First aired on Shift (21/9/11)
Curiosity may have killed the cat, as the saying goes. But in Wayne Johnston's case, it led to his latest novel, A World Elsewhere.
The acclaimed author was on a stint as a writer-in-residence in Virginia when he decided to pay a weekend visit to Asheville, N.C., the birthplace of Thomas Wolfe, one of his favourite writers. Along the way, he spotted a sign that said "This way to Biltmore." He didn't know what Biltmore was, but he couldn't resist finding out. "I'll follow any sign that tells me to go anywhere," he told Shift host Paul Castle in a recent interview on the CBC New Brunswick program.
Johnston recalled being struck by the incongruity of Biltmore, the palatial home built by millionaire George Vanderbilt II in the late 19th century: "My first thought was, what's this place doing out here in the middle of the North Carolina wilderness?"
Johnston joined a tour of the mansion and learned that Vanderbilt shunned New York and New York society, which he considered a negative influence on his daughter. Vanderbilt hoped that by building what he considered "the greatest house in the world" he could keep out what was bad and allow in only what he judged to be good. "The irony is that something like the opposite happened," Johnston said.
The seed of a story was planted. "I was intrigued right away by the idea of this girl spending time away from New York -- where she wanted to be -- out in the middle of the wilderness of North Carolina," Johnston said. "And of this supposedly disinherited millionaire, who was left $10 million and was kind of miffed because his brothers were left $100 million."
One of the characters in A World Elsewhere is loosely based on Vanderbilt -- George Vanderluyden is the youngest son in one of America's richest families -- but he's not the main focus of the novel. "I knew I wanted to use his house and his life story or part of it, but my main characters in the book are Newfoundlanders: Landish Druken and the boy who comes into his care, Deacon Druken," Johnston explained.
In The World Elsewhere, Landish Druken meets George Vanderluyden while they're both students at Princeton. Years later, when Landish runs into trouble, he turns to his friend, who invites him to "Vanderland," which is modelled closely on Biltmore.
Johnston revisited the estate so often while writing the novel that some of the staff there shared insider info. Johnston describes having one of the guards tell him about a secret room. "He just touched the wall behind him and a door popped open and there was a small room with a single light bulb," Johnston said. "And he said, 'this is where George Vanderbilt would go to try to write.' Vanderbilt wanted to be a writer, he didn't succeed, so he kind of consoled himself with being a collector of art instead of a maker of it."
Building and maintaining Biltmore was so costly that Vanderbilt eventually went bankrupt. As for Johnston, he didn't exactly feel at home amid the mansion's "grandiosity and extravagance." But he did feel inspired, and says that he's looking forward to returning at least once to the place that played a leading role in his latest novel.
Photo of Wayne Johnston by Neil Graham
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From Random House Canada:
A World Elsewhere has all the hallmarks of Wayne Johnston's most beloved and acclaimed novels: outsiders yearning for acceptance, dreams that threaten to overpower their makers, and unlikely romance. It is an astounding work of literature that questions the loyalties of friends, family and the heart. At the centre of this story is a mystery: the suspected murder of a child. This sweeping tale immerses us in St. John's, Princeton and North Carolina at the close of the nineteenth century. Landish Druken is a formidable figure: broader than most doorways, quick-witted and sharp-tongued. As a student at Princeton, he is befriended by George Vanderluyden, son of one of the wealthiest men in America. Years later, when Landish and his adopted son turn to Vanderluyden for help, he invites them to his self-constructed castle and pulls them into his web of lies and deceit."
Read more at Random House Canada.