James Joyce, Portnoy’s Complaint, and the Exuberance of First Books: A Chat with Wayne Johnston

In The Son of a Certain Woman, Wayne Johnston’s Giller Prize-nominated tenth book, we meet Percy Joyce, a disfigured boy coming of age (and having deeply Oedipal feelings for his beautiful mother) in 1950s St. John’s, Newfoundland.  The novel, which you can read an excerpt from here, weaves together this young man’s struggle against Catholicism and convention with the dark and exotic St. John’s to create a narrative that will engross you — or at least it did me!  Son of a Certain Woman was my pick for the best book of September, and I happily had the opportunity to sit down with Wayne Johnston — author, thinker, and nouveau member of the Twitterati — to chat about his new novel.

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The-Son-of-a-Certain-Woman-711x1024BG: I wanted to congratulate you on the Giller long list!  It’s been a great year for Atlantic Canada [a third of this year’s long list is made up of authors from that region].

WJ: Yeah, it has.  We’ll have to see how it all plays out, but it’s great.  Now let me think. Ever since the Giller was started, I’ve had five books, and all of them have either been short-listed or long-listed.  Somebody suggested yesterday in the Ottawa Citizen that it might be a record.

BG: That’s really interesting, because I was going to ask you about the experience of being part of that awards world.  Douglas Coupland once told me that the experience of being a Giller nominee is “deeply creepy.”

WJ: [laughter]

BG: So you’ve done it a lot more often than he has.  I’m wondering what the experience is like for you.

WJ: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s “deeply creepy”!  But you know, it’s an ongoing thing.  They have it layered out so well these days with the long list and the short list, and then of course the award.  It’s kind of like a preliminary round followed by a disqualification round.

The prize has evolved over the years.  I don’t think I was nominated for the very first one, because I don’t think I had a book out, so I think my first one might have been Colony of Unrequited Dreams and I had no idea what to expect and didn’t know the people involved.  But I was amazed at how quickly they had put together the whole package and how right away it became so visible in the book world.  I don’t think it’s been replicated by anybody else.  Other people have tried with the best of intentions, but somehow they tapped into something that needed to be tapped into.

The experience.  Yeah, the experience itself is suspense and anticipation; you get on the long list and you breathe easily so you do your thing, because by then you’re touring and not really thinking about it; then the short list…

I like it!

Giller night itself can be pretty nerve-wracking.  The prize, sort of opposite to most prizes, has become more and more important as time has gone by.

It’ll be an interesting fall.  That’s for sure.

BG: Well we’ll be wishing you the best of luck.  I loved the novel.  I’ve been telling anyone who asks me about it that it’s Portnoy’s Complaint meets the Newfoundland Gothic.  I was wondering if you have any thoughts on that characterization.

WJ: That’s a great quote.  I read Portnoy’s Complaint years ago.  Some of the tone is similar, and of course the explicitness.  The family and sexuality within it.  There’s definitely an echo there.

And the Newfoundland Gothic, or I call it Atlantic Gothic and I think other people call it Maritime Gothic, because there does seem to be a gothic element throughout Atlantic literature as it’s being written in the last twenty years.

It’s a good description.  I’ve quoted it to many other people!

BG: I think especially of the religious tension.  In this novel it’s Roman Catholic versus a Pagan-Atheist kind of ideology.  That echoes for me, too, with the stress Portnoy experiences.  Trying to come of age within a very prescriptive religious world.

WJ: Portnoy’s immediate pressure comes from his parents, though eventually from a Rabbi as well.  Percy has a kind of insulating layer because of Penelope and to some extent Medina and even Pops, and then by a benign accident the Arch-Bishop who, although his motives are suspect, does bail Percy out of a childhood that could have been much worse than it is.

BG: And Penelope is a marvelous character.  It’s impossible not to understand Percy’s feelings for her, because as readers we fall in love with her, too.

WJ: I always, if it’s plausible, like to have a character in a novel, usually a major character, who is not only a brilliant person but self-taught because they don’t have access to an institutionalized education.  That’s one of the reasons she appeals to me so much.

Some people have suggested that she has so many gifts as to be implausible, as if to say that a beautiful woman can’t be brilliant.  But she is.  And she’s an auto-didact.  She’s self-taught.  And she gives Percy a historical context in which to view his own life, which really does help him out a lot: the books she talks about and that he overhears her talking about, and that she quotes from sometimes to an audience that doesn’t understand her.

Penelope is part of a long line of characters dating back to Sheilagh Fielding in Colony of Unrequited Dreams, even Landish Drukin in A World Elsewhere, characters who are very bookish but kind of had to deconstruct an institutionalized education and acquire one of their own.

BG: And it allows them to be freethinking, interesting characters, which complicates people’s preconceived notions of Atlantic spaces and the possibilities therein.  A reader perhaps does not imagine a woman like Penelope existing in the world that she exists in.  And she offers this other possibility of life for Percy, something outside of the staid world of his school and neighbours.

WJ: Yes.  One of the things I’ve often noticed is that people assume that everyone in Newfoundland and definitely in St. John’s in the 50s, 60s, and 70s followed the company line.  But, if you think about it, there would have been — at home, when the doors were closed and other people weren’t there to overhear — rebelliousness and irreverence.  Because otherwise I don’t think people could have survived.  And what the Joyce’s do in the book is live just beneath the surface.  If they went any further, they would be destroyed.  But they just barely hold it all together, Penelope and Medina.  Even Penelope and Pops, to do what they do, would have gotten Pops fired.

They are carrying on a little insurrection at number forty-four.

BG: That brings me to a question about the city and the way it is depicted.  It’s almost as if Percy and St. John’s, with their shared birthday and symbiotic relationship, become co-protagonists in the novel.  It’s not the first of your books for place to take such a prominent role, and you’re not the first Newfoundland writer to put St. John’s in the role — I’m thinking of Michael Winter and Lisa Moore and others — and I’m wondering what it is about the city that lends itself to such exquisite characterizations in fiction.

WJ: There is something ineffable about St. John’s.  Whenever I go home, I’m re-reminded of why I can’t live there.  Because I find the city is so rich that is overwhelms me and I can’t pick and choose the things I want to write about. There’s just so much coming at me.  But to actually put your finger on what it is, it’s kind of like asking what makes New Orleans New Orleans, or what makes Paris Paris.  What makes a person’s personality come alive and another’s seem kind of drab or plain?  It’s usually something that no one has contrived.  It’s just something that has developed over the years.

If I were to kind of break it down in sociological terms, the most important thing is that you start with the island of Newfoundland.  It’s an island.  You don’t have that massive country to the south, the US, right on the border with its tsunami of “culture” that comes across that border.  To be independent of that makes an enormous difference.  If you look at Australian culture, you can’t deny that it’s very different from anywhere else on earth, and the reason is that it’s an English-speaking country completely removed from the colonial power of England and from the United States.  So you have that first of all.

And then in St. John’s now — and it informs the past as well — you have an incredibly cosmopolitan feel.  People will be surprised to hear this.  But because of the ships that could come and go from the harbour, as remote and isolated as this city might seem from the outside, it was nothing in 19th and even 18th century Newfoundland for people from all over the world to be walking around the city.  People from fishing vessels and cruise ships, all sorts of things.

So many people I know who live now in St. John’s were not born in Newfoundland at all, but they went to St. John’s for a month and they wound up never leaving.

My best way of describing St. John’s is the way I actually do it in the book.  You take the feeling that it gives you and for me it conjures up a kind of benign homesickness.  So I draw on that to try to portray the city as a particular place that stands for the universal.

BG: And it works exquisitely well alongside Percy, because it is this space that is different and exotic and maligned in the same way Percy is.

WJ: Yes, he very much embodies the city he inhabits, and vice versa.  And I don’t beat the reader over the head with it.  There’s a kind of ahistorical quality to The Son of a Certain Woman.  I don’t touch on politics the way I did in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, but it’s there.  And Percy and the city are in a way interchangeable.

I don’t know if you picked up on this or if it matters to you, but the book is a bit of an homage to Joyce’s Ulysses.  Ulysses takes place on June 16th, and there are many June 24ths in this book because it’s Percy’s birthday.  Percy’s father is named Jim Joyce.  His mother is Penelope, the wife in the Odyssey, which is what Ulysses is based on.  Whole scenes in the book have counterparts in Ulysses, like the catechism section parallels the scene where instead of having Dedalus and Bloom meeting, we have the catechism.  And it’s very funny!  And the very last scene in the book, which I call the Big Do at the Big D, is a parallel of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.

It’s there for people who are interested in that. I wrote an essay for Hazlitt and some people have been picking up on it.

I actually quote Joyce in the book several times, from Portrait of the Artist.  And I quote Ulysses at the very end.  The last words of my book are the last words of Ulysses.

BG: You’re driving me to a reread now, Wayne.  I feel like I did when I got about half-way through my second reading of Baltimore’s Mansion [Johnston’s memoir of his father] and I finally got all the Arthurian legend references.

WJ: In the past I’ve done it and almost no one has noticed, so this time I’m really putting my foot on the pedal.  You know, when I wrote The Divine Ryans, I thought the title would be enough to point to the fact that the book was based loosely on The Divine Comedy.  And nobody picked it up!  So I thought, this time, they’re getting it.  They’re gonna get it.

There’s a quote from Portrait of the Artist that Penelope says to Percy: “When the soul of a man is born in this country, nets are flung at it to hold it back from flight.”  In Joyce, the nets are language, religion, nationality.  In this book, it’s Percy’s facial affliction, the Church, things like that.  She draws that analogy for him, though he doesn’t know where she’s getting this stuff from.

BG: Well the reviews this time have been phenomenal.

WJ: They have.  And very very bright reviews, too.  It’s been great to see, no question.

BG: Were you at all anxious about how the book would be received?  To me, it feels simultaneously like it fits exactly within what you’ve been doing, but it’s also a departure from it.

WJ: In terms of where it fits with my other books, I think you could go from book to book and it proceeds in an orderly fashion, but this one jumps the queue.  I never really thought about it as I was writing, but I think that’s what happened.  I think in another universe I would have written this fifteen years from now.  But it just happened to come now.

It is early days in terms of controversy.  With Colony of Unrequited Dreams, the controversy didn’t start until there was an upswell of it in Newfoundland.  And I haven’t done any Newfoundland publicity, touring, or anything else yet.  And the book’s only been in bookstores a short time.  So I don’t know how it will be received in Newfoundland.  All of those places mentioned in the book, the basilica and the schools, those are all real places.  Bonaventure Avenue is a real place.  I didn’t change anything.  So it will be interesting to see how people read the book.  I can see how for readers it can be odd to walk down Bonaventure Avenue while reading Son of a Certain Woman and being surrounded by things that are in the book.  I think it could be kind of exhilarating.  I hope it is.

BG: As a last question, at Book Riot we’re focused on readers, so I thought I’d end by asking you what you’re reading and enjoying.

WJ: Well I was asked this by a magazine in the UK when the paperback of A World Elsewhere came out.  I didn’t plan it this way but I was reading back-to-back three first novels.  Actually, almost back-to-back, six.  In one case it was The Bell Jar, but it’s not a first novel because it’s an only. But I read Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and Martin Amis’s Rachel Papers.  All first novels of people who were very precocious, very young when they wrote their first novels, but went on to fulfill their promise.

Often when I am writing, I will go back to books like those.  There’s a certain energy about first novels.  It’s the only time you will ever write without the pressure of doing again what you did before.  There’s this freedom that writers of first novels have.  And I think this is why so many writers, especially in the US because of the whole media machine, but so many writers to America only wrote one book.  Not even one great book and five or six half decent ones. Look at Harper Lee.  To Kill a Mockingbird is her only book!  Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, that’s his only book.  Even Sylvia Plath, I often think, what would she have gone on to write?  Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, that’s it.  No more.  Why is that?  I think that you have that sense of exuberance and freedom and you’re wiring purely for the page.  You’ve never been reviewed or criticized.  That will never be the case again.

BG: That is a beautiful way to characterize first novels.  Thank you for this chat, Waye — oh, and finally, welcome to Twitter, by the way!  Are you enjoying it?

WJ: I am, yeah!  I did not have a clue about Twitter, not that I’m an expert now.  I didn’t know how immediate it is.  You can put a post on Facebook and come back two days later and have got some reaction.  But on Twitter you tweet something and the reaction is instantaneous.  It’s pretty addictive!  When I get back to my desk writing I have to wonder, will I be able to still do this?  We’ll see.

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