In Wayne Johnston’s world the novels are mythic and the characters come back.
His latest novel is just that. First Snow, Last Light is the latest in a trilogy that began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and continued with The Custodian of Paradise.
The glue that connects all three is really the fascinating, irascible yet tender Sheilagh Fielding, the tall, crippled and somewhat drunken columnist for a St. John’s newspaper, who jousted with Joey Smallwood, bore two children in secret and in this book befriends a young boy when his parents mysteriously disappear.
The question must be asked: Is this her closing chapter, the one in which she’ll live happily ever after?
“I honestly don’t know,” Johnston said in an interview. “She is on-going and I have learned from past experience never to say I’ll never use a character again because I might change my mind.
“She lives a long life so there must be a decade in there that I haven’t used. So if I get stuck for a book I might drag her out one more time.”
Johnston says that he knew that he would go back to Fielding as a character after finishing The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
“I figured I had said as much about (Joey) Smallwood as a character, but I knew Fielding was something to return to.
“My experience is that any book that spawns another book will probably spawn one more.”
First Snow, Last Light is really, however, the story of Ned Vatcher, who at 14, is suddenly without his parents. The Vanishing Vatchers, Edgar and Megan, have disappeared and no-one knows, or will say, what has happened to them. Ned’s journey to success as a businessman and his lonely search for his lost parents direct the book. He’s helped by Fielding and by his track and field coach Father Duggan. It is also about the Vatchers, a large extended family worth of a Greek tragedy.
Johnston’s novels capture the mythic quality of Newfoundland history. This one is no different. It begins before Confederation in 1949 and goes deep into the second half of the 20th century. It was a time of great transition.
“There was a kind of enforced cultural revolution in Newfoundland after Confederation. It doesn’t get written about a lot and it kind of gets lost.
“Newfoundland life in and out of St. John’s changed enormously in a very short time. One of the biggest changes, if not the biggest change, aside from having paved roads, was television.”
Ned Vatcher is an emblem of that era. In the novel, he is the one who brings television to St. John’s and the rest of the province.
Johnston says that there was a real life Ned Vatcher.
“I should say, because everyone in Newfoundland will notice, that Ned is inspired by a real life character, who was the person who brought TV and modern radio to Newfoundland.”
His name was Geoff Stirling.
“He was very wealthy, very eccentric, very funny.”
In the novel, Ned Vatcher has a program of his own during which he talked about the issues of the day that concerned him. It would always pre-empt the late night movies that people would have rather watched. Geoff Stirling did the same thing, Johnston recalled.
“We would stay up late on Friday nights waiting for this monster movie. We would be there with cans of pop, chips and candy and you would hear this voice say: ‘Tonight’s movie has been pre-empted so that we can bring you another episode of Geoff Stirling Presents.’
“He would come on and talk about Newfoundland or about how TV was revolutionizing the place. Or he would talk about very eccentric things such as the assassination of JFK. He was a conspiracy theorist.”
Johnston says he held off writing about Stirling until after he died. “I didn’t want to go there and make him a parody.”
But the story was too good not to turn to it eventually. Like Ned, Johnston says, Stirling lost his parents. They were killed in car accident.
“He was one of these people into whose life an intervention happens. When that occurs you have to decide you are either going into the orphanage or you are going to take care of yourself. He took care of himself.”
First Snow, Last Light has a hint of Sophocles, something Johnston acknowledes.
“The Vatchers are a little bit like the House of Atreus in Greek mythology. I didn’t plan it that way but that is how it evolved.”
That passion and bitterness boils away in the person of Ned’s grandfather Reg.
“He has a lot taken from him; his livelihood, his ability to speak, to be a person.”
Reg Vatcher is full of spite.
“Spite is the ruling spell of the whole Vatcher family. Envy, jealousy, spite all of those things arise because you can’t let go of the past. You carry a grudge.”
Johnston has steeped himself in the old myths of the Greeks and the Norse.
“When I was in my early 20s, I looked at everything that I had studied in university. I tried to find the gaps. One thing I realized i had never studied was Greek and Norse mythology. I went back to university part time to do that. When I figured I knew my way around the neighbourhood, I kept reading about these things by myself.”
Newfoundland history lends itself to mythic stories. It is full of tragedies and tall tales populated by larger than life figures.
“We are still sort of creating the place and that lends itself to experiment. I think you get larger than life characters because of relative newness of the place post-Confederation.”
“There is an enormous sense of pride there but also a welcoming attitude to outsiders. At same time what a lot of outsiders don’t see when they visit is Newfoundlanders’ skill at irony. St. John’s was a place where people loved to debate and argue, still is, often to no end.
“It’s just fun to kibitz around the dinner table about politics and religion. Again I wonder how much longer this will be the case. People are more cosmopolitan now.”
His characters, like the real people of his home province, stand tall. They have a certain status.
“I feel I still have control of them. They aren’t knocking on the door and saying it’s my turn. I feel like I still know what I want to do with them.
“It is interesting, though, how much characters such as Fielding have become real to people.”
With First Snow, Last Light now on store shelves, Johnston says he is well advanced on his next novel.
“I can’t say a lot but I can tell you it is my first foray into other countries. There is a Newfoundland connection but it still ventures into other countries. And while I won’t say it’s autobiographical, it is inspired by autobiography.”
Johnston says there are a lot of novels taking off and landing in his mind.
“I do have imagined planes coming in to land, imagined ideas for books. I have a pretty busy airport. I’m like LAX.”
First Snow, Last Light
Wayne Johnston (Knopf Canada)
In town: The author will launch his book in Ottawa on Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. in the City Room of the National Arts Centre. Tickets and information, writersfest.org