Writing is Bad for Your Character: An Interview with Duncan Thornton


By Anita Daher

Duncan Thornton is a soft-spoken Winnipeg author with a wicked-sharp wit, noted for his imaginative, well crafted novels for teens.  He was born and lived his early years in a remote, northern hamlet most easily accessed by air. One supposes dog-sled and canoe may also have been options. An adventurous beginning for one of Manitoba’s finest authors.

Thornton has written four novels for young readers. His first, Kalifax (Coteau, 1999) was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Mr. Christie’s award, the Manitoba Best First Novel and Best Children’s Book awards, and the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award.

In researching his most recent novel, Shadow-Lands (Annick Press, 2008), he spent a night alone in Manitoba’s Carberry Hills Spirit Sands. An adventurous spirit, perhaps.

I’m interested in your writer’s journey. You were born in northern Manitoba, raised there, in Winnipeg, and in southern Manitoba’s Carberry Hills, and also spent significant time in Northern Ireland. You dropped out of school at age thirteen, but eventually graduated from the University of Winnipeg with honours in English and the gold medal in honours history. What happened during those years in between? What did thirteen-year-old Duncan think life had in store, and what changed his mind, if anything?

I did do a year or so of school by correspondence, until the authorities lost track of me. And then—until I was old enough to work—I just … lived. Read a lot of books. Played a lot of dungeons and dragons. I see it as reverting to a state of nature.

Actually I always assumed I would go to college; I just didn’t want to have to suffer through grade school to get there.

What stays with you of your time in Ireland?

It was cold all the time and it smelled of coal smoke, and everyone always served a round of little chocolate bars in the evening. To me everything about everyday life was just a little “different” so that I paid attention to it, which is always the great thing about spending time away from home.

The countryside was beautiful, of course, and the girls seemed very beautiful, and the people in Ulster were all funny and argumentative. But it was the height of the Troubles, and you never forget that kind of thing. Some evenings you would count the bombs going off downtown. My cousin and I were standing in a movie line-up when it was attacked by a sectarian gang. But every day in Belfast was a day I wasn’t being bored or bullied in school, so it was great.

Your interest in history shines in your work, most recently your dark fantasy, Shadow-Town. An uneasy alliance between the farmers and the whisperers thins thanks to an insidious influence. Is there any particular time or times in Earth’s history that you drew upon in creating your story world?

I wanted the story world in Shadow-Town to be “not now,” but not medieval or anything like that. So it was inspired by the past of the North American prairie settlement: some Little House on the Prairie, Wizard of Oz-ish time. When I was going to college in Saskatoon I worked for a little while on an excavation at the site that later became the Wanuskewin Heritage Park. I didn’t find any arrow heads or anything like that in my bit of the dig; just some farmer’s garbage from the turn of the century maybe: little bottles of patent medicine, things like that, and I often thought of that writing Shadow-Town. Old enough to seem mysterious, though not quite alien.

In your acknowledgements, you mention Shadow-Town was inspired by a nightmare. What if anything, do you remember of the original dream?

It wasn’t so much the dreams as the trying-to-fall-asleep that was frightening for a city kid staying out on the farm in the Carberry Hills. There was an abandoned brick factory up the road. There were old buildings, shops, and even old highways that were crumbling back into the earth. There were skunks in the basement. At night there were the animals, the coyotes, the far-away trains…

I am fascinated by the Clatterfolk who run the trains. Can you tell more about them, or will we learn more in a sequel?

I guess the Clatterfolk came out of the desire to keep this secondary world from being too modern and technological and yet to have that gothic sort of mechanization. So the trains are operated by these … engine spirits I guess you could say. They don’t just take care of the farmers’ dead; they want to build their railway out farther and farther until it can take them out of this world altogether.

 I think in this world most of the industrial functions are handled in similar ways. In the towns there are creatures that provide the steam heating; others who handle light and power. But they still find awful chores to make the children do. That’s the realism in the fantasy.

Shadow-Town was the first of a planned four part series called Vastlands. Annick planned to release your second in 2009, but as some readers may not know, your life took a turn and plans were necessarily delayed. Would you care to comment on this?

My health started to decline about the time I was finishing Shadow-Town, and in the time I was trying to get the next book done I got worse and got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That was mostly bad for me, but it was rotten luck for Annick too. They have been great and have given me no grief about it, but between the illness and the general trauma of the diagnosis—which occurred just before news broke around the world of the new MS treatment developed by Dr. Zamboni—the sequel got away from me. I was pushing too hard while everything in my life was getting re-adjusted first with the illness and the diagnosis and then with fighting for this treatment. In my case the treatment has been very successful, but even that has been unsettling. I’ve never had to admit defeat with a book before, but I lost that one, City of Frost.

Then last summer—after a few rough years—I was awarded the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award for mid-career writers. You don’t apply for it, you don’t even know you’ve been nominated, but this jury of strangers said, Duncan, here’s a chunk of money “just to encourage you.” That was a real George Bailey moment.

What can you tell us about City of Frost?

City of Frost was the book I lost, but I like parts of it so much I haven’t given up hope of finding a proper way into the book it should have been. It’s about Jack and Rose, the protagonists from Shadow-Town, now staying with an unpleasant aunt and uncle in the city, in a terribly cold winter, and one night Jack and Rose wake up to find that the clocks are all stopped and everyone else has disappeared and they are completely alone in this frozen city. Or, “almost” alone.

Many celebrated authors have made their magic shut away from the world in a shed: Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Timothy Findley, George Bernard Shaw…  Do you still write in yours? Would love to hear more about it.

I just finished installing a slope board for writing with a pen there actually. But I go through phases with it. It’s away from the house; there’s nothing to do in it but write, and it’s 5’x8′ so you can practically keep it warm with a candle. So it can be the most productive place in the world. But then you get to the point where the isolation stops being productive and starts to be madness-creating, the way it was for Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion and you have to go back to working in a coffee shop or something where you can feel assured that other people do still exist and you are not entirely alone in the universe even if you mostly want them to leave you alone.

Being a writer, it turns out, is not actually good for your character.

What comes next?

I have a book that I’ve got to the last act about three kids in Winnipeg in the 1970s who become determined to find and learn actual magic. I wanted something where the research would be pretty slack. After that there’s an adult haunted-house story set in a house that’s surprisingly like my house that needs just one or two more good drafts.



  1. Posted January 26, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting interview. Thank you, Duncan and Anita.

  2. Jean
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Good to hear that Mr. Thornton is feeling better, and writing. I loved Kalifax, and will look for his subsequent books.

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Anita Daher

Anita Daher has lived in Summerside, PEI, Yellowknife, NT, Churchill, MB, Baker Lake, NU and Sault Ste. Marie, ON, making her an expert on the geographic location of YA writers. She is a prolific and successful YA author herself and the associate teen book editor at Great Plains Publications in Winnipeg.