Published November 1999
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For author Wayne Johnston, Newfoundland is a constant character
Wayne Johnston is getting out more often these days. A self-described “passive extrovert” who prefers to work strange and long hours (from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, then from 11 p.m. until 5 in the morning) and who has “banished” himself to North Toronto in order to “eliminate the temptation to socialize,” he’s now an internationally famous novelist, screenplay writer and, most recently, memoirist who suddenly has some professional partying to do. Ordering a Beck’s beer while hunkered down in a booth at a Queen Street café, the 41-year-old Johnston describes his itinerary at the Atlantic Film Festival where The Divine Ryans, the film based on his own novel, premiered a couple of days earlier.
“I’d get out of bed, go to some event, then another event, I’d be on panels, I’d be interviewed, at night I’d go to a gala, then another party. You can reach a saturation point. But on the other hand it’s great to be able to get out and meet other people besides the ones in my head.”
Some of the people in Johnston’s head of late include a fictional Joey Smallwood, the hero of his celebrated novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Now, with the recently published memoir Baltimore’s Mansion, there’s real-life family members rolling around in there too. Not to mention the ever-present figure of Newfoundland itself, Johnston’s birthplace, literary stomping ground, and spiritual home. In Johnston’s work, the island of fog and rock is the one constant character, a looming physical and emotional landscape in which the human events take place.
“I wanted to describe Ferryland as a place of the mind – of my father’s mind and of my own,” Johnston explains, speaking of the outport hometown setting of his new book. “All the landmarks in Ferryland are capitalized, for example. Even if we’re talking about the Pool, it’s capitalized because, for my father, these places were kind of a template for everything that happened to him afterwards. So there’s a difference between the archetypal personal geography of Baltimore and the more expansive geography of Colony, one that is seen by an entire people.”
The central feature of Baltimore’s personal geography is a line of fathers and sons, specifically Johnston’s grandfather, father, and himself: three generations of working Newfoundland men struggling to survive, both economically and politically. And set in the middle of it all is the referendum over Confederation that made Newfoundland Canada’s last province. “The reason the referendum vote was so divisive is because both sides felt guilty about the way they voted,” Johnston explains. “Nationalists who wanted independence felt guilty because they knew it would mean more of the same economic hardship. On the other hand, you have the Confederates who were making a pragmatic choice, but still felt fervently nationalistic. So everyone was overcompensating for guilt.”
Baltimore’s Mansion tells the story of the Johnston family before and after this guilt-ridden vote, and is an imaginative account of regret, exile, and the end of a way of life. What’s unusual about the memoir is that many of the events it describes are speculative, recreations of moments at which the author couldn’t have been present, such as the way a person voted in a polling booth, or the manner in which the author’s grandfather died alone.
“I describe my grandfather’s last moments, and all the details of where and how he was found are accurate,” Johnston assures me. “But since I write it in the third person, and since nobody was with him when he died, I have to be with him. In this respect, it’s every bit as ambitious as Colony was, perhaps more so.”
Where Baltimore is more ambitious, perhaps, is in its emotional honesty and time-slipping structure. Colony is a novel of Dickensian breadth and pace, an anti-epic of thwarted love and the loss of a nation. Although it was a national bestseller that went on to be nominated for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction last year, it’s a work that achieved what can best be described as sleeper success in Canada. Not until July of this year, when the novel occupied the book world’s most cherished piece of critical real estate – the front page of The New York Times Book Review – did acknowledgment of Johnston’s accomplishment truly register in this country.
In large part, this was because not all of the novel’s Canadian reviews have been as kind as The New York Times'. In fact, Colony received its share of pans in Canada before basking in international praise. The local complaints tended to be of a certain kind, running in the “I knew Joey Smallwood, and your Joey Smallwood is not the one I knew” variety. Versions of this criticism were made by Sandra Gwyn in Maclean’s, Stephen Smith in Quill & Quire, and Rex Murphy in The Globe and Mail. “Smallwood will not be contained,” Murphy wrote. “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams tries to, or so it seems to me, but drains and diminishes the Smallwood that so many Newfoundlanders still remember, producing a pastework substitute.”
When I bring up these reservations about fictionalizing a recently deceased historical figure, Johnston has an answer ready; it’s a rebuttal he’s probably delivered on several occasions over the past year.
“The notion that you can’t incorporate into the historical record things that didn’t happen hasn’t been current since Homer, and certainly not since Shakespeare,” Johnston explains, taking a calming sip of his Beck’s. “The Richard III of the play was nothing like the ‘real’ Richard III, but Shakespeare wrote about him only 20 years after he died. I think that the people who did have a problem with my novel had a problem not with the premise, but with [the fact that I wrote] about Canadian history, as opposed to American or English history. It takes a leap not just of imagination but of self-confidence to be able to read about your own history with fictional variations, and to be able to distance yourself from it enough to see it as a novel and not some failed attempt at history. Some people don’t have that ability with Canada yet. It’s essentially a form of provincialism we’ve got to grow out of.”
Johnston suspects that another source of the domestic criticism was the knowledge that Colony would soon be appearing around the world for audiences who would be learning about Smallwood, Confederation, and Newfoundland history for the first time. There was a fear that proud little Newfoundland was shamelessly hanging out its dirty laundry – its fictional dirty laundry, no less – for all the world to see. “We have to tell our own story,” Johnston chortles, paraphrasing his opponents’ position, “but we have to get it absolutely right, or else what will the Americans think if one of our heroes had an affair – or at least thought about it – for 40 years?”
As occurs frequently throughout our interview, I allow a laugh at one of Johnston’s jokes, but his face remains unchanged
except for a barely perceptible rise at the corner of his lips. This subtle gesture is indicative of Johnston’s sense of humour: generous, self-deprecating, dry as bone. It’s also bitingly ironic, and therefore critical by nature.
“In our haste to grow out of our inferiority about being Canadian – some of us in certain quarters, at least – have become super-earnest. We’re losing, or not developing, the ability to look at ourselves critically, or to send ourselves up in ironic ways,” Johnston observes, and the corners of his lips rise again. “There’s this prevailing sense of solemnity and gravity about Canada and how to write about it. The conviction is that it’s got to be sombre or it can’t be good.”
Johnston’s writing isn’t remotely sombre – and it is good. But with literary accomplishment come the personal demands of commercial success, the pressure of following your last performance with something even better the next time around. Yet Johnston shrugs this notion off with a decisive shake of his head.
“Writers whose success comes quickly are happier than those whose success comes either slowly or not at all. A lot of that idea of ‘success corrupts’ comes from the romantic Joycean story of the genius with a small cabal of followers, but not the fame that other contemporary writers enjoyed at the time. Most of the leading writers of the 20th century experienced a lot of success during their lives. Hemingway didn’t burn out as a result. Fitzgerald or E.M. Forster didn’t either.” Johnston pauses for a moment, and for the first time allows an unrestrained smile to cross his face.
“It’s much better to be harried than ignored.”