Tim Wynne-Jones delves into the darkness in his latest novel The Ruinous Sweep

Tim Wynne-Jones. Photo: Mark Raynes Roberts

After 34 books, you’d think Tim Wynne-Jones would run out of ideas. But nope. He’s just published his 35th called The Ruinous Sweep and is hard at work on another which will be out soon.

“I just can’t seem to stop,” he said in an interview. “I have seen my doctor about it, but the ideas still keep coming.”

In his bibliography there are more than a dozen picture books, several short story collections, many young adult novels and three adult novels.

He considers this latest book to be a crossover book; one that works for younger and older readers.

“It isn’t outside the realm of YA but it is for me a real crossover book. Years ago Peter Gzowski asked me what was the difference.” The broadcaster had read The Maestro, another of Wynne-Jones’s novels, and had really enjoyed the book.

“I came up with a line then that I have used ever since: Books for young adults are about getting a grip and books for adults are about letting go.”

The novel centres on two 17 year old protagonists. Donovan comes from a troubled home environment with a difficult father who dies in mysterious circumstances. Early in the novel the young man is involved in an horrific car crash and flees the scene losing all memory of what has gone before. Donovan’s friend Bee works to solve the mystery surrounding Donovan’s life.

“Although both protagonists are teenagers, really all of Donovan’s story is about letting go. And then we go into the mystery where Bee tries to solve what happened. The themes are very adult. But my last four books have, as far as I am concerned, been crossovers. When I was a teen, I read adult books anyway. I don’t know how we can draw these lines.”

Wynne-Jones says his characters tend to be teenagers “but I put them in dire situations. I make the stakes really high because I want to see how they act.”

This latest novel emerged out a traumatic event that affected Wynne-Jones personally. He won’t get specific about it except to say it involved violence.

“This story started in the aftermath of a traumatic event that I had to work my way through. I didn’t want to write about it in a non-fiction way so I cast all in a fictional context.”

He didn’t write it with a particular agenda however the book did take a very dark turn. “This is very much the darkest book” he has ever written, he said. maybe that’s why there are references in the book that connect to Dante’s Divine Comedy. He said that connection emerged after he had started the novel.

“As I started writing, I wasn’t thinking about Dante at all. I started with Donovan in a car being driven during the night. I wanted it to feel like ‘Is this real?’ I wanted that (surreal) sense.” The car is in an accident and the boy is sent stumbling through a forest.

“I went ‘Wait a second I recognize this territory’. He is in purgatory here. I turned back to Dante and started reading the first book.”

He got bogged down and dropped Dante after 15 cantos. “But there are elements in the book … for example, there are two men that are identified with the Leopard and the Lion that are characters from the Inferno.”

Wynne-Jones said the incident of violence that affected him left him with a minor case of PTSD.

“I’m not trying to say that what I was going through was of the magnitude (suffered by soldiers). But the book was a way of looking at violence and looking at how it affects people.

“I am always writing to discover. I don’t write a book knowing what it is I want to say. I want to put somebody in a dire situation in one way or another and see what will happen as they try to get through it.

“There has been more than one case where I could not have told you the theme of my book until I read a review of it. I just don’t have that kind of interest. I have to thoroughly enjoy writing in the hope that somebody might enjoy reading one of my books. The only way I can do that is to not know as I am writing.”

He promises that his next book will be happier. He has been travelling in the dark world of such things as sexual abuse and suicide for quite some time now and The Ruinous Sweep, perhaps, represents the end of that process. … for now.

“When an idea takes over my head I have to write it out or live with it and go into therapy,” he said.

Like the Divine Comedy, this novel does resolve.

“There is a resolution at the end, a satisfactory one. I always write towards that. To me that is the value of literature. So much contemporary entertainment doesn’t resolve. The Walking Dead (for example) is fascinating to watch but how many seasons of it can there be. It doesn’t ever go anywhere.

“With a book or a movie I want there to be an end where you can take a breath and consider.”

For a guy with so many books to his credit, Wynne-Jones, even so, says he has suffered from writer’s block.

“It’s a term I used to not believe in. Then when it came … I went through a couple of years that weren’t easy.”

He had just published the book The Boy in the Burning House. It was very successful and won an Edgar award in the U.S. and an Arthur Ellis award in Canada.

“And then I lost it. I have no idea why. The well just gets empty. There is nothing there and you can’t push that, in fact, you just have to give yourself a break.”

Well, whatever he did, he’s got it back … big time.

The Ruinous Sweep (Penguin Random House)
Tim Wynne-Jones
In town: The author will launch his book on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at 25One Community, 251 Bank St. 2nd floor. More information: octopusbooks.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.