Clifford Jackman: How I wrote The Winter Family

On the face of it, the menacing and cinematic The Winter Family, shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General's Literary Award, is Clifford Jackman's first novel. But you only have to rummage around in his desk drawers a bit to find that it's actually his 9th or 10th completed novel. 

In his own words, Clifford shares the long, slow and incredibly dogged writing process that brought The Winter Family into being.


Photo credit: Lindsay Cox

The first kernel of The Winter Family was this little story I wrote when I was trying to write what I thought would be a more marketable novel. This story is what is now the Oklahoma chapter of the book. I really enjoyed it, and when I showed it to people, they seemed to really like it. So I ended up self-publishing the Oklahoma chapter and sold it as a chapbook. It sold about 50 copies

As I struggled to finish this other novel, I wrote four more novella-shaped Western stories, all bouncing around chronologically, sharing some of the same characters. Then - this would have been in late 2010 - I took the Western stuff to a pitch session at the DarkLit Festival in Oshawa, Ontario. I pitched it to the agent Carolyn Forde, and she accepted it. 

But things didn't exactly take off from there. We worked with an editor and sent it out to all the big Canadian and American publishers and got rejected everywhere. But one editor at Doubleday in the U.S., Melissa Danaczko, said, "We can't take it right now as is, but I'll work with you in my spare time on it, if you give us the right of first refusal." So I did just that, and finally it took. 

The Winter Family may be my first published novel, but I've been writing for a long time. I've actually written eight or nine novels, but to be honest, a lot of the other books I had written were pretty bad. I was rejected from the creative writing program at York University. I'm living proof that you don't need an MFA in creative writing. Maybe it helps, but you don't need one, that's for sure. 

My other novels totally run the gamut in terms of genre. I kept trying to write books in my teens, but they didn't go anywhere. When I was 20, I tried to write a Lord of the Rings/Warcraft thing. I wrote a murder mystery, that didn't go very well. I wrote a horror novel set in the Spanish inquisition. I wrote a Jack the Ripper book set in historical London, and that didn't turn out too badly. But I would show them to people and you can tell when they're not that enthusiastic. Then I started law school and I wrote a science fiction book, and then I started to get into this thing where I wanted to write something that was less genre and more marketable, and I ended up sandwiching in The Winter Family before I really worked on this mythical project that was more marketable. 

A lot of writers have to work another job while they write, that's the reality of writing. I worked as a lawyer while I wrote this book. I just wrote for an hour or two a day. I didn't have any kids at the time, which certainly helped. And if you do that, it adds up. What people struggle with is they write, write write, every day for  a month, and you don't make much progress. And you don't see the progress. So you just sort of stop. But if you just keep at it, it will get done. While I was writing this book, I took the train in to work, and I got a ton of writing done on the train.


The book's main character, Augustus Winter, is someone whose character arc came to me very quickly. He had a rough background and had become pretty much a textbook psychopath. By force of will, Winter assumed command of this gang of thugs, but he walked out on them and lived in the wild until he was rediscovered and then got his gang back together. But the thing about Winter is that you don't know, and you don't see, the half of what he's done. If you look at the movie Jaws, they couldn't get that mechanical shark to work. They actually had plans of it jumping out and eating people, but it wouldn't work. The end result is that the shark isn't in the movie that much, and the movie ends up being more scary because of it. That's the approach I took with Winter. Every time he's on the page, I want you to be tense. And you're tense because you don't quite know what he can do, what he's capable of. You never quite know which side Winter is on. He's supposed to be enigmatic, and you're not supposed to have him figured out.


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