Speaking with Wayne Johnston about The Son of a Certain Woman

Wayne Johnston's new novel is big, vivid, perceptive and earthy. It's a story about a clever and persecuted boy, Percy Joyce, and his unsettlingly gorgeous mother, Penelope, who live in a house full of secrets in the St. John's, Newfoundland of a half-century ago. It's a story about love, pragmatism and defiance.

This morning he spoke with me about how setting serves as character in The Son of a Certain Woman, and about religious tyranny, book design, tweeting, and sleeplessness. There are plenty of hints about the plot here, too.

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WJ: People are sort of tiptoeing around the controversy in the book and wondering about incest and about the portrait of Catholicism and the idea of two lesbians blackmailing a guy into having a baby. But you know, I keep reminding people that it’s fiction, first of all, and that I’ve heard of people doing much worse things.

– And these particular people have good hearts, if not pure hearts.

WJ: Yes.

– That line between fiction and fact is something you are well used to explaining.

WJ: Oh, with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, I’m still wincing over some of the reaction to that. It was like a schizoid reaction: Half the people got it and half didn’t, and the ones who didn’t get it are never going to get it. They just can’t bring their minds to accept the idea that if you bring a historical event into fiction and mix the two together you are still writing something that is wholly fiction; you are combining the two for reasons of myth, and historical myth, and the idea of history.

I’m always trepidatious about going home and seeing the reaction. With this book, people will think they know some of the characters—that will happen more in Newfoundland than elsewhere. There are some beloved landmarks in The Son of a Certain Woman that are real landmarks in St. John's and people might say, "My God—what does he have his character doing in the Basilica?"

– Still, the city has changed since from the time in which the novel is set, which coincides roughly with your own upbringing. I'm curious about how much the influence of religion that you describe in the book—pervasive, perhaps oppressive, and yet reassuringly predictable—might now be diluted by diversity, modernity and prosperity.

WJ: There is a veneer of reform. One of the main things is that the denominational system of education was got rid of. It looked like a big step at the time. Before that every single religion had its own school system, its own buses and textbooks, and the cost was enormous.

The reaction to the changes was to start up private schools so now there are private Catholic schools in St. John's that are very much closed little societies and from those schools come the social leaders and politicians. It's—maybe—a bit more subtle. The control of the city by a combination of religious, social and economic powers is still very much as it always was; you have to dig a little bit below the surface to find it.

– St. John’s itself is a city-state within the province.

WJ: I said of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams that Newfoundland was a character in the novel. In The Son of a Certain Woman, St. John's is a character in the novel. When Percy Joyce, on his birthday (on the feast day of St. John), goes out and walks around and thinks about the city, about where he lives, that is a kind of homage to what Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus do in Ulysses. They both walk about the city on different routes until eventually they coincide late in the day on June 16th. You don't need to know Ulysses to "get" this book, but there’s an extra layer of fun and of myth and literary tradition if you know that there is a kind of homage to James Joyce going on here.

By having the Joycean echoes I also intended The Son of a Certain Woman to be an example of the particular standing for the universal. So Percy’s little world is small and circumscribed, it's smaller than the island of Newfoundland, but in his eyes and, by the end of the book, I think, in the reader's eyes, it stands in for everywhere.

– I can see that, for instance, in that Scottish readers have connected with that universality in your work. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, in which the province wrestles with Confederation, has been brought into the discussion of independence for Scotland.

WJ: When David Robinson, the editor of The Scotsman, read the book, he said: This is us, this is what we're going. At the Ullapool Book Festival he got everybody talking about it and suddenly I became this expert on secession. It was a lot of fun.

It's interesting that they have the opportunity to do without suffering what a lot of Newfoundlanders wanted to do in the two referenda. It’s not violent, it’s not tearing the country apart; it's a very reasoned debate in most cases.

I don’t know what will happen. But when I was there almost everyone I spoke to who was against independence was not against was not against it out of loyalty to Britain, but for purely pragmatic economic reasons. It was a direct echo of the Newfoundland referenda, which went about 50-50; if you took out of the 50% who voted against it the ones who simply voted with their heads, who said, We’re just too poor to make a go of it; I wish we weren’t, but we are—you would have 75 or 80% that wanted independence. Scotland has that opportunity.

– So that’s the universal, but about the particular, about Percy, who is different physically than other people—why that particular predicament?

WJ: In fiction, unless something goes wrong there is no story. That’s a given. In Percy’s case, the port wine stain on his face comes from various things. One was that when I was at school there was a guy who had a very severe one. Sometimes they are not much more than birthmarks but they can be quite debilitating. If they are anywhere near your eyes they can affect brain vessels or optic nerves, and in extreme cases you get this enlargement of the hands and feet, and Percy happens to be one of those people.

Again, in terms of a literary echo, Percy’s stain is like Hester Prynne's scarlet letter. It is, supposedly, the outer emblem of an inner taint that he inherited from the mother who had him out of wedlock, the idea being that a bastard child will have something wrong with him. In Percy’s case it’s something physical and visual and something he can never hide. It’s a tough legacy to live with and the results play out within the book. Luckily his mother is, aside from being very beautiful, very smart—self-educated—and she is able to give him a kind of historical context in which to see himself that helps him a lot.

He probably wouldn’t know that until he is a grownup looking back, which is what he is in the book. Some people have asked how could a boy describe looking back on his boyhood in such a sophisticated way. It's a naive question; if you look at David Copperfield, in which he is born on the first page, obviously this is not a baby telling the story but a grown person remembering, but you'd be amazed how many people can't make that distinction.

So he has that taint and and he has this mother who is so beautiful, but she has something she wants to hide—something that is far more serious in that it could land her in the loony bin, or in jail, and Percy would have no parents. She would lose the love of her life, who could also end up in the loony bin. 

That whole family is skating on the surface of catastrophe in this repressed, puritanical world. Percy's house at 44 Bonaventure Ave. is this enclave of passion, and the idea that life doesn't have to be something to be endured; it can be enjoyed. But an enormous institution is keeping its hand on top of that idea.

– Has your schedule changed? Do you still write at night? Does it help with imagination and memory?

WJ: I still do, especially for the first draft. I don’t really write in drafts but I sort of revise as I go along and I write longhand. Whenever I write longhand it has to be at night. I don't know why; I wish it were otherwise, I used to say that it's convenient for me and to no one else, but now I'm starting to think it isn't convenient for me either. When it comes time to promote a book I can't keep that schedule, but on the other hand I can't sleep. I'm hanging on a wing and a prayer of adrenaline when I'm going through a book tour.

– And you're tweeting now. 

WJ: Oh, it’s...

– It’s exhausting?

WJ: I had no idea … I though Facebook was it for social media. But Twitter—the instantaneous reaction you get for a tweet, it's weird. I would post on Facebook and go away and check it again three days later. You tweet, there's an answer, and someone is retweeting. and off it goes. And I only have 350 followers …

– Growing quickly, I’m sure. Twitter can also be such a time suck.

WJ: How I’ll be able to keep up with it once I get back to the desk to write another book I'm not sure. I might put 15 minutes aside and have a tweet of the day, the one you really want to have, and not go near it otherwise.

– This book cover is so very striking. I noticed that you thank designer Terri Nimmo "for remembering that the book is a thing in itself." 

WJ: This, of all the books—even my very first book, which I have a fondness for because it was my first—this is my favourite cover of them all and my favourite artifact as a book. The pages inside—it's a while before you realize there are naked women all over the inside pages, lips and eyebrows and so on, and on the next pages, the way that the words are made—and I did not suggest this to anyone—it's an exact replication Ulysses that's my favourite version of it was published the year that I was born, 1958.

When I saw the book I just thought, they’ve really, really aced it this time

– That’s a lot of echoes. And next?

WJ: I always have an idea for a novel but I don’t know if I should do another novel next. I have an idea for nonfiction. It will be about Newfoundland ...

I usually don’t find out what I’m going to say in a book until I say it, so anything I told you, aside from being bad luck—I'm superstitious—would probably not be even remotely accurate, but I am juggling the idea of fiction and nonfiction for the next book right now.

Next year a couple of things are going to happen and I'm not sure how much of my time they are going to take up. A major theatrical  production of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams will premiere in St. John's and go across the country, written by Robert Chafe and directed by Jillian Keily, who is now the artistic director of the National Arts Centre. And on top of that—though where movies are involved it's always depending on money and fundraising—this might almost directly coincide with the movie version of the book, for which I wrote the screenplay, and I would definitely have to be involved.

I don’t know yet how much uninterrupted time I’ll have. I'm keeping my eye on both and seeing what will happen.

– Congrats on being long listed for the Giller Prize.

WJ: Ever since the Giller started I’ve had five books and all five of them have been shortlisted or longlisted.

– Quite a streak...

WJ: We’ll see!

Wayne Johnston will read on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m., at the Burlington Arts Centre (1333 Lakeshore Blvd.) with Roberta Rich and Mary Lawson. Tickets are $10, available at Bryan Prince Bookseller, which is co-presenting the event with A Different Drummer Books.