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In Conversation With Award- Winning Canadian Novelist, Joan Thomas
From:
Norm Goldman --  bookpleasures.com Norm Goldman -- bookpleasures.com
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Montreal , QC
Friday, September 04, 2020

 

Bookpleasures.com welcomesas our guest Canadian novelist, Joan Thomas. Joan's fourth novel FiveWives won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award forFiction. Described by the Globe and Mail as “brilliant, eloquent,curious, far-seeing,” it is an immersive dive into a real event,the disastrous attempt by five American families to move into theterritory of the reclusive Waorani people in Ecuador in1956.
 

Joan’s three previous novels have been praisedfor their intimate and insightful depictions of characters in timesof rapid social change. Reading by Lightning, set in World War2, won the 2008 Amazon Prize and a Commonwealth Prize. Curiosity,based on the life of the pre-Darwinist fossilist Mary Anning, wasnominated for the 2010 Giller Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. TheOpening Sky, a novel about a family navigating contemporarycrises, won the 2014 McNally Robinson Prize and was a finalist forthe Governor General’s Award.
 
Joan lives in Winnipeg,a prairie city at the geographical center of North America. Beforebeginning to write fiction, she was a longtime book reviewer. In2014, Joan was awarded the Writers Trust of Canada’s prize formid-career achievement. 

Norm: Good day Joan andthanks for participating in our interview.

How long have you beenwriting? And how long did it take you to get your first major bookcontract?


Joan: Thanks for hostingme, Norm. I appreciate the conversations you create between readersand writers. 

Writing fiction was like asecret ambition for me for most of my life. It takes a lot of courageto believe you can write a novel. When I finally took the plunge, Iended up writing four, one after the other. My first book waspublished by a small press, but Curiosity, my second, waspicked up by a Random House publisher. Now I wish I’d startedwriting sooner. 

Norm: What do you thinkmost characterizes your writing?  As a follow up, why do youwrite? Do you have a theme, message, or goal for your books?  

Joan: When my first novelcame out, a woman I had never met told me that she loved it, andsaid, “I felt as though I was reading about myself.”

I considered that thehighest compliment, and it became kind of a guiding principle for me,to create intimacy and a sense of recognition for readers. I want tocapture the texture of daily life, but also to situation characterswithin the big things happening in the world. Many of my charactersare in that vivid space where the way they previously saw themselves,and the way they saw the world, is crumbling.  

Norm: Do you thinkabout your reading public when you write? Do you imagine a specificreader when you write?

Joan: I wrote my firstnovel with a particular friend in mind—I was always knocking myselfout to make her laugh. Since I’ve been published, I would say Ihave a stronger sense of a public audience. Readers’ comments haveinfluenced me. I’m more aware of the need to keep the story moving,for one thing. 

Norm: How do you dealwith criticism?

Joan: When my editors’feedback letters come in, I spend a day pacing around the house andranting, composing a mean rebuttal in my mind. By the next morning,the wisdom of their ideas will be apparent to me.

I don’t accept everysuggestion, but when a criticism is right, you know it. And then Ibegin to feel grateful, and thrilled that my editor has helped makemy book better.  

Norm: Does the linebetween truth and fiction sometimes become blurred for you?

Joan: My two biggest bookswere based on real events. Onto the infrastructure of history, Iweave invented details and incidents. And yes, eventually the twofuse into one, and my own construct feels to me like what reallyhappened. 

Of course, history itselfis a construct. It doesn’t know the whole story and it picks andchooses details that fit the assumptions and values of a certain era.Fiction can challenge that. I’m a big believer in the profoundtruths of fiction.  

Norm: How do you choosethe names of your characters?

Joan: With historicalfiction involving real people, you don’t have a lot of choice, andthat can be a problem in itself.

In my novel Curiosity,almost every male character was named either William or Henry! Butwith invented characters, when I’m picking names, I aim for wordsthat resonate with meaning or colour—Justin Challis or JustinCarpenter instead of, say, Justin McDonald. 

Sometimes I go for a namewith symbolic weight: Sylvie for the girl who loved the woods, Noahfor the biologist trying to save animal life. You have to be carefulnot to be too on-the-nose with symbolism. Several of the charactersin Five Wives are related and their last name is Saint. Iwouldn’t have dared to use that if history had not given it to me. 

Norm: Are you everlonely when you write, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Joan: In a word, no. Thedeep pleasure writing brings is a well-guarded professional secret.Writers pretend we are suffering in our garrets because it would hurtour families to know that we would rather be writing than doingpretty much anything else. And in very hard times, your writing isthe one place you can go to where you are in control.   

Norm: Do you ever dreamabout your characters?

Joan: What an interestingquestion! I never have, but then I rarely dream about people who areclose and important to me. The figures in my dreams tend to be, youknow, my lab partner from high school, who I haven’t seen indecades. 

Norm: What has beenyour greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome ingetting to where you’re at today? 

Joan: I’m pretty shy. Ionce heard Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain say in an interview, “Whatis a writer but a failed talker?” and I thought, “That is me in anutshell!” I had no idea how much on-stage and media work I wouldhave to do as a novelist. But of course it’s what I want, thechance to tell people about my work, so I muddle through. 

Norm: Could you tell usabout your latest novel, Five Wives?

Joan: Five Wives is basedon true events—a 1956 missionary enterprise in Ecuador known asOperation Auca. Five young American men died in an effort to takeChristianity to a reclusive Indigenous nation in the rain forest.

But shortly after, twowomen (the widow of one of the men, the sister of another) trekkedinto the forest and made peaceful contact with the men’s killers,converting them to Christianity. In the novel I enter thesecharacters deeply, imagining my way into their experience andfeelings. 

Norm: What were yourgoals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel youachieved them? 

Joan: Operation Auca wasreally well known in North America, mainly because of ThroughGates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot’s memoir.

I had a very religiousupbringing, and the Operation Auca missionaries were viewed asmartyrs in our church.

Of course this intrusioninto the life of a reclusive Indigenous nation looks very differentto the world now than it did when it happened, and I was interestedin revisiting this story through a contemporary lens and looking atthe long term consequences.  

The story seemed moreamazing to me the longer I worked on it. And it had so manyresonances with things that were reported in the news in the years Iwas writing it. The “othering” of refugees at the US-Mexicanborder. The way political and religious affiliations colour ourpoints of view.   

Norm: What was the mostdifficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most aboutwriting this book?  

Joan: I was fascinated bythe personalities and voices of the missionary wives. They look verysimilar in photographs, modest, plainly-dressed. But they came aliveto me as dramatically different personalities, and I was moved bytheir dilemma as young moms who love husbands, being asked to embracethis incredibly risky endeavor as God’s will.   

Today we question the verypremise of Operation Auca, asking, What gives you the right to imposeyour ways on other people? The wives were not openly critical of themission. In real life, they rarely expressed doubts. So that was themain challenge of writing the book, to provoke the questions mycharacters were not asking, to enter the cognitive dissonance theylived with, because what they believed was so often at odds with whatwas happening in the world. 

Norm: Did you write thenovel more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two?Please summarize your writing process.  

Joan: Intuition alwaysoutsmarts logic for me. I’ll hit a wall with my writing, andstruggle to solve a problem, and then a day or two later the solutionwill come to me out of the blue, something totally different thananything I had been thinking.

Novels are huge, you workon them for years, and I’m in awe of the way your unconscious mindcarries the whole thing. The way that, as you write page 300, youwill tease out an image you planted on page 100 and then entirelyforgot about. So it’s a little closer to dreaming for me. Which isnot to say that I don’t do a lot of rearranging and revising,relying on the logical and critical mind at that stage.  

Norm: If you couldinvite three writers, dead or alive into your living room, who wouldthey be and why? 

Joan: I’m going to forgothe delight of meeting Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen and inviteliving writers. Capturing life in the 21st century is a daunting,almost impossible challenge, and these three do it in ways thatastonish and provoke me: Ben Lerner. Zadie Smith. Jenny Offill. 

Norm: Where can ourreaders find out more about you and Five Wives?

Joan: They can check outmy WEBSITE,  I’ll be speaking at on-lineevents throughout the fall, and links will be posted on the Eventspage. Any book club reading Five Wives can invite me to join theconversation virtually. My e-mail address is joan@joanthomas.ca.  

Norm: What is next forJoan Thomas?

Joan: I want to write acontemporary novel next but it’s tough because things are changingso fast in the world—the target you’re aiming at is constantlymoving. At the moment I’m just riding the seismic waves, watching,thinking, sometimes writing passages that might or might not end upbeing part of a new novel.    

Norm:  As thisinterview comes to an end, what advice can you give aspiring writersthat you wished you had gotten, or that you wished you would havelistened to?

Joan:  Write the bookthat only you can write. This is old advice and I didn’t entirelyappreciate it until I launched into Five Wives.

As a young person, I feltlike an outsider. I grew up a long way from any city, I spent myentire childhood in church, I was not allowed to watch TV or listento pop music. I did read, avidly, and I imagined novelists as beingsophisticated, worldly, on the growing edge of culture, a wholedifferent species from me. But actually, not being part of themainstream is a huge gift to a writer.

You have an outsider’sperspective. And then to move out of your ideological bubble and todiscover that the world is transformed simply by changing your pointof view—well, that’s at the heart of novel writing. 

Reviewed By Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

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