The action in Amy Jones’ Thunder Bay-set debut novel, We’re All in This Together (McClelland & Stewart), radiates around the family fallout that comes when a video of its matriarch going over Kakabeka Falls in a barrel (and surviving) goes viral. Jones lives in Thunder Bay but was born in Halifax. Her first book, a collection of stories called What Boys Like (Biblioasis), was published in 2011.
Brad de Roo: The North is culturally and geographically integral to We’re All in This Together. Is there such thing as a Northern writer? What differentiates Northern literature from Southern (in this case Ontario and the Northern USA)?
Amy Jones: As a caveat, I’ve only been in Thunder Bay for six years, and still feel like I have a lot to learn about being “northern.” I also feel like the experiences and perspective of someone living in Thunder Bay vary greatly from someone living in a smaller northern town or First Nation. So in that sense, I’m not sure there is one type of “northern” writer. But I think there is something about the vastness of the geography and our relative isolation that unites our perspective. There are few other places where you can drive for five straight hours and not encounter a town, or even another car; where you can reach the edge of the city and immediately find yourself in the deepest bush; where you can head out on a lake and not see land for days. You have no choice as a northerner but to confront nature on a daily basis, even when you live in an urban setting, and this necessarily influences your writing. The landscape feels huge — sometimes unmanageable — and the rest of the world can seem very, very far away. This can in turn both expand and limit your perspective on life, which I think ends up reflected in the art that gets created here.
BdR: Is there a tendency to romanticize the North – to hold it’s natural wonders as sublime, as more mysterious than humans?
AJ: Definitely. And I often find myself torn between my own pragmatism and the pull of that romance. For instance, I’ve heard people here speak of a grounding force in Thunder Bay, and attribute it to the fact that our most recognizable natural landmark, the Sleeping Giant, is literally a giant rock that is asleep — you really can’t get much more immovable than that. And that seems as good of a reason as any to explain why people tend to stay here, why things seem to be so slow to change and evolve. It’s appealing, to believe in magic over human nature, over economic or environmental factors, over the myriad other reasons why people might choose to stay here.
I also think any non-Indigenous person creating art in the region needs to be aware that we do our work on Ojibway land, and acknowledging that sublimity is a part of that. My interpretation and understanding of “the North” and its natural elements is just a tiny scratch on the surface of its massive cultural and spiritual importance throughout its history.
BdR: Has your work as an editor for [Thunder Bay Arts & Culture mag] The Walleye counteracted or confronted any of the fictional or cultural myths about the North?
AJ: I moved to Thunder Bay right around the time The Walleye started up, and began working for them almost immediately, so my experience in the city is inextricably linked to my experience at The Walleye. I would say that one of the most prevalent opinions that people have about Thunder Bay is that it is kind of a cultural wasteland, when in reality we have this amazingly vibrant arts community. It’s interesting too, because the people I hear this from the most are people who have lived here their entire lives and who have been kind of blind to how much the city has evolved — it’s that immovability again. But artists here become innovative out of necessity, and it has created this really dynamic cultural community made up of super tenacious, determined people who are dedicated to staying here and busting stereotypes about the viability of a career in the arts in Thunder Bay. People say to me, oh, this city is dead, there’s nothing going on here, and I say, I have 70-80 pages of culture-related stories every month that say otherwise.
BdR: Has your journalistic work informed your fiction much in other ways? Do you notice a lot of overlapping concerns?
AJ: It definitely makes me reconsider my ideas about “fact” and “truth.” For instance, I do a lot of profiles as part of my work at The Walleye, and often I will have to fight back the urge to change what an interviewee has said because I think I can get closer to the “truth” of what they are saying if I’m not constrained by the “fact” of what they have actually said. Which is a terrible way for a journalist to think, I know. Conversely, in my creative writing, if I find myself overly concerned with factual details about something, I have to remind myself that I am writing fiction.
Mostly, I’m just interested in people and their stories, and I think that is what drives me to write, regardless of the sphere. And I’m always trying to find the most honest way to do that.
BdR: Many of your characters here are serious risk takers – especially the death-defying Kate Parker. Is risk as a character trait essential a compelling dramatic structure? Is risk something that a writer has to get comfortable with?
AJ: I definitely think risk is integral to dramatic structure — if there’s nothing at stake, nothing moves forward. You need that tension between fear and exhilaration. But it doesn’t have to be something as bombastic as going over a waterfall in a barrel — often tiny, quiet, internal risks can be just as heartbreaking and compelling as huge physical risks. I think writing itself is a risk for the writer. You’re risking your financial stability, other people’s opinion of you, your own self-worth, possibly your sanity. I don’t think anyone ever chose “writer” as a fallback career, a safety. At the same time, you’re never comfortable with it — at least, I’m not. But it’s that tension between fear and exhilaration that keeps people writing, just as it keeps stories moving forward.
BdR: What about writing exhilarates you?
AJ: It’s hard to describe. It’s that feeling I get at 3 a.m. when I’ve been working for hours to untangle some idea that’s knotted up in my head and then suddenly the thread pulls loose and it all unravels, and I look at my screen and everything is there, everything I wanted to express. Of course, when I look back at it at 9 a.m., it’s likely not as perfect as it seemed the night before, but often it just needs smoothing out. So I guess I would say it’s finding the right words, in the right order, to say exactly what it is I want to say, to create an image or a character or a story and make it feel real, to express an idea in a way that it hasn’t been expressed before. It happens so rarely. But when it does, it’s an incredible feeling. It’s addicting.
BdR: POV shifts readily and radically throughout your novel. Most members of Parker’s immediate and extended family (as well as few devious associates) tell a part of the story. How did you decide which characters would be narrators? Was placing them temporally or spatially a process that required much revision?
AJ: It was a long process. I originally started with just Finn and Katriina, and then I added snippets of Kate’s POV within Finn’s chapters. I’m not sure if it’s the short-story writer in me, but I started getting interested in the stories that weren’t being told. Then it became a question of balancing points of view for the various interconnected threads. Shawn’s chapters were the last ones to come — it hadn’t even occurred to me to include him, but my editor, Anita Chong, convinced me, and then suddenly the novel just broke open — so much just came together for me. But yeah, I had a different colour sharpie for every character and a bunch of Bristol board taped to the wall and I just kept moving things around and adding things until it felt right.
BdR: Shawn is an outsider who is taken into the Parker family. Why does fiction so often take in outsiders?
AJ: I think it’s basically because outsiders are interesting. People want to read about perspectives outside of their own. I also think that we have all felt like an outsider at one point in our lives or another, which might be why it is something that preoccupies many writers and readers.
BdR: Your book seems to bristle at the notion of static relationships, of a normal, traditional family unit. Is fiction better poised to explore and express non-traditional family realities than the news or social media?
AJ: I suppose, in the way that fiction can sometimes be better positioned to explore truth than more factual media. People tend to suspend some of their more closely held beliefs in fiction because it is “not real,” or are more able to accept ideas or characters in stories that they maybe wouldn’t in their day-to-day lives. So in this sense, fiction gives you more freedom to explore those non-traditional family realities and relationships, because readers are more willing to go along with you for the ride.
BdR: Many of your characters’ experiences are filtered through their use of technologies. Kate’s journey over Kakabeka Falls is witnessed by a number of characters as a viral video. Her granddaughter London is enamoured with a famous person via online chatting. Cell phones connect and alienate characters at various points. How malleable are they as narrative devices? How does the ever-increasing presence of these technologies affect our ability to relate?
AJ: I’m fascinated by the way that technology shapes our lives, and I think in some ways it is disingenuous to try to represent the this particular time and place in a contemporary, realistic novel without the presence of technology. I think in terms of narrative, it can be both freeing and limiting in some ways. As you mentioned, I have major plot points that hinge on the use of technology, which means I can’t just conveniently forget that it exists when it suits me. For instance, if you bring Facebook into the world of your novel, you have to assume that many of the characters will have, or be able to find out, information about each other without even speaking to each other.
Of course, I realize the other drawback is that in twenty years, will people even know what Facebook is? Or how much of the plot will be rendered pointless by future technologies? If you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer now, for instance, it’s amazing how many of the episodes would have ended before they began if any of the characters had had cell phones. It’s actually kind of distracting. But on the other hand, I still enjoy reading books where people do things like write each other actual letters, or research things in libraries, or rent movies at a video store. So it’s hard to say how things will go.
I am a huge proponent of communication technologies and social media, and I see a vast potential in its ability to connect people, especially those living in more isolated communities. But of course, I still mostly just use my phone to look up whether Chris O’Donnell was in CSI or NCIS during a conversation with real people who are sitting right in front of me (it was NCIS: Los Angeles, in case you were wondering). So I get where people see the downsides. Either way, it has changed the way we interact with each other, and I want my fiction to reflect this in a realistic way.
BdR: Finn Parker is employed as a writer of warnings for various types of electronic equipment. She even starts to write inner-warnings about events in her life. Is writing at all a form of warning? What do you wish you’d been warned about in writing, or in life in general?
AJ: It’s funny, because in life I really kind of bristle at the idea of warnings — they’re either condescending, in that they assume you have no common sense, or they take the fun out of everything. I think in Finn’s case, her warnings are both condescending and self-deprecating — in her job, she assumes she can anticipate what ridiculous things seemingly unintelligent people (read: her sister) will do with their electronics, and in her inner warnings she assumes the same thing about herself, within her own life. I guess writing could be considered a warning in that, as a writer, you are able to project different outcomes to different scenarios, but in the end, people are not electronic equipment, and they rarely (never?) behave the way you expect/want them to, so that kind of projection is ultimately futile as any kind of warning. Warnings only work on things that are predictable.
In that vein, the only things I really wish I had been warned about are very concrete, predictable things, like getting a good accountant or properly stretching my hamstrings. Everything else, good and bad, I was (and am) very happy and excited to figure out for myself.
BdR: If you were to write a warning about how or how not to read your book, what would it say?
AJ: That is an excellent question. It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but I guess I would advise people not to take it too seriously — I wanted to write a novel that was complex and honest and messy, but also to write something that was funny, and fun. Reading We’re All in This Together shouldn’t feel like too much work. And please don’t think too hard about the fact that there’s no possible way a person could ever survive going over Kakabeka Falls in a barrel… let’s just call it “miraculous” and leave it at that.
– June 2016, a CNQ Web Exclusive