The Next Chapter

Joan Clark on The Birthday Lunch

Joan Clark's new novel, The Birthday Lunch, pivots on the shocking death of a beloved wife and mother and what happens in the week after the accident, set in a small town where anonymity isn't even remotely possible.

Joan Clark's new novel, The Birthday Lunch, pivots on the shocking death of a beloved wife and mother and what happens in the week after the accident. The book is set in a small town where anonymity isn't even remotely possible.  

Shelagh Rogers: Why did you set the book in Sussex, New Brunswick?

Joan Clark: I lived there. I taught high school there. My parents lived there. My mother did die there, she was hit by a truck. That is something you never, ever get over. This was a long time ago. The character Lily McNab isn't my mother at all. You have to gain distance with time before you write something.

SR: There is such a thorough explanation of grief in this novel, and the different facets it can take. Was this novel a way to work through of the death of your mother?

JC: No. My husband Jack, who was a wonderful, wonderful man, died four years ago of kidney failure. I really was working through my own grief around that. I write from whatever is in me at the time, and that was what was there. It was a great help, actually.  It gave me objectivity, and I think I learned a lot about living. You're rescuing something from loss by doing something creative. It's a process of retrieval in a way.   

SR: Lily has a sister, Laverne. The major love of her life is a painting. Laverne literally remodels her apartment after it. Can you tell us about that?

JC: When I was in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, there was a painting there by the Dutch painter Pieter De Hooch, and I was absolutely enchanted with it. I had remembered it as if it had been a doorway. This is where Laverne's obsession with this painting came from. She was so taken with this painting, as I was, and she was so isolated and so lonely and she decides she will live in it.

SR: Do you think people who love art and books and music model their lives after that kind of thing?

JC: I worked for pottery studio. My job was to decide where to put the new pottery. I can remember the joy of just changing the rooms and creating a set or a scene by locating certain pieces in certain places. That probably had something to do with the way I wrote this book.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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