“(Writing) is a great way to discover yourself and to appreciate the world.” | Q&A with author Katherine Govier

Katherine Govier is another novelist I enjoy very much because she explores some unique aspects of the human condition. Many of her novels have dealt with artists and ‘what exactly makes them tick.’ Her last novel The Ghost Brush (The Printmaker’s Daughter in the U.S.) explored the world of Japanese print making of 150 years ago



1. It has been a while since The Ghost Brush/The Print Maker’s Daughter has been published. How has it been received so far?

A: How many languages has it been translated into at this point? Let’s see… French, Spanish, Romanian, Latvian, and Japanese. I am most excited about the Japanese version, which comes out in June. I’m going to Japan to face the music. (smile) Hokusai is an icon and the role his daughter played in his work has not been well known, or well accepted there. Although I think Oei’s time has come.  

As for acceptance—the reviews in the United States were stellar.   Here’s a quote ; In  her lavishly researched and brilliant historical novel, Govier astonishes throughout in her ability to write epic themes intimately, particularly in the lyrical, absorbing, and intense final hundred pages.; -Publishers Weekly 

I had that on the signature of my email for a while. Always made me happy. I wish I could say the sales were equally thrilling. But I hope the book will last. It is getting in to places like gallery book clubs and art history curricula.  The interest in Edo period Japan has carried it a long way.

2. Am I correct that “Half for You, Half for Me”  is a bit of a departure from your usual writing? Could you provide a bit of a background on that book?

A: It is a departure in that I have never published a children’s book before.  But then it’s not strictly a children’s book. A year and a half ago at Christmas my 94 year old mother gave me her old Mother Goose, which she had read from as a child and from which she had read to my sisters and me. I rediscovered it reading with her: she can’t see now, and can not remember what she had for lunch, but she remembers the rhymes.  I was curious about the stories behind them, and off we went. I did some research (my favourite thing) in the Osborne Collection of the Toronto Public Library, and discovered these utterly gorgeous vintage illustrations by great artists like Arthur Rackham, for instance.  Whitecap Books designed it beautifully mixing the old with new full page illustrations by the illustrator Sarah Clement. It’s a hard thing to do, mixing old with new, (Half for You and Half for Me) but I think it worked very well

3. Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

A: I just finished AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Adiche. I enjoyed that, because of my interest in immigrants and their experience. Before that THE PURCHASE by Linda Spalding, STET by Diana Athill, went through a phase of Steven Heighton, Jim Craiche, Jim Harrison. I read for story, and forstyle. I read just about everything, but I give up quickly if I don’t like what I’m finding. Favourite writers? That’s hard, I have so many.  My favourite novel of all time is MIDDLEMARCH.

4. How much of your writing is based on personal experience? Do you include other people’s personal stories in your novels or do you rely on your imagination to come up with some of the situations in your books?

A: When I started writing fiction, it was very personal—not only the novels but especially the short stories.  But as the years went by—I first published thirty-five years ago, in 1979– I began to reach farther. Partly it was for the challenge of going into unknown territory, bigger worlds, a bigger canvas. Partly it was because the urgent need to sort myself out and understand my nearest and dearest through fiction went underground. It creates certain difficulties, as you might imagine.  I still deal with issues that are central to my being, but I may set a story in nineteenth century Labrador or Japan, which creates a useful disguise.  Also, indirection is fruitful, I find. It is nicer now to come upon the heartbeat of my writing by surprise.

5. Are you working on any new novels right now?

A: Right now I am doing a big edit on a new novel that will come out about a year from now. It’s set in the Rocky Mountains, over about the past century. It has been fun to write- what a change from writing about Japan! I actually can read the language. The mountain parks in this country are a kind of black hole of human history.  There is just wonderful material there and it’s very close to home for me.

6. Has your writing changed much since your first novel? If yes, how so?

A: It has changed in that I have become more ambitious and at the same time, probably less intense and intimate.  I look back at early stories, for instance, and am struck by their candor. We develop protective layers throughout life, and – form, anyway- these show up in writing. I am waiting for the big moment that you read about when suddenly you are old enough to not give a fig what you say or who is bothered by it.  Longevity is my family’s middle name, which is a joyful thing. What it means, however, is that part of me is still a daughter. I think the world will look very different when the older generation has gone off stage.

7. You seem to spend a lot of time traveling. (I know your Facebook profile seems to mention Toronto, Alberta and Arizona as places you have “hung your hat” recently) Does traveling help you with your writing at all?

A: I do go back and forth between Toronto where my husband and kids are, and Canmore, Alberta, where I have a vacation house and can be near my parents and sisters. Arizona was a one week holiday, and I loved it.  But I have done a lot of traveling in the past, and wrote travel articles, did research in many countries, and sat scribbling in foreign hotels. I’ve always found that from the moment I sit down on a plane I can empty my mind of the many details and responsibilities that clutter it, at home. I step into a strange city all alert and sponge-like, ready to feel and absorb and collect. Unfortunately travel has become more exhausting and less rewarding in the last decade or so. Is it just me?  It’s harder and harder to get that feeling of foreignness, to be really “away from home”. At the same time the trip itself has become more of an ordeal. Nonetheless I’ll keep doing it; it’s a bit of an addiction.

8. There are a lot of people who seem to be writing fiction right now just for their own personal enjoyment. Do you have any advice for people who are doing that task right now?

A: Yes, I have noticed that.  More power to them. I think it is a great way to discover yourself and to appreciate the world.  But the question of audience is really vexing. Speaking of Facebook, I was rebuked recently when I referred to Vivian Maier’s work as “unfulfilled”.  She is the woman who lived as a nanny, took millions of photographs, and showed no one her work. People thought I meant she was unfulfilled. Well, I don’t know if she herself was or wasn’t.  What I meant was that the art was unfulfilled, in the sense that it seemed to beg an audience and never found one.  I am not sure if I could write “just for personal enjoyment”; to me there is always a lurking idea of the readers to come. But perhaps if I were starting out today I would feel differently; probably I would. Those readers are increasingly hard to find!


Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada page for “The Ghost Brush”

Link to Whitecap Books page for “Half for You and Half for Me”


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