose vignettes to create a singular, unflinching portrait of a Town in which the lives of girls and women are shaped by the brutality meted upon them and by their acts of defiance and yearning towards places of safety and belonging. Through lucid detail, sparkling imagery and illumination, Peters' individual characters and the collective of The Town leap vividly, fully formed off the page. A hybrid in form, I Become a Delight to My Enemies is an awe-inspiring example of the exquisite force of words to shock and to move, from a writer of exceptional talent and potential."

Recommended by Jessica Rose

Recommended by Jessica Rose


Astoria, House of Anansi, June 2019

"Kara Davis is a girl caught in the middle — of her Canadian nationality and her desire to be a “true” Jamaican, of her mother and grandmother’s rages and life lessons, of having to avoid being thought of as too “faas” or too “quiet” or too “bold” or too “soft.” Set in “Little Jamaica,” Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood, Kara moves from girlhood to the threshold of adulthood, from elementary school to high school graduation, in these twelve interconnected stories. We see her on a visit to Jamaica, startled by the sight of a severed pig’s head in her great aunt’s freezer; in junior high, the victim of a devastating prank by her closest friends; and as a teenager in and out of her grandmother’s house, trying to cope with the ongoing battles between her unyielding grandparents.

A rich and unforgettable portrait of growing up between worlds, Frying Plantain shows how, in one charged moment, friendship and love can turn to enmity and hate, well-meaning protection can become control, and teasing play can turn to something much darker. In her brilliantly incisive debut, Zalika Reid-Benta artfully depicts the tensions between mothers and daughters, second-generation Canadians and first-generation cultural expectations, and Black identity and predominately white society."

Recommended by Dana Hansen

Recommended by Dana Hansen


Wolsak and Wynn, May 2019

"In an ambitious, yet intimate novel set in Taos, New Mexico, and Hamilton, Ontario, Sally Cooper explores unexpected motherhood, creativity, race, love and faith. With My Back to the World tells the stories of three women: Rudie, who is editing a documentary in Hamilton in 2010; historical artist Agnes Martin, who decides in 1974 after seven years’ exile in New Mexico to begin painting again; and Ellen, a black woman burying her husband in 1870 on an Ontario homestead. Each of these women is waiting for the arrival of an unexpected child and their interconnected stories explore how society’s, and our own, ideas of what it means to be a woman, a mother and an artist change over time. Evocative and introspective, With My Back to the World tells the complicated stories of how different women find faith in themselves in extraordinary circumstances."

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson


House of Anansi, February 2019

"February in Newfoundland is the longest month of the year. 

Another blizzard is threatening to tear a strip off downtown St. John’s, while inside The Hazel restaurant a storm system of sex, betrayal, addiction, and hurt is breaking overhead. Iris, a young hostess from around the bay, is forced to pull a double despite resolving to avoid the charming chef and his wealthy restaurateur wife. Just tables over, Damian, a hungover and self-loathing server, is trying to navigate a potential punch-up with a pair of lit customers who remain oblivious to the rising temperature in the dining room. Meanwhile Olive, a young woman far from her northern home, watches it all unfurl from the fast and frozen street. Through rolling blackouts, we glimpse the truth behind the shroud of scathing lies and unrelenting abuse, and discover that resilience proves most enduring in the dead of this winter’s tale.

By turns biting, funny, poetic, and heartbreaking, Megan Gail Coles’ debut novel rips into the inner lives of a wicked cast of characters, building towards a climax that will shred perceptions and force a reckoning. This is blistering Newfoundland Gothic for the twenty-first century, a wholly original, bracing, and timely portrait of a place in the throes of enormous change, where two women confront the traumas of their past in an attempt to overcome the present and to pick up a future."