January: An Afterword
K.D. Miller’s short story “Late Breaking” is published in Issue 136: Do You Know Who I Am?.
In 2014, I attended the Alex Colville exhibit at the AGO. I left knowing I would have to come back a second time, possibly a third. It was all so rich, so layered, linking the painter’s work with that of artists as disparate as Alice Munro and the Coen brothers.
Why had I not seen the Alice Munro connection before this? Both creators pay meticulous attention to everyday detail – a dog’s raised paw; the seams of a summer dress. Colville’s invisible brushwork has its counterpart in Munro’s transparent prose. And of course, there is that ever-present sense of menace. No matter how tiny their focus, both artists capture something that looms. That impends.
I was between projects when I visited the AGO. All Saints had been published earlier that year. As I tend to do when I’m at loose ends, I was toying with the idea of writing a murder mystery. (Deep down, I still want to be P.D. James when I grow up.) Of course, what I found at that exhibit, in spades, was mystery. Every Alex Colville painting, like every Alice Munro story, is an endless corridor lined with doors just slightly ajar. As I roamed the rooms of the gallery, the phrase The Colville Stories formed in my mind. It became a mantra. The Colville Stories. The Colville Stories. I felt as if I could spend the rest of my life gazing into those paintings. Pulling stories out of them.
“Late Breaking” is my second completed Colville story. Like the first, it has its jumping-off place (what Alice Munro calls “starter dough”) in a specific painting. Now, as I take another look at “January,” painted in 1971, I find more and more connections to the story it inspired.
I think what first caught my attention was the contrast between the two figures – the grim determination in the man’s features; the hesitancy and indecision in the woman’s twisted frame. The painting is Janus-faced. A couple is out snowshoeing. He faces front, his expression set. She, several snowshoe prints behind him, has paused to look back the way she has come. Behind her is a slope leading to sunlit flat land, and a road. She is dressed much less warmly than her companion, in spare, tight clothing. He, on the other hand, is hooded and goggled. So neither Janus face is really visible, his being in effect masked and hers turned away.
Where is he leading her? Into darkness? Into cold? And what yearning twists her in the opposite direction? For the familiar? The known? The safe? The differing light suggests transition. So, too, the diagonal line that divides the canvas horizontally, its slant reminiscent of a guillotine blade.
Something is about to be severed. January marks not just the birth of the new year, but the death of the old. Could the man be heading backwards in the relationship, into what is dead and gone? And is it possible that the woman, in her hesitation, her moment of indecision, is about to choose light and a road? A way into the future?
Though “January” may have galvanized “Late Breaking,” it exerted no hold on it. In writing these Colville stories, I feel free to start with the painting, then just roam. Jill’s experience of being up for a major literary prize, for example, is based in part on my own. All Saintswas short-listed for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Award. Last fall, when I wasn’t working at my day job, I was travelling and performing. It was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, and I don’t regret a minute of it. But I do remember looking at myself in a washroom mirror minutes before yet another reading or panel discussion or onstage interview and thinking, “This is how people go crazy.”
So it was fun to take a character like Jill Macklin, who works in a frame shop to support her hitherto unnoticed writing career, and dip her into some of that craziness. The prize for which she is nominated is purely a thing of my imagination – an almost obscene amount of money, awarded for reasons that have little to do with literary excellence. As a counterpart to the adulation she is suddenly receiving, I gave her a back story involving a love affair that went wrong and left her feeling worthless. Jill’s task in the story is to find a path between these two unrealities back to her true, sane self.
It is the back story that connects most strongly to “January.” The woman in the painting is ostensibly following the man – that is, her feet point in the direction he is going. But again, she has stopped. And turned. Has Colville caught her turning away or turning back? In “Late Breaking,” Jill is struggling to free herself from memories of her affair. They blight any pleasure she might take in the present, make it impossible for her to move on.
I knew something was going to have to shake her up – something that would put the pain of her recent past and the absurdity of her present situation into perspective. The death of one of the other candidates landed on the page with that weight of inevitability that a writer learns to respect. So too Jill’s exhilaration the next day – her sense of some burden having been put down, some constricting tie severed.
To write the way Colville paints. To paint the way Munro writes. Tall orders – impossible, you might say. But that was the yearning I was left with as I walked away from the AGO. And how does creation start, if not with yearning?
You can can see Alex Colville’s painting “January” and more of his works on the AGO exhibition website here.