The story of bones

Being in Dawson City for a residence at the Berton House is a dream come true for Winnipeg writer Joan Thomas.

This is not the first time that Thomas has been to this area. In 1996, she spent a month camping in the Yukon with her family. At the time, Pierre Berton’s childhood home was just being set up as a writers’ residence and retreat.

She remembers walking by the house and saying that she would write a novel one day and apply for the program so that she could come back and stay in the Yukon.

“So really, this is what my last 15 years of work have all been for!” she says.

Thomas arrived in Dawson in July and is staying at the retreat until September.

“I’m thrilled to have been awarded a term in Pierre Berton’s house,” she says.

Thomas grew up on the Canadian Prairies. She studied English at the University of Winnipeg and taught high school English in three different schools, as well as in a teacher-training program in the Caribbean.

She’s worked as a freelance writer, reviewer, editor, and writing and publishing consultant for the Manitoba Arts Council. She was also a frequent book reviewer for the Globe and Mail, and for two years wrote a biweekly feature review in the Globe.

Thomas started to write fiction in 2000 because she was getting tired of writing reviews.

“I started to hate that 800 word limit,” she says with a grin.

Her first novel, Reading by Lightning came out in 2008 and won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean) and the First Novel Award.

It tells the story of a prairie girl whose hunger for life sends her to England, only to be called back to face a future she thought she might have escaped.

“It’s a somewhat autobiographical book,” muses Thomas.

She was inspired by the story of her grandfather immigrating to the Prairies from England. At one point, he sent his young daughter back home to England to care for her mother.

“I was fascinated by her story,” says Thomas.

Her second book, Curiosity, was published in April 2010. It was named a Quill & Quire Book of the Year and has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award.

The idea for Curiosity came about in 2003, while still writing her first novel. Thomas was trying to get rid of a male character for the summer and was researching places where she could send him.

It was then that she discovered the picturesque town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England.

While researching the history of the town, Thomas came across accounts of the fossilist Mary Anning, who is now considered the most knowledgeable English palaeontologist of the period—an accomplishment that, in her own day, was entirely obscured by her sex and class.

Thomas was hooked on the story of bones.

“I knew in a flash that I would write a novel about her,” she says.

However, Thomas had little knowledge of England and its geography; therefore, she had lots of research to do, including three trips to England.

“It was on the first research trip that the heart of Curiosity came to me,” she says.

She ended up staying in a flat on Bridge Street, exactly where Mary Anning’s house once stood.

Thomas remembers reading about the early fossilists making their own sepia from 200 million year-old molloscs, and using it for their specimen drawings.

She recalls that from that point on, there was no turning back.

Thomas was mostly fascinated with the time period of Curiosity, when the view of the world was shifting and people were resistant to these changes.

In the end, Curiosity was easy to write, she says.

“It was already fully formed and fluid.”

When asked whether she favours female heroines, Thomas mentions that in Curiosity, there are two points of view, that of Mary Anning and Henry De la Beche, a socially progressive heir to a sugar plantation, illustrator and eminent geologist.

Although interested in the stories of women, she is more interested in points of view.

“That’s the heart of writing,” she says.

While at Berton House, Thomas hopes to complete her new novela contemporary story set in Winnipeg.

For those interested in seeing Thomas’s work, she will be reading and showing a slideshow of Curiosity at the Dawson City Library September 13 at 7:30 p.m . and at the Whitehorse Public Library September 20 at 7:30 p.m.

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