Govier, Katherine 1948-
GOVIER, Katherine 1948-
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Go-vee-ay"; born July 4, 1948, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; daughter of George Wheeler (an engineer) and Doris (a teacher; maiden name, Kemp) Govier; married John A. Honderich (a newspaper editor); children: Robin (son), Emily. Education: University of Alberta, B.A. (with first class honors), 1970; York University, M.A., 1972. Hobbies and other interests: Govier received a black belt in Kobudo, in 2002.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Helen Heller Agency, 32 Bayhampton Court, Toronto, Ontario M3H L6, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, instructor in English, 1973-75; freelance writer, 1975—. Visiting lecturer in creative writing, York University, 1982-86. Distinguished visiting lecturer, Alberta College of Art and Design, 2002. Writer in residence, Parry Sound Public Library, 1988, Toronto Public Library System, 1994-95, Toronto Reference Library, 1998. Toronto Arts Awards literature jury, member, 1986, chair, 1991; chair of Writers' Development Trust, 1989-92, and cofounder of its Writers-in-Electronic-Residence Program, 1992-93; representative to board of governors of Canadian Conference of the Arts, 1989-90. Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing, Simon Fraser University, board member, 1997—. Writer for Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) Radio and Television. Participated in TV-Ontario's Academy on the Short Story; speaks and reads work at schools, universities, and public libraries.
MEMBER: PEN International, PEN Canada (president, 1997-98), Writers' Union of Canada (Ontario representative, 1985-86).
AWARDS, HONORS: Authors' Award, Periodical Distributors of Canada, and National Magazine Awards, both 1979, for article "Radical Sheik" in Canadian Business; Books in Canada First Novel Shortlist, 1979, and second place Author's Award for best paperback of the year, Periodical Distributors of Canada, 1980, both for Random Descent; research fellowship, Leeds University, Leeds, England, 1987; third prize, CBC Literary Contest, 1989, for short story "The Immaculate Conception Photo Gallery"; honorable mention for Talking Book of the Year, Canadian Institute for the Blind, 1991, for Between Men; Book Award, City of Toronto, 1992, for Hearts of Flame; Marian Engel Award, 1997; Distinguished Alumni Award, University of Alberta, 1998; fellow, Maclean Hunter Program for Creative Nonfiction, 2002; New York Times notable book citation, 2003, for Creation.
Random Descent, Macmillan Canada (Toronto, Canada), 1979, New American Library (New York, NY), 1980.
Going through the Motions, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 1982, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1983.
Between Men, Viking Canada (Toronto, Canada), 1987. Hearts of Flame, Viking Canada (Toronto, Canada), 1991.
Angel Walk, Little, Brown, Canada (Toronto, Canada), 1996.
The Truth Teller, Random House Canada (Toronto, Canada), 2000.
Creation, Random House Canada (Toronto, Canada), 2002, Overlook Press (New York, NY) 2003.
Fables of Brunswick Avenue, Penguin Canada (Toronto, Canada), 1985.
Before and After, Viking Canada (Toronto, Canada), 1989.
The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery andOther Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
(Editor) Without a Guide: Contemporary Women'sTravel Adventures, Macfarlane, Walter & Ross (Toronto, Canada), 1994, Hungry Mind Press (St. Paul, MN), 1996.
(Editor) Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Canada), 2004.
Also author of scripts of three stories from Before and After for radio dramatization for CBC program Morningside, 1989; of stories from The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery and Other Stories for CBC television, 1992, and CBC radio, 1994; and of Angel Walk for Bravo Fact video, 1997, and CBC radio, 1998. Contributor to To See Ourselves, Secretary of State (Canada), 1975.
Contributor to anthologies, including Canadian Short Stories: Fourth Series, edited by Robert Weaver, Oxford University Press, 1985; Celebrating Canadian Women, edited by Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1989; and Slow Hand, edited by Michelle Slung, HarperCollins, 1992.
Author of "Relationships," a monthly column in Toronto Life, 1975-77. Contributor to periodicals, including Maclean's, Harper's, Time, Canadian Business, New Society, Canadian Forum, Chatelaine, Cosmopolitan, Toronto Globe and Mail, Quest, and Saturday Night. Associate editor, Weekend, 1978.
Govier's archives are held at the University of Calgary Library, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
SIDELIGHTS: Katherine Govier once told CA that her books tend to be "rooted in a strongly recognizable place—whether it is Toronto's Brunswick Avenue, or, in Between Men, Calgary in the oil boom of the nineteen eighties, with the historical murder of a Cree woman one hundred years earlier playing as a ghostplot. But this isn't travel writing. My interest is entirely in character. The question is how the character is created and what events flow from a human personality." In addition to the aforementioned books, Govier's works that deal with place-character relationships include the Toronto-set Hearts of Flame; The Truth Teller, evoking ancient Greece among modern Torontonians; and Creation, a historical novel reimagining naturalist painter John James Audubon's visit to Labrador.
Hearts of Flame, noted Books in Canada contributor Merna Summers, "is a novel about fashion and friendship and life in the fast track—and the possibility of dropping out." In particular, Hearts of Flame tracks the lives of four friends, onetime folk-group singers, and the disappearance of one of them. Yet, as Summers reported, "the main character of the novel . . . is the city of Toronto itself." Thus, Summers concluded that although "Govier is good at writing bizarre people" and the novel sustains some "wonderful vignettes," the book might be most relished by someone who can truly "appreciate the aptness of Govier's observation" about the city—in other words, someone who is from Toronto.
Bizarre characters and situations resurface in Govier's short-story collection The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery and Other Stories. In addition to the title story, which won an award in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) literary contest, the book features a wide-ranging array of narratives. In one story, a woman takes an ape for a lover; in another, a woman has a close encounter with a UFO; and in yet another, a young man's newly transplanted heart (donated by the female victim of a fatal car crash) begins to communicate with him. According to Gary Draper, writing in Books in Canada, these stories are about "people who cope," and they often describe "rebirths" and "fresh starts" for these characters, whom Draper describes as the victims of a "capricious" fate. Lynne van Luven, reviewing for Quill & Quire, described some of the stories as "slight" and felt that Govier often "delivers a jocular caricature rather than illuminating exploration," but she conceded that some of the selections are "excellent tales."
Books in Canada's Draper, however, thought Govier's stories work "simultaneously in two modes." He commented that the collection presents both "naturalistic fiction" and"fables," and the best stories move between the two modes so that the border between the real and the fantastic is shown to be "more apparent than real." Thus he pronounced the stories "vivid and arresting" and remarked that, over the course of her career, Govier has "chart[ed] a territory that is by now distinctly her own." Govier's entry in the Feminist Companion to Literature in English further explored this territory, explaining that her novels portray women discovering the various modes through which, in the words of one Govier's characters, "'Lives can come together without warning—and fragments make sense.'"
Govier's fascination with place also has connections to her work as the editor of Without a Guide: Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures, a collection of essays that focus on the traveling adventures of various women. The book earned high praise from Nancy Wigston, writing in Quill & Quire, and Libby Scheier, writing in Books in Canada. Both reviewers pointed out the diversity of the collection in which Govier pulls together essays about North American and non-North American women traveling both in and out of their native lands. The result, to Wigston, is a "beguiling collection" which has "a series of stunning moments." Often, Wigston noted, the essays "read more like narratives than mere descriptions," and she thought the collection showed that "it's obvious that women don't travel in the same way men do—gender determines quite a lot about being on the road." For Scheier, the book "provide[s] rich insights into the crisscrossing subjects of gender, culture, and spirit."
A traveling woman who also has a strong attachment to home is the subject of Angel Walk. Its protagonist, Corinne "Cory" Ditchburn, is a distinguished photographer in her eighties, recalling her adventures as a young woman during World War II, when she left her native Canada for England to work as a photojournalist documenting the war. This exciting period of her life, and how it formed her identity, contrasts with her peaceful later years as a single mother and nature photographer living on the shores of Canada's Georgian Bay, but Cory remains a strong, complex character throughout. Maclean's critic John Bemrose deemed Angel Walk Govier's best novel up to that time, "assured, original and completely convincing" and "movingly balanced between the huzzah of battle and Cory's slow, loving contemplation of the light and water on the bay."
Modern Toronto and ancient Greece come together in The Truth Teller. The elderly Dugald Laird and his younger wife, Francesca Morrow, operate a private school in Toronto, teaching the classics to wealthy students who have failed at more conventional institutions. They appear successful and content, but there are problems lurking; for one thing, Dugald is wracked by memories of the wife and children he deserted for Francesca. Then a new student, Cassie, demonstrates that like the mythological Cassandra, she can see through the deceptions of those around her and foretell the future. Dugald and Francesca's relationship begins to fall apart, and the lives of other school personnel and students are disrupted as well, with the chaos coming to a head on the annual school trip to Athens.
The Truth Teller is a "well-written and inventive piece of fiction by a novelist at the height of her creative powers," related Lindsay MacRae in the National Post. MacRae praised Govier as making a telling comparison between the ancient and modern worlds, but she expressed disappointment in the novel's characters, finding them unsympathetic and underrealized. Time International contributor Kerri Sakamoto, however, thought Govier showed "affection and optimism toward her schoolgirls" and had produced a "grand and comic, richly patterned novel." Sakamoto also described the book as "imbued with the sense of place that Govier has mined in past fiction," elaborating, "Here, that place is 'Troy-ronto' . . . at the intersection of the local and universal, past and present, historical and mythic."
Creation takes place at the intersection of fact and fiction. Its jumping-off point is Audubon's sojourn on Canada's Labrador Peninsula in 1833. There is little in the historical record about the artist's time there, so Govier is free to imagine it, and at times she bluntly reminds readers that they are reading a work of fiction. But in the book, as he did in life, Audubon encounters naval officer and cartographer Henry Wolsey Bayfield. "To Govier, these two obsessives, both dedicated to reducing the three-dimensional world of nature to a tame two dimensions, represent opposite sides of a question that still bedevils us," remarked Brian Bethune in Maclean's. Bayfield is concerned with settlement and safety; Audubon wants to preserve nature in its pristine form, yet he is not averse to killing birds and using dead ones as models for his paintings. Audubon is also a less-than-admirable husband, pursuing women during his travels while his wife stays home to deal with his creditors.
Several critics praised Govier's portrait of the artist. "Through a command of period vernacular, astonishing pictorial detail and craftsman-like skill, Govier brings Audubon alive," commented Donna Bailey Nurse in the Toronto Star. Bethune reported, "In Govier's skilful hands, Audubon is half monster . . . and half ecological seer." In Books in Canada, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer observed, "Govier's Audubon is enigmatic, compelling for his amorality as much as his vision and determination," adding, "Bayfield is Audubon's perfect foil." Nurse noted that "there are arresting scenes of the artist at work" and called Creation "a sprawling novel, teeming with natural abundance, yet delivered in small, intimate scenes." Library Journal contributor Caroline Hallsworth thought the book "both beautiful in its descriptions and unblinkered in its revelations," and Bethune summed it up as a "tour de force" that casts a critical eye on history and its relationship to fiction. Nurse concluded that Creation would earn "a lasting place in the affections of readers."
Govier told CA: "I wrote after it became obvious to me that I would not be a dancer. Now I'm often fascinated by visual art and use it as a springboard—for example J. J. Audubon's beautiful enormous birds, for Creation. I'm looking at a lot of Japanese woodcut prints now.
"My favorite book is always my most recent. I stay in love for a couple of years and then transfer the attention to a new one. Creation is proving the hardest to leave behind so far, because it has become a cause as much as a novel. "I hope people will read, be transported, laugh or cry, or best of all, both at once, and some trace of a book of mine may stay with a reader, even a phrase, making life a bit richer.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy,
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 51, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Books in Canada, November, 1991, pp. 40-41; December, 1994, pp. 41-43; February, 1995, pp. 37-38; February, 2003, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, "The Goings and Shortcomings of Noble Men," p. 9.
Financial Post, October 8, 1994, Araminta Wordsworth, review of Without a Guide: Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures, p. S7.
Library Journal, April 1, 2003, Caroline Hallsworth, review of Creation, p. 128.
Maclean's, September 23, 1996, John Bemrose, review of Angel Walk, p. 47; July 17, 2000, John Bemrose, "Finding Reality in Fiction," p. 48; September 30, 2002, Brian Bethune, "Two Writers Who Raise the Dead," p. 51.
National Post, May 6, 2000, Lindsay MacRae, "Torontonian Women," p. 26.
Quill & Quire, September, 1994, p. 58; December, 1994, p. 23.
Time International, May 15, 2000, Kerri Sakamoto, "Hellenes of Troy-ronto," p. 53.
Toronto Star, October 20, 2002, Donna Bailey Nurse, "Katherine Govier Turns from Domestic Drama to Bring Bird Man Audubon to Life," p. D15.
Katherine Govier Web site,http://www.govier.com/ (April 28, 2003).