Author Tags: Fiction

Carol Windley was born in Tofino in 1947. She attended Chemainus Secondary and graduated from Malaspina College. She has worked as a radio station copywriter, as a librarian and as a creative writing instructor at Malaspina College. Her short stories have appeared in 1995: Best Canadian Stories (Oberon) and the fifth Journey Prize Anthology. She won first prize in CBC Radio's Literary Competition for the short story. Her first collection Visible Light (Oolichan, 1993) was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award, a B.C. Book Prize, and won the Bumbershoot/Weyerhaeuser Publication Award. One of her seven stories set in the Pacific Northwest for Home Schooling (Cormorant) received the Western Magazine Award for Fiction in 2002. Windley lives with her husband in Nanaimo.


Visible Light (Oolichan, 1993)
Breathing Under Water (Oolichan, 1998)
Home Schooling (Cormorant, 2006).

[BCBW 2006] "Fiction"

Visible Light (Oolichan$12.95)

Carol Windley of Nanaimo discovered she was the winner of the 1993 Bumbershoot Weyerhaeuser Publication Award, worth $2,000 to herself and $5,000 to her publisher, even before her first novel was published. Windley won for Visible Light (Oolichan $12.95), a debut collection of West Coast short stories. The judges -- three American novelists -- read edited copies of the manuscript, and the contest was judged 'blind', i.e. no names of author or publisher were included on the manuscripts. Windley was born in Tofino in 1947 and is currently employed by the Vancouver Island Regional Library. 0-88982-124-0

[BCBW, Summer, 1993]

Home Schooling (Cormorant Books $22.95)

from Sheila Munro
It isn’t often I discover a writer whose writing is so good I find myself having to go back and read a sentence over again for the sheer pleasure of the language. Happily, Nanaimo’s Carol Windley, whose latest offering, Home Schooling (Cormorant Books $22.95), which was short-listed for the Giller prize, is such a writer.

When I opened her book to the first page and came across the sentence, “There were white fawn lilies like stars fallen to earth and bog-orchids, also called candle-scent, and stinging nettles, blameless to look at, leaves limp as flannel, yet caustic and burning to the touch,” I just had to go back and read it again.

Set in the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver Island, Windley’s stories capture the wild beauty of the coastal landscape, whether its the lush vegetation of “skunk cabbages, bulrushes, rotting trees incubating fleshy, tumor-like funguses with names like Dead Man’s Fingers, Witches’ Butter, and False Chanterelle,” or the calm of the ocean, “the ferry’s wake unspooled like a length of silk on the pale sea.”

More remarkable is the way she serves up the lives of its inhabitants, recreating that restless West Coast sensibility of people who are in transition, who are experimenting, who attend wellness workshops, or establish alternate schools, or leave spouses and children behind, all in pursuit of some idealistic quest for authenticity. She does this in prose that is nuanced, precise, graceful and intelligent.

The characters in Windley’s stories often find themselves dealing with the aftermath of some kind of terrible loss or tragedy. In What Saffi Knows, a young girl is aware of the awful truth about what has happened to a boy who has mysteriously disappeared from a nearby field. But while the search parties keep looking for him, Saffi finds herself unable to say anything about the imprisoned bird boy she has seen in her neighbour’s basement.

For Saffi, telling would make it real, would lend it power, but if you don’t tell maybe it’s just a dream, maybe it isn’t real. Here Windley is exploring the kind of magical thinking all of us are capable of when certain truths seem unbearable.

In the title story, Home Schooling, the remote private school founded by Annabel’s father has had to close its doors because one of its pupils has drowned on the property, leaving a shaky future for the family stranded on an isolated island. Annabel’s mother, who has given up a promising career as a concert pianist to follow her husband, has loved the boy who drowned, a gifted musician, a prodigy like herself, more than she has loved her own daughters. Meanwhile seventeen-year-old Annabel and her fifteen-year-old sister are locked in a fierce competition for the attentions of a lover they visit on alternate nights.

In this story, as in several others, families are unsatisfactory places whose members are unable to thrive within them, sharing a common space, but living parallel, almost unrelated lives.

The Joy of Life is another story in which marriage and motherhood clash with a woman’s artistic ambitions. Desiree is a painter who attends an artists’ retreat in Wales in the 1950s. Soon she begins having an affair with a poet, while leaving her more conventional friend, Alex, who wants nothing more than the domestic life Desiree eschews (as well as wanting Desiree’s husband). Alex is left to look after Desiree’s young daughter, who has become fixated on her kindergarten teacher. Children are often the casualties here, bearing the scars of abandonment, but they, too, are resilient enough to forge new attachments.

Despite their elegiac tone, and the themes of loss and disconnection, Windley’s stories are never bleak. Love can still be found, she says, but it is rare and likely to be found in unusual places and unexpected alliances, as families dissolve and reconfigure themselves, improvising new lives, trying to reclaim some solid ground. I think Windley says so much about the way we live now when she describes a remarriage in the story Family in Black as a “broken, patchily reassembled family in the early years of a century no one had yet learned to trust or had any reason to trust.” There’s a leap of faith involved in carrying on in such an uncertain world, and yet we do. The peo-ple in these stories do make the best of it.

When I read these stories, I was reminded of those lines from Emily Dickinson about how sometimes the only way to tell the truth is to “tell it slant.” Windley is constantly reminding us that people’s stories change, memory is unreliable, identity is multi-faceted and elusive, with each person “made up of innumerable past selves and these selves were hidden and unreachable.”
I think that in recognizing the shifting, unreliable nature of experience and “telling it slant” Windley is getting to some larger truths. With this collection she has achieved the mastery of form that allows her to move her stories outward in concentric circles, to jump from the perspective of one character to another, to leap around in time and place, and throw in references to painting and poetry without missing a beat. She dazzles us with all these pyrotechnics while quietly honing in on, with deadly accuracy, some particular truth about family or loss, or art or love. Her previous titles are the award-winning story collection Visible Light and the novel Breathing Underwater.


[BCBW 2006]