5 Questions with Author K.R. Byggdin

K.R. Byggdin grew up on the Prairies and now lives on the East Coast. Their writing has received support from the Canada Council for the Arts and has appeared in anthologies and journals across Canada, the UK, and New Zealand. They are an alum of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program and the Banff Centre’s Emerging Writers Intensive and recently completed studies in English and Creative Writing at Dalhousie University. Wonder World is their first novel.

There are two Manitoba dates on K.R.’s book tour! Winnipeg April 23 at McNally Robinson Grant Park, and Steinbach April 26 at The Public Brewhouse & Gallery. Details at www.krbyggdin.com/events

1. Congratulations on your debut novel! Has the story changed much from first draft to final publication?

Oh my goodness, so much! I went through seven full rewrites of the manuscript from 2018 to 2021, and just from the version my publisher first saw to the book’s final form I think I cut maybe 40,000 words and seriously reworked both the overarching structure and various subplots. But now I’m starting to rethink my initial response to your question, because while a lot of things changed, the heart of the story has always remained the same. In every draft I’ve been exploring the relationship between Isaac and Abe, and Neth and Deb have always played the same important roles too. I’m quite pleased with how the story has evolved. The editing was stressful, tiring work, but it was also so necessary. And I have many people to thank for helping to shape this novel, especially Jacqueline Dumas who was my mentor at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, Joshua Whitehead who was my faculty member at the Banff Centre, and my editor Catharina de Bakker at Enfield & Wizenty. Each of them spoke into this work with such kind, considered feedback that allowed me to understand both myself and Isaac better, and really strengthen his story. I’m very grateful for their guidance throughout the various stages of the writing process.

2. The cover art of Wonder World is visually arresting, that of a pickle jar, with one pickle that is brighter and healthier looking than the rest. Can you speak to the meaning behind the illustration?

It’s such a fantastic cover, isn’t it? I really love how it turned out. The inspiration for the image is taken from something Isaac says that is quoted on the back of the book. He compares his experience of growing up in Newfield to the pickling process and describes it in pretty negative terms. But as you point out, the actual pickle we see on the front cover looks quite bright and healthy. Not to stretch the metaphor too much, but I think this suggests two things: first, that Isaac feels like he stands out from the rest of the town, but second, that he also has a place in Newfield and that it is possible for him to be himself and be happy there. Perhaps in that way the front cover serves as a bit of gentle pushback against the quote on the back. But I’m sure there are other ways to look at it. I welcome any and all pickle philosophers to share their own interpretations.

3. You live on the East Coast, but your formative years were spent in Niverville… so when I read Wonder World, I imagined that it was Niverville the whole time. Is that okay? Would others recognize the R.M. of Hanover in this book as well, or was that just wishful thinking on my part?

Well . . . I can say this: Newfield is not Niverville, but it’s also not not Niverville, you know? How’s that for clarity! But really, I imagine it was very similar to the worldbuilding process for Miriam Toews’ East Village or Andrew Unger’s Edenfeld. You start with a place you know well, a place whose streets you can walk in your sleep, and then you begin to shape and reshape it to fit the needs of the story. It was certainly helpful to have a mental map I could use to orient myself as I was figuring out how and where Isaac would move through town, but at the same time this is a novel and not a memoir. I definitely took some artistic licence, so please don’t send me any angry letters saying “that’s not where the feed mill is on Main Street!” St. Stache on the other hand is more of an amalgamation that draws inspiration from four different communities in southeastern Manitoba. We’ll see if anyone can guess those correctly. Might make a good
question for a future trivia night at The Public!

4. In Wonder World, Isaac Funk leaves the home of his conservative Mennonite father to pursue queer culture on the East Coast… but after a decade, he returns. I feel like I don’t often read books wherein the main character goes back home to Manitoba once they’ve left. Specifically to rural Manitoba. True, or am I imagining this?

Hmm, that’s interesting you say that, because I actually feel like there’s a whole subgenre popping up these days of 2SLGBTQ+ characters returning to Manitoba, or at least returning from Winnipeg to their rural communities. John Elizabeth Stintzi’s Vanishing Monuments, Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed, and Casey Plett’s Little Fish all come to mind. In fact, I actually worried I would have trouble finding a publisher for Wonder World because of that similarity, but thankfully my fear was unfounded. I can’t speak for the other writers, but for me I think it actually became easier to write about Manitoba once I moved away. It gave me the space I needed to see not just the difficulties I had with my Prairie upbringing, but also the things I missed and loved about the region as well. I think there is this narrative that exists where people assume you have to leave Manitoba to be who you want to be, whether that’s from a queer perspective or just for your career. Like that episode of The Simpsons where they go to Canada for cheaper prescription drugs and there’s that billboard that reads “Welcome to Winnipeg. We were born here, what’s your excuse?” And sure, yes, in my case I have moved away from the Prairies, but it’s always going to hold a special place in my heart. Part of my motivation to write this book was to push back against the idea that you have to leave small towns to be your authentic self. You can’t say queer and trans people don’t exist or haven’t existed in southeastern Manitoba. Look at Evan Wiens, Tyrone Hofer, Mica Schellenberg, Trevor Kirczenow, look at me. It’s actually really harmful to tell each new generation “queerness isn’t part of our culture here,” because, first of all, it’s not true and second, it makes people feel unnecessarily isolated and can have seriously negative repercussions on their mental health. So it felt like a very hopeful and truthful act to write Isaac’s story and have him find a sense of belonging again in a place that once caused him harm. I hope it makes people think about the very real history of 2SLGBTQ+ folks living in small town Manitoba, and more broadly across rural Canada. We don’t just belong in the cities, we belong everywhere, we’re part of every community in this country.

5. I want to read more about Wonder World and its characters! I feel like there could be a sequel. Will there be a sequel?

A few people have been asking me this lately, and it’s a question that’s taken me by surprise! I’m really happy that readers have connected so strongly with these characters, but I’m also really happy with where we leave Isaac on his journey. Never say never of course, but I don’t currently have any plans to revisit Newfield in my fiction. I don’t know, maybe ask me again in twenty years. I might have a different answer then.