The Kayt Burgess Interview

Writer, artist and musician Kayt (Lackie) Burgess was born in Manitouwadge, Ontario and grew up in Elliot Lake. She studied classical music at the University of Western Ontario, publishing at Humber College, and creative writing at the University of Auckland and Bath Spa University. Her first novel Heidegger Stairwell won the infamous 3 Day Novel Contest and was published by 3 Day Books and Arsenal Pulp Press in September 2012. It was shortlisted for the 2013 ReLit Award for Fiction. It was adapted as a short film entitled We Forgot to Break Up, which premiered at TIFF in 2017. It is currently being adapted as a feature film. Kayt’s second novel Connection at Newcombe (which she took a little longer than 72 hours to complete) is due out in April 2021 with Sudbury’s Latitude 46 Publishing.

What was the most difficult part about writing your second novel?

Writing historical-flavoured fiction is an interesting activity, because everyone seems to have opinions on how much has to be fiction, and how much must be history. For this book, because it is more about the characters and the ecosystem of this fictional town and the historical period is predominantly context, I am firmly on the side of fiction. But this debate did give me pause, especially since I am also a researcher and enjoy going about synthesizing research with fictional ideas. I had to resist the urge to get lost in research and instead focus on the atmosphere and the evocation of the times.

What was your interest in veterans’ lives that drove the passion to write this book?

While I was writing a lot about war during this period (around 2010), I think my obsession is actually transitions and liminality. Connection at Newcombe depicts two World War I veterans returning to their hometown and trying to find meaning in their old lives, but they are anchors for a large and lively cast. It’s important to note that this isn’t a war book; it’s a book about a small Northern Ontario town after the war. I think I’m also interested in small, domestic actions that occur under the shadow of large-scale events. The juxtaposition of the grand and the humble. The war is the grand and the events of the book, the humble.

You lead a very busy life with lots of projects on the go. How do you turn everything off to sit down and write? When is your favourite time to do so?

It can be difficult to disconnect. Even though I’ve been gradually removing myself from social media over the years, there are plenty of other distractions on my computer that can lure me away from writing. I have management apps I use to help support me. One is called ‘Self Control’ which I’ve been using for years that prevents access to the internet on your device for a designated amount of time. I’ve also been using the pomodoro technique since my PhD, which is productivity method where you work without distraction for twenty five minutes and then step away for five.
I tend to write in the afternoon and late at night. I keep vampiric hours. The middle of the night has always been good for writing because it’s quiet, there are fewer distractions and I tend to be more creative. Keeping this sleep schedule isn’t the most convenient for regular life, but it’s the most natural for my circadian rhythms.

Many characters work against Cal’s efforts to qualify for a rail station. What’s the contrast between how he sees himself and everyone else sees him?

This interpretive clash is something I really enjoy exploring in my writing, and it’s one of the main reasons I’ll write a multi-perspective or polyphonic work. The difference between how you view yourself and how others view you can be staggering, but so can the difference between how separate people interpret the same person.
In this story, we get multiple perspectives on the anchoring narrator, Callum Bannatyne (as well as other characters). Many in the community view him as a returning hero, but this isn’t just because of the war. Cal was that small-town overachiever the town invested so many resources into so he could leave for bigger and better things. This kind of privilege can lead to complicated relationships, especially with peers and those who may’ve fallen between the cracks.
Without explaining away the book, I’ll say that Callum’s worldview has been completely re-configured by his war experiences. He’s even less like the man his hometown detractors claim he is, but will more readily agree with their criticisms of him.

Were any of the characters inspired by real people, or did they all come from your creation?

Although this book is set in a historical period, I didn’t use any historical figures. And I’m not a writer who steals real people from my real life – I’d like to retain a few friendships. All my characters are generally composites; characteristics of people I’ve encountered, yes, but also media I’ve consumed, concepts I’ve researched, and general imaginings.

What was the biggest difference between your first and current novel, beyond the time it took to write and win the 3-Day novel contest?

If we’re talking about the writing process, there’re fewer differences between the writing of this novel and Heidegger Stairwell than you’d expect. My last novel won the 3 Day Novel contest after I wrote it in over a Labour Day weekend. Connection at Newcombe was written for a different 3-day writing contest, which I also won. I think the biggest difference is what came after.

The publication process for Heidegger was almost as whirlwind as the writing – I had a month and a half to round out and edit the manuscript and it was published five months after that. Connection at Newcombe, which was actually drafted before Heidegger Stairwell, was meant to have been published around the same time, but there were issues with the publisher. So we broke the contract and the manuscript languished on my hard drive for six years before I looked at it again and reached out to Latitude 46.

If we’re discussing the content of the books, the two are quite different. The last one was a contemporary metafiction with a single unreliable narrator that takes place over several years. Connection at Newcombe is a multi-narrator literary-historical novel that focuses on a short amount of time and a single event. However, they are both stories of small-town Northern Ontario that probe the nature of fictionality and truth and focus on a close network of people.

How did you come up with the incredible detail of how the men felt?

Most people have the same repertoire of emotions available. What changes person to person is how/why they are triggered, how we process/understand them, and how we express them. I’m an emotional person who focuses on the modal language of people’s expressions and it contributes significantly to how I develop my characters.