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|The Little Washer of Sorrows|
The Bull Calf, January 2017
Katherine Fawcett’s collection of short stories The Little Washer of Sorrows is an imaginative foray into human behaviour, archetypal characters, and the wild and unpredictable nature of life. Myth and fairy tales are given a contemporary perspective, and there is often a sense that strange forces seem to be acting on the minds and desires of the characters, or that things are not quite what they seem on the surface. The uncanny and the threat of the trauma of the real are playfully intertwined into the ever-present possibility of life shifting from solid footing to unreal in a swift ungentle moment.
The collection contains a rich panorama of human experience built up through playful language, an intertwining spectrum of pop culture, contemporary technology, and basic human needs and desires in order to reach into the core of human affect through a dark, comedic view of life. As Black Mirror updates Twilight Zone, so too does The Little Washer of Sorrows play with well-established psychological concerns and literary symbolism to delve into our shared neuroses, and the unbelievable in new ways.
There is no link between the stories in Washer of Sorrows, but Fawcett’s interrogation of chance, choice, and effect all seem to be part of a focused perspective on the nature of life as risk. Although the narratives are not specifically focused on this question, nearly all of the stories delve into the ways in which human beings risk their lives, careers, and relationships through subtle and incisive shifts in the choices the characters make. As many of the characters exist in precarious social and financial positions, Fawcett’s work offers a wide-ranging study of contemporary society through mythic, archetypal stories that tap into the ever-present “presentness” of contemporary culture.
This idea takes place in a number of different ways. In “Swimming to Johnny Depp” a woman seems to see Johnny Depp on a raft in the middle of a lake. Believing that Depp is calling for her to swim out to him, and creating a fantasy built on the ultimate illusion of love (or perhaps pushed by this fantasy) the woman enters into the lake with her clothes still on, pushes away from the dock, and “experience[s] complete immersion” (160). Apparently forgetting that she does not know how to swim, the dream image trumps reality and she risks all for the end goal. “Dire Consequences” employs a similar tension between reality and belief as seen through the lens of risk. After being scolded by her mother for not eating her broccoli, a young girl tells her mother that she will die if she eats the broccoli. Her mother pushes aside the exaggeration, and the child eats the broccoli. She then curls up on the couch and dies. The girl’s brother takes advantage of the newly formed belief in the seemingly literal power of verbal threats to get away with anything he wants. The mother’s fear of this threatening power puts her in a position in which she must concede to her son’s constant demands or risk being responsible for his death. In both of these stories, albeit it in different ways, the risk involved in the situation produces the narrative thrust of the characters’ behaviours through the underlying emotional fears and desires inherent in the human being.
In “All Inclusive,” an older couple propositions a younger couple into sexually performing in front of them, in order to relive their earlier sexual selves. The younger couple end up in a disagreement over the morality and eccentricity of the proposition, but the money involved in the offer is too much for them to finally resist. Both of the couples, staying at an All-Inclusive resort, end up involved in a risk between proposition and performance. For the characters in this drama, a number of questions arise: what does this possibility mean?; what is at stake in choosing one way or another?; and what is there to lose or to gain in the process? Fawcett uses similar narrative strategies built around risk in “Johnny Longsword’s Third Option,” “Candy on the Jesus Bar,” “The Siren Sisters,” and “Your Best Interests.”
Fawcett’s adept ability to plunge into the absurd and comic is controlled by the deeper meanings that surface through the way in which the characters choose to move forward. Overall, this collection is a dynamic, funny, and weirdly discomforting work that leads one to look more closely at the world around, and inside of, them.
— Marc André Fortin, The Bull Calf
National Public Radio Book Reviews, March 21, 2015
'Little Washer of Sorrows' Morphs the Mundane into the Fantastic
The Little Washer of Sorrows is not what it seems. At first glance, the debut collection of short stories by Canadian author Katherine Fawcett offers funny, sympathetic sketches of characters who might live next door to you: The homemaker who underutilizes her college degree; the aspiring heavy metal musician with delusions of stardom; the aging couple who can barely muster the passion to even bicker anymore.
And it works well on this level alone; Fawcett has a flair for quiet drama and unfussy detail, and her dialogue positively fizzes. Little Washer startles, however, thanks to its commitment to the fantastic. Amid the mundaneness of these 19 contemporary tales, whimsy and weirdness abound. Artificial intelligence lurks in the suburbs. Accountants nurse monsters. Movie stars appear as mirages. If Fawcett's characters actually did live next door to you, your life would be in for some serious upheavals.
Fawcett lets her speculative side run wild. Like fellow fabulist Kelly Link — not to mention forebears such as Donald Barthleme — she finds fertile ground in the fuzzy territory between realism and surrealism. In “BLK MGC,” a ripped-from-the-headlines pyramid scheme takes a left turn somewhere near The Twilight Zone; in “The Anniversary Present,” an aging Mother Earth is addicted to beauty products while her husband, Father Time, has adulterous feelings for Sister Moon.
Domesticity plays as big a part in Fawcett's story as science fiction, fantasy, and mythology do. The tenderly combative interplay between the married couple in “Lenny and the Polyamphibians” — which only intensifies when a mermaid enters into the equation — is poignantly layered, even as it sparks with snark. The couple in Little Washer’s title story, on the other hand, are haunted by the most prosaic of monsters: Bankruptcy. As their estate manager begins to exhibit supernatural qualities, though, the balance of reality gets turned on its side.
Little Washer is playful when it comes to age-old tropes, from android imposters to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. But they're still age-old tropes, and the book's one major flaw is an overreliance on clichés, as freshly as they're approached. Luckily Fawcett transcends that with her bright, nimble voice, not to mention her pop culture savvy and eye small, telling details: A hapless high school teacher presides over a class of students whose names all begin T; in purgatory, people love singing Survivor's “Eye of the Tiger” at karaoke. It all works at a deeper level than these breezy stories might imply, as does Fawcett's use of technology as a complication for her characters. Alienated spouses use texting to maintain their disconnect; a computer buffering and freezing emphasizes the communication breakdown between teacher and pupils.
Occasionally a story flirts with fabulism without diving headlong into it — and in the case of “Suburban Wolf,” it makes for the best bit in the book. Wagg is a part of a gang of semi-feral kids who roam neighborhoods, pack-like and barely civilized. Nothing about their situation is explained, nor does it need to be. It's only important to know that it's Wagg's 15th birthday, and he just received his first kiss, and that ecstatic coming of age isn't going to last long.
Just as Fawcett injects the weird into the mundane, she hides hard, barbed little truths in her otherwise lightweight yarns. “Captcha” might appear to be nothing but a clever spin on The Stepford Wives, but it winds up deftly exploring the nature of monogamy. “Swimming to Jonny Depp” seems like a sweet, silly vignette, but there's a nugget of sadness to the protagonist's middle-age daydreaming. Ultimately, The Little Washer of Sorrows is about epiphanies: their scarcity, their power, and their uncanny ability to make our everyday lives look downright unreal by comparison.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.
calgary herald, eric volmers, april 4, 2015
While it is never wise to judge a book by its first line, writer Katherine Fawcett certainly sets an early tone with Captcha, the short story that opens her debut collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows.
In the opening sentence, a supportive wife named Margo narrates what is apparently her normal morning routine, which includes a brief reference to both frying bacon and a specific sex act that she names in a coarse but matter-of-fact manner.
Fawcett is quick to point out that it is the only reference to that particular sex act in the book.
“However,” says the Montreal-born and Calgary-raised writer with a laugh. “It will keep it off the shelves of certain schools.”
That’s probably true. But if there is anything linking her imaginative stories in The Little Washer of Sorrows (Thistledown Press, 215 Pages, $18.95) it’s the irreverent tone and often irresistibly “twisted” voice of the narrators. Captcha is a case in point. While we won’t offer spoilers, we can say that dutiful Margo is not who she, or the reader for that matter, thinks she is. The attractive wife has a master’s degree in mathematics but, when not serving her husband’s needs, spends her time hawking Kokanee at sporting events while clad in a bikini. While her husband is away at work, she discovers her true nature and the real reason she is so “perfect” for her spouse. She also discovers a love of Leonard Cohen.
“There wasn’t a coherent theme per se, I didn’t write to that end,” says Fawcett, who is now based in Pemberton, B.C. “But once I got them together I realized the theme was the twisted voice. They are not thematically linked. But they are all a weird perspective of life. There’s some unreliable narrator stuff in there. There’s flipping back and forth between reality and mythology. There’s magical realism.”
The Siren Sisters, for instance, reimagines the dangerous Greek mythological seductresses as three squabbling sisters with eating disorders and daddy issues. In the title story, a broke man visits a bankruptcy agency and is convinced the assistant manager is an Irish banshee who is foretelling his doom. In Lenny and the Polyamphibians, a married insurance broker finds a mermaid on a beach near Squamish and nurses her back to health. In Johnny Longsword’s Third Option, a cat-loving male stripper not-so-patiently awaits his final reward in the waiting room of Purgatory.
“All my characters are based on very real people but the circumstances in which they find themselves are kind of wild, warped and unreal,” Fawcett says. “But they are dealing with them in real ways.”
Some are more real than others, particularly in their sense of place. Representing Literature in Music For You is a funny if squirm-inducing study of a delusional English teacher who tries to engage his stubbornly unengaged students during an “off-campus” lesson over doughnuts about literature and modern-music lyrics. It was based on an actual exchange Fawcett witnessed in a Pemberton coffee shop. Candy on the Jesus Bar is a loosely autobiographical tale, recalling a very odd job Fawcett had as a teen at the Calgary Stampede. But whatever the setup, Fawcett’s tales are often darkly comical, even if a certain sense of dread courses underneath.
“Life is darkly humorous,” she says. “Sadness and comedy go hand in hand. There’s some satire in there that is intentional. But I think the dark humour is very natural and just springs from life.”
And the dread? It’s one of the things that spurs her imagination.
“I think that’s the worry wart in me,” says Fawcett. “People who worry have really good imaginations. Maybe it’s a motherhood thing, I don’t know. If you imagine the worst thing that can happen then it won’t happen because you’ve already gone through it in your head. And even if it does happen, you are then prepared for it.”
A mother-of-two, Fawcett spent most of her childhood in Calgary. Since then she has lived in Japan, Yellowknife and Canmore, where she briefly wrote for the now-defunct Canmore Leader. She currently teaches music in Whistler and plays violin in the Sea to Sky Orchestra. Inspired by the short stories of American author George Saunders and Israelis writer Etgar Keret, Fawcett began getting published in literary journals such as Calgary’s FreeFall Magazine and Vancouver’s subTerrain. For now, she hopes to continue exploring short stories as an art form in and of itself, rather than as a training ground for a novel.
“I see short stories as little gems,” she says. “They are intended to be consumed in one sitting, which is really nice. To be able to go from the beginning, follow an arc, fall in love with the characters — or maybe not — and come out of it in the end impacted, I love that. To be able to have an experience in a small amount of time, I love.”
— Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald
CANADIAN LITERATURE (UBC), SPRING 2015 - Queer frontiers #224
"Disruptive Alterity and the Uncanny"
In its simplest iteration, the uncanny, as defined by Freud, is the familiar made strange. That which is uncanny is disruptive, troubling the stable divide between the mind and the object it perceives. [...] Katherine Fawcett’s The Little Washer of Sorrows link[s] the uncanny to the inner lives of female-identified characters, many of whom are marginalized within the patriarchal power structures they inhabit. In [...] Fawcett’s stories, the uncanny becomes a site of resistance, a space in which the irreducible alterity of female lives intrudes upon the heteronormative, classist, and sexist fantasies of femininity that are byproducts of inequitable power structures.
The Little Washer of Sorrows, Katherine Fawcett’s debut collection, is situated within the genre of modern magic realism practiced by Jonathan Lethem and Haruki Murakami, among others. Unfortunately, Fawcett frequently struggles with both the magic and realism of her stories. Fawcett’s fantastical elements are either genre tropes, such as housewives who are sexbots, or are unconvincing, such as children who actually die from eating broccoli. Fawcett’s realism is often shallow; many of her characters read like humorous sketches rather than individuals possessed of psychological nuance.
Despite their unevenness, Fawcett’s stories featuring female subjects successfully deploy the uncanny in countering male privilege. For example, “Captcha,” the first piece in the collection, is the tale of Margo, a housewife who, upon discovering her origin, takes five new lovers in a single evening in a bid to achieve emotional independence from her husband. Margo begins to dream after sleeping with other men and women, a sign that she has become fully human. Margo’s dream life, described as an illogical version of her real life, exposes the absurdity of the limited world her husband has given her to occupy. At the end of the story, Margo leaves the confines of the domestic world and gets a job.
The uncanny in [...] Fawcett’s works is potent, for it exposes a core of disruptive alterity in female-identified characters that threatens patriarchal power structures.
— Gillian Dunks, Canadian Literature
(reviewed with "Cold Pastoral" by Margaret Duley (Coles Publishing)
Michael Noll: When I read the story’s final line, I laughed and gasped at the same time. In a way, the story is structured like a well-told joke. The end is almost like a punchline. How did you find this structure? Did it simply occur to you as you wrote, or did you have the ending in mind when you began the story?
Katherine Fawcett: I’m delighted that the ending made you laugh and gasp. I do enjoy going for goosebumps. I think the horror of inevitability is really powerful. To be funny and devastating at the same time reflects the inescapable reality of being human.
The structure of this particular story did fall into place as I wrote it. I knew it was a fable, and that in telling it the loss of the girl would have to somehow come around again. But no, I didn’t plan the ending in advance. When I neared the ending, I had no choice in how to finish.
Michael Noll: I also love the quick pacing. This is something I’m seeing a lot of lately, in stories by Sheila Heiti, Amelia Gray, and Dina Guidubaldi, to name a few writers. The stories don’t really descend into scene and stay there. Instead, they zoom along over a series of events, as this story does, with the result being a story that feels a bit like a fable. Does this seem like a fair description of the story? What attracts you to this form?
Katherine Fawcett: I recently read Heather O’Neill’s collectionDaydreams of Angels, another Canadian author whose short stories often trip quickly along with gorgeous images and snapshots of events. I like how this style can feel intense–almost dream-like. I think the short story lends itself to this form very well. I love a story that is organized in such a way that readers feel they are swinging Tarzan-style from vine to vine with every turn of the page.
Michael Noll: This story was originally published as part of a series titled “Thrilling Tales of Torment.” As such, I guess it’s a kind of horror story, which makes sense—after all, two children die. But it’s a peculiar kind of horror story in that it’s funny. (At least, I laughed at the end.) But it’s also a weird kind of humor since the thing that is funny is also horrible, and so as I was laughing, I was also feeling a lot of empathy for the characters, especially the boy. Was this story intended as horror? Is that a genre you’re drawn to?
Katherine Fawcett: To be honest, I didn’t write this as a “Thrilling Tales of Torment” story, but when I was asked to submit a Halloween story, it was the most suitable one I had at the time. It certainly isn’t horror in the traditional sense, but you’re right–a couple of dead kids is a pretty nasty and no one wants to laugh at that, so it’s kind of a blend of bad, distasteful humour and weird, funny horror.
I do like reading horror–although I sometimes find it too disturbing to read at night. The first short story collection I ever read was Stephen King’s Night Shift. I must have been 11 or so–I remember being terrified and thrilled, and sharing the stories around campfires to scare my friends.
Michael Noll: One review of the book uses the term “fabulist” and compares you to Kelly Link, the incomparable giant of the weird stories that seem to now officially fall under that label. What do you think of that term: fabulist? It’s relatively new, and so it seems that the definition of what belongs is a bit fuzzy. Does it seem like an appropriate category for your work?
Katherine Fawcett: I am honored to be spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link. I’d never defined myself as such before, but if the Link is a fabulist and NPR says I’m following in her tradition, then yup, you can call me a happy fabulist too. The word is appealing because it is like “fantastic” and “beautiful” and “marvelous” going out for drinks together.
I suppose all fiction is lying by definition, but a fable is something that brings to light a truth. So yes, lying to find truth would be a great category for my work.
I read somewhere that fiction is simply a craft that arranges letters and spaces and punctuation in a way that makes us empathize with the fake struggles of pretend people. It seems to me the whole process of categorization (fabulist, magical realist, satirist, sci-fi writer etc) has more to do with marketing than actually sitting down and telling stories–lying to find truth. But if lumping me into a category will pique readers’ interest, lump away.
— Michael Noll, Read to Write Stories
That’s what Fawcett has opted to do—at least as far as her writing goes. She started her career in sports reporting, moved toward freelance journalism and commercial writing, and by motherhood/age forty decided to give those fiction voices in her head a chance. I was able to ask her about what it was like to prepare stories for a collection, how her previous writing experiences aided her when it came to working on a book, and how she can take something so basic as an elderly couple on vacation and make them both more real than you’d ever considered and more real than you’d ever want to consider. Meet Katherine Fawcett.
What was it like to work on a story collection, for a book? In the past you’ve worked as a sports reporter and a freelance journalist, among other things. Did any of those previous experiences prepare you for getting this book published?
Several of your stories in The Little Washer of Sorrows touch on mythology or folklore. Did you have to do any additional research once you got a sense for where you wanted to take the story? Did you write them and then make sure all the little details were correct? Or is it all part of your background?
How did you choose what stories to include in this collection? And why did you determine “The Little Washer of Sorrows” to be the title story, rather than, say, “Scratching Silver Linings” or “The Siren Sisters”?
When you sit down to write, how do you get started? Some writers have an opening sentence and they write to see where it takes them, while others might have an ending that they work backwards to attain. Or some do both. What’s your process?
What’s it like to look at the world as Katherine Fawcett? For instance, in “Captcha,” the opening story of the collection, the story starts off very upfront but also very normal and potentially heartrending: the woman can’t have children. The story then takes a pretty unexpected turn. How much of your daily life feeds your creativity?
"Pemberton author Katherine Fawcett releases new book." Whistler Question, Rachel Purdy, 30 March 2015.
"Blurring lines in short fiction." The Rocky Mountain Outlook, Cole Carruthers, 9 April 2015.
The Nelson Star (mention), Will Johnson, 9 April 2015.
"Finding humour in The Little Washer of Sorrows." The Fernie Free Press, Katelyn Dingman, 13 April 2015.
"Fiddling with Fate", BC BookLook, 13 February 2015.
"Scared and lonely? Take one short story and call me in the morning." The Wellness Almanac / Whistler Question, Lisa Richardson, 22 June 2015.
Pique Newsmagazine / Whistler Writers Festival, Karen McLeod, 16 September 2015.