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Standing in the Whale's Jaw, Kathy-Diane Leveille

Kathy-Diane Leveille

Kathy-Diane (Johnson) Leveille is a freelance writer and broadcast journalist. She was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on 27 December 1957. Leveille spent her early years growing up on her father’s farm, and the time she spent roaming the fields as a child determined the rural setting of her sometimes-fantastical stories. Her weekends were spent visiting her Finnish grandparents. It was there that her interest in literature and writing began to develop. Though she was never taught to speak their language, she credits listening to her elders converse in Finnish with turning her into an observer. From a young age, she experienced the need to put pen to paper. She wrote her first poem while attending grade one and continued to write throughout grade school, penning her sixth-grade Christmas play, trying her hand at radio plays, and producing several short stories and poems in her high school years.

Leveille studied television broadcasting at Fanshawe College from 1975 to 1977 and worked as a production assistant with Global TV before enrolling at Lakehead University in 1985 for a degree in Psychology. While attending classes, she began writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In her early twenties, she was hired as a full-time technician at the CBC, where she eventually began co-hosting the morning and afternoon radio shows. In 1989, she and her husband relocated to Quispamsis, New Brunswick, where they settled into a house on the Kennebecasis River.

It was in Kennebecasis that Leveille began her first serious attempts at literary authorship. While on maternity leave in 1992 for her youngest son, she began working through a file she had compiled of story ideas and half-completed drafts. By the time her maternity leave ended, she had decided to give up her ten-year career with the CBC in order to focus on her writing.

As a child, Leveille was drawn to stories in which the amazing was hidden within the ordinary, and she cites The Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret Garden as being particularly influential. Such books inspired her imagination and her initial attempts at writing. But when she began reading the works of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and David Adams Richards, Leveille realized that stories didn’t have to be set in exotic locations: these authors, who often set their novels in their own backyards, convinced her to find her own voice by telling stories of home.

Her first book, a compilation of short stories titled Roads Unravelling, was published by Sumach Press in 2003. This collection features eight stories that focus on ordinary, working-class women who experience suffering but endure. Leveille also uses several of these stories to examine the difficulties and joys of life in the Maritimes. She tackles the issue of self-imposed exile and attachments to place, with some of her characters seeking a better future in central Canada. The women of Roads Unravelling are therefore often confronted with the inescapability of their roots and with the conflicting emotions that result from them. Within this collection, physical relocation also occurs alongside shifts in time. Kathryn Carter describes these stories as possessing a “discernible rhythm, ebbing before flowing, moving back and forth, showing how actions in the present cannot be understood without the past” (126).

These themes and techniques are present in stories like “The Chair.” In this story, Willa is forced to return to New Brunswick to renovate the family farm and confront a difficult past. An encounter with an abandoned rocking chair prompts Willa to re-examine her memories, and she discovers that the past still inhabits the present: she sees “everything stilled and remained as it had been ... for years and years and years” (30). In “Rosemary’s Time,” the past is also brought to bear on the present. Claire Reed is haunted by regrets from her childhood. As she struggles to come to terms with a betrayal committed by a young girl who was fighting to fit into a small community, Claire must also reflect on the disappointing turn her life has taken since then.

Initially, Leveille’s first collection met with moderate success, but it earned critical acclaim after a selection from it—“Learning to Spin”—was adapted as a radio drama for CBC’s 1999 Summer Drama Festival. The book garnered further public attention when the tale “Showdown at the Four Corners Corral” was modified for the stage and performed by the Saint John Theatre Company during their Second Stage season in 2002.

Leveille’s second book, a suspense novel titled Let the Shadows Fall Behind You, was published by Kunati Books in 2009. Thematically, the novel harkens back to Leveille’s earlier publications. The story confronts the unchangeable qualities of the past, and people’s desire to confront and alter the future. It tells the story of Brannagh Maloney, whose lover has disappeared in the Canadian wilderness. Brannagh returns to her childhood home for a reunion, where she is confronted by the dark secrets of her family’s past—including the murder of her mother. The novel’s plot was inspired by unsolved disappearances and Leveille’s own desire to explore the effects such disappearances have on those who are left behind.

Like most of her short fiction, Let the Shadows Fall Behind You is also set in the landscape of New Brunswick, particularly Saint John and surrounding areas. In fact, parts of the novel take place in the area of the Kennebecasis River that immediately surrounds Leveille’s own home:

The familiar raw scent of the sea clung to the dampening night air, and in the distance water lapped on the shingle. The cottage overlooked the Kingston peninsula, tucked between the Kennebecasis and the Saint John River. They joined below the southernmost tip to flow into the Bay of Fundy at Reversing Falls in Saint John. Twice daily the Fundy flooded the rivers. Brannagh had grown up marking her summer days by its rise and fall. (Shadows 36)

Leveille’s own connection with nature is apparent not just in her description of landscapes, but also in the influence place seems to have on her characters’ identities. The characters she creates often become a part of their environments, and at times are even described as composites of material histories:

Brannagh experienced relief, along with a pang of regret, as she noted that nothing, not one blasted thing, had changed. The walls were covered with wooden shelves, the floor with an assortment of tables built from odds and ends or fashioned from travelling trunks. Every surface was replete with the tangibles collected by all who had passed under the roof: driftwood, rocks, shells, maps, mugs, dried flowers, loose buttons and an assortment of feathers ... (Shadows 37)

Reviews of Leveille’s work have been mixed. Some reviewers criticized her early work with suggestions that, while her characters are memorable and moving, her plots are at times unformed and unrealized. Yet Leveille insists that her interest in storytelling lies in the narratives of people’s lives and motivations. Like the relationship-centric stories of Carol Shields, Leveille aims to construct authentic, character-driven stories that people can relate to on a visceral level.

Other reviews have praised the pacing of Leveille’s prose and her ability to create convincing settings that evoke the sense of New Brunswick. In her depictions of the Maritimes, she strives to overcome the stereotypes of the simplicity of rural life in New Brunswick by presenting readers with an honest and multifaceted picture of the culture in this province.

Her realistically flawed characters and her unflinching portrayal of rural life in New Brunswick are witnessed in a story like “Sticks and Stones.” Told from the perspective of a young girl with a drinking problem, this story offers the reader a glimpse of a Maritime family that is fractured by loss but attempting to reconnect in spite of it. In other stories, the seemingly familiar, quotidian landscapes of New Brunswick is turned into an other-worldly backdrop for strange occurrences. In “Maggie’s Wake” the titular character is confronted with the sight of a coffin floating down the river. Though Leveille’s themes are sometimes dark, she balances them with a wry sense of humour and literary detail. In “Maggie’s Wake,” for instance, poetic descriptions detract from the mysterious and macabre subject matter: ears are compared to curling oak leaves, and the river is imagined to be God’s telephone line. This story is also brought to an amusing conclusion when the truth about the coffin is revealed.

Over the years, Leveille has received awards for her work. She was awarded two Canada Council grants (1996 and 2000), as well as two New Brunswick Art Grants (1998 and 2001). Her dramatic monologue, “The Dance,” won first prize in Grain’s short prose competition (2000), and her story “Growing Pains” was one of twelve finalists in The Writers’ Union of Canada short prose competition (2002). In 1997, she placed second for the David Adams Richards Prize given by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. She was also a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Poetry Award. Leveille has had her work published in several literary journals, including Grain, Room of One’s Own, and The Cormorant, as well as select anthologies of Maritime literature. She maintains a blog and is currently at work on her second novel.

Laurie MacKenzie, Spring 2012
St.Thomas University

Bibliography of primary sources

Leveille, Kathy-Diane. “Aunty Grabbity.” Room of One's Own 23.1 (2000): 69-81.

---. “Growing Pains.” New Brunswick Short Stories. Ed. Dorothy Dearborn. Saint John, NB: Neptune Publishing Company, 2003. 13-18.

---. Let the Shadows Fall Behind You. Orangeville, FL: Kunati Books, 2009.

---. Roads Unravelling. Toronto, ON: Sumach Press, 2003.

---. “Showdown at the Four Corners Corral.” New Brunswick Short Stories. Ed. Dorothy Dearborn. Saint John, NB: Neptune Publishing Company, 2003. 6-12.

---. Standing in the Whale's Jaw. Barrie, ON: Tightrope Books, 2013.


Bartley, Jim. “Rural Roots.” The Globe and Mail 8 Nov. 2003: D15.

Butler, Paul. "There's No Place Like ... : New Short Story Collections from Atlantic Canada Take Us to the Four Corners of the Earth and Deep into the Human Heart." Atlantic Books Today 43 (2004): 12-14.

Carter, Kathryn. “Inscapes of Loss and Love.” Canadian Literature 188 (2006): 126-7.

Golfman, Noreen. “Letters in Canada, 2003: Fiction.” University of Toronto Quarterly 74.1 (2004): 173-84.

Leveille, Kathy-Diane. Personal interview. 28 Feb. 2012.

Lynch, Allan. "Overheard, Overseen, and Over Exposed: A Look at Who's Doing What, Where, When and, Most Importantly, Why." Atlantic Books Today 43 (2004): 23.

Stanger-Ross, Ilana. "Roads Unravelling." Canadian Book Review Annual (2003): 200.21230.