August 29, 2014

"It’s daunting for a writer to take on her own town."

When Carol Shields released Larry’s Party, we were all fascinated by her fictional take on Winnipeg. Keen-eyed readers came up to her to point out tiny inaccuracies (“You know, you can’t turn left off Osborne onto Rosalyn.”) It’s daunting for a writer to take on her own town.

The Opening Sky takes place mostly in Wolseley, a neighbourhood I’ve lived in and love. No trips to the British Museum for this one-- my research involved asking people questions like, “What beer would a work crew of 25 year-olds be drinking?” (Moosehead, apparently).

If I worked hard to get Winnipeg right, it wasn’t to satisfy readers that know the city like the backs of their hands. I was the servant of a fictional Winnipeg, which meant creating the illusion for readers that they’re entering the real one. This illusion depends on a lot of specific detail – but sometimes it’s the need for specificity that drives you to invent. For example, I wanted to give my fictional family a house number, so I ended up creating a street in Wolseley, Augusta Street.

But who am I kidding?—when I invented (and I didn’t do it a lot), it was mainly for my convenience as a storyteller. One of my characters is a microbiologist and I wanted him to work at Lake Winnipeg. I asked Karen Scott at the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium if there was a research facility at the lake, beyond the MV Namao. “No,” she said. “But it would be great. Feel free to give us with one.” So I built a lab at a fictional site called Presley Point. Then, power-mad, I named a co-ed dorm at the University of Winnipeg after Margaret Laurence.

As a reader, invented details in a real setting sometimes bug me. As a novelist, I don’t question them: the demands of the story are always going to trump small matters of factual accuracy, and I don’t think they’re terribly crucial to the larger goal of getting the city right—but maybe I’m about to find out.

* Joan Thomas

August 21, 2014

Joan Thomas' latest book is the novel, The Opening Sky

See Joan at THIN AIR 2014 at the Nooner, Tuesday, September 23rd at 12:15 pm, at Carol Shields Auditorium, Millennium Library, and at the Mainstage. Tuesday, September 23rd at 7:30 pm, at MTYP.

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