|How my copy arrived - isn't it pretty?|
Those of you who follow me know I recently got the chance to read IanThornton book, The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms and fell in love with the characters and story. To my surprise and delight, Ian agreed to answer a few questions I had about the book and his writing process.
Did you get your inspiration for Johan from any other pieces of literature? Were there any aspects of his personality that ‘evolved’ on their own?
If a newspaper article back in the early 90s counts as literature, then yes. I wish I could find it. It always stayed with me in my mind as a kernel of a great story, and when I thought of writing it was an immediate choice for my subject matter. It concerned the tale of a young man, who left his college on a Friday, determined to spend the weekend on his own, in solitude. By the time Monday morning rolled around, he had set fire to the twentieth century. This fragility, this interdependence of events fascinated me then as it does now. Some quite special men spend their whole lives trying to change a city block or a small town, but here's a boy, trying to mind his own business, and ka-boom!, up we all go in flames. The length of Johan's life and perhaps his blue eyes may have their genesis in The Illywhacker. But he HAS to live to be an old man. He HAS to see the full impact of what he believed he had set in motion. And also to span the whole century; born in the 19th, dies in the 21st. He has to outlive it in order to truly own it, as he at one point believes. Reading David Copperfield mid-edit may also have influenced me. Evelyn Waugh, Joseph Mankiewicz, Stephen Fry and Bruce Robinson may also have something for which to answer. The second part of your question - he was all evolution. I had no idea where I was going when I started other than the pivot of June 28th, 1914. Some have told me this is suicide, others have advised that it is the only way to write. Make of that what you will. I think it means do whatever you feel works.
How does this book differ compared to the book you originally set out to write?
I think this is only partially answered in the previous question. But there are more aspects which are just as, if not more, important. The first drafts were violent, nihilistic, crude, angry, ill-disciplined and vile. This mirrored where I was psychologically, in a very dark place with issues around alcohol, an unhappy work career, a desperate lack of direction, a broken marriage, a dying mother. By the time I was completing the later edits here in Toronto a lot of these issues had unravelled; at the centre of which was the love of a good woman and a year and a half without a single drop of booze. These drafts were therefore far more positive and had started to contain large elements of redemption. Humour, friendship and family found root in the manuscript during this time. I hope. I wouldn't want to moralise on drinking though. In hindsight, it was necessary in encouraging my madness, something all writers need in bundles. It helps to be able to stop though; something I was notoriously bad in knowing when to do as a younger chap. My state of mind was a key factor, but also were important and basic elements of writing, particularly discipline, which I hope I discovered a bit of en route. I really see the whole process as a real life university course in spinning a yarn. I still feel a novice in terms of having read the classics and knowing the 'rules' of writing, but when I started I really knew less-than-bugger-all.
What, in your opinion, is the hardest part of writing a novel such as The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms?
Good question. It depends if it is your first one. If it is a debut, I think the natural inclination is to throw the kitchen sink at it. I did this, and ended up with a rambling and ill-disciplined manuscript of 170,000 words; almost twice its current length. The subsequent editing process can be tricky, especially for a rookie, but the flip side of this naivety is that one allows the imagination to run wild, and to be perhaps ballsier than a more seasoned writer would be. Rules don't matter if you simply don't know them. I think there may well be a trade-off between imagination and the craft of professionalism. If I were to expand your question slightly and replace 'writing' with 'producing', then the answer is incredibly clear cut: the business end of the process. Finding a good agent and the right publisher ranks top. I am blessed to have ended up where I am and with whom I have, but when one's future is out of one's hands and in the in-tray of some faceless decision-makers, the weeks can turn into months and into years with no progress on the actual page. I wonder if I had known this, I would have battled on, but once you're in the scrap, you just carry on. As I say, I am very lucky to have found some diamonds who believed in me. I guess the really positive message from all this is 'Don't give up. Ever.'
Do you have any writing 'quirks'? Example: only writing at a certain location, at a certain time of day, etc.
Never within 72 hours of any sort of alcohol. As I say, this is not really an issue today. I could also never write when I was unsettled or in transit. I wrote a lot of the manuscript in Costa Rica, and although the local coffee helped to produced thousands of words, I would need to be in one spot for at least a week before work started. I also can't do a thing if there is an email in my in-tray or any mess on my desk. I think the doctors have a name for this.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned while writing this novel?
Where do I start? At one end of the scale, I would say a lesson as functional as the mechanics of writing; from structure on the page and transatlantic spelling conventions. Measure is a lesson I have not learned but of which I hope I am now at least more aware. On a more philosophical plane, there is very little more satisfying than achieving a goal which appears so out of reach to so many and for so long. Persistence and self-belief, even if it is grounded in delusion. As someone famous once said in a song, 'You've got to have a dream. If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?'
Thanks Ian! I'm looking forward to reading your next novel. Happy writing!
You can check out more from Ian about Johan Thoms on his website.
For those of you who haven't already, check out the book trailer!
And while you're here, check out my review of The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms!