Canada Reads·How I Wrote It

How Katherena Vermette turned a terrible vision into a visionary debut novel

The award-winning poet on how an image she just couldn't shake led to her first novel, Canada Reads finalist The Break.
Katherena Vermette is the author of The Break. (CBC)

Katherena Vermette's debut novel The Break is a powerful family saga told by three generations of Indigenous women living in Winnipeg's North End. The novel was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

In her own words, Vermette explains how the novel came to her — from the shattering first scene to the strong family that puts everything back together.

Candy Palmater defended The Break on Canada Reads 2017.

Visionary beginnings

"This book has been in me for a really long time. It started when I was living in a house similar to Stella's [the witness to the crime], next to a place very similar to the Break [the field where the crime takes place]. Same neighbourhood. It really started with that scene, with Stella. I'm reluctant to call it a dream — it was one of those writerly visions, from wherever it comes from. It was very scary. I saw what Stella sees, only I saw it with the perpetrator and the victim, and I saw their whole lives, and it really haunted me for a long time. I'm reluctant to call it a nightmare, because I think there is hope in this story, but it was very hard for me. I wanted to write it and explain it. I started with the questions of, how does someone do that? What drives them to such heinous violence? And how does someone survive it? 

"I was writing a lot of North End Love Songs when this vision first came to me. I was coming back to my home from being away, and remembering a lot of childhood stuff. My writing desk was upstairs, looking over to the Break. I don't know if it was something that happened in the dream, or something that happened in the writing, but like writers do, I really wanted to go inside it and understand. It expanded outward. I wrote the novel in a very similar way to short stories, because they're very much in the perspective of the different women involved. After I learned who they were as individuals, I connected them."

Deep darkness

"What probably surprised me the most in writing this novel was learning about the depths of Stella's pain. I knew from the beginning she was a story keeper, I knew she had this sadness in her. And then when I wrote about Stella's memories, a lot of those came as they came. These things disempower her. Stella is a very weakened person. We know that from the first scene, where she's not able to help stop this trouble that's nearby her. Those heart-wrenching stories that came out of her own memory, her own experience — those things made me very sad. These images came very surprisingly and they were so hurtful."

Tea time

"On the flip side of the more painful scenes in the book, I found a lot of joy whenever the family was together. Like when Kookoo [Cree for Grandma; also "Kookum"] is around — I took immense joy in all of that. When Stella goes back to Kookoo's place, I actually checked with my editor whether they were drinking tea too much. How many times do they drink hot beverages? We found that the characters were drinking tea and hot chocolate a lot. I ended up shaving some of that off, but honestly, I think it's realistic to the story. And the food-making, and the food-bringing, I thought was very important too. That's my life. Making these checklists and ensuring everyone is looked after. We take comfort in these rituals that we have. And on my end, on the back end — there was a lot of tea and coffee in the writing of this book!"

Magic numbers

"There are 28 chapters in The Break, plus an epilogue. There are four parts to the book, which means there are seven chapters in each part. These numbers are not random. Twenty-eight is the number of days in the moon, there are four days in a full moon, and the book is happening during a full moon. Seven is also sacred — there are seven sacred grandfather teachings, and there are often seven strands of sweetgrass in a braid. In the book, there are seven main characters who are speaking.

"If numbers are able to provide any sort of comfort, numbers like four, seven, 28 certainly do for me. It's both a cultural and a personal comfort. It's based on teachings I've received, and those teachings provide me with great comfort. In the overwhelmingness of writing a novel, these numbers were a useful kind of goal. It kind of made the big scary novel more manageable." 

Katherena Vermette's comments have been edited and condensed.

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