The Next Chapter

How Clifford Jackman wrote The Winter Family

It took many years of writing bad novels before he published his debut novel.
Clifford Jackman with his first published novel, The Winter Family.

Clifford Jackman has been a writer since his youth but only this year did the lawyer publish his first novel, The Winter Family. It follows a band of outlaws from the end of the American Civil War to their final standoff in Oklahoma in 1891, and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction this year. While the book has proved a success, it took a long time for Jackman to find what he was good at writing. This interview originally aired on December 7, 2015.

Although The Winter Family is my first published novel, I've written at least eight others that were never published. Back in high school, I was interested in science fiction and fantasy, and I started several projects in that area. I finished my first novel when I was 21 years old — it was a fantasy novel set in a world with two different races that were fighting each other. My next novel was also fantasy. Then I wrote a historical novel about Jack the Ripper. And I wrote different books throughout my twenties. At this time I didn't show my work to anyone; I didn't submit anything for publication. I just wrote them and put them in a drawer.

Eventually, I decided I wanted to write something that would get published. My first idea was to write a novel about the CIA's drug dealings in Nicaragua in the 1980s — I didn't finish it. I figured the problem was that I wasn't writing from what I knew, so I decided to write what I did know, which was being a lawyer in Toronto because that's what I was doing at the time. But before I did I took a break and wrote a short story called "Oklahoma, 1891" about a band of outlaws. Then I started working on the more marketable novel and I did finish it, but it was a slough. By the time I finished, I knew I hadn't written a good novel, again. As you can imagine, I was a bit dispirited because I'd written numerous books that weren't very good.

So I decided to take a break and I wrote some more short stories set in the same world as "Oklahoma, 1891." Eventually, I wrote four more stories and suddenly realized that I had put together a book that was more marketable than I realized. I met an agent, and the book found a publisher, and the rest is history.

Clifford Jackman's comments have been edited and condensed.