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August 22, 2018
As always, The Word On The Street is coming up this September. But the fall can’t get here soon enough! So we sat down with Joanna Goodman, author of The Home for Unwanted Girls, who will be joining us at the festival this year!
WOTS: The Home for Unwanted Girls is based on a bleak bit of Canadian history, when orphans were being institutionalized to receive more government funding. What made you want to explore this issue?
Joanna Goodman: The story gave me chills when I read it. The more I began to explore, the deeper I fell into the rabbit hole. What was most shocking to me as I learned more about was not just the conspiracy between the doctors, government and church, but the cover-up, which has proved to be tremendously effective. Virtually no one has heard about this scandal. As soon as I discovered it, I knew it was a story I had to tell—both as a writer, a Quebecker, and a Canadian.
WOTS: You use both the perspective of Maggie, the underage mother forced to give up her baby, and Elodie, the child who is put into the orphanage system. Why were you drawn to use two perspectives, and what do you think multiple perspectives adds to this kind of story?
JG: Originally, the entire novel was told through Maggie’s perspective. But it became abundantly clear that we needed to meet and “know” Elodie as well, and follow her story simultaneously. It was less of a decision and more of an inevitable evolution of the story.
WOTS: What are your favourite places to write? Any quirky must-haves when it comes to sitting down and building out a story?
JG: Coffee shops. Give me a coffee shop and I’ll write you a novel. I have kids at home, so it’s hard to write there. And I can’t start writing unless I have a coffee. I have to time my writing sessions around my ritualistic coffee times.
WOTS: Tell us a bit more about your process. How did you start writing? Do you have any favourite stories about when you were just starting out?
JG: I’ve been writing stories since I was five years old. Started my first novel at nine, another at twelve, another at sixteen, and finally finished my first one in my early twenties. It was in a Creative Writing workshop at university that I began working on the first short stories and eventually the first novel I would have published. I had an incredibly supportive teacher—mentor—named Tom Henighan, who encouraged me to submit my stories to literary magazines, and then my novel to a small press. That basically launched my career. (Thank you, Tom!)
WOTS: What would you say to a writer who’s just starting out? What one thing do you think it’s crucial to know?
JG: Two things, neither very original. 1. NEVER GIVE UP. I’ve had thousands of rejections and not one of them ever stopped me from continuing. I’ve had horrible reviews that temporarily crushed my spirits, but never stopped me from continuing. I just kept writing and submitting until I broke through. It’s part of the gig, so you must have a thick skin. 2. JOIN A WRITING WORKSHOP. I’ve been in at least half a dozen—even a couple in L.A where I met my current editor and writing partner—and every single one has led to some success in my writing career.
WOTS: Writing historical fiction involves a lot of research for the author. What did you have to do to prepare to write this book? Did you learn anything that you didn’t expect?
JG: The truth is, I did not set out to write a historical fiction novel. I just set out to tell a story about growing up half French and half English in Quebec, inspired by my mother’s childhood. (I didn’t realize my mother’s life was officially “historical!”) But as I began to research the Duplessis era (the fifties, when my mom was growing up), this opened a HUGE Pandora’s box of fascinating research.
Next thing I knew, I was deep into the orphan scandal, the Duplessis regime, and the complicated provincial politics. I researched this book on and off for a period of twenty years before I finally sat down to write the book! The good news is, I have enough material to carry me through the sequel (which I’m currently working on) and possibly a third!
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