Author katherena vermette’s The Circle coaxes empathy from a mesh of tragedy

Writer katherena vermette brings her latest novel The Circle to Wordfest’s Imaginarium.

The Circle, the third and latest novel by Métis/Michif author katherena vermette, begins simply, telling the story of a person living with other students during their post-secondary journeys, but quickly surprises, becoming so textured — without abandoning that gorgeous simplicity — that the reader stays up well past bedtime promising “just one more page.”

At the start of the book, the characters are laid out in a constellation of circles of various sizes, with their names and a locus with regard to each other as context. But while there are no names of places within that map, there easily could be, for place plays out in the novel like character: from Winnipeg’s storied North End to the bush where some characters find reprieve from the chaos and temptations of the city and even to Golden, B.C., where one of the surprises unfolds.

Speaking from her home near the Red River, vermette, who grew up in the North End and earned an MFA in creative writing at University of British Columbia says, “Place is a whole other character. I think where you are is as important as who you are. It determines everything from what you can do to how you feel in your skin. So, yes, I feel hyper-aware of place when crafting a scene. 

“I’m glad more of the characters got out of the city in this one, even all the way to Golden. Golden is a place I’ve only driven through or stopped at. It’s such a picturesque place to see. I’ve usually stuck close to home in my novels, all have been in and around Winnipeg for the most part, so it felt good to reach out over the mountains and hang out in their sharp edges for a while.”

And while nearly two dozen characters populate that chart of names in circles, the reader wonders if the author will loop back to each one’s story, but, it turns out that’s not needed. The effect is we see the characters without judgement, without labelling them “good” or “bad” even though several are gang-involved and some are cavalierly duplicitous. Instead, we appreciate them being caught within the webs of their own lives, able to do what, well, what they do.

“I thought it would be like my other novels and return to a handful of characters over and over, but I really let my love of character just go in this one, says vermette.

“The Circle as a metaphor was always intentional, but as I wrote I began to feel how much all the secondary characters would also be affected, so I pulled them up a chair, so to speak.”

And while those characters may have sat down in those chairs, it doesn’t mean they spill all while sitting around the table. In fact, as in life, there are things they remember differently from each other and details they omit telling, letting the reader ponder what actually happened and what will happen in the future, especially with central character Phoenix Stranger.

“Well, (some of those) things are actually explained in other books. I wanted all the books to completely stand on their own, and I didn’t show that because I had already written it, but more than that, I thought it wasn’t needed in the moment. We don’t need to know what Phoenix has done; it’s enough that she has harmed so many. The details aren’t as important as what she’s going to do to make amends, if anything.”

The Circle weaves through these lives in a rambling journey of the soul, ending with Stranger at a crossroads and, despite the horrible pain she has inflicted, the reader is somehow pulling for her at the end. Which, with the manner in which the stories link and unlink, makes one wonder how vermette knew she was done writing at the book’s end.

“Phoenix is a weird one,” vermette says. “Folks are always rooting for her and I am always surprised. She is, of course, worthy of love, but that doesn’t make her any less accountable for the harm she has done. I think everyone is like that, so I wanted to show that in all the characters. 

“As rambling as I go, I know what I want to do. It might take me a while to get there but once I do, I’m out. I am not one for long goodbyes. 

“Except when I am.”

Without being obviously political, The
Circle also unveils some of the dynamics behind Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, and, as usual, art is more powerful than headlines and textbooks when revealing truth.

“I was very aware that Phoenix was a missing person but at the same time not a very empathetic character or person many would be searching for. As I said, she’s always been a weird one that way. I know I write stories to and with and alongside very devastating issues, but in that, because and in spite of that, my job is to stay in story, to stay with my characters and make it real, rather than didactic. 

“Of course, I say this knowing full well I get my opinion all over the place,” vermette laughs. “I want my books to be about people not the issues. The issues are things imposed upon us, not who we are. I want to explore who each character is; that’s my favourite part and where I try and stay.” 

It›s heavy stuff, and while vermette’s book seems to ramble to its own whims, the author lives a very scheduled and disciplined life, including getting up early before her children to sit or meditate, then dealing with the chaos of getting them off to school before she goes to her sunroom to write, with her little dog at her feet, until lunch. Later in the day, she takes the dog to the park “for him to run and me to walk out of my work” before she picks up her kids and chaos ensues for a while.

As well, vermette reads historical books like Sylvia Van Kirk’s 1980 publication Many Tender Ties: Women in the Fur Trade Society 1670 to 1870 and The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family, 1660-1900 by Heather Devine. 

She also found a memoir from the U.S. by Stephanie Foo called What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma. Having grown up in Winnipeg’s North End and, when she was 14, having her 18-year-old Cree brother go missing for six months before being found dead, all without drawing media attention, one can see why she is drawn to this book, which “… gives the best understanding of CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) I have ever read.”

Still, there is much joy in vermette’s life, between helping people understand the Indigenous experience in Canada and the sunroom, children and dogs to the odd, wonderful moment just being. “My music selections are all about moods. The other day, I was driving through northwest Ontario while blasting The Traveling Wilburys, so, there’s one.”

katherena vermette appears at Wordfest’s Imaginairium, which runs Oct. 11 to 15. More information is at