Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Katherine Govier on why good writing means caramelizing some onions

The author of The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Katherine Govier is the author of the novel The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel. (Michael Mahovolich)

Don't be surprised if Katherine Govier offers you a steaming bowl of hot chicken soup at the end of a productive writing day. The author of over a dozen books, including the historical novel Creation, about naturalist James Audubon, and her latest, the Alberta-set historical novel The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel, isn't immune to the meditative powers of the pantry as she works out her complex character arcs and thorny timelines.

Below, Katherine Govier answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Nino Ricci asks, "Even though you probably tell interviewers you don't pick favourites from among your own books because it would be like choosing among your children, do you, in fact, pick favourites?"

I have favourites, yes. Not that I'm telling you! I like it when other people tell me their favourites among my books. But I just smile mysteriously (I hope). I don't think novels are the same as children. Novels are times of life. Children are forever, and they change as they go along. A novel is fixed. I can go back to one and be filled with the sights and sounds and feelings of the years when I wrote it.

2. Kate Pullinger asks: "Do you plan what you write before you start writing it?" 

Would that I did! I have ideas, but never anything so organized as an outline, not until I have written most of it. Then I start putting the scenes in order.

3. Shani Mootoo asks, "How do your closest family members treat you, you the published — hopefully famous — author?"

My family is full of writers. My father wrote a textbook; my sister, the philosopher Trudy Govier, has written a textbook and many other works of nonfiction; my mother taught books... my younger sister steered clear or writing, but became a teacher. So it seems kind of normal. My parents read all my books and bought quantities to give to their friends. Now that they're gone, I don't know how the book industry will cope with the loss. 

4. Lawrence Hill asks, "What do you do to steady your mind (if your mind is capable of being steadied), so that you can shut out the world and write?" 

I try to write first thing. I sit down and play a couple of word games against the computer, drink coffee, go downstairs and make chicken stock or caramelize some onions, go back up again. All those things work sometimes but not all the time.

5. Patrick deWitt asks, "What is the last thing you read that made you feel actually jealous?" 

Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. I just thought, why do I bother to write, why not just open my veins, as she appears to do, and let the blood pour out?

6. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you write sex scenes? Why or why not?" 

I do write sex scenes. I think it is artificial to draw the curtain when sex happens, and it does happen, inevitably. I don't prolong it but I don't ignore it either. Fun to write, but fraught with danger of cliché, overkill etc.

7. Tracey Lindberg asks, "Your latest novel is made into a movie. Who is on the soundtrack?"   

Oh, that is a big question. In The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel, there would be a couple of fabulous musical scenes: one would be when Herbie Wishart, the mountain guide, is bushed and out on the trapline one cold winter night in the 1910s, and hears symphonic music in the sky. I'd like to have some Beethoven there. Then during the war years when Iona is in the Palliser Hotel ballroom with a dance band — maybe "String of Pearls" by the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

8. Billie Livingston asks, "Rilke said, 'A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.' Do you think that's true? Do you feel that writing is an absolute necessity in your life?"

Writing is what I do. It has been for 35 years. What else would I do after I walk the dog in the morning? Over time it has become more necessary out of habit, like exercise, but maybe less necessary emotionally. Possibly that's a good thing.