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Joan Thomas: How I wrote The Opening Sky

In her latest novel, Joan Thomas is honing in on the here and now. While her first two books were gripping pieces of historical fiction—tales that were inspired by the lives of real people—The Opening Sky is more a product of Thomas's own imagination, exploring the complications and tensions of contemporary family life.

To date, it's her shortest novel and it took her the longest (four and a half years) to write. Thomas speaks with us about listening to her intuition and the inspirational treasure she found in one of her own short stories.

I was asked to write a short story for Prairie Fire magazine. They were doing an issue on Winnipeg writers. I don’t normally write short fiction, but I wrote a short story about going to see a psychiatrist. By the time I was done I wanted to explore him further, so he became Aiden in the book. I think psychiatrists are a real treasure for writers in the sense that they move below the surface and learn people’s narratives. I was interested in pursuing that further. He was my starting point. 

The story revealed itself as I wrote it. I often felt as if I was driving with headlights that were too short. I was hurtling along without a clear sense of where the whole thing was going to go and that was quite unnerving. Surprisingly, I didn’t throw much out. What I did was write very slowly. On some level it felt like my intuition knew where this was going to go. The story was more fully worked out subconsciously rather than consciously. And I just worked at it slowly, putting one foot ahead of the other until things were revealed. 

A photo of Joan's office, which used to be her daughters room.

I write on the computer, but every morning I print out what I wrote the day before and I sit with the hard copy and make notes on it. I might only have two pages but I’ll sit there for an hour and a half making notes and trying to deepen it—trying to take it forward and decide where it's going to go next. Often the stuff I do in longhand will take me the whole day to integrate into the computer. I usually generate enough ideas in that first hour and a half to carry me through the day. I retire passages as they seem to be as good as I can make them for now, and then print the stuff that doesn’t seem to be fully developed. It’s funny, I sort of sit there like a cat watching a mouse hole because I just know that there is something else there.

The publication was delayed by six weeks because it was pulled out of production to change the cover. The original had a photograph of a family in a living room where the woman is vacuuming. I didn’t like it from the beginning. For one thing it’s set in the 1950s so it seemed at odds with the setting of the story, but the people in the marketing department loved it and overruled my concerns. The advance reader copies went out with that cover and we began to get feedback saying that the cover was misleading. It implied that it was a domestic comedy about a frustrated housewife. So they pulled it. They did some brainstorming in house and the designers went to work. The time frame was really tight. They sent me three covers. I really liked one of them, but they didn’t end up going with that one either. I think they thought this final one was less specific about the story and more engaging.

Author photo credit: Bruce Thomas Barr

Joan Thomas’s debut novel, Reading By Lightning (2008), won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada/Caribbean) and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Joan has worked as a teacher, group-home worker, editor, and as the Writing and Publishing consultant at the Manitoba Arts Council. She was a books columnist and longtime contributing reviewer for The Globe and Mail, and in 1996 won a National Magazine Award (Silver) for Creative Non-Fiction. Joan’s second novel, Curiosity,was longlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her most recent novel, The Opening Sky, was a finalist for the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. Most recently she was 
awarded the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for her contribution to Canadian literature. J
oan lives in Winnipeg.


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