The Other Side of the Looking Glass

An Interview with Kelli Deeth

by Imran Khan

8 September 2014

Kelli Deeth’s characters, at the end of their wits and their youth, take the long, last painful look into their abating past, only to see themselves staring back at a fated future.
 
cover art

The Other Side of Youth

Kelli Deeth

(2014-05)
US: Arsenal Pulp

cover art

The Girl Without Anyone

Kelli Deeth

(HarperCollins)
US: Jan 2002

When Kelli Deeth released her first collection of work in 2001, The Girl Without Anyone, she was yet another young voice among her contemporaries mining the lives of female youth in Canadian literature. In the outpouring of like-minded writers, the author may have simply slipped by unnoticed. But her fiction managed to hold the attention of readers and critics alike that fell for her profoundly moving and tragic stories.

The Girl Without Anyone, a collection of short stories chronicling the life of a hopelessly lost but determined young woman named Leah, detailed the struggles of growing up with pin-sharp clarity and a humanity that cut deep into the bone. Deeth’s incisive observations on alienated lives provided her writing with emotions that lay well below her precise, dancer-like prose, emotions that were seemingly dormant, yet always stirred with restless energy.

Chosen by The Globe and Mail as one of the best books of 2001, The Girl Without Anyone heralded a new talent among Canada’s literary sphere of young writers. It also gave much credence to the short-story; a form of fiction not often paid its due respect.

In her newest volume of short stories, The Other Side of Youth, Deeth explores the mysterious hinterland of 30-something women who are on the brink of leaving their youth behind. The principle sentiment here is regret – and everything else that follows in its wake. Faced with the struggles of sex, death, children and loss, the women of these stories often come to the disturbing realization that their lives have irrevocably changed, often not for the better. Former joys now bring grief and lovers who were once caretakers become the variables in the often sidelining, embittered battles for personal space. Deeth touches upon these lives with the deft hand of a writer pulling not from memory, but from some place where an innate self-awareness lies.

In “Vera’s Room”, a childless couple looking to adopt find themselves at odds with one another when a young girl is brought into their home once the legal documents have been signed. The household becomes a silent battleground for emotional and territorial space. Deeth handles the interactions between each member of the household with the grace and skill of a tightrope-walker, balancing the frail emotions with a sleight-of-hand that allows the story to move forward with a sure and steady pulse. Her keen observations, once again, capture a woman who is just on the verge of a nervous breakdown, moments before a probable fall; the sense of loss, confusion and pain are made palpable by the quietly unnerving exchanges between mother and adopted daughter.

“In the Midnight Cold” illustrates how old friendships badly ended have unassailable consequences on future relationships with others. The heartbreak, resentment and ultimate guilt is sketched out in fine detail, discerned through the quiet actions of the lonely and grieving protagonist. Every word in Deeth’s stories is used judiciously and with care, placed delicately but firmly in the percolating flow of her prose. This practice in style and economy allows her characters a clear looking glass of projected lives; in it, selves are mirrored back, their clarities and distortions magnified under the author’s critical eye.

As a writer, Deeth’s masterful way of closing a story remains her most recognized attribute. Her narratives often wind down to a beautiful, unsettled finish, the final thought hovering in an undetermined space of revelation and uncertainty. “Souvenirs” and “Vera’s Room” are but two stories that are exemplary of her gifts for emotional discernment, the denouements of storied lives skillfully designed with considered approach.

Deeth’s characters, at the end of their wits and their youth, take the long, last painful look into their abating past, only to see themselves staring back at a fated future. The adventures on the other side of the looking glass, the other side of youth, are anything but a wonderland. In these 11 stories, the world is flattened by the crushing perspective of a reality devastated by illusory hopes; a reality in which women endlessly struggle with the patriarchal mechanisms of their exterior lives. In the guarded space of their internal worlds, all questions of longing, fate, desire and love are reflected back by the face of Deeth’s examining mirror.

Can you give some background on how you started writing? How early did you begin and what kept you on this path all these years?

When I was very young, I wrote poems about what was happening around me. As a teenager, I still wrote poems, but then I wanted to write stories, and once I started writing stories, I just never stopped. I felt I needed to get stories out into the world—a mysterious impulse that I respected. The mysterious impulse to write stories, to get down certain moments and see what I can do with them, to see what’s there that I can’t see right away— this keeps me writing.

Your first book of short stories, The Girl Without Anyone, was released back in 2001. Twelve years later, you have just released your second collection, The Other Side of Youth. That’s a long gap; when did you start writing the stories for The Other Side? How did these stories shape over time?

I wrote a couple of the stories immediately after the release of The Girl Without Anyone, and then I became obsessed with the idea that I had to write a novel. A lot of short stories writers hear this from publishers—that they should really put stories aside (they are a hard sell) and write a novel.

But the stories that came to mind in those years couldn’t be yanked into a novel form. I finally went back to stories. I came to a point where I didn’t care anymore what anyone else wanted me to write or thought I should write and what would sell or what wouldn’t. I needed to be true to the stories that were coming to mind, and to give them the shape they needed. I wrote one story at a time over about three or four years.

Interestingly enough, your characters are not always likeable people; many times, they make hideous, selfish mistakes—sometimes even knowingly. One thing I notice is that a lot of your characters come from a place of anger and resentment. But they seem to deliberate their behaviours with care and tenderness. That is to say, their decisions are not rash but calculated, almost methodological. It’s the one trait many of your characters share. What do you have to say about this particular quality in your characters?

I think Leah in The Girl Without Anyone is intensely vulnerable and at the same time protective of herself, rather fierce. She experiences within her family a great feeling of absence, aloneness. When I was writing the stories, I wanted to get at the truth of what it felt like to be a young girl—I wanted a complete picture or psychological portrait. So along with the vulnerability and loneliness is an ability to be quite cruel. That felt true and real to me.

The characters in The Other Side of Youth are grappling with more adult scenarios. The women in these stories—and again, in each story, I was trying to create an honest, complete portrait—are, like Leah, full of longing and experience a sense of absence and disconnection within their relationships. They don’t have what they think they are supposed to have; perfect marriages, children, families. They realize that their youth is passing or past. I think they make certain decisions in an attempt to be true to their needs—and in being true to those needs, either they themselves are hurt, or others are hurt.

Another thing I notice is that physical sensations are an important detail in your work; more specifically, the connection between physical sensations and their respective emotions. A lot of times the signals between the sensations felt in the body and the corresponding emotion gets crossed. Characters become confused and sometimes enlightened by the overlap and distortion of senses. As a result, many of your characters don’t simply live, they feel their way around. What are your ideas and thoughts on the sensual exploits of your characters, their perplexity with the resultant emotion?

After reading one of my stories, my mother said, “I could really feel it.” Someone else said, “I really feel your characters.” I know that when I’m writing, I feel the character deeply. It’s as if I’m experiencing exactly what they are experiencing, mentally and physically. I write things down as I feel them and know them and see them. I think what characters are feeling on a physical level is really revealing, and that’s why I’m so painstaking about making sure I have the nuances.

Ultimately, I want a picture of a true human being (as I experience being a human being) and our feelings and emotions, it seems to me, are often mixed and crossed and conflicting.

At times, the character Leah, from your first book, can still be felt in a lot of the characters in The Other Side of Youth. She seems to haunt a lot of the proceedings; many times it seems like the adult Leah has returned, a little wiser but still troubled. Would you say that some of the stories in The
Other Side
became the destination point to where Leah was headed in The Girl Without Anyone?

I think the similarities come from the fact that the same psyche—mine—produced both sets of stories. I didn’t think about Leah at all as I was writing the new stories, but I’m not surprised that similarities can be seen.

Your characters experience a level of cruelty that seems aimed at women—and they are often forced to make poor choices in order to escape that humiliation. For example, Sandra in “End of Summer” continues to push forward with her obsessive desire to find a man when she is first groped and verbally abused by two young boys and later disregarded by her father during a car ride. These behaviours trigger the conflicted emotions and sense of abandonment she feels following her brother’s suicide years before.

She goes out later that night intending to be a victim of possible rape in order to fulfill the need of being wanted. She uses the humiliation as the excuse. How would you explain this complex in your characters?

I think Sandra in “End of Summer” is suffering intense grief over the death of her brother, his suicide. Her family shuts down after. Not only is she missing her brother, but she’s only seeing the shadows of her parents, who are completely absent in their grief. But Sandra still needs attention.

She feels so alone in her family that she almost doesn’t feel that she exists at all, so she actually gets to the point where she needs to be seized. At least then, she’ll know she exists. She breaks my heart.

You’ve discussed the difficulties of writing a full-length novel; yet you’ve also expressed the viewpoint that short-stories are often more difficult to write than a novel. Can you discuss your feelings on this?

I tend to see stories a certain way, or maybe I see life a certain way. I love moments, small moments. I wouldn’t say that short-stories are more difficult, although they might be for some writers who see stories in longer trajectories.

A story to me is like a coil—not long necessarily, but endlessly complex. I can read the same story, say by Cheever or Beattie, and each time I read it, I see something new. It’s a magical form to me.

The Girl Without Anyone discussed the pains of adolescence; your newest collection deals with women on their last laps of youth. What do you think your stories have to say about women who struggle to make the transition into adulthood?

I think the women in The Other Side of Youth are on a kind of precipice—they are no longer young, they see this, (even the adolescent characters are hurtled to the other side of innocence), but they are not in any way old. They are preparing to enter middle age. It’s on the horizon. In this strange, transitional phase, they have to come to terms with decisions that they have made and unwanted outcomes they have experienced—decisions to not have children, to have married a certain person; outcomes such as miscarriage, death, complexities and conflicted emotions within family, unrequited love.

I think they are surprised that youth is not the only stage of life to be full of pain and confusion; being older, in your 30s, just brings a different set of difficult and complex emotions and scenarios. 

* * *

Above image: Woman silhouette from Shutterstock.com.

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