Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview with Amy Jones: Ideas, Characters and the Importance of Representing Northern Ontario in Literature

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Interview with Amy Jones: Ideas, Characters and the Importance of Representing Northern Ontario in Literature

Amy Jones’ We’re All In This Together (M&S, 2016) is a remarkable debut novel. Featuring an idiosyncratic family of characters who are vulnerable, at times hilarious, and always completely believable, it’s a must read (and trust me, when you do, you won’t be able to put it down) Amy’s writing has always been spectacular. Her award winning collection of short stories, What Boys Like (Biblioasis, 2009) is the perfect mix of social observation, raw emotion and expert descriptions of Nova Scotia.
We had a chance to talk about characterization, her writing process, and the importance of representing Northern Ontario in literature.

DB: First of all: The Conqueror of Kakebeka Falls. It’s such a brilliant and original idea (and I could totally imagine it as a Youtube sensation) I also loved the shark parts. Where did the ideas come from?

AJ: Almost all of my ideas come out of “what if” moments. A lot of these originate in conversations with my boyfriend. And because we spend a lot of time around water—Kakabeka Falls, the Kam River, Lake Superior—often these scenarios will present themselves there. Because my boyfriend grew up in Thunder Bay, and I’m fascinated by it, I’ll often ask him questions about things. Has anyone ever gone over Kakabeka Falls and survived? Do you think a shark could survive in the lake? And then, what if? And because I’m a writer, I end up writing about it, mostly to answer that question for myself.

DB: I love that. I’m glad you mentioned Thunder Bay, because I loved that too: the novel is full of such precise, and sensory descriptions of it. Was the setting important in terms of the story and the characters?

AJ: I think the story came out of the setting and not the other way around. I knew I wanted to write about Thunder Bay—I’m a big believer in the importance of representation, and I just hadn’t seen much of the contemporary, urban Northern Ontario experience captured in literature. I think it’s important for people to see themselves on a page, and to have their experience validated in some way. I also knew that one of the themes I wanted to explore was the idea of home, and that push-pull between family and independence that hits people as they grow up. I thought Thunder Bay was the perfect place for this kind of story to unfold, because it seems like people are so rooted here, so connected to their family and the land, but also often have to leave for economic reasons.

DB: That’s really interesting. I love what you said about the importance of people seeing themselves represented in literature. It’s so important.
The book in some ways reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, because it felt like both a novel and short stories, or some kind of amazing hybrid of the two. Did writing a novel feel completely different to writing short stories? How was the novel writing process (or even the editing process) different (or similar, or both) to writing short stories?

AJ: That makes me so happy that you say that... I love that book so much and it was a huge influence on me. It made me realize that there are so many different forms a narrative can take, and it was really freeing for me to keep that in mind as I wrote the novel. That said, I think the final draft ended up much more of a traditional narrative style. It was like I was easing into writing a novel by thinking “it’s just a bunch of short stories about the same thing!”

DB: (laughing) Right, it’s intimidating to think of novel structure in the beginning.

AJ: But the further along I got in the process, the more I realized that it’s not at all the same.
I do like to keep the feeling of the completeness of the chapters that is reminiscent of short stories, but I really enjoyed learning about the completeness of a longer narrative as well. I learned to open things up, to let my writing breathe, to allow people to talk, to finish thoughts and scenes and conversations instead of just letting them drop off in the middle.

DB: That’s amazing. I totally know what you mean. You balanced the whole Parker family, including their histories and everything as it played out in the present so well. Was it difficult for you to maintain and keep straight all the separate story lines and the individual details?

AJ: Yes, for sure! I had a few pieces of Bristol board taped up on my walls, and a different coloured sharpie for each character, and I made these intricate timelines and outlines and character sketches and it was still really hard.

DB: That’s such a good idea. I should try Bristol board.
The Parkers all have these amazing and unique personalities and voices. They’re all endearing and characterized so well. How did you keep all the stories so well organized so that it read so seamlessly and clearly?

AJ: At one point in the editing process Anita Chong, my editor, suggested we go through and work on each character’s chapters separately, to maintain consistency of voice. That really helped a lot in keeping their stories straight. But piecing it back together was tough because we needed to make sure that there was continuity. Now I look back at it and think, I have no idea how I did that!

DB: I can imagine. It reads as incredibly seamless and consistent though. I want to talk specifically about the characters. I especially loved Finn and Katriina. The contrast between the way they perceived themselves and the way their families and others viewed them was so clear. I also loved the commentary on marriage and family life. Can you tell me what love means to these characters, and- because they felt so incredibly real to me- how you think they would end up?

AJ: I spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between the way people perceive themselves or think that others see them, and the way other people actually see them, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write with multiple narrators. I think this is also how much of these characters’ perception of love is as well—the way that Katriina sees her relationship with Shawn, for instance, is so different than how Shawn sees it. I think once you come to that realization, you decide that you’re okay with it, or you’re not, and you move on from there. I hope that my characters all find/keep their love, because I’m a sucker for a happy ending, but I have a suspicion that a happy ending for most of them would look very different.

DB: There’s a pulsing energy throughout the book, which is balanced so well when the characters encounter really difficult things, from Katriina’s cutting to Kate’s dementia. Especially with Kate, I was so impressed with the sensitivity it was handled with. Were those parts of the story difficult to write and research?

AJ: Kate’s scenes were actually quite easy to write—I had a really clear picture of the character in my mind, and I have a family member who is suffering from dementia and so I had a lot to draw on in terms of understanding the thought processes and the fear and the patterns and stuff like that.

DB: I’m sorry to hear that. Kate is a fantastic character. She manages to be both whimsical and thoughtful, tragic and dignified. I loved her. Was it similar when you wrote Katriina?

AJ: Katriina’s scenes were very difficult for me. I relate to her a lot so it was hard for me to see her mental health issues spiralling out of control. I know, I’m the writer and I made that happen, but I know you know that sometimes these things are beyond our control!

DB: (laughing) I do know.
What Boys Like is one of my favourite collections of short stories, ever. What are you working on these days? Are you writing more short stories, or you working on a new novel?

AJ: Thank you so much! I do miss writing short stories, but I’m not great at multitasking. I’m working on a new novel and I find the process is super immersive, so I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on other creative projects at the same time. Eventually, though, I will go back to it. I think it’s great exercise, to work in many genres. It keeps you balanced.

DB: I can’t wait to read both.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Danila Botha

Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she has lived in Ra’anana, Israel, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books, 2010) was praised by the Globe and Mail, the Chronicle Herald, and the Cape Town Times. It was also named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories) in 2011, and was published in South Africa (Modjaji Books, 2011). Danila has guest-edited the National Post’s “The Afterword,” and her short stories have appeared in Broken Pencil Magazine, Douglas Glover’s Numero Cinq Magazine, Joyland and more. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed Too Much on the Inside was published by Quattro Books in June 2015. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers in the correspondence program in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of short stories.


You can write to Danila throughout the month of September at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Danila Botha’s Author Page