Catherine Bush

A Roundtable on Empathy in Fiction

with Peter Behrens, Catherine Bush, Barbara Gowdy, Sheila Heti, and Lisa Moore

Bookninja is proud to present the first installment of its Fall 2007 Magazine — a roundtable discusion of empathy in fiction, suggested by Catherine Bush and joined by four other prominent novelists: Peter Behrens, Barbara Gowdy, Sheila Heti and Lisa Moore.

This discussion represents the opinions of some of the most talented, brassy, and thoughtful authors contemporary Canadian fiction has to offer (between them they have dozens of award nominations and wins — Governor General’s Award, Giller Prize, Commonwealth Prize, IMPAC Award) on an issue central to the nuts and bolts of both reading and writing. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about either end of the process.

Bookninja turned four in August and, as we paused to reflect, we were reminded that one of the reasons the site was created was to promote discussion at leisure and length. In a world where print magazines want everything in 500 word snips, it’s sometimes nice to stretch out and really tackle an issue with everything you’ve got.

When Catherine Bush came to us with the idea of this piece, we jumped at the chance. Let’s let her properly introduce it:

I’d been thinking about fiction as an ethical act — how important the leap out of the self and into another is to the art form, and perhaps to all art. I’d convinced myself that the empathetic connection is what makes fiction meaningful, and is its most essential element, until I began to wonder if in fact it was. So I decided I’d gather together some writers whose work I admire to see what they thought. What follows is our conversation, our virtual salon, conducted via email over the course of a few days in August. Peter Behrens, Barbara Gowdy, Sheila Heti, and Lisa Moore were generous with their time and energy, willing to pursue the discussion with passion and depth. One of the virtues of conversing in this format, and presenting the discussion in an online magazine, is that we were able to pursue our ideas at some length. How rarely the chance to be deeply thoughtful comes these days, and how ably these writers rose to the challenge. Thanks to Bookninja for the opportunity. — Catherine Bush

CATHERINE: It can be argued that empathy — the act of identifying with another, of imaginatively attempting to enter another consciousness — is at the heart of fiction’s power. Writers need empathy to create a depth and complication of character. When we read fiction, we are empathetically engaged as we imagine ourselves into the lives and predicaments of others. At the same time, we are also invited as readers of fiction to enter the foreign, possibly estranging consciousness of an author, which, you could argue, is also an act of empathy.

I’d like to begin by thinking about character, the creation of character: how for you as writers empathy does (or perhaps does not) enter into the process of creating characters in a work of fiction. Barbara, in your most recent novel Helpless, one of your protagonists is Ron, a man whose fixation on a young girl named Rachel leads him to kidnap and imprison her. You’ve also narrated a novel from the point of view of a series of elephants. Peter, the protagonist of your novel The Law of Dreams, Fergus O’Brien, a 19th-century Irish famine victim, comes to us across the estranging distance of the past. Lisa, in your novel Alligator, you enter a range of different consciousnesses (using both first- and third-person POV), including that of a sociopathic Russian sailor plotting to burn down a woman’s house in St. John’s. Sheila, your novel Ticknor was inspired by a 19th-century biography yet creates an anxious consciousness for your own Ticknor that feels like a hybrid of past and present.

So, to you all, a general question, but feel free to answer in the specific: how do you go about entering the otherness that is character? Do your characters begin as strangers? How much are you consciously mining yourself and how much are you consciously trying to create characters radically not like yourself? Is this possible?

SHEILA: I think it is so easy, in the world, to mis-imagine other peoples’ motives because you are so personally involved, and it’s easy to be sensitive and feel fucked-up. Like, it’s day three — clearly they haven’t emailed me back because they can intuit what an awful person I am. Or perhaps you are of a different cast of mind: they haven’t emailed me back because they’re a thoughtless asshole. Really, the truth lies somewhere between their being a thoughtless asshole and your being an awful person. This is the space where many of the novelists I enjoy work: what is the nature of our misunderstanding of ourselves and our misunderstanding of other people? What can we say for sure about humans? What is the truth?

Empathy, it seems to me, is another word for love. Perhaps you can’t understand something unless you love it. And that is why it’s necessary for the novelist to have empathy — love — for what they create. But love is complex, too. The people I love the most in the world are also the people I have the most disgust and hatred for. Carl Wilson and I were talking once, in the midst of our marriage, and he defined love as “every feeling at once.” So you might have a limited range of feelings for someone you like, but if you love someone, you have, for them, every feeling that it’s possible for one person to have about another.

I’m not sure whether I had every feeling it’s possible to have about another human for the character of Ticknor, but I suspect I had, in writing the book, every feeling it’s possible for a human to have towards something they created. So I guess that’s love, and I guess that’s empathy for the thing I created — the whole, not Ticknor as a character, but the whole book. Because for me, I cannot separate Ticknor-the-character from the book. It’s like a photo of a person in a field. The person and the field are on the same plane. You cannot slide your hand between the person and the field to separate one from the other. And they are both made of the same stuff: pixels. The background and foreground are the same matter. Same with a book: words.

So for me it’s a question of the book, not the character. And of course, the book is a metaphor for your consciousness — not simply the character; every element of the book is, and acts together, to symbolise your soul. We must all have love and empathy for this part of ourselves or else we’d probably have killed ourselves by now. At least, when you are feeling like killing yourself, it seems to me that it is your basic humanity that you have the least empathy for, and the most disgust for, and feel the greatest alienation from.

Maybe there’s something alchemical going on. Perhaps those novelists who find themselves quite close to disgust for their deepest humanity write to turn that disgust into empathy or love. And perhaps certain readers share that need. We know there is something to love about all humans, but what?

BARBARA: Before starting a novel I have quite a sparse idea of my main characters. For instance, with Ron in Helpless, all I knew was that I wanted a man who worked at a blue-collar job and who, in most aspects of his life, was normal to the point of anonymity. I didn’t know anything else about him until I started writing. I didn’t know he’d be fat until I’d typed the word. Ron’s girlfriend, Nancy, was even more vaguely realized at the outset. Sometimes
I feel as if I’m only one sentence ahead of myself when it comes not only to creating character but also to figuring out the plot.

I consciously mine very little of myself or my experiences. Once I’ve put a book out there, I can rely on somebody to direct me to the many autobiographical aspects, but while I’m writing, I don’t see them, obvious as they may be. I can see now that the three sisters in Falling Angels bear a resemblance to my sisters and me, and yet at the time I invented them I thought they sprang out of nowhere. The characters in my short-story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, and my novel The White Bone remain entirely “other.” This is because their consciousnesses are so entirely alien to my own. I mean I’m no more a necrophile or a transsexual than I am an elephant. Also, quite apart from what I needed a certain character to do, the not-normal circumstances of his or her physical self seemed to dictate most of the action and thought. Over and over again in the writing of those two books, I found myself wondering, How would I behave if…if I were that big, if my sense of smell was my predominant sense, if I accidentally decapitated my baby, and so on. It was fun, it was like a

I find it interesting how so many people want to believe that fiction is autobiographically driven. One of the first questions I’m asked by readers and interviewers is how much of me is contained in this or that character. There’s a story in We So Seldom Look on Love about a female exhibitionist, and after the book was published a rumor came back to me that someone in the apartment building across from mine had seen me cavorting naked in front of my living-room window. If I may formally set the record straight — I never cavort and I’m rarely naked.

LISA: Virginia Woolf has said: “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning to the end.”

How to create empathy for a character? That is certainly what I want when I write, and what I want when I read. Here are the characters with staying power that instantly leap to mind: Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby, Hans Schnier in Henrich Boll’s The Clown, Madame Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Duddy Kravitz, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascomb, Humbert Humbert, Hans Castorp, Suttree, Olanna in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of A Yellow Sun, Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway — and they come to me in a sort of emotional shorthand.

I see Heinrich Boll’s clown in face paint on a dark stage, in a spotlight, performing with an oversized ring of keys. The keys are made of ice and they are melting in his hand as he tries to open an invisible door. This is an image of such torpid impotence and grim humour, that I knew, as soon as I read it more than twenty years ago, I would never forget it. Mrs. Ramsey, during the evening meal in To The Lighthouse, silently commanding Lily Briscoe to rescue a socially maladjusted young man. Lily Briscoe moving the salt shaker. Frank Bascomb’s son getting hit in the face by a baseball, down for the count — these brief gestures, these tiny moments, are as real to me as any brief moment in my own life: watching my son swim under the waterfall in Northern Bay, watching him emerge with his hair glossy and plastered down, his eyelashes spiky, his gaping, open-mouthed ecstasy, or: the thick chain that chokes my neighbor’s Rottweiller, slithering crazily through the dirt, the slathering 150-pound beast yanked by the neck, mid-air, and slammed back into the ground a yard from my feet.

These moments are the gig-lamps Virginia Woolf mentions and though they can dredge up the character from memory, whole and complete, they are not the full story. Nor would a series of such images or moments inspire empathy. Character is more than a lifetime of actions and repercussions and the hopping dance that stamps out those grass fires.

Character is desire. All those memorable characters want something. And whatever it is they want, a dinner party to go smoothly, a wife who has run off, a piece of land, to escape civil war, or death, to be desired themselves, a bowl of rabbit stew — whatever they want, they want it badly. No matter how big or small, they want it with all their might. And that desire is luminous and has made them alive and indelible. It doesn’t matter if we like them or not; or whether they are worthy of what they want. What matters is if we are caught up in the sweeping spotlight of that desire. We need to know if the desire will be consummated, or thwarted, and we will turn the page and remember them. Suddenly, in the midst of writing this, I have become aware that I might sound like I think I know what I’m talking about. I’ll be honest: I do not know what I am talking about.

I think character is extremely mysterious, and the difference between wooden puppets and blushing, trembling flesh might be a hair’s breadth or the Grand Canyon. It is alchemy, it is playing God, it’s magic, ungovernable, cantankerous, and fragile, a hard thing to pull off, impossible etc. I believe it has something to do with letting the reader create as much of the character as possible. I see Jay Gatsby standing apart from the party looking over the ocean, his hands in the pockets of a white linen suit. I don’t know for sure if Fitzgerald wrote a white linen suit with pockets. I could comb the pages and try to find one, but one exists for me whether he wrote it or not. This makes Gatsby a living being, he is capable of changing his clothes outside of the book. Is that craving to know — will this character get what he wants — a form of empathy? I think it might be.

PETER: Cutting to the specific, I allowed myself to imagine I was writing a family history that no one else had bothered to remember, and then I could imagine my character in the 1840s as my great-great-grandfather, and this seemed to help me to slide into him. Empathy? Yeah. I felt I WAS him for a good long while; anyway, I was walking through the world somewhere behind his eyes. I felt a fundamental need since he was operating in a lost time faraway in another mental world than ours — to ground myself as deeply as I could in his world. His way of seeing grew out of my research into the tactile physical political psychological dimensions of his 1840s world.

Empathy. For some reason I had the tune of his voice early, in my ear, and it stayed with me throughout periods when I lost every other aspect of the story. Empathy? I finally recognized that I needed to create a technique for myself to bring the reader close to this weird unhappy boy. Because the book just wasn’t delivering on that basic writer-to-reader promise which is to create the conditions for the possibility of empathy. Empathy — the choice is finally the reader’s, of course, to empathize or not and most books I read don’t, and I put them down. My mc’s was the only POV throughout the book — except a brief prologue — so the reader was seeing everything from inside or behind his eyes but he wasn’t there, couldn’t be seen, he was just beyond the spectrum. So I started trying to deliver what I thought of as his brain talk, just the music of thoughts in his head — maybe an attempt to capture a stream-of-consciousness, a hopeless endeavour I’ve always been interested in.

CATHERINE: I love Sheila’s idea of love incorporating all other emotions, and that is an aspect of its complexity, the idea of complexity being so important to the creation of character, and consciousness, in fiction, character being inseparable from the book. I’m also compelled by the idea that the ultimate sympathy/empathy (?) is for one’s own self, for the consciousness that’s doing the creating, and that some alchemy may occur, that writing may become a way to turn self-disgust, etc., into something approaching love. One of the things that interests me about Ticknor is that we become aware of the presence of an author/narrator seeping into the character of Ticknor, that this sense of consciousness is twinned, or blurred.

While, Barbara, your process speaks to a desire, it seems, for the self to disappear into others. You’re attempting in the creation of fiction to go as far from your self as you can — the conscious work of writing is to think at every instant through that other, through the demands of that other, whose being is generated word by word. Given this sentence-by-sentence approach, I have to ask, Did you have no idea when you began Helpless that Ron would become the kidnapper of a young girl? And when did you discover this?

Lisa, you speak to the importance of desire in character as being an aspect of empathy: the flame that draws in the reader, our need to feel both the pressure of that desire, and its consequences…and yet to have some space left around character for the reader to participate in the act of creation. And Peter, too, speaks to the importance of the reader making the connection. Alchemy again.

In all cases, it seems clear that liking your characters is largely irrelevant.

Here’s a revised definition of empathy in fiction that I’d like to try on for size. Finding ways to illuminate the other, the strange, the unknown, the undescribed, and make it understandable or give expression to it or animate it so that we inhabit the strangeness and live through its desires, its particular and complex truths — as communicated through particular arrangements of words.

Sometimes I think where I’m prepared to go, and how far I feel I can go into a character’s consciousness, is also shaped by point-of-view choices. There are some characters I can imagine inhabiting in a first-person POV, some only in third, some whom I can only attempt to imagine through the eyes of a narrating character — I wouldn’t know how to get closer than that. I wouldn’t say I always arrive at these choices consciously, but see them in retrospect. There are characters I’m desperate to have on the page (an astronaut mother, an Iranian passport forger, a man who founds a children’s circus and may or may not be a molester of children), and I can feel (and want to communicate) the force of their desire, but I don’t know how to get inside them: I can only observe them through the consciousness of my narrator. Are there characters that you don’t feel prepared to enter, or particular depths of consciousness where you feel you can’t, or won’t go — where the potential for any empathetic crossing-over simply stops, whether because the other feels too strange, or too evil, or too unknowable?

And, to turn the question around a little, are there particular circumstances in which you’ve encountered a reader’s resistance — where readers can’t or won’t make the empathetic leap?

BARBARA: To respond to Catherine’s last question first, I’ll say there are. Plenty of reviewers of Helpless took issue with me for not making Ron a complete monster. They wanted somebody they could hate unreservedly, and so they resented me for (as they saw it) trying to make them like the guy. Other readers (mostly women) expressed gratitude that I painted him in shades of gray. Well, I had no interest in creating a monster. Monsters are uninteresting in that they lack a moral dilemma, they can’t be sideswiped by compassion or guilt. For instance, Patrick whatever-his-name-was from American Psycho. I couldn’t finish that book because Patrick wasn’t human, he was a piece of human-shaped shit, a robot. For me, as both a writer and reader, it’s necessary maybe not to like the main character but to believe that he or she can be redeemed, whether or not that turns out to be the case. And yes, Catherine, I knew Ron would kidnap Rachel (so my previous answer wasn’t entirely truthful) but I wasn’t sure how he’d handle her once he got her in his basement.

I like Lisa’s line that character is desire. I think it’s true of people both inside and out of fiction. By the way, Lisa, I’m worried about your neighbour’s Rottweiller. Do they walk the poor thing? If we’re going to talk about empathy here, imagine being a huge, wild-hearted creature, whose day is spent trying to break free of the chain around your neck.

I also like Sheila’s “the book is a metaphor for your consciousness.” No doubt. Everything in our books is born of our minds, so there’s no escaping the fact that our characters are ourselves… ourselves as we imagine we’d be were we someone else.

A thought: Most writers, when asked why they write, say something along the lines of (to quote Aldous Huxley… naturally I looked this up), “One has the urge, first of all, to order the facts one observes and to give meaning to life.” Katherine Anne Porter (I got this from the same source) said, “That’s what the artist is for… to give his or her view of life.” Would you all agree? I do. Underneath every one of my books is a desire to give meaning to life as I see it and what’s more to sell this meaning to my readers. You can’t be heavy-handed about this, obviously, but your biggest weapon (maybe that’s too strong a word?) is your characters. The more credible they are, the more their stories sound not like fabricated situations but like testimonials. Who can argue with such experience, such voices? That’s how I feel when I read Alice Munro, especially her earlier books. Her dialogue is so authentic-sounding I’ll never be entirely convinced she wasn’t transcribing real life. This realness is at the heart of empathy, it seems to me. Something I believe is that all human ills arise out of a failure of empathy, and all failures of empathy arise out of failures of the imagination.

Another thought: Many fine and even great books contain scarcely any empathy at all. I’m thinking of Blood Meridian, for instance, where McCarthy just moves his un-enterable characters through the magnificent nightmare of his very-distant omniscient narrator. Also a writer like David Gilmour. Gilmour never gets into the head of any character outside the main one, who always happens to be a guy very much like David Gilmour. Gilmour’s a kind of pornographer of himself in his writing, and yet the result is intelligent and compelling, though hardly an exercise in empathy.

LISA: Barbara, I loved what you said about the creation of character, and that you don’t know very much when you start. That you don’t know a character is fat until you type the word. I realized, reading that description, that that’s the way it works for me too. Recently I’ve been writing a character who was in the Rotterdam zoo when the gorilla escaped last month. His physical body keeps slipping on me, one minute he’s tanned and fit, running marathons, sometimes he’s a pale smoker with white hairless legs veined like marble, always he has a Tilley hat. His age is slipping too. Even the gorilla is fading in and out. But what is important to me is his desire to escape an idea of time, what time is and how to get outside of it. It has to do with aging and procreating or not and death and the big desire to escape death. It has to do with the fact that my own hair is getting grey and though I’m only forty-three my daughter says, You know, you aren’t finishing your sentences anymore when you speak. This may be because I’m losing my mind, or it may be because I’m slipping deeper and deeper into the novel I’m trying to write. I have called this character Harry, but I want to change that because of Harry Potter. I can’t seem to change his name, nothing else works. Recently I was in the airport and a friend of mine, a boyfriend from when I was 16, sat down beside me. I looked up and there he was, I hadn’t seen him in three years or so. He’s a scientist. How’s the novel going, he said. He immediately started helping me with the timeline. He knew I was the kind of person who would have trouble with that. So if he was born in 1960, my friend said, and his daughter is now fifteen and he got a girl pregnant when he was, etc., etc. Having those dates (it took about fifteen minutes) was a huge relief. But it was also like hammering poor Harry into place. No more slippage on the timeline front. I could still have white legs, or tanned muscular ones, I could still have the Tilley Hat, but certain other things were nailed.

Sheila, I love your metaphor of the photograph and the pixels and the book and the character. Because characters are voice and the cadence of the speech, and the punctuation and language. Catherine, your questions are keeping me buzzing, they’re great and they’re swimming around in me.

PETER: First, re: character and invention & apropos of Lisa’s and Barbara’s comments: l understand what you said about not knowing the character is fat until it comes off the keys. And often writing is tripping over the edge of what I know and falling down, or over, into what I don’t. In a micro way that’s how it works — in a scene I usually don’t know how it will go till it spills out. But in a macro way, when I think of the whole pull of a book, there is one big fat thing — either a character or a scene that seems central, the thing I want to see closely and understand, that is the motive power. I think of it as the magnet somewhere in the book, and I’m always trying to get to that place, trying to keep my sense of direction clear.

Re: Catherine’s question # 2. Yeah. When my mc in Law of Dreams was recruited to work as a young male prostitute I made myself write scenes where he went to work doing tricks with clients but I just kept feeling kind of false and stilted writing them in a way I usually don’t feel writing about heterosex. And my trusted reader agreed. They felt bogus. Sex is sex but the act of being a prostitute and a male prostitute was too intimate and powerful an experience maybe for my powers of imagination and empathy — so what I recognized was that my character shared my own feelings, which weren’t homophobic or I don’t think even priggish — all his best friends were prostitutes & he recognizes that they are doing what they need to do to survive & he knows that being any ordinary laborer isn’t all that different (he’s hiring out his body after all) but regarding doing tricks, he just can’t go there. He realizes he cannot and will not be vulnerable in that way. He thinks his sense of self will dissolve. Maybe it was a case of the limits of my imagination shaping his character. I actually think his refusal was organic to his character, not just my weakness or lack of courage as a writer.

SHEILA: Barbara wrote that “Monsters are uninteresting in that they lack a moral dilemma.” It’s very true. Supermarkets also lack a moral dilemma, and perhaps are uninteresting on this account. Two years ago, I tried to write a book in which a supermarket was the main character.

Perhaps, as Lisa suggests, I didn’t know what the supermarket wanted. It wasn’t even a question I asked myself, since naturally it was a supermarket. In any case, though I wanted to write about a supermarket, after a few weeks I stopped.

So I think the idea of choice is involved, but I didn’t look at it like a formal choice — which characters you do or don’t go into. It’s not like choosing to buy this thing over that one, like you make a choice and you’re done with it. It’s more a choice like who do you end up fucking or falling in love with — it comes from you, but you don’t exactly will it.

CATHERINE: Is the idea of a moral dilemma essential to what we need in order to create empathy on the page?

This intrigues me. And makes me think of the idea of a novel as a place where multiple truths, embodied by characters, rub up against each other and collide. Those truths may create a dilemma within a character or between characters.

SHEILA: No, I don’t think it necessarily has to be a moral dilemma. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor wakes up to discover he’s a beetle (or whatever your preferred translation is). That’s an existential, not a moral, dilemma.

I’m not even sure a dilemma is necessary. It can’t be codified like this.

Certainly as a writer I have never thought, ‘Red bricks, blue curtains… I’ve got the house… now how am I going to create empathy?’

PETER: Dilemma, no not necessarily. No mission statement. Characters do have to want something that they’re not getting, don’t have. I’m trying to remember if empathy would characterize or usefully describe the nature of my relationship to the character /narrator Nick Jenkins in Dance to the Music of Time. Or to that other famous Nick/narrator in Gatsby. No. Maybe. I don’t need to feel empathy as a reader. I’m prepared to be horrified, and intrigued. But maybe as a writer I do.

BARBARA: I agree that a big moral or an ethical dilemma isn’t essential to creating empathy but I think it can be a powerful force when a character is struggling not to take the most self-serving path. And in all fiction, isn’t it true that characters constantly wrestle with small questions of behavior (Should I do the dishes or leave them for him to do? Should I step on the worm? Should I get pissed at my kid?) and that their decisions and reflections reveal aspects of their ethical profile and therefore determine the extent of our sympathies?

Sheila, I doubt many writers ask themselves, How am I going to create empathy? Surely the process is more unconscious, mixed up as it is with the creation of believable and compelling characters.

SHEILA: Yes, I agree — I think no writers do this. At least, I can’t imagine it.

LISA: I wanted to respond to that question earlier about points-of-view that I might feel frightened to try to inhabit. I think with Alligator I wanted to try every point of view I could think of. I thought the Russian sociopath would be the hardest, but in fact, the hardest point of view to write convincingly was 17-year-old Colleen. I had sort of decided to model that character on a young version of myself. But she came out nothing like me. It took me a very long time to make her feel in any way real on the page.

Frank, a 19-year-old boy in my novel, was not consciously modelled on anyone I knew. I kept wondering — where is this guy coming from? I don’t know anyone like this in real life. But he was the most real to me. I would actually wake up in the morning frightened for him and have to remind myself he was only a figment of my imagination, that he wasn’t real, and not in any real danger. That was one of the most unexpected things, and most pleasurable things that happened to me in terms of writing a first novel.

I realized, in considering this question, that I am afraid to write from a character’s point-of-view if he or she is from a country that I’ve never visited. I admire people who can do this. But I am afraid to attempt the stream-of-consciousness Peter describes — the voice that he heard so clearly while writing — if I do not know the smells and sounds and textures, the sensory details of that character’s world. I have begun to write a character from North Korea, as a challenge. Perhaps North Korea because so few people have visited there. It’s an imaginative leap for most readers, perhaps. But I don’t think I will be able to get inside this character’s head. I think I will only be able to portray her from the outside. What other characters think of her, and how they see her.

Ramona Dearing once wrote a story from the point-of-view of a spoon.

In the introduction to Anna Karenina ( I’m not sure which edition) it says that Tolstoy despised Anna, to begin with, and thought her morally inferior. He wanted to show her failings as an example. But as he wrote her she became sympathetic to him. He could not help himself.

Once I wrote a short story with a male protagonist and nobody believed it was a male protagonist. So I wrote his name in the very first paragraph and even said something like “he remembered back when he was a boy” and still nobody believed it was a male. I asked people to tell me where I went off track, what sounded female — nobody could locate the problem in a word or detail or phrase. But it was a problem for everyone who read the story.

Once I wrote a man traveling from Tazmania to Toronto via Singapore and in the Singapore airport he bought a pair of underwear, not realizing how long the flight would be, and wanting to change his underwear in the bathroom during the stopover. Many men explained to me that this would never happen. No man would ever change his underwear in the Singapore airport. But they agreed, reluctantly, he could change his socks, if he were an extremely fussy kind of guy.

CATHERINE: I’d like to return to Barbara’s comment, and question from above:

Katherine Anne Porter said, “That’s what the artist is for… to give his or her view of life.” Would you all agree? I do. Underneath every one of my books is a desire to give meaning to life as I see it and what’s more to sell this meaning to my readers.

PETER: Well, I remember when Hugh Hood was introducing his students at Université de Montréal to James Joyce and they kept asking Hood, “Ah, but what is his (Joyce’s) philosophy?” Which always seemed to me a kind of strange way to engage with the work.

I don’t know about giving meaning to life but maybe finding it. And not to Life but to experience within the life.

CATHERINE: Barbara’s comment makes me think of Zadie Smith’s comments in her recent article, “Fail Better,” in which she talks about what she looks for, and aims for, in fiction: a deep revelation of the self, the particular expression of a human consciousness, “one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language.” “When I write,” she says, “I am trying to express my way of being in the world.” To do this well, she argues, requires the nurturing and development of the self, a kind of self-education, in the broadest sense. Does this idea of needing to develop, to educate the self speak to you?

SHEILA: Yes, of course, but that’s part of being human, isn’t it? That desire?

That seems to be the directive of most of the world’s religions — Christianity, Buddhism, Scientology, whatever. It’s the directive of psychoanalysis, too.

It’s not a specifically writerly activity, the cultivation of the self.

Besides, is one a better writer the more self-actualized or good of a person they become? I don’t see evidence of that.
BARBARA: I’ve been thinking about Sheila’s proposition that love for someone is having “every feeling that it’s possible for one person to have about another.” I wonder if
that’s true. Towards the children I love I’ve never felt jealousy or envy or disgust or lust or animosity or hate or hostility or distrust. So maybe, Sheila, you were talking about romantic love? But even there, certain feelings may never come into play. For instance, I don’t believe I ever envied or felt afraid of either of my husbands. But I think it’s probably true that, in romantic love, the range of feelings is much wider.

When I think of fictional characters I’ve felt great empathy for, I think of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Anna Karenina, probably because their beauty, which should have been their best asset at a time when women’s assets were so few, is the very thing that doomed them. There are plenty of other such tragic heroines, of course (Madame Bovary, Lily Bart, Catherine Earnshaw, etc.) but these two, Tess and Anna, have stayed with me, Anna whenever I’m on a platform waiting for a train, and Tess whenever I take a long walk
(that women trekked miles just to milk a cow).

SHEILA: Last night I was lying in bed thinking about all this, our conversation, and the idea of a character started to feel really really strange to me. And then I turned my attention to people I know, and thought, What distinguishes one from another? What do I mean — what am I thinking about — when I think about a friend? Is it the way they look, or how their body moves, or — as Barbara says — the questions they wrestle with and the choices they make as a result?

And then — how crazy it is that we are able to simulate that motleyness in fiction, to create something whole, something which resembles a human.

Montaigne has a great essay about the changeability of people — “On the inconstancy of our actions” — and its main point is that the only thing that we can say for sure about people is that each of us is many men. That if you looked at our lives and all the various ways we’ve acted throughout it, no solid picture would emerge.

The first sentence says it all: “Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.”

So my question to all of you is — what do you think is the soul of the character? Apart from the fact that we give our characters names to distinguish them from one another, what is the soul of a fictional character, if fictional characters are meant to represent and to varying extents resemble real people, and yet real people are marked by variation, inconstancy and change?

BARBARA: Go, Montaigne! Long live ambiguity, a quality we seem to have lost our tolerance for. The reason creating real-seeming characters is so hard is probably because they need to be ambiguous and inconsistent. They need “motleyness.” Exactly.

CATHERINE: What I look for in character — soul, some essential quality — is unpredictability within the order of the narrative. I want to create this as a writer and discover it as a reader of fiction. I want to feel that the character has a choice to act one way or another, or feels pulled between possible paths of behaviour. The pulse, even with the smallest gesture, of the unexpected. As a writer I write to discover what these choices and courses of action will be, to inhabit them on the page. I want to feel the pressure of these possibilities and then the pressure of their consequences, and convey this to the reader. This is at the heart of my empathetic connection to character, I think.

The narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is often repulsive but lives this unpredictability: he’s driven, by hunger, by the desire to deceive and the desire to do good, he refuses to eat in case his brain becomes more feverish, he lies to an old man sitting on a park bench, he steals, when he has nothing he gives what he has away. His behaviour isn’t random; we feel the pressure of his making choices. And he retains an acute self-awareness even in states of near madness.

On the whole I’d say as a reader that I respond more to the immersion in the book-as-consciousness than to individual characters. Like Sheila, I have difficulty taking the characters out of the book. What I look for is to live imaginatively with some complexity — morally, emotionally, esthetically. I’ve been reading the Spanish novelist Javier Marias (All Souls, and the first two parts of his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow): I’m struck by the obsessions and quality of observations that come to me through the narrating voice: about how we observe others, sometimes spy on others, and how we make judgements about them, sometimes intuitively or foolishly or dangerously, and the consequences of those judgements. There are some scenes of very peculiar interrogation in the trilogy’s first part, Fever and Spear. On the other hand, when I think of War and Peace, I think first of Pierre, who does leap out of the novel for me, dragging along the scenes in which I encounter him (watching the battle in his top hat, walking through the streets of burning Moscow) — perhaps because he’s a character who observes so much so acutely and undergoes such an extraordinary transformation.

LISA: I think we call something a soul after we witness a grand gesture, a remarkable deed, a pivotal act. We see someone divorce, or murder, or give birth or win the lottery even, and we think, I knew he had that in him. He was like that even in the womb.

Once I asked Michael Winter to see if he could find me a William Faulkner biography in the second-hand bookstores of Toronto. He sent it and it was big and fat. The first line was: He was a colicky baby. I didn’t read any further. In fact I lost interest in biography altogether with that sentence. I could not believe that the hammering down of every detail of Faulkner’s life, even with the painstaking accuracy I knew was to follow, would bring me any closer to who Faulkner was or how he managed to blow to smithereens all notions of what fiction could be and do. Basically: his soul.

I think we have a deep desire for pattern, order, cause and effect, when it comes to character. It is a need for meaning. We want to believe that the grand gestures that seem character-forming are part of a fabric, part of a whole, and that a character can be knowable and predictable (even the unpredictable acts are predictable if we have the full picture, we like to think) — we need only look back on when that man was a child, and when he was a teenager, his first kiss, his peanut butter sandwich, his argyle socks, and we can say: Yes, he will triumph, I saw it from a long way off. But these are stories, illusions, I think, produced with hindsight. If this character fails, I imagine we might just as easily think, Yes, I saw it coming, look at those argyle socks, the peanut butter sandwich!

Virginia Woolf talks about “moments of non-being” as the most important when capturing character. I am not quite sure what she’s talking about here, but I always imagine, when I think of that phrase, Mrs. Ramsay climbing the stairs of her country house, sitting at her vanity table, taking the pins out of her hair, the light from the lighthouse sweeping over her, and she is not just lost in thought, she is empty of thought. She is present and empty at once, she is thoroughly herself, she is not moving the plot forward — what the hell is she doing there, halting the passage of time — and I think this is where Viriginia Woolf locates her soul.

PETER: My response would be that the soul of a character is maybe the nature and specificity of what they desire… “I am what I want.” Or maybe, “I am what I need.”

As for my being unconvinced that empathy is necessary to connect readers to fictional characters: examples of characters I am intrigued without feeling much empathy — well Kenneth Widmerpool in Dance to the Music of Time. Of course fiction is loaded with excellent, well-rendered nasty persons and I know that’s not quite what you meant…

CATHERINE: Is it also the absolute particularity of a character’s circumstance that allows us to empathize?

PETER: I say yes. Particularity, specificity. A novel reader is looking to ride through the world looking out through a different set of eyes for a while. You have to supply literally the vision — what they are seeing when they look out, specific and particular — and some sense of the interior music, the machinery of thinking and feeling.

SHEILA: There has been a lot of talk in this discussion about desire — a character’s desire defining them and creating empathy in us. I just want to put in a word for limitations… more even than desire, this is what I notice in people and myself and fictional characters — the things we can and cannot do.

This is of course connected to desire. The lonely man who wants a wife but is unable to trust even the gardener… our limitations prefigure and shape our desires.

So I want to say that it’s not only the desires of the characters that we relate to, but knowing that the desires come out of limitations, and observing these limitations in action (or inaction) — this gives a feeling of a human.

CATHERINE: One of the great contradictions of fiction, it seems to me, is that we aim to expand ourselves by losing ourselves — losing ourselves in the interiority of other characters, or the alien consciousness of the writer whose words we’re reading. And so there’s a tension, as we write, between the need for self-examination and the need to lose one’s self.

Here’s American novelist Richard Powers [in an interview in The Believer] speaking to this sort of thing, from the perspective of reading:

We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point-of-view. How would you recognize your world if it wasn’t yours? What might you look and feel like if you weren’t you? We can survive the disorientation; we even love immersing ourselves in it, so long as the trip is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends. Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. As the pioneer neuropsychologist A. R. Luria once wrote, “To find the soul, it is necessary to lose it.” To read another’s story, you have to lose yours.

We can lose ourselves in the interiority of another, or at least make the boundaries of the self feel expanded or porous. Perhaps there are other ways of losing the self in fiction. In fiction’s patterning qualities. By becoming alert to something other than the self. Fiction also creates meaning by ordering the world through story. We’re alert both as writers and readers to the structure of stories, to the demands of shape and structure, to patterns of rhythm and repetition both at the level of narrative and language.

And then fiction, it could be said, is also a kind of lucid dreaming, both for writers and readers — dreaming, which would seem to be the antithesis of self-examination. We drift, we doze, we roam, we wait for what filters up from the subconscious. We can’t educate our dreams, though perhaps we can become more alert to them.

Here’s Richard Powers again:

That act of bottomless, estranging kinship is probably the main goal of reading and writing novels. … When I read a particularly moving and achieved work of fiction, I feel myself succumbing to all kinds of contagious rearrangement. Only inhabiting another’s story can deliver us from certainty.

I love the idea of being delivered from certainty. There’s also this tension between empathy and estrangement. Or, as Powers suggests, perhaps they’re intimately connected, a version of the same experience.

BARBARA: In response to my agreeing with Huxley that I write to give meaning to life, Peter said, “I don’t know about giving meaning to life but maybe finding it. And not to Life but to experience within the life.” I felt abashed at that. As if I’d made the grand statement that I have the “ability” to give meaning to life. It isn’t what I meant. What I meant is more along the lines of what Katherine Anne Porter said about writing to give one’s view of life. And even that sounds pretty pompous. But the truth is I have a view, which is no doubt skewed and impoverished and which shifts over the years, but it’s there. And though I don’t set out to push that view in my writing, my characters inevitably end up wrestling with it in one guise or another. I’m pretty sure I became a writer because this view of mine seems so much at odds with the majority view. Because, as most writers and artists do, I feel like an outsider. So perhaps I write to elicit empathy, through my characters, for myself! Yikes.

Regarding losing ourselves in fiction — that’s part of it. But don’t we also want to be challenged and even disturbed and maybe outraged? The fiction I like best never entirely immerses me, it wakes me up. I agree, though, that reading and writing fiction can allow us to expand ourselves by expanding our experience of others. Even bad books, like bad sex, contain information. Even bad writers have at least made the effort.

PETER: I just can’t live with a character for the years it takes me to develop a novel without developing empathy for them. Not possible. Like the people you are stuck with on some awful, wondrous journey. You could try to ignore them for the first few hours but then that broke down about the same time the chartered bus did, on that bandit-riddled road to Xinguatlan, and before the trip was over you had had all sorts of passionate exchanges with them, and you have forgotten that in the first few days they were just hideous unlikely strangers wearing unfortunate clothes. The empathy I have as a writer for my people is not just sustaining, it is the medium through which my awareness of them metastasizes.

LISA: “Estranging kinship” is such a beautiful description of fiction. Here is the definition of empathy (one of them) from Webster’s: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

I’m interested in this idea that you can experience these feelings of the other without having them “fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” It is not that we experience the SAME feelings, as readers, that a character is going through. But kind of a copy of those feelings. Sympathy might be the experience of the SAME feelings. But empathy seems to provide a distance from the character’s feelings, experiences, thoughts. It is an authorial distance. The space between the author and the character’s point-of-view perhaps? Empathy is also related to the word passion, etymologically speaking, which is related to passivity, and passivity means “to receive,” to be a receptacle for. The reader receives a kind of copy of the character’s feelings, thoughts, emotions. Not exactly the same as actually feeling them for one’s self. There’s a slight distance, wiggle room, a crack. This is the space for estrangement, I think. The ability to feel and judge at the same time. To dream and be lucid. To find and lose oneself at the same time. Recently I have been hearing on A.M. radio here a message about over-fishing. The government wants to “send a clear message about poaching,” the ad says. I keep thinking, every time I hear the phrase “send a clear message”: What about the ambiguous message? I want an ambiguous message from my government. Something that allows for the complexity of reality. Mostly, I’m kidding. But I think empathy in fiction accepts a kind of absolute ambiguity.

SHEILA: Catherine wrote this at some point, about a quarter-of-a-mile back: “What I look for is to live imaginatively with some complexity — morally, emotionally, esthetically. “I think we write fiction partly to drill into ourselves the complexity of life, and how weird it is to live, and how unlikely a situation we all find ourselves in — breathing, inside this head, this particular situation, with these people… Looked at closely, it’s all so heartbreaking. My friend, the poet Sherwin Tjia, wrote: “I think love is for those who aren’t already heartbroken from being alive.”

If it’s true that we want people to accept our view of life, as Barbara suggested, or to empathize with the characters we invent (which are shades of some part of ourselves), then we have to make these things worthy of love.

I think this is what I mean when I wonder about the soul of a character: how do we create something worthy of being loved? What is there in us that’s essentially worthy of love? For me, it would be too awful a world if our souls weren’t deserving of love (or empathy).

And yet I feel compelled to use the word “deserving,” which means we are creatures who might not be deserving of love — meaning perhaps we’re ugly, murderous things — and there’s evidence that we are; of course we are. But if our essence really is despicable, I think we’re only redeemed by the strange fact that we’ve been made able to love this ugliness. That’s seemingly enough for redemption. (How weird, that the despicable in us is made beautiful and elevated by love of the despicable.)

I feel the most gratitude toward those writers who can expose the worst and twin it with the most elevated compassion — Dostoevksy, Coetzee… My favourite characters are the least kind. When I was a kid, I always rooted for the wicked witch in fairy tales. And my favourite writers are those who have the darkest visions… Like, why do I love Houellebecq? Maybe because it’s a victory for me to love his awful vision? Perhaps it’s a triumph of my empathy, my humanity.

Or maybe it’s so hard, in life, to love what we despise. And it’s a little bit easier in fiction.

Originally published at

the only question worth asking of a story … is, "Is it dead or alive?”

- Mavis Gallant


Catherine’s contributions to UBC’s optional-residency MFA audio downloads can be heard here (2009-2006). Scroll down to 2006 for her instructor talk: "Why Fiction Matters: Some Thoughts on Realism, Authenticity and Conviction"


From the Authors’ Aloud website, Catherine Bush reads from Claire’s Head.
"to create life which does not eat, procreate or drink but which can live in people who are alive."

- Henry Green on writing