Books·How I Wrote It

How her father's war-time love letters inspired Kathy Page's new novel

Her father wrote her mother more than 160 letters. They inspired her to write Dear Evelyn, which is now a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Kathy Page's latest book is the novel Dear Evelyn. (Biblioasis, Billie Woods)

Kathy Page's new historical novel, Dear Evelyntells the story of a husband and wife and their 70-year long marriage in England. Harry, a poetry lover, and Evelyn, the ambitious daughter of a drunk, get married shortly before Harry is deployed overseas during the Second World War. Over the course of their long lives together, small fissures begin to widen and crack the foundation of their uneasy marriage.

Dear Evelyn won the 2018 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Below, Page talks about how her own parents' relationship inspired this new novel.

Confronted by life's realities

"I've been thinking about this book for at least 10 years, though I wasn't writing it for 10 years. It started when my sisters and I, toward the end of my parents' lives, were confronted by the reality of where their relationship ended up. It wasn't pleasant or pretty or peaceful. They'd always been fairly argumentative, but it got very bad at the end. It was distressing and there was nothing we could do.

"At the same time, mum was clearing out her attic. One of the things she wanted to give to one of us were my father's love letters, written during the Second World War. They were very passionate, emotional letters. I was struck by the huge distance between this beginning and where things had ended up in 70-year-long marriage.

"I knew I wanted to write about it fictionally, in some way. It was a way of coping with it, to some extent. But when I tried back then, a decade or so ago, I was far too close to the material. I didn't know how to deal with something that was auto-fictional in that way. In the end, I put it aside and I just kept notes for years. In fact, I wrote bits and pieces here and there and I typed up the letters slowly."

Inspired by her father's letters

"There were 162 letters, which wasn't the whole correspondence, just what had survived. About 50,000 words and only one side of the correspondence because my mother's letters weren't kept or didn't survive. You couldn't, as a soldier, carry around vast amounts of letters. I asked my father if I could use his letters in the book. He gave me his permission. I didn't know exactly what form this would take, but he was happy for it to be done.

"It's disconcerting in a way to be privy to your parents' sexual life. All of us found that sort of strange and interesting — those references and fantasies and memories that were in the letters. Another side that I found interesting and touching was that my father probably had not had a great deal of experience of the ocean. His war began with a very long voyage on a troop ship. During that time, there were a lot of observations about the ocean. He was clearly amazed by it, waxed poetic in his way and wrote about these creatures that he saw and the light on the water. That was one thing that happened in the war to people who, like my father, were working class and didn't go on holiday. They visited the world in the course of the war."

Diving into historical research

"I did a lot of research into the Desert War, getting war maps from the British Library, as well as war records and war diaries for the days I was writing about. I got very interested in the life and work of Edward Thomas, who's a relatively minor character. Then I looked into little things like, what would a slide rule have looked like in 1948? How would a department store in London have been laid out in the 1950s? I often do a heap of research and then I try to be fairly selective about what I actually use, but I like to write with that behind me so that I can see the scenes and understand the characters better."

Communicating through poetry

"The reason the poetry came in the book in such a big way is because my father loved poetry. My father, as he aged, became more forgetful and was harder to communicate with. But one thing that always got through to him was a poem read aloud. I live at a distance from London, in Canada, so I would call him. Most of our phone calls would be me reading a poem. I became very grateful to the poets who seemed to be making it possible to stay in touch across the miles and across our differing mental states."

Kathy Page's comments have been edited for length and clarity.