A Q&A with Joan Thomas
Amazon.ca: Lily Piper is one of the most fully alive heroines I've ever encountered. Was she your own invention, or were you inspired by someone?
Joan Thomas: I had the spine of a true story to start with. When my aunt was 16, her father took her out of school and sent her to England to look after his mother. All on her own, she took the train two thousand miles to Montreal and boarded a ship, and went to live with people she had never met. I was amazed when I heard about this.
Yet my aunt never talked about her excellent England adventure. None of my older relatives talk much about the past--they’re actually a little suspicious of people who dramatize their experiences or dwell on their feelings! So I had to make sense of this story with my imagination. I sent Lily to a different part of England than my aunt had visited, and I invented her experiences there. Lily is the result of my desire to create a character I could understand and relate to, one who experienced adolescence with the intensity that I experienced it. I think of her as a contemporary character living in the past. As a first-time novelist, I had no idea whether I could pull this off, but by the end Lily was so real to me that the final chapter pretty much wrote itself.
Amazon.ca: The story of the Isaac Barr's ill-fated Canadian prairie colony is a fascinating historical component of the story. Did your family have a personal connection, or was this just a story that captured your imagination?
Joan Thomas: I never knew my grandfather, but I was told growing up that he had come from England with the Barr Colonists, so I read what I could find about that movement. I went to the archives and poured over the passenger lists, where the names of everyone arriving in Canada by ship in any year are written in ink in someone’s crabbed handwriting. I never found my grandfather’s name. But by then I was hooked by the story of the Barr Colonists, the megalomaniac Isaac Barr and the naïve immigrants who were so sure their English superiority would carry them through.
Amazon.ca: There's irony in how the aspiring paleontologist George "tried, finally, to evolve, to fit into a different world, but couldn't do it fast enough," while Lily, raised in an evangelical Christian community with a mother who's powerfully fearful of change (especially changes in Lily's body), undergoes dramatic personal transformation before she finally feels at home in her world. Your next novel, Curiosity, due out next spring, also has evolution at its center: an intact skeletal fossil of a prehistoric dolphin-like creature, the first discovery of its kind, is unearthed by a 12-year-old cabinet-maker's daughter, who goes on to become a paleontologist well before Darwin publishes The Origin of Species. What makes the scientific story of evolution such a potent metaphor for exploring the lives of your characters, as well as the evolving relationship between science and our concept of ourselves?
Joan Thomas: I never studied science but I’m intrigued by fossils, those millions-year-old bits of the past. My decision to send George to Dorset for field school turned out to be a fateful one (for me—if not for George!). It was while I was researching the Dorset coast for Reading by Lightning that I discovered Mary Anning, the amazing young woman you mention, who found huge fossil remains at Lyme Regis back when no one had any sense of what these creatures were. I've since made three research trips to Lyme Regis, and have had a fantastic time walking that coast and writing a novel about Mary Anning and her sidekick, the geologist Henry de la Beche.
So evolution (in a literal sense) is more at the centre of Curiosity than it is of Reading by Lightning. When Mary Anning found the first ichthyosaurus in 1811, the townspeople thought she’d dug up a dragon, and the scientists coming down from Oxford thought it was the bones of a creature drowned in Noah’s flood. Mary Anning’s fossil finds were a huge challenge to their beliefs about nature and humanity’s place in it. Ideas of extinction and an old earth, concepts so important to evolution, were in the air.
Evolution is on my mind at the moment because of the crisis we face on the planet. Whether we can transform fast enough to avoid full blown ecological disaster--I see this as the major question of our age. As a novelist you approach such big ideas with caution. You’re writing stories, not political discourse. With Curiosity, I was really happy to have stumbled upon a story that, although it’s set in the early 19th century, raises ideas that are so timely.
As you suggest, I did see evolution as a metaphor for how the characters in both books develop. Fiction loves those moments when a character sees that the way she thought about herself and her world is faulty. As the title of Reading by Lightning implies, this awareness may come the way a lightning bolt illuminates the landscape in a storm, although the process of actually transforming the way you act in the world is often slower and subtler, as it was with Lily. As for George, his changes hurt me as I was writing them, because I really like George. He was so open and in love with the world, and he becomes less optimistic, more cynical. It was an evolution forced by brutal circumstances, and maybe it’s just as well that we don’t see what the war would have made of him in the end.
Most first-time novelists strain for the gold ring; Joan Thomas grabs it effortlessly in this wonderful book. Undoubtedly, her years editing, reviewing, and writing about other writers’ work in The Globe and Mail
and elsewhere – winning a National Magazine Award in the process – have helped hone her skills. Reading by Lightning
begins in Lancashire and rural Manitoba in the early years of the 20th century. William Piper has reluctantly emigrated to Canada as part of a shady scheme that lines its Christian leaders’ pockets. Since then, he has hung on by dint of endless, soul-winnowing labour, yet he manages to send his 16-year-old daughter Lily to England, ostensibly to assist her widowed grandmother but in actuality as a way of removing her from the clutches of her evangelical mother. Lily blossoms in England, finding warmth and easy affection. George, her autodidact cousin (“a brain on a stick,” his father growls), opens the world to her, and the two become “great pals.” But Lily is compelled to make them more – an impulse fuelled by hormones but doomed by history. The Second World War revs up, and George, desperate for experience, submits himself to the machine. As George is drawn into the war, Lily is recalled to the farm in Canada to care for her ailing mother. Grieving and resentful, she finds herself back in a domestic trap of emotional and sensory deprivation. There is a risk that the novel could get stuck there too, but fortunately Thomas provides a surprising plot twist to keep the narrative moving. Although the war is far from over, Thomas’s final extraordinary scene leaves the reader with a sense of possibility and a faith in the future. Thomas’s finely nuanced sensibility variously evokes Austen, Alice Munro, and Richard B. Wright. She captures verbal intonations as if she has overheard them, and conjures characters so vividly that we can almost reach out and touch them. A remarkable debut.