Cathy Ostlere’s first book, LOST, began as a series of poems that grew into creative non-fiction essays, excerpts of which have been short-listed for the National Magazine Awards, Western Magazine Awards, CBC Literary Awards, and Prism International and Event Magazine Non-fiction Contests. In 2009, Lost: A Memoir was shortlisted for the prestigious Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-fiction. In 2010, she co-wrote LOST: A Memoir, a 90 minute one-woman play that runs until November 6 at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. Recently AE spoke with Ostlere about the production.
AE: What inspired you to write Lost?
CO: The memoir was written out of two desires: The first was to investigate what happened to David, and his girlfriend, Sarah, when they went missing on the Atlantic. The second was to understand what it meant to my life to have a deeply loved brother disappear without a trace. David and I were leading opposite lives in 1995. I was an at-home parent tethered to a domestic life with three young children while he was chasing a dream to own a boat and sail around the world. His disappearance made me question my life choices and challenged me to start on a path toward my own dream of being a writer.
AE: What were the challenges of putting the work together?
CO: The greatest challenge was to knit together a narrative of my life with a narrative of David’s life created out of memories, letters, diaries, and imagination.
AE: What were the rewards?
CO: The greatest rewards were finishing the book and being able to share my brother’s story. He’s a wonderful character and there is so much to admire about him.
AE: What did you learn during the process?
CO: I had the story, and I knew how it would end, but how to tell it? It took a long time to determine that the prose should be present tense and that the narrative would be internal more than external. I learned to respect my own voice. I also learned to respect adventurers.
AE: How difficult was it to bring the work to the stage?
CO: Surprisingly smooth. The creative process for writing the drama was shared with Dennis Garnhum, co-writer and Artistic Director of Theatre Calgary. Dennis was the visionary and driving force for the project and he carried the story with great sensitivity and strength. Working with a team of professionals created the necessary distance to see Lost as a universal story: how do we transform sorrow into joy? My experience of watching Lost: A Memoir on the stage is one of awe. Though it is my life story, I am not that person on the stage. Lost is a drama, written to entertain and thrill.
AE: How has the production evolved over time?
CO: The production evolves with the theatres it is presented in. The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of Lost this fall illustrated that the play is perfectly suited to small theatres that don’t have the capability to use the video components and special effects that the larger theatres are able to use. In Halifax, we were reminded of how much this play is a sea-story so Lost underwent some script changes to deepen the actor’s performance. Next January in Winnipeg, Lost will be presented in a thrust stage with three sides so the production may evolve again.
AE: Why do you think that audiences have responded so positively to both the book and the play?
CO: I believe that the play is served very well by the engaging performance of actor Jan Alexandra Smith. She opened the play in Calgary, continues with it in Halifax, and then will go to Winnipeg for another three week run. Her dynamic portrayal of Cathy holds the audience’s attention for the entire ninety minutes. Some nights it seems like people are afraid to move or breathe in case they miss something! The book’s success has been due to its honesty. The narrative speaks deeply about loss as well as the changes to a woman’s life. Both works also confront the subject of what it means to live an authentic life. What is risk? What is duty? What is merely habit? How do we negotiate with our hearts so our lives are challenging and meaningful?
AE: Response to your new work Karma has been very strong, yes?
CO: The response to my novel Karma, published by Penguin, has been excellent. It has received starred reviews, and is a favourite with librarians across Canada and the U.S. I hear often that readers, both adult and young-adult, are delighted and surprised to discover that this free-verse novel is an exciting, layered, page-turner of a book.
AE: What is that work all about?
CO: Karma is an epic-style Indian novel set in 1984. Maya and Sandeep are the young narrators that bring to light the tragic events that followed the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Karma is also a coming-of-age tale and a beautiful love story.
AE: What's next for you? Are you already working on something new?
CO: Many projects are on the go. Some just sketched in my head, some well started. I have a novel, a YA novel, and a movie script for Lost currently in the works.
AE: How has your experience in Halifax been so far?
CO: It has been a perfect trip. Even the weather! Sunny, beautiful Autumnal days, except for that tropical storm last week, but even that I enjoyed. Rivers of rain flowing down the streets, bent umbrellas, squishy shoes, mascara-stained face – what a storm! e rarely have such intensity in Calgary, though we do have hail large enough to shatter glass. My experiences with the people of Halifax have been exceedingly warm, particularly the response from the audiences at my readings and talks. I was invited to coffee, dinners, even a day sail with perfect strangers who wanted to show me real Maritime hospitality. The staff at the Neptune Theatre were supportive, creating all kinds of events for me to participate in. I really can’t imagine how things could have been any better. Even the ghost walk at the Citadel last Saturday was wonderful – just the right spookiness and humour. One thing I did learn about Halifax is that there are a plethora of ghost stories. I found that fascinating.
AE: When will we see you down here again?
CO: I don’t know when I’ll be back. I hope it’s not too long as there’s much more to experience. I’d love to do some sailing. And also, being here, I have a strong sense that my brother is close by. But then, maybe I’ve just heard too many ghost stories.