JOAN THOMAS’s fifth novel, Wild Hope, tells a contemporary story about love, food, art, and ambition in a swiftly changing world. Her previous novel, Five Wives, based on an ill-fated missionary endeavour in Ecuador in 1956, won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2019. Joan’s earlier work was nominated for the Giller Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Margaret Laurence Award, and won a Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Prize. A recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada Engel/Findley Prize, Joan Thomas lives in Winnipeg.
Joan Thomas on . . .
The circuitous road to writing
As a kid, I loved books about children who aspired to write, like Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon—but if I wanted to be a writer, it was a secret ambition, one I didn’t acknowledge even to myself. Books came from a different world than the one I grew up in, the idea was too audacious (Who Do You Think You Are? etc.) In university I majored in English and was beyond thrilled when my course work consisted mainly of reading novels. After graduation, I worked as a high school English teacher, then as a curriculum writer, and eventually as writing and publishing consultant for the Manitoba Arts Council. Along the way, I started writing book reviews for publications like the Winnipeg Free Press, Quill and Quire, and the Globe and Mail. Reviewing was a great education in how fiction works, but after years of doing it, I got tired of the 800-word limit, and began to think about giving fiction a try. My family and friends were very encouraging, but it still felt like a huge risk; I revered literature, and I hated the thought of writing badly.
But there was this: When I was about fourteen, I saved up my babysitting money to buy a used typewriter, and covered each key with a little piece of tape so I’d have to learn to touch-type. Part of me always took writing very seriously.
The way in
When I took the plunge into fiction (around 2003), I was, like a lot of first-time novelists, inspired by a family story—the emigration of my grandfather from Britain to Canada. He travelled with a 1903 pro-British movement called the Barr Colony and I wanted to research that movement’s overt colonialist politics. In 1937, when his eldest daughter was sixteen, my grandfather sent her back to north England to look after his mother, and she was in England when World War 2 broke out. My aunt only ever shared the barest account of her great adventure with me, but I was drawn to those two journeys. My imaginings about them became Reading by Lightning, a novel that looks at dislocation and coming-of-age. It was published by Goose Lane in 2008 and won two wonderful prizes, the Amazon First Novel Award, and a Commonwealth Prize (which involved a book tour to New Zealand). This was astonishing, beyond anything I had ever expected, and I could hardly quit fiction after that.
Following your curiosity
When I was researching for the England sections of Reading by Lighting, I discovered the British fossilist Mary Anning, who, as a teenager, unearthed massive, fully-articulated marine reptile fossils along the Dorset coast, several decades before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Mary Anning’s life is a dramatic example of the oppression of women and the working class in early 19th century England, but what really drew me to write about her was the challenge that the discovery of fossils posed to the world view of the times. I had grown up in an evangelical church that took the Genesis myth literally, so I felt as though I understood an early-19th century cosmology. Mary Anning’s story had, I thought, huge contemporary relevance. Societies being asked to radically revise how they understood the world and humanity’s place in nature—it was like the revolution in thinking we’re facing today. In spite of my utter lack of a scientific education, I couldn’t resist taking it on—the title Curiosity was in my mind from the beginning. My second novel was a deeply pleasurable book to write. Researching in Dorset and in the British Library was a joy, and I loved the linguistic challenge of writing a modern Victorian novel. Curiosity was published in 2010 by McClelland and Stewart, and was very well received, with numerous award nominations, including the IMPAC-Dublin and Giller Prizes and a 42-week run on the McNally-Robinson bestseller list.
My real love is contemporary fiction, so in my 3rd novel, I set out to capture my own world. The Opening Sky (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), is set in Winnipeg, my home city. It tells the story of a family living in the progressive neighbourhood of Wolseley, and the chaos that ensues when their teenage daughter discovers she’s pregnant. The birth of a baby so often signals hope for the future in stories; I wanted to look at how cultural assumptions like this are challenged by the current moment. The Opening Sky won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Prize and was nominated for the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction. My fifth novel, Wild Hope (Harper Perennial, 2023) is also contemporary, a story about three high-achieving thirty-something characters facing the collision of their personal ambitions and societal interests.
Between those two books set in the present day, I wrote a novel that explores contemporary issues through revisiting an actual 1956 event. Five Wives, tells the story of the incursion of American missionaries into the territory of a reclusive Indigenous nation in Ecuador. This event is much-mythologized by North American evangelical churches and was used to recruit young people as Christian missionaries when I was young. Eventually, I learned about the devastating long-term consequences (both cultural and environmental) the Waorani people faced when their isolation ended so abruptly, and I decided to turn a secular eye on this story and explore its characters through fiction. My own upbringing had given me a taste of the magical thinking and cognitive dissonance an extreme ideology promotes, and I wanted to capture the mindset of the missionaries and to look at the fall-out of religious imperialism. Five Wives was published in 2019 by HarperCollins and won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.
Working at craft
As an emerging writer, I benefitted enormously from working with Bonnie Burnard and Robert Kroetsch at Sage Hill Writing Experience, and with Greg Hollingshead through the Five-Week Studio at the Banff Centre. I’ve since worked as a mentor at Banff, as Writer-in-Residence at Burton House, as Writer-in-Residence at the Winnipeg Public Library, and as a mentor for Creative Manitoba. I’ve been a member of the fiction editing committee at Prairie Fire Magazine, and I had the pleasure of selecting stories for two short fiction anthologies: Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium (1999, House of Anansi Press, in collaboration with Heidi Harms) and The Journey Prize Anthology (2010, McClelland & Stewart, in collaboration with Pasha Malla and Alissa York). In recent years, I’ve taught writing workshops at various conferences and festivals.
In 2014, I was awarded the Engel/Findley Award by the Writers Trust of Canada, an award given to mid-career writers in recognition of a remarkable body of work. Jurors Frances Itani, Lisa Moore, and Nino Ricci wrote, “In her work, she is unafraid, and she is truthful. When she blends fiction with historical fact, she does so seamlessly . . . Thomas’s prose, limpid and sensual, has a lightning-bright intensity. We, as readers, anticipate the richness of her future endeavors.”
My writing papers are held in the Special Collections in the Dafoe Library, University of Manitoba.
Home page – Sam Baardman
Author headshot – Ian McCausland