Books·How I Wrote It

Kim Echlin: How I wrote Under the Visible Life

Kim Echlin tell's CBC Books what inspired her novel Under the Visible Life.
Kim Echlin is the author of Under the Visible Life, and a former winner of the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. (Sara Upshur/Penguin Random House)

Music serves as a refuge for the two main characters in Kim Echlin's novel Under the Visible Life. Turns out, it also served as a potent inspiration for the author, who listened to a lot of John Coltrane while writing the book.

A former winner of the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize, Kim Echlin speaks with us about her latest work — from the serendipitous trip she took to Pakistan to the lesser-known piece of Canadian legislation that started it all.

Private lives

"The book started when I discovered the Female Refuges Act, a piece of legislation in Ontario that was passed in 1897 and repealed in 1964. Under this act. women could be charged with being 'incorrigible.' Incorrigibility included things like not coming home on time, going into a tavern without a man, and certainly it included unmarried sex. During the Second World War it was used to discourage women from cross-cultural dating. I was fascinated by how recently it had been repealed. My grandmother and mother had been born into it. I had been born into it, although I was too young to be subject to it. It was startling to understand the degree of legislative control our Canadian laws have had over women."

Two voices

"I wanted to work with alternating first person narration because I wanted the two main characters to tell their own stories, but to reflect on each other's as well. The biggest technical challenge was to establish the differences in the two voices. When you are working in alternating voices you must find a way to make the voices stylistically distinct. This was something I paid a lot of attention to. A way to do this was to break up the structure. Rather than writing in alternate sections I initially composed the stories separately. When I put them together I was very interested in how they fit. I had been working with the archetypal themes of a woman's life without consciously knowing. Because of this, the two women's individual stories met and interconnected very naturally, even though they were from very different cultures and places in the world."

Music of resistance 

"The two main characters are both jazz pianists. I chose jazz because I wanted a musical idiom that reflected the themes of the book. Jazz is an idiom that grew out of resistance. Its social history comes from peoples who were artificially separated, but who, at times, came together in music. Jazz has also been an art form that's been difficult for women to fully take part in until the last generation. I like the innovation of jazz and I also like how it works out of its own traditions, yet riffs and innovates on them. This is art: continual innovation." 

My favourite things

"I listened to John Coltrane all the time when I was first writing this book. One piece I listened to a lot in the early drafts is 'My Favorite Things.' I love the first recording that Coltrane did with McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis and Elvin Jones. In Coltrane's quartet each musician played innovative solos while the others improvised around him. I think of this as a metaphor for how our relationships could be with each other. We listen to each other carefully. We play with each other. And when we take our solos the others improvise around us until we come back and hand the solo over to the next person." 

Beach luxuries

"A young Pakistani poet read for me in earlier stages of the book. She said to me, 'I don't know how you're getting this, but you're really able to capture how I felt at times in Canada.' She added that I should go to Pakistan to see what it's like. It was difficult at the time for a single, non-Pakistani woman to get a visa to go to Pakistan. I had set the Karachi part of book in a place called the Beach Luxury Hotel because I liked its name and I liked the research on the music I discovered there. When I was trying to organize the visa to Pakistan I found out that I could go with an invitation from the Karachi Literature Festival, and then I suddenly found out that the Karachi Literature Festival was being held that year at the Beach Luxury Hotel. I loved this synchronicity, and of course, I knew that I had to go. As it turned out, I did end up staying there and even met jazz and pop musicians who had played in its lounge — called the 007 — in the 1960s when my book was set." 

Kim Echlin's comments have been edited and condensed.

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