Rebecca Johns interview

Fellow Goat Rebecca Johns, aka The Lovely Becky, has just returned from the 2007 PEN/Hemingway award ceremony in Boston, where her novel Icebergs was honored as a finalist -- meaning the book was judged to be one of the top three by a first-time novelist. We sat down with her, put our feet up on the Internet, and chatted over this delightful news and other topics. Let's listen in:

EG: Being a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award must have been tremendously exciting. How did you find out? How do you think this will affect things for you?

RJ: My editor called me the last week in February with the news. I think she was as excited as I was. Of all the editors I spoke to during the time the book was up for sale, she was the one who "got" the kind of book I wanted to write, who believed in it and me, so I think it was a validation for her as well.

As far as how it will affect things, I really don't know. I'm curious about that myself.

EG: Icebergs was recently released in the UK. Have you had feedback from Scottish or British readers yet? How have Canadians reacted to an American writing a Canadian story?

RJ: I have heard from Canadian readers about the book, and their reactions have been very positive. No one's seemed surprised that an American would write about Canada, but then, others have done it before me. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News was set largely in Newfoundland, and Stef Penney, the British author, wrote The Tenderness of Wolves without once having been to Canada. My Canadian relatives all seemed to enjoy the book, and they're as loud and opinionated as I am, so believe me, I would have heard if they'd been displeased.

The British reviews have been extremely positive. It's been interesting to see the book come out there and in Australia and how the process has been different in each place.

EG: The book concerns a family that emigrates from Scotland to Canada, as your own ancestors did. How much of the book is based on your family? What was it like writing about characters from your own family? Is it harder or easier to base characters on people you know (or knew)?

RJ: My grandmother was an emigrant from Scotland as a girl, but aside from her father, who appears in the story pretty much as I remember him, the rest of the characters took on very distinct personalities of their own early on, and that made them easier to write about. The demands of fiction required this change: I discovered I could not write about people I had known and loved well, because they weren't my creations. I couldn't make them behave the way I wanted. In the end the two families in the novel were vastly different from mine in makeup and circumstances. The last generation of the Dunmore family, coming of age in 1999, is completely unrecognizable from my own. I think that's the way it should be, though. I was inspired by people in my own life, as most writers are, but with any luck the end result is art masquerading as life instead of the other way around.

EG: The story takes place in three distinct time periods. How did you decide on that structure, to skip across the years like that?

RJ: The structure was suggested by the very first piece of the novel I wrote, which started out as a short story and is now Chapter Two of the novel. There was a significant jump of time at the end of the short story between the present events and a distant future in which Dottie was an old woman, looking back at that heady time in her life with a sense that something had gone off, that some potential had been lost. The other people in workshop (you included, G!) thought the jump was too sudden, and it was, so I spent the next three years filling in the things that happened in-between. The final scene of the book is almost identical to the final scene in that short story version.

The three-part structure seemed to work because of the three generations of family that ended up in the book. I wanted something that would be large in its scope but intimate in its details, and the three-part structure allowed me to have my cake and eat it too, so to speak. At least, I hope it did.

EG: Icebergs must have taken a ton of research. What kinds of things did you do to research your book?

RJ: I had to do quite a lot of research on two things: B-24 planes and Newfoundland, neither of which I'd ever set foot inside. I had a bunch of old newspaper clippings of my grandfather's plane crash that my grandmother had kept, and I thought those would be enough to help me write the crash scene, but it wasn't--I ended up needing far more detail than I ever thought I would. There is only one B-24 in the world that still flies, and it came through the Midwest in the summer of 2003, so I took a half-hour ride in it out over Lake Michigan and back. That part of the research was fun. So was the trip I took to Newfoundland the next summer, to the Gander air base and St. John's. I saw my first iceberg there. I tried to go on a whale-watching tour, but it was too early in the year for that, so all I managed to find were Arctic birds and a little seasickness. But Newfoundland is unlike any other place I've been to, and it was definitely necessary to have gone. I couldn't write the ending until I'd been there.

Mostly I wrote the scenes I wanted first and went back later to fill in the blanks with research. This method was more efficient than trying to do all the research first, which could easily have taken me ten years.

EG: You've had some odd jobs. Did they "build character" -- or were they struggles you just wanted to get through?

RJ: You mean my stint at McDonald's when I lived in Manhattan? I don't know if that built character, but it certainly got me used to humiliation. After having hookers come in to laugh at you in your little hat and uniform, I have found that book critics just don't seem as threatening.

I worked there the summer after I graduated from college, when the country was in the middle of a recession and no one was hiring. There was a day that summer when I literally wandered Manhattan with $1 in my pocket trying to decide if I should buy something to eat or a lottery ticket. That was a very bad day. I ended up buying something to eat, and the next day I walked into Mickey D's and got a job, because I never wanted to have that feeling again.

I've done all kinds of jobs over the years. I've worked in libraries and waitressed at pizza places and clerked at hospitals and been a stringer for national magazines and written at third-rate newspapers and done almost everything short of selling blood and sex. And each job seemed like the only thing to do at the time. I have to work, though--when I have too much time on my hands I end up wasting it.

EG: How did the workshop affect your writing or your sense of yourself as a writer? What do you feel like you took away from your time in the program?

RJ: I came to the Workshop as someone who already had a career and a mortgage and a marriage, and it was no small thing to pick up and move here and leave most of that behind [not the marriage--ed.], but it also meant I came to Iowa already with a strong sense of what I wanted to accomplish while I was a grad student.

The reason I decided to apply to the Workshop in the first place was that even though I'd written two novels and a bunch of short stories in my twenties, I felt like I had little control over them. I had ideas that I loved, but they seemed to appear on the page too haphazardly to be meaningful. I needed more understanding of craft, and I was right in assuming that the Workshop would provide the guidance I needed in that area. Workshops can't do everything, but they can do that much. Ethan Canin was helpful with things like using flashbacks and writing better dialogue; Sam Chang taught a great class on structure; Marilynne Robinson looked for moral and meaning; Frank Conroy was all about precision in language. Now when I sit down to work I feel I can make better narrative choices, or at least make them consciously, with an understanding of what I'm getting myself into.

EG: We hear you're working on something new. What can you tell us about it?

RJ: I was so exhausted from writing Icebergs that it's taken me a while to figure that out, but lately I'm starting to get back into it, and I might have a couple of things in the works. Surprisingly, because I've never thought of myself as a short story writer, I feel like I might be on the verge of a collection. But of course there's always another novel to write. It's still in the beginning stages, though, so I don't want to ruin the mojo by talking about it too much right now. Mojo is a terrible thing to waste.

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