‘Help Island’ becomes ‘The Opening Sky’: An Interview with Joan Thomas

Joan Thomas pic By Hubert O’Hearn  (first posted Oct. 2, 2014)

My first encounter with Joan Thomas’s work was during her time as the lead fiction reviewer for The Globe & Mail. Within both her reviews and interviews she was able to strike the perfect balance between empathy for authors and a knowledgeable guide for readers. She has since left the reviewing business and become a thrice-published novelist herself, this being the equivalent of a sportswriter running down from the press box to take over as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.

While her first novel Reading by Lightning won several awards, including the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean) and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, it was her second novel, Curiosity, that led me to become a devoted advocate of Joan Thomas’s fiction. This fictionalized account of Mary Anning, very much the precursor to Darwin in developing the science of evolution, was to my eyes the perfect historical novel.

Joan Thomas’s latest novel, The Opening Sky, is set in present day Winnipeg and its environs. The story of spousal and familial relationships where that which is unsaid or partially observed leads to a fuller understanding of the actuality of life, is a brilliant addition to modern Canadian literature. Naturally, I had a few questions:

What would you like the reader to know about the plot of The Opening Sky?

About the plot– well, really, nothing! Ideally, readers will step innocently into this novel, with no preconceptions, totally at my mercy. I think it increases your reading pleasure when you gradually start to pick things up in a story, and your unease grows, and you believe you might be the only one seeing these things. You feel engaged with the book in an intimate way.

So. Maybe we should stop this interview right here.

I remember when I studied Linguistics— a course that I think anyone interested in knowing anything at all about how humans operate should enrol in —  one of the insights was that if it was not for the silent spaces between words, oral language would be incomprehensible. It strikes me that the undiscussed secrets, observations, thoughts etc. of The Opening Sky’s characters are the way they choose to present themselves as comprehensible to the world. Any thoughts on that, or am I being much too arty?

Liz and Sylvie carry secrets in the usual sense, hidden nuggets of pain and shame that have shaped their relationship and have formed Sylvie’s character. But your question points beyond this, to the tapestry of responses and private associations that make up each character’s unique experience. This has particular resonance in the case of Aiden, a man who presents himself as laconic, easy-going to the point of being disengaged, and in reality is totally consumed with anxieties he can’t discuss. Not because these things are secret, but because no one wants to talk about them, they are taboo, they run counter to and threaten the way he is living his life. That’s a powerful thing for a man in his middle years, that kind of radical and unexpressed awareness.

Something I’ve noticed over the years I’ve been reviewing is that there is an interesting quality amongst Winnipeg-based or raised authors that I think bears attention. I find that Winnipeggers, dare I say uniquely as a group, are equally comfortable and vivid in describing the urban as well as wilderness landscapes. Characters seem equally at home in the mall or the woods. Your novel roughly divides equally between the city and the forest – so a chicken and egg question for you: Which came first, the divided settings or the plot?

I guess it’s a natural given our geography. We live in this crumbling city with hundreds of miles of fields and wilderness on either side. Lots of Winnipeggers spend every summer weekend at a lake, most of us have farming ancestors. 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.

The release of The Opening Sky was delayed because of a controversy over its cover. So I guess one can judge a book by its cover. Would you like to describe that issue and what would you like to say about it?

The original cover was a photograph of a family scene — an invisible woman wielding an upright pink vacuum cleaner, while a man and little girl sit on a couch and lift their feet to let her pass. The carpet in the room morphed nicely into a sky, which tied into the title.

When the advance readers copies went out, buyers at the big chains read the book and complained that the cover did not represent what was inside. This feedback was strong enough that McClelland and Stewart decided to do a redesign. I was relieved, because, in spite of the charm of the original design, I was concerned that the image suggested a domestic comedy—maybe about a woman freaking out over housework. In the new cover, the designers went for mood, I think, more than a literal image.

We have discussed this before, but in podcast and not written form. How does being a book reviewer assist you as a writer, or indeed is it ever a hindrance?

I haven’t had any interest in reviewing since I discovered the crack cocaine of fiction! But all the reviewing I did was a terrific apprenticeship for writing novels. I spent twenty years reading deeply, trying to put my finger on an author’s intentions for her work, trying to figure out how she pulled it off. I got used to packing a lot into a few words, because the standard review is twenty column inches and there was always so much to say.

People ask me whether it’s hard to turn off the critical faculties and be creative. Well, often it’s hard to be creative, but I don’t think my background in reviewing has anything to do with that. When fictional ideas are coming, I stand with an empty bowl in front of the fountain, full of gratitude. I wouldn’t dream of criticizing. But that’s about one hour out of ten, and then there’s the work of refining and shaping what you’ve got. In fact, writers spend most of their time in critical (i.e. revision) mode.

The only theme I detect in common between your previous novel, Curiosity, and The Opening Sky is the rebellious nature of both novels’ central characters; each featuring a young woman emerging from adolescence into adulthood. What do you love about writing on this theme?

If you’re going to have a young person in a novel, the best kind to have is rebellious, wouldn’t you say? But I don’t see either novel as a coming-of-age story in the usual sense — at least, that was not what interested me about these subjects.

What interests me is what it means to live in a time of massive cultural change—when the zeitgeist rips open and we are forced to think about ourselves differently. I’m interested in how this impinges on people personally, our various forms of resistance and denial. Discovering the remains of a prehistoric world had that effect in Mary Anning’s time, and the denial was massive.

I see The Opening Sky as the same sort of book, in a way. We’re just starting to wake up to the massive problems we face as a result of our own success as a species. Everything about our way of life is jeopardized by climate change, and I think young people in general have more clarity and less denial about this. Coming-of-age has a whole different meaning when the world is changing as fast as ours is.

Lastly, my favourite question, derived from something the late Harold Clurman said about directing a play. Clurman felt that any director who gets 70% of his original vision on opening night has ‘won.’ As you look at The Opening Sky now on release, when you think back to your original idea of, “I’m going to write a novel about X,” how much has it changed from that original conception to now?

A few years ago, I wrote a short story called “Help Island” (Prairie Fire, Spring 2009) in which a woman goes to see a psychiatrist. The therapist appears in only one scene, and I found I wanted to keep writing about him. He became Aiden in The Opening Sky, and in fact, “Help Island” was my working title for this novel.

I started the novel with a sense of Aiden, Liz, and Sylvie and the dynamics between them, but the plot largely revealed itself to me as I wrote. Maybe, with a script in front of him, Harold Clurman had a full vision of the final production, but a novel is a process of discovery. The characters and situations gleam in your imagination, you know there’s potential there, but you have no idea what all you’ll find until you start digging. And then you look at the book and say, Okay, so that’s what it was!

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