Joan Thomas is the author of three novels. The most recent, The Opening Sky (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Her first novel, Reading by Lightning (Goose Lane Editions, 2008), won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). Her second novel, Curiosity (McClelland & Stewart, 2010), was named a Quill & Quire Book of the Year. In 2014, Thomas was awarded the Engel/Findley Award by the Writer’s Trust of Canada in recognition of her body of work.
The following interview was conducted in winter 2015 in Joan’s home in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Julienne Isaacs: You made your debut on the Canadian literary scene relatively late in your career with the publication of Reading by Lightning in 2008. Before the novel’s publication, you’d worked as a high school teacher, a book reviewer, and an editor. What made you start writing fiction? You’d been a lead reviewer for the Globe & Mail for several years before your first novel was published. Did you notice a particular absence in Canadian literary fiction that you wished to address in your own work?
Joan Thomas: I reviewed for so long. I began to be fed up with the 800-word limit, and the job never got easier. I always took forever to determine what I wanted to say about a book and to craft my ideas so they made good copy. I began to feel as if my mind was going down the same ruts all the time. I had always dreamed of writing fiction, but I had never possessed the confidence to jump in. I thought there were enough mediocre novels out there without me contributing one. Eventually, I had this sense that if I wanted to try, it was now or never. I don’t think many writers start strategically by surveying the field and picking a subject nobody else has written about. Instead, I ask myself two questions: What’s the best idea I have at the moment? Can I do it?
JI: What motivated you to sit down and bring that “best idea” to light?
JT: I remember something Russell Smith wrote in a column in the Globe & Mail—he said you need to write the novel that only you can write. I think this line has become a creative writing cliché, but when I read it, the idea was important to me because I’d often thought that I didn’t have the point of view or the life experience of the writers I admired. But you have to write from your own differentness in a way—elements of your life that you view as eccentric are probably the richest vein to mine.
JI: How closely do you follow publishing trends in Canada? Do you keep an ear to the ground when planning your writing projects? Is this something you do consciously?
JT: When I started writing fiction, I was reading writers like Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, and Carol Shields, and their work was quite interior, reflective, and domestic. I think to some extent there’s been a movement away from that style in Canadian literature—there’s a greater emphasis now on story. But if I’m moving in that direction in my own writing, it’s not strategic so much as that my tastes are shaped by what I’m reading.
You have to write from your own deepest experience; you have to feel something in your bones. Choosing a subject for a novel is a bit like falling in love and deciding to commit to someone as a partner. There may be elements of reason in it, but fundamentally, it’s not a reasoned thing.
However, once I’ve developed an interest in a subject, I do stop and think about how it could be pitched. I suppose having to deal with agents and so on influence writers in that respect. The Opening Sky has not been easy to describe—Curiosity was far easier to reduce to a sentence or two.
JI: Do writers create novels that can be turned into elevator pitches?
JT: No, you write what you deeply want to write, but some part of your mind always works up the pitch because you know it’s going to be necessary. No matter how abstract your idea might be, you know that at some point you’re going to crunch it down into three sentences.
JI: How did you “crunch down” The Opening Sky?
JT: I didn’t find it easy. When I wrote about the novel for my website, I focused on the social demographic of the characters—“it’s a family with one foot in the counterculture and one foot in the good life.” But I never felt as though that summary entirely expressed what I was going after in the book.
JI: To what extent does your family history inform your writing? In Reading by Lightning, your protagonist Lily has an ill-fated association with the Barr Colony settlement in Saskatchewan. Do you have family connections to the Barr Colony?
JT: As many writers do in first novels, I really tapped into family stories in Reading by Lightning. When I was growing up, I was told that my maternal grandfather, whose name was Walter Brass, came to Canada with the Barr Colony in 1903. I was interested in the movement and started reading about it. It is a dramatic story—these idealistic migrants were so naïve about conditions in Canada, so clueless about farming, and so gullible as to fall under the sway of a charismatic charlatan. But when I got down to the archives and did research, I found the ship manifests, and my grandfather’s name wasn’t on them. I don’t know what that means, but by then I was interested in the Barr Colony as a subject.
Lily’s story is based on the story of my aunt Elsie, Walter Brass’s eldest daughter. Her father sent her back to England just before World War II to look after her grandmother. She went entirely on her own at 15 years old, so it was a huge adventure. While there, she fell in love with a soldier. He died during the war, and at that point she returned to Canada. Elsie’s one of these very taciturn Prairie women who never indulges by talking about herself, but I was curious, and I wanted to invent a fiction around what I knew. I told my aunt what I was writing, but she’d forgotten by the time she read the book, and she didn’t recognize herself at all. She said, “Well, Joan, I’ve read your book. Do you realize I went to England when I was a girl?”
I never thought I was literally telling my aunt’s story, but her experience opened a window of thought for me. We have so many immigration stories in Canada, but we have few involving the English, who are thought of not as immigrants but as colonists coming to a fully accommodated society. I was really interested in exploring the differences between my Canadian family and my English relatives. We imagine the English as being straightlaced, yet I see something more fun-loving in my English relatives with their trips to Blackpool and their paper hats at Christmas, and I see something austere and self-denying in Prairie farm culture, a sensibility that was shaped, I guess, by the hardships of those early decades and the Depression. I wanted to hold those two cultures up to each other, and I did it through what is, in essence, a story of reverse immigration.
JI: Curiosity picks up on some narrative threads also found in Reading by Lightning. For example, the character of George, who is fascinated by belemnites and other fossils, is transposed into that of Curiosity’s Mary Anning, the famous English paleontologist. Regarding your own preoccupation with natural history, what urges you to make stories out of fossils and to draw connections between human narratives and the deep past?
JT: I discovered the Dorset coast and Mary Anning when I was doing research for Reading By Lightning. I wanted to send my character George to field school for a few months, but I hadn’t yet decided that he would study paleontology. I came across this particular area (the Dorset coast) that’s a World Heritage Site for its geology and rich store of marine reptile fossils. I have no background in science, so it’s not that I was indulging an interest I already had, but I certainly developed an interest while researching for Curiosity.
I find the whole notion of fossils so moving—this concrete physical evidence of deep time. Our minds aren’t capable of comprehending the passage of hundreds of millions of years, and yet we can hold in our hands a bit of organic history that attests to it. I loved reading about various pre-Darwin efforts to account for these strange objects. They were called “problematica,” and they confronted the 19th century scientists with the inadequacy of their world view. And beyond what they represent, many fossils are intricate and beautiful objects, almost sculptural.
I was quite daunted, initially, at the thought of writing a book based so heavily on science, and of course, it would have been hard for me to write fiction involving modern paleontology. But the science of the early 19th century is pretty accessible. I read the research papers on the reptiles that Mary Anning found—in fact, I read everything I could find in the British Library on “undergroundology” in the period, and I didn’t find that too much of it was beyond my comprehension.
JI: Charles Dickens said of Mary Anning in 1865 that “[t]he carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” One of the themes of Curiosity is Anning’s exclusion from the scientific community due to her gender and her social status despite her groundbreaking contributions to British paleontology. Consequently, Dickens’s praise only underlines the fact that Anning’s public legitimacy had to be ascribed to her by male colleagues. Curiosity’s Anning is brilliant, but she is ill-used by men. Did this focus on gender disparity emerge naturally from Anning’s story, or did you intend to give Curiosity a feminist thrust from the beginning?
JT: Anybody who writes a book about Mary Anning will be writing a historical deconstruction in the sense that she was invisible in her own time. It’s astonishing that she was never mentioned in any of the papers about her own finds. William Conybeare especially seems to have gone out of his way to ensure she wasn’t part of the historical record. However, Anning’s social class was a greater barrier to her than her sex. Middle-class women are occasionally mentioned in the scientific literature of the period, and certain working-class men are excluded—William Smith, for example, who is the early geologist and map maker whose life Simon Winchester gave us in The Map That Changed the World. The natural historians of the period were members of the gentry, and they had their own social standing to protect. To have acknowledged collaborating with an individual like Mary Anning or William Smith would have been very damaging to them.
It was wonderful to play a part in bringing Mary Anning’s story to light, but what drew me to Curiosity more than writing a feminist story was the way the entire scientific paradigm shifted in that period. I was amazed at how persistent the scientists were in their denial. It was such rich material—it worked on many levels for me. We’re living in an era of change that is just as dramatic, and we are just as reluctant to adapt our thinking. So it felt like a very relevant subject.
JI: Early in Reading by Lightning, Lily asks George why he remembers what he remembers. George’s response is something to the effect that any remembered moment retrieved by the brain can feel momentous even if it’s ordinary. In your work, you often emphasize off-moments as well as ordinary moments of human connection or aloneness when nothing in particular is happening in the story. Why are you so drawn to the ordinary? Do you believe, like George, that memory is capricious and random? Or are in-between moments as revelatory of the human experience as more obviously momentous ones?
JT: I think it’s true that writers of literary fiction care most about recreating the texture of a life, which is a way of capturing the mystery of conscious existence. I would say the novel has evolved for this purpose, and I would say that all its conventions and its intense subjectivity tend toward that. The extraordinary events a novel might recount strike me as a scaffolding—they take the story forward, but the higher purpose is to create characters who live and breathe on the page. And that’s why I turn to books as a reader; fiction deepens my awareness of being alive and my sense of intimate connection with other lives.
JI: In The Opening Sky, the passages where Liz is painting or puttering in the house gave me a strong sense of her psyche as well as how she was transmuting that feeling into the paint or whatever she was doing.
JT: I think that is what I’m going for. Even in a big story like Curiosity, where the things that happen make it into the history books, what I aimed for most was to give the characters breadth as ordinary human beings. In all the reviews of Curiosity, the line that made me the happiest was from the St. John Telegraph-Journal, where the reviewer wrote, “It’s fiction, of course, but it reads like life.”
JI: Mother-daughter relationships are fraught with difficulty in all three novels particularly in The Opening Sky. You often underscore competition and miscommunication between mothers and daughters versus gentler, more collegial relationships between fathers and daughters. Can you talk about this repeated theme?
JT: This sort of mother-daughter relationship was true in our family, so I’m working out of a familiar dynamic. But aside from that, I think it’s an extremely rich thread to follow in fiction. In a social context where mothers do the primary parenting when children are small, you learn from your mother how generous or withholding life is. You learn from your mother how acceptable or unacceptable you are as an individual. She mirrors that to you. It’s such a profoundly important relationship in shaping the psyche of every individual.
Reading by Lightning is written from Lily’s point of view, and she’s in her early 20s when the novel concludes. The novel is set in a time when a mother’s role was expected to be limited to the domestic world, and I was interested in the tensions that cause maternal unhappiness. I was also interested in the pressure placed on children when they are responsible for fulfilling their parents’ unmet desires in the world. In contrast, The Opening Sky is about a generation of women who no longer define themselves entirely by the domestic scene and who expect that there will be other fulfillment for them. The tensions come more from the extent to which the mother is present to her child versus the extent to which the mother is preoccupied by her own efforts at fulfillment and self-realization.
It’s a different time and a different issue, but in both cases, the challenge is for parents to rein in their own narcissism and to see their children as individuals. I don’t think we can take for granted that everyone can maintain a healthy balance. Sylvie also faces this with her child in The Opening Sky—it’s a breakthrough for her when she begins to realize that her little girl exists as a human being who is as important as she is.
With parents of the opposite sex—and I don’t mean this in an unhealthy way—there’s a romantic sparkle that doesn’t exist with a same-sex parent, so you more easily fall into intransigent conflicts with a same-sex parent. I like Aiden, and I love lots of his conversations with Sylvie in The Opening Sky, but I don’t consider him blameless in the problems they’re having as a family.
JI: Psychological detachment is another major theme of The Opening Sky; Aiden’s emotional withdrawals are symbolized in his retreats to an island cabin in the Whiteshell Provincial Park. Rather than pushing this tension to its “natural conclusion”—the breaking of relationship—the novel seems to suggest that people are inherently flexible. In other words, detachment doesn’t necessitate permanent disconnection. Did you ever consider another ending for The Opening Sky where Aiden and Liz did split?
JT: I did until fairly late in the process. I’m not sure I can entirely articulate why I moved to something less prescriptive at the end. But I don’t necessarily assume that detachment will lead to a break in a marriage because not everyone is inclined to want intense intimacy in their relationship. Aiden has had a lot of problems with commitment—the distance between him and Liz may be at least partially to his taste.
It’s my sense that people make bargains in relationships. They decide what they’re going to settle for and how many compromises they’re going to accept. In The Opening Sky, Liz and Aiden have done that. I see some pretty profound differences between them, but they’re together because of that bargain. And they have certain values in common. They embrace a similarly ironic view of life; they both deride earnestness and sentimentality. They have a fraternity within that hip ironic stance.
If Aiden is detached, it’s not just from relationships but from his whole life experience—he is conscious that his lifestyle is at odds with some of his values, that he’s part of a culture that is ignoring larger issues, and that he’s living with a certain cognitive dissonance as a result. I was interested in exploring what would happen when Aiden encounters clients in his therapeutic practice who articulate the things he’s in denial about. That’s partly why he’s so attracted to the character Defrag; Defrag expresses things Aiden is silent about.
JI: In the novel, there are many rooms in the house of Aiden’s self that are completely closed to the other characters, but you as the novelist can take people there, an act which is kind of beautiful—it offers a way into people that are closed.
JT: I’m a huge fan of the free indirect point of view because it offers a very intimate third-person voice. I love its subjectivity, and I love setting up contrasting points of view in a story. There are rooms in Liz’s house, too, that Aiden doesn’t enter. Huge, concrete, specific things have happened in her life that are closed to him. So they have very distinct narratives, yet they’re living together in a superficially intimate relationship.
JI: And sometimes their relationship seems deeply intimate—I’m thinking of that scene where Aiden is swimming from the island toward Liz, who is standing on the dock, and Liz has this moment of longing for Aiden that is a direct response to his self. So there’s a motion toward intimacy even if it’s not expressed.
JI: Graham Greene once said something to the effect that in each of his novels, there was always one essential character he could not make “come alive,” a character who remained wooden to the end of the novel. Do you identify with this problem?
JT: I wasn’t aware of it with the first two novels, but in The Opening Sky, the character of Noah presented some interesting problems. Initially, I had trouble entering his character—he doesn’t have a point of view in the novel, and he’s looked at from the outside, so he eluded me for a long time. But Noah eludes everyone. Aiden has trouble describing him to Liz, and he even has numerous nicknames—Sparky, Canoe, Burb. A lot of hope is invested in Noah—he’s a young scientist, and at one point Aiden even refers to him as “the splendid hope of a terrified world.” So the trouble with defining Noah began to be a deliberate thread in the novel, but it sprang out of my initial difficulty in accessing his character.
JI: Your use of sex in all three novels is judicious, but moments of sexual connection feel all the more grounding and profound for their rarity. In each novel, sex is often used to illuminate delicate interpersonal power dynamics—in The Opening Sky, particularly, sex operates almost like connective tissue between emotionally independent characters, but is also a source of frustration and imbalance. I’m fascinated by the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and I’m fascinated but how it defines good fiction and bad sex writing. What function do you see sex serving in story? How do you negotiate the balance between showing and telling when it comes to writing sex scenes?
JT: I trust point of view, and I try to stay with the idiosyncratic, subjective detail rather than the high-flown. Sex scenes are very hard to write because emotion and sensory experience are difficult to express. Generally, rather than spelling out what your characters are feeling, you hope to create the feeling within the reader. I know the Bad Sex Award is about bad writing and not bad sexual experiences, but awkward and clumsy sex scenes are easier to write than erotically charged ones. Because we’re so afraid of purple prose, and because sex is such a mysterious experience, it’s ineffable.
Sex in fiction is kind of a quick ride to the instinctual and the unreasonable and the passionate, and it’s so central in all our lives that it’s bound to be key in stories. In The Opening Sky, sex is important for Sylvie and Noah because Noah is so cerebral—he’s trying hard to deal with the problems of overpopulation on the planet in a rational and scientific way, and yet he and Sylvie are subject to their own biological natures. As a result, Sylvie gets pregnant. So sex forces Noah into a felt connection with our dilemma on this planet.
As for Liz and Aiden, the novel does not portray sex from Aiden’s point of view. And if you look at the passages between Liz and Aiden, there’s only one paragraph that actually deals with sexual intercourse. The rest is talking in bed, and I’ll stick with what this says about where the roots of a long marriage ultimately lie—within the conversation.
When I read Alice Munro, I was sometimes critical of the fact that she so often uses female adultery as a means for women to express their need for autonomy and self-expression. I believe women leave marriages not because they’ve found someone else but because of their dissatisfaction with the relationship, whereas men tend to have an affair to spring themselves from a bad marriage. And yet in The Opening Sky, Liz is the one who is unfaithful. I think I moved in that direction because it interested me more. I thought it might be easier for Aiden to be casual about sex, but that this attitude would cost Liz. As a writer, I went where the risk lay.
JI: Speaking of showing versus telling—do you agree with the contemporary view that narrative forms that prioritize dialogue and action are more effective than those that emphasize setting and narrative description?
JT: It’s inevitable that our storytelling has shifted because of the dominance of visual media. As a novelist, I don’t have to paint Paris in words for people the way a novelist had to 150 years ago. Now descriptive passages function largely as an expression of point of view. We describe to the extent that our characters observe, and what they are noticing becomes a way of creating their state of mind.
And I have no doubt that film and television have created a new emphasis on dialogue. But I love writing dialogue, and I like reading it, and this emphasis is not entirely new. Not long ago, while rereading Jane Austen, I was struck by how much dialogue her novels have and how very little physical description there is of scenery, houses, or people.
JI: Winnipeg and the Prairie landscape deeply inform your writing. In an interview with Hubert O’Hearn in The Winnipeg Review, in response to O’Hearn’s comment that your characters seem equally comfortable in urban or wilderness settings, you replied that “The Opening Sky is full of aspirational urbanites who depend on the wilderness for their psychic wellbeing, and this duel consciousness is at the heart of their dilemma.” In what ways has being a Winnipegger informed your self-identity as a writer? Do you see yourself as a Winnipeg writer or a writer who lives in Winnipeg?
JT: I was 18 when I moved to Winnipeg, so I’ve lived here for decades, but I think a writer’s narrative instincts are formed very early on—that most stories come out of childhood. I was shaped far more by the rural landscape and the small town setting than by Winnipeg. On some level, I still feel that way—strangely, after all this time, I don’t necessarily think of myself as a Winnipegger. I was more shaped by attitudes I see in the Prairies—that mixture of propriety and modesty, that don’t call attention to yourself—and plain speech.
The neighbourhood in The Opening Sky is very specific to Winnipeg because, when writing in a realistic mode, I needed particular details. But I could have written the same novel using details from Windsor or Edmonton. The attitude of the characters and the place that wilderness holds in their psyches is a widespread Canadian thing.
JI: With The Opening Sky’s nomination for the Governor General’s Literary Award and its Writer’s Trust award, your novels have been ushered into a wider readership. How do you think this will inform your work?
JT: Well, it would be nice if a Governor General’s nomination brought a wider readership to The Opening Sky, but it’s not something I want to dwell on, and I hope it will have zero impact on my work. Most writers have a pretty ambivalent relationship to the prizes because they can seem very arbitrary, and they have to a large extent replaced critical discourse in Canada. We work very hard to fence off the psychic space where the creative work is done. It’s not easy because marketing now is very writer-based and personal, so it’s not that you can write the book and walk away from it. But I try hard to keep the creative side intact and to not become preoccupied with the other.
JI: Do you have another novel in the works?
JT: I have an idea. It’s based on a real event that happened in the 1950s, so right now I’m reading in that direction.
JI: What are you reading? How much do you read?
JT: I read quite a lot. I talk to writers who say, “Well, I’m writing, so I don’t want to read.” I’m the opposite. When I’m writing a contemporary novel, I want to read contemporary novels. The more ideas the better—I want to be flooded with other people’s ideas and creative energy. I’m not afraid that I’ll imitate other writers at this stage. I just like the charge from reading writers who set the bar high for themselves.
Julienne Isaacs lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Globe & Mail, The Winnipeg Review, Humber Literary Review, Whether, PANK, The Rusty Toque, CV2, Full Stop, and other publications. She is reviews editor for Rhubarb magazine and staff writer for The Puritan’s blog, the Town Crier.