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Janet McNaughton

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Author Profiles

The secret under her skin

Janet McNaughton on anger, hope, and the magic of Newfoundland

Not many authors would welcome the company of two small boys during an interview with a journalist. But Janet McNaughton has kindly invited my sons along with me to her home; she knows from experience that babysitters for nursing infants are hard to find.


Janet McNaughtonMy three-year-old, baby-in-a-stroller, and I all squeeze into the small bright kitchen of McNaughton’s narrow clapboard house in downtown St. John’s. She makes tea, feeds crackers to the baby and to her own young charge – an Alexandrine parrot named Merlin – and fields dozens of questions from my young boy.

The parrot is too young to talk yet, she explains to him, bending her own small serious face down to his bright excited one. And yes, it’s okay to feed the baby the same crackers Merlin likes to eat, she tells me, with a small grin.

My three-year-old runs off with McNaughton’s teenage daughter, Elizabeth Wallack. They play the piano in the next room for a while before wandering away into another part of the house. Baby and parrot munch noisily on their crackers. McNaughton, who above the din has been calmly fielding questions about her latest book, The Secret Under My Skin, comments that young parrots are similar to young humans – they scream for attention and aren’t very tidy.

While McNaughton carries on oblivious to the mild chaos around her, anyone who has worked with her knows that this happy relaxation with noise and messiness does not extend to her craft. To the dismay of some of her less stringent colleagues, McNaughton the writer and researcher is a demanding perfectionist.

She readily acknowledges that her obsession with deadlines and intense desire to get everything right has caused conflict more than once during group writing projects. And during her academic career in the folklore department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, she says her meticulous nature irritated her professors and colleagues.

“I didn’t fit in well because I wanted a complete picture instead of focusing on one tiny point,” says McNaughton, explaining that her thesis on midwifery included chapters on infant mortality and other related areas she felt were necessary to do justice to her topic. “It’s the same with my writing, in that I always want to create a whole world.”

McNaughton makes no apologies for her nature. She’s a serious writer, who takes writing for young people particularly seriously. She may be difficult for some people to work with, but the tremendous effort she puts into her writing and research makes her books wonderful to read. She favours complex characters and avoids pat endings and heavy-handed moralizing. Reading a McNaughton novel is like spending time with a hip aunt. The author assumes her young readers are intelligent enough to talk about life – she doesn’t have to sugar-coat it – and respects them enough to let them form their own opinions. She doesn’t tell them what to think.

“Literature is important to kids in a way that it can never be to adults,” McNaughton says, explaining she wants her books to challenge young readers – not just entertain them. “You can address [universal] moral issues in a subtle way. Young people are interested in exploring the world and right and wrong, and what they believe in. It’s a very important time.”

With her new novel, a work of science fiction, she’s taken her relationship with young readers – who e-mail her regularly – a step further.

“This is a darker novel,” McNaughton says of the futuristic The Secret Under My Skin. “I was motivated by anger to write this book in a way that I’ve never been before.

“I’m angry about child poverty and how much we’re taking for granted that could be lost – access to health care, environmental issues,” says the author, adding that the increasingly cavalier attitude of newspapers like The Globe and Mail toward issues like global warming and child poverty acted as a catalyst. “This is the result of an accumulated experience – a whole adult lifetime watching all the progress we have made slipping away,” she says. “What if we took this trend to its logical conclusion? What kind of world will we live in in the future?”

The Secret Under My Skin tells the story of Blay Raytee and her search for identity and truth in a world torn apart by environmental devastation and social upheaval. Blay doesn’t know her real name. She thinks she may be 13 years old, but she isn’t sure. She has disturbing memories of being held in loving arms once, but doesn’t know anything about her parents. She has been taken to a government-run work camp for lost and unwanted children after the only guardian she has ever known – Hilary, a child herself and a master thief – is killed protecting her. As the story gets underway, Blay is chosen to tutor a young woman whose physical sensitivity to the environment has landed her the role of bio-indicator. As she leaves the work camp, Blay embarks on a journey of personal, scientific, and political awakening. The novel is a true adventure on an epic scale, and the reader is plunged into McNaughton’s vision of a future ruled by violence, superstition, and lies.

“I was worried it was too dark,” admits McNaughton, whose dystopian vision includes death squads aimed at gangs of homeless children and hints of the sexual exploitation of children like Blay. McNaughton purposely downplayed the abuse theme – it’s never made obvious – figuring that children who need to pick up on it will. Other readers will accept it as part of the story. “[The sexual abuse] is implied but never stated,” explains McNaughton. “Kids don’t need to be hit over the head with this stuff. Everything that happens in this book has already happened to real people somewhere in the world. It’s pretty dark.”

One of McNaughton’s biggest challenges was keeping up her spirits when the going felt grim. “This is upsetting stuff, very very sad,” says the writer, who found the material hard to face sometimes. Even in its hopeful moments (and hope does pierce the heart of this book, along with an exploration of family, individual potential, and, happily, romance), McNaughton gives the reader the straight goods. Blay’s friend Erica Townsend comments that she could tell Blay had been given love as a small child, the implication being that children without love are truly damaged. This is a sad truth in Blay’s world and in ours. But the story is not only about sadness and loss. McNaughton writes magically about the natural world, capturing the sense of wonder and thirst for discovery that mark the young.

Writing a science fiction novel after three books of historical fiction, including the Geoffrey Bilson Award-winning To Dance at the Palais Royale, seems like a big leap. But McNaughton says the two genres are remarkably similar. “What you need to write good historical fiction is what you need for good science fiction. You need to create a culture; you need depth and detail.”

Historical fiction also entails extensive research in archives and old newspapers. For her new book, McNaughton explored the state of the world through the news media and the Web, with a lot of input from her husband Michael Wallack, a political science professor at Memorial University. “He would come home with ideas he’d seen on the Internet, like the MIT project of the ‘last book’ [a massive undertaking aimed at creating a downloadable collection of all published books]. They’re not making much progress with it, but in my book they did,” says McNaughton, whose heroine Blay finds solace in her secretive reading of the poetry she discovers in a “last book.”

McNaughton decided to set a major part of her story in an actual location – Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park – to make her futuristic world seem more real. Science fiction is often set in a sort of nowhere or anywhere city or place, but McNaughton believes stories, even science fiction stories, resonate more fully if they are set somewhere specific.

“As soon as I got there I knew I had to write about the place,” says McNaughton, who spent a week in Gros Morne in 1995. “It’s magical, it really grabs you. The Tablelands, the landscape there, has a true sense of the depth of time because of the geology of the place. I can’t imagine setting a book nowhere.”

McNaughton has set two of her other novels in Newfoundland, whose landscape she says she has come to love. The author moved to the island 20 years ago from Toronto to study folklore. Initially frightened by the dark Atlantic ocean, which she used to compare to a vat of boiling acid, McNaughton says she has grown to appreciate its compelling moodiness and often uses it as a backdrop for her stories.

Back in her kitchen, the ocean invisible from the small window, the writer has thrilled my young boy by perching Merlin on his arm. He wants the parrot to stand on his shoulder, pirate-style, but the author, in her usual informative manner, dissuades him. Parrots think human heads are other parrots perched on trees, she explains and Merlin might take a nip. He nods gravely. The baby has thrown his cracker on the floor and begins to cry. I apologize. McNaughton waves aside my apologies as she bends down and carefully sweeps the cracker crumb mess away. She’s a novelist who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.