Sunday, October 25, 2015

P.K. Page and Rising Stories

The initial idea for Rising Stories came to me in December of 2009 as Maureen and I were reading a letter to the Globe and Mail about the sorts of imaginary worlds that children discover when they go through doors in magical closets or down magical rabbit holes. What sort of world would we imagine for ourselves if we were writing such a story? The thought came to me of a child pressing the buttons of one of the elevators in a skyscraper; rows of additional numbers suddenly appear—and magically, those additional stories turn out to be real.

But what or who would be up there?

I’m not entirely sure how or why I came to think within a few months of someone like P.K. Page inhabiting this magical world—but if I put my mind into analytic rather than imaginative mode I can think of a few possibilities. The rising stories of the skyscraper are from one angle a metaphor for growing up, and that growing up in which physical growth mirrors mental growth is followed (if we’re lucky) by growth of a different and purely invisible sort—the growth of mind, of feeling, of wisdom. From this angle it makes a certain sort of sense for the child to travel up to find a very old person in a space that you can't at first see.

In the case of K.P. in Rising Stories, there is a further wrinkle, quite aside from the question of whether or not the story on which she lives is real: it is not at all clear that she is real. Robin remembers at one point that she has died: is the person Robin meets in her apartment on the 86th story a ghost? Or some other sort of magical figure? Or simply a figment of Robin’s imagination, and Robin’s memory?

(As an aside here, I might mention that, at about Robin's age, I had a similar experience involving the death of an aunt. I think I had felt guilty for not having sent her a thank-you note or some such thing; when I was told that she had died I pushed the information from my mind, preferring to think of her as still alive; I did not "remember" that she was in fact dead for many months.)

P.K. Page died on January 14, 2010. You would not think that the death of someone in her 94th year would inspire shock and a tremendous sense of loss. If you make it to your 93rd birthday still able to get around a little and with your wits more or less about you, (as P.K. certainly had most of hers), and you die a death that does not entail prolonged and horrendous physical pain, we generally think it has to be counted good news—a good end to a good life. The fact that I (and I’m sure many others) nevertheless did feel a very powerful pull in the heart on the news of her death, a feeling of pained shock as well as deep sadness, attests to the extraordinary warmth of feeling P.K. inspired—and also, I suppose, to her having come to seem almost ageless. Of course she looked old in her last few years, but far less old than she was. And she retained an extraordinary vitality, as well as real elegance—an elegance not at all the product of fancy clothes or jewelry or makeup. “In the strangest of ways, she was beautiful” is what Robin thinks when the door opens.

P.K. was a well-known painter as well as an acclaimed poet, and I wanted the story of a painter to be part of Rising Stories.

As well, I may have thought of P.K. in part because she represented to me bookends of my own experience. She had known my family in the 1950s in Ottawa, when both her husband and my father worked in the Department of External Affairs, and I was a very small child—too young to remember her. Roughly fifty years later, as a book publisher, I contacted P.K. about her inclusion in an anthology and she encouraged me to be in touch if I ever came to Victoria. I did exactly that, and between 2005 and 2009 paid her visits on several occasions when I was in the city. She would always welcome me with a strong gin and tonic, but take vodka herself; she explained that she would prefer gin but that, for some medical reason, vodka had come to agree with her more in her old age. (Those who have read Rising Stories may at this point be reminded that, although Robin never sees K.P. eating anything, the child does comment on the “colorless liquid” that she drinks.) And she would always provide wonderful conversation—about aging and about love, about the oddities of the human spirit, and of course about writing books—mostly the many books she was still writing, for children as well as for adults, but also my own Animals, which she was kind enough to read in manuscript, and which (as she later wrote) led her to give up eating meat.

The character of K.P. in Rising Stories is inspired by P.K., not based on her. The story of collapsing skyscrapers in Brazil is lifted from P.K.'s Brazilian Journal, and P.K. did say (as K.P. does) that she felt she had aged more in her 91st year than all the other 90 put together. But I don’t believe P.K. was particularly interested in skyscrapers—and she had no more lived in one than I ever have. She was a painter of a very different sort than is K.P. And K.P.’s voice is not that of P.K., either, though I do think there are echoes of the one in the other. I hope to always hear those echoes.

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