Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with John Owens

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John Owens

In John Owens' second novel, The Sixth String (General Store Publishing House), readers are taken deep into the experience of the Roma People during World War II. Chillingly, the loss of hundreds of thousands of Roma lives at the hands of the Nazis is referred to in Roma culture as Porajmos — the Devouring. In The Sixth String we meet Nicholae, a dizzyingly talented flamenco guitarist. Nicholae is carefree and adventurous (if hardly scrupulous) in his pursuit of art, women and enjoyment before his capture and eventual imprisonment in a series of concentration camps. After the war and the Devouring, his quest for vengeance takes him to Buenos Aires and finds him pursuing one of the most vicious and heinous members of the Nazi party, Dr. Josef Mengele.

John speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books. He tells us about spending five years with Nicholae, the importance of stepping away from the keyboard at times and what is at the heart of a truly great book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

John Owens:

Briefly, The Sixth String is the self-told tale of Nicholae, a Gypsy flamenco guitarist with a prodigious talent and an equally prodigious appetite for women, alcohol and misadventure. Fleeing the impending Spanish Civil War, he wanders to Paris and later Munich where his cocky attitude gets him ensnared in the Nazi machine. A series of increasingly brutal incarcerations culminate with Nicholae’s imprisonment in Auschwitz during the final year of the war where he renews his acquaintance with Josef Mengele whom he had met in Munich when the “good doctor” was a graduate student.

I won’t reveal the ending here except to say there’s a confrontation in Buenos Aries.

About ten years ago, The Sixth String started out as jottings — mostly historical facts I dug up — following a throwaway statistic on a History channel documentary stating that a quarter of a million Roma had been systematically exterminated by the Nazis. I was, of course, appalled that it had happened but further appalled that, outside academic circles and Gypsy campfires, there wasn’t much known about what the Roma refer to as The Devouring. By the way, unlocking the Soviet vaults recently has caused that terrible number to be revised upwards to over half a million.

Including my own, I’m no fan of anyone’s culture — or religion or patriotism for that matter — but the more I explored the Roma the more I was struck by these nomadic people without much of a recorded history or written language and, more particularly, by the almost universal animosity with which they were — and still are — treated. They’ve been outlaws for centuries and the prejudice against them is every bit as virulent as anti-Semitism. All that intrigued me.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


When I settled on a passionate artist as a main character, I knew that I had a wealth of themes to wallow around in. The chief one, I suppose, would have to be the inevitable tension between a fierce individual and a totalitarian regime that does everything in its power to crush both individualism and creative expression. In a wider sense, because (spoiler alert!) I knew Nicholae would survive his WWII ordeal, I also wanted to look at questions of mercy or revenge, love or hate, the human capacity for survival.


Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


You know, not really. Over the five years or so it took to finish the thing, I kept to the bones of the story I originally envisioned. For sure, my disgust at what was — and is — done to human beings in the name of racial superiority deepened the more research I did.

What also deepened was my understanding of Nicholae. I spent a lot of time with the guy — long stretches just him and me overlooking a lake in the Laurentians north of Montreal where I wrote most of The Sixth String. He had to be flawed — vain, selfish, cowardly — but also have core strengths: determination, self-reliance, compassion. In other words, he had to be human.

Probably the thing I hadn’t counted on was the amount of research I wound up doing. I became obsessed with making the story accurate and plausible. Small example: I have Nicholae encountering Lorca in southern Spain in 1934 because, as it turns out, Lorca was a director of regional theatre in Andalusia in 1934. The same for Nicholae’s meeting Django Reinhardt in Paris in 1935 and later during the war. Django was there.

Overlaying that was the task, the obligation really, of according The Devouring — and The Holocaust — the respect and mindfulness they must always have.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I need a window and something nice to look out at — preferably a body of water — for my interminable periods of daydreaming around.

When I’m on a roll, coffee, cigarettes and beer stoke the fires. Food is pretty much an afterthought. I like to get five or six hours in starting early and just about never write at night. This sounds like a disciplined regimen but I’m actually bone lazy a lot of the time.

Probably 90% of my writing happens on a laptop. When I head south to Mexico or the Dominican, I use yellow legal pads and my near-illegible scrawl which I attempt to decipher and edit as I enter the alleged sentences back in Canada.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Step away from the keyboard! I tend to see the story cinematically so I sit around, showing no signs of voluntary motion, but make the movie in my head where I imagine the setting, incidents, expressions, dialogue, sound effects, colours. When I change the scene, I have a whole new set of circumstances and the story starts to reveal itself. Then another scene and another and it hits me that I’m moving things forward and I’m eager to get back at it, to get it all down before I forget — which, at 61, seems to be happening a lot! Mind you, a lot of the scenes wind up on the cutting room floor as I discard bits that don’t seem to contribute much. Exactly the same “process” occurred when I was writing my first novel, On the Rails, so I’d say there’s a trend there.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


At the heart of every great book is a story where the reader deeply cares how it all turns out for the main character(s). At the same time, for me, there has to be some sweep, something grand about the proceedings beyond everyday human foibles. With those criteria, I’d vote Huck Finn for its passion and humour while shaking the foundations of the American ethos and Patrick White’s Voss for its wrestling with big things while building a deeply personal and ultimately tragic love story.


What are you working on now?


Two things actually.

A series of loosely connected stories — I don’t yet know how many — spanning half a millennia and set in Panama which, for 500 years, has been at the nexus of all sorts of earth-shaking events. It’s tentatively titled 3A.

3B is a raucous, unconventional mystery that right now is a whole lot of fun to write.

The Sixth String is John Owens’ second novel. The first, On the Rails, is a sweeping, Depression-era saga that national columnist and author Roy MacGregor described as “Wonderful...terrifically crafted, evocatively written...Powerful”.

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