Winnipeg novelist Joan Thomas will probably remember October 7, 2014 for a long time.
This morning, it was announced that her third novel, The Opening Sky, was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award for the Arts. And then, tonight, Joan will have her Winnipeg launch.
I interviewed Joan a few days ago before all the hoopla descended. And am happy to share this quiet little interview today, given that it reflects Joan and her work perfectly: intelligent, wide-ranging, courteous.
What do you want people to know about The Opening Sky?
The Opening Sky is the story of three people in present-day Winnipeg going through an intense personal crisis. It’s very different than my last novel Curiosity, which looked at how 19th century England was rocked by the discovery of huge reptile fossils on a Dorset coast. But it has the same preoccupation at its core. How do people respond when the way they see the world is fundamentally challenged?
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach performance? What do you get out of it?
Public readings were hard for me at first (What is a writer but a failed talker? I ask). But there’s something wonderful about reading aloud and being read to, and gradually I’ve become more at ease with it. Sometimes I actually love it—when the lights are dim, and the sound system lets you talk naturally, and you can tell people are really listening. By the time a book goes to press, each page has been so scrutinized that it has almost lost its meaning for you. And then in that moment, you experience the intimacy between the audience and the story, and the words are fresh and forceful for you again. That’s the gift an audience gives a writer.
Your first two books, Reading by Lightning and Curiosity, were historical fiction set in England and rural Manitoba. What was it like to write your own time and place? What was it like to invent a fictional street in Wolseley?
It was incredibly scary—I feel way more “out there” with this book. For one thing, the burden of proof is higher. When a novel has a familiar setting, readers bring a sharp eye to every detail. And in a culture where ideas and artefacts have a shelf life of about 12 hours, it’s daunting to get things right.
I think every novelist with serious intentions is staggered by the complexity and chaos of life today—it made me nostalgic at times for the certainties of the 19th century. But I think it’s crucial that writers take on the challenge of the present. I don’t mean that I approached it as a duty. My own reading is almost exclusively contemporary novels, so it was exciting to finally write one. But it was harder, and I likely had to have the first two books under my belt before I could tackle it.
Augusta Street...I wanted to capture this family’s life in all its particularity, so I needed a house number. And I didn’t want to use a real house on say, Greenwood or Lipton. Augusta Street is by no means my largest liberty with Winnipeg. I’m waiting to hear what Winnipeggers think of the others. But you know how it is—the demands of the story will always win out.
Your bio says that you’ve been writing fiction since 2000. You taught high school English as well as working as a freelance writer and program officer at MAC. What prompted you to turn to creative writing? Can you pinpoint the moment?
It’s clear to me now that I always wanted to write fiction, but I seldom admitted it. I thought that probably everybody who grew up reading Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon dreamed of being a writer. I did a lot a lot of reviewing in the 1980’s and 90’s, so I was always thinking about how fiction works. And then a story based on something that happened when I was a kid came to me and I thought I’d try to write it. I never published it, but I joined a writing group and worked mainly on fictionalized memories. Those pieces led me to Reading by Lightning, which is set in the decade when my mother was a girl.
I remember a weekend with friends at Victoria Beach. We waded out to Elk Island and while we were sitting on the sand, I told them the story I was contemplating for Reading by Lightning. All of them were artists in one way or another, and they were tremendously supportive. That gave me a big boost.
What are your goals for your writing now, as compared to when you first started publishing?
At first the question that preoccupies new writers is, “Can I really do this?” I’m not plagued by that anxiety to the same degree, though in a certain respect you have to lay hold of a new confidence with each new project.
I think writers pick off the low-hanging fruit with the first few books, using a lot of stored-up creative ideas. And then you have to dig deeper—but I hope this means that your work deepens. I’m not jumping too quickly into another book. I’m thinking hard about the things I most want to explore.
What would you tell a stranger about Winnipeg?
I’ve just written 350 pages set in Winnipeg, but the one-sentence description is beyond me.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing?
I’m reading Caroline Adderson’s new novel-in-stories, Ellen in Pieces. It is the funniest, most alive, true and astute foray into one woman’s life. I can’t praise it enough. And as for writing, I’m making notes towards a new novel, doing a bit of research, drafting short passages. My idea is still in the shape-shifting stage.
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This is the third installment of a new interview series I'm calling
Unicity, which, according to Wikipedia, was a term used to refer to
Winnipeg around 1972.
That was when the rural
municipalities of Charleswood, Fort Garry, North Kildonan, and Old
Kildonan, the Town of Tuxedo, the cities of East Kildonan, West
Kildonan, St. Vital, Transcona, St. Boniface, and St. James-Assiniboia
were amalgamated into what we now know as Winnipeg.
The Chicago of the North. One Great City. Murder Capital of Canada. Winnerpeg.
series runs parallel to my other interview series, Out of Town
Authors, but takes as its subjects local authors instead of visiting