Wayne Johnston, author of The Son of a Certain Woman and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.
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Wayne Johnston: As with all my books, I started this one with the question: what if…? In this case, what if a sex- and love-craving adolescent finds himself in circumstances that leave him with no one to “turn to” but his mother? This gradually grew into a larger question: what if all the characters in the book have no one to “turn to” but Percy Joyce’s mother? The circumstances of their lives are largely dictated by the intolerant, dogmatic, totalitarian Church, so it seemed to me that I’d have an explosive combination if all the main characters wanted things considered taboo or anathema by the Church. Also, The Son of A Certain Woman uses Joyce’s Ulysses much as Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey—as a kind of structural template, a mythical framework. So, in the same way that Stephen searches throughout Ulysses for his spiritual father, Leopold Bloom, Percy Joyce, in a reversal of genders, “searches for” his mother, Penelope, whose name happens to be the same as that of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey.
IFOA: What do you love most about Canada’s East Coast, the setting for much of your fiction?
Johnston: It never leaves me no matter how long I leave it for. I don’t mind the hold it has on me. I use it. For me, “Newfoundland” is a fictional place, wholly my own, distinct from the real Newfoundland. I live far enough away from it that it excites my imagination without overwhelming it. Islands serve as ideal microcosms of the planet, which is, after all, just a speck of an island in a vast universe of stars and other planets.
IFOA: How has your writing changed over time?
Johnston: That’s a tough one, as I’m so close to each of my books it’s hard to think of them collectively. I think the scope of my fiction has grown with each book, regardless of the setting of the book. I’m better now at finding the balance between comedy and pathos than I was starting out. I make greater, and better, use of history, and the history of ideas, than I used to.
IFOA: Your novel The Divine Ryans was adapted for film in 1999, and you wrote the screenplay. What was that process like?
Johnston: I wrote the screenplay for The Divine Ryans because I thought I knew the book better than anyone else. It was difficult at first—I had to cut and reshape an enormous amount of “stuff” that I had come to think of as being set in stone. I had to be a ruthless editor of my own book, a lot of which was left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, writing the screenplay and being on the set when the movie was filmed gave me a rare chance to create collaboratively and burst the bubble of “novelist” in which I spend so much of my time. I just finished writing the screenplay for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a massive task that will soon pay off. Shooting of the film begins not long from now.
IFOA: If you could swap lives with any author, past or present, whose life would you choose?
Johnston: I’ve never been much of life swapper. Authors’ lives are dwarfed by those of their characters. I wouldn’t mind being a character in a novel. It might be fun to be Huck Finn or Jane Austen’s Emma for a while. But I’d reserve the right to come back to “life.”
Wayne Johnston is the author of five Canadian bestsellers, including The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. He will be reading from his most recent work on November 3 alongside authors Lauren B. Davis, Anthony De Sa and Don Gillmor, and participating in a round table later that day with writers Michael Crummey and Peter Robinson.