Catherine Graham | Issue 15
Interview with an excerpt from The Most Cunning Heart
Kathryn Mockler: What was the inspiration for your new novel The Most Cunning Heart?
Catherine Graham: I was interested in exploring the aftereffects of grief. How does a young woman become who she needs to be when her family has been ripped away from her? What does it mean to find home? How does one deal with the legacy of grief and family secrets while experiencing a floating sense of self? What happens when the need to belong blinds you from abusive forces? These are just some of the questions that were running through my mind as I was writing the novel.
KM: Your novel is set in the 1990s in Northern Ireland. Could you discuss this time period and setting?
CG: Newly alone in the world, Caitlin Maharg leaves all she knows to pursue her newfound love of poetry. In her grief-stricken state it makes sense that she’s pulled to a place of extremes. Northern Ireland during the 90s had a rich, thriving literary community even as the Troubles continued. Innocent in many ways after an overprotected upbringing, Caitlin doesn’t consider any risk. She just knows she needs to leave the safe haven of Canada to grow as an artist and person. She aches for closeness, connections, a sense of belonging, but in the 90s before the rise of social media, this isn’t easy for her. When she meets the charismatic local poet Andy Evans she’s reminded of her father so is eager to connect with him.
KM: The Most Cunning Heart is a story of grief, self-discovery, and resilience. What do you hope readers take away from Caitlin Maharg's journey?
CG: That even during our darkest times we are stronger than we think. And when our parents die, they continue to live through us. There is power in quiet, poetry matters, and abusive forces can sneak up on anyone. But in the end readers will have their own take on the story.
KM: Are there writers who influenced this book or who influence your fiction writing?
CG: The list of writers who have influenced my work is long and grows constantly so it’s difficult to choose just a few though I will say Anne Enright, Per Petterson, Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod whom I had the good fortune of working with while completing my debut novel Quarry. I’m also drawn to writers who feature quiet characters in their work, because in my experience as a reader, quiet characters are often misunderstood or completely absent in fiction. As an introvert myself, that absence impacted my writing and made me want to highlight the power of those characters in my own work. This view seems not widely shared, as I was told by an agent and several publishers who read my novels that Caitlin should be extroverted and ‘act out more’. But Caitlin acts in. I believe in the power of quiet and was brought to tears when I first read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
KM: What was your process for writing The Most Cunning Heart and did it differ from the process of writing your first novel and/or does it differ from your poetry process?
CG: The process was much the same for the two novels. The protagonist, Caitlin Maharg, appears in both and when I finished my first novel Quarry, I realized her story needed to continue, hence The Most Cunning Heart. I love the intimacy of the first person and Caitlin’s voice led the way.
My poems come in bursts. Something triggers them into being—an image, word, sound, emotion, memory or dreamline. I follow the source through the rhythm and musicality of language and try to shape what I have into a poem. I write all first drafts of both poetry and prose by hand; I find the process of using my body in this way forges a deeper connection to the writing.
Catherine Graham is an award-winning poet, novelist and creative writing instructor. Her seventh book, Æther: An Out-of-Body Lyric, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Awards, while her sixth collection of poems, The Celery Forest, was named a CBC Best Book of the Year and was a finalist for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Michael Longley praised it as “a work of great fortitude and invention, full of jewel-like moments and dark gnomic utterance.” Her debut novel Quarry won an IPPY Gold Medal, The Miramichi Reader Award for Best Fiction, and was a finalist for the Sarton Women’s Book Award and Fred Kerner Book Award. A previous winner of TIFA’s Poetry NOW, she leads the monthly book club. She also interviews for By the Lake Book Club and with Jessica Outram co-hosts The Hummingbird Podcast. Winner of an Excellence in Teaching Award she teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Her second novel, The Most Cunning Heart, is on CBC Books “Canadian Fiction to Watch For” list. Her next poetry book appears 2023. www.catherinegraham.com @catgrahampoet
The Most Cunning Heart by Catherine Graham Palimpsest Press, 2022
Excerpt from The Most Cunning Heart:
On the drive back to Islandmagee I noticed a solitary tree in the middle of a field; a pile of stones surrounded its base.
“It’s a fairy tree,” Mrs. Petty said.
“It’s for the we folk. Many believe in them. Can’t say I do. But don’t ask me to be the one to chop it down.”
The “we” folk. Ah, “wee.” A wee cup of tea. But the amount was the same, below the rim.
“What’s there to believe?” I was curious to know the magic.
“It’s the entrance to the otherworld. To cut down a fairy tree is to bring bad luck. Even to touch one, well, why would you want to go and touch a tree in a field? Unless you were a bit daft.”
“It doesn’t seem practical leaving it there.” The people of Islandmagee—Protestants from what I could tell—were the no-nonsense type. Clearly, some superstitions lingered.
“Andy Evans wrote about them. Or was it Benny? Maybe both. It’s the real estate of the poet, if you ask me. Fairies.”
Off with the fairies, I’d heard people say, rolling their eyes.
“That fancy car manufacturer, DeLorean, chopped one down outside Belfast to build his automobile factory.” She smirked. “The place didn’t last. Brought on his own demise, so he did.”
“It’s hawthorn, right? We had them at the quarry.” Springtime they blossomed pure white but the branches were studded with thorns. I had to dodge them while cutting grass with Dad’s push lawnmower. Sometimes a miscalculation led to scrapes.
“I’ve touched them,” I said.
She pulled into the gravel driveway and looked at me. “Well, aren’t you the one, then.”
Order The Most Cunning Heart
In the early 1990’s, Caitlin Maharg, grieving the loss of her parents, leaves everything she knows in Canada for Northern Ireland to pursue her love of poetry while living in a cottage by the Irish Sea. Feeling like a child again in a distant land still affected by the Troubles, she is haunted by the secrets her parents’ deaths unearthed. In her longing for emotional closeness, she befriends Andy Evans, a well-known poet with a roguish charm. Their attraction soon leads to a love affair. Flouting the paisley headscarf of respectability, she plunges into a relationship that gives her an entry to the literary world, but at a price. Filled with insights into grief, longing and creativity, The Most Cunning Heart is a novel about how a quiet heroine learns to navigate deception, love and loss.
Praise for The Most Cunning Heart:
“Sometimes a quest begins in loss and grief. In Catherine Graham’s The Most Cunning Heart, a woman searches for inner freedom by understanding her mother’s story and learning to defy abusive forces. She rediscovers the lost mother who taught her that the tripod begins with a firm base, and fights to recognize the “quarried heart.” A warm, beautifully written tale of self-discovery.”—Kim Echlin, author of Speak, Silence
Check out The Hummingbird Podcast with co-hosts Catherine Graham and Jessica Outram
The Hummingbird Podcast A weekly podcast about creativity, arts, literature, and life.
This podcast explores the creative journey and the stories behind what we create as we reflect on creative practice, projects, and passion. We talk about things that draw us in, portals we move through when we read and write, and the intersection of poetry/prose and life. If you’re looking for more creative energy in your life, join our Hummingbird community. Each week we use poetry/prose as a portal to chat about creativity, arts, literature, and life with co-hosts Catherine Graham and Jessica Outram.
Issue #15 of Send My Love to Anyone
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