Amy Jones won the 2006 CBC Literary Prize for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2005 Bronwen Wallace Award. She is a graduate of the Optional Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, and her fiction has appeared in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. Her debut collection of stories, What Boys Like, won the 2008 Metcalf-Rooke Award and was a finalist for the 2010 ReLit Award. Originally from Halifax, she now lives in Thunder Bay, where she is associate editor of The Walleye. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLauraJones.
Her debut novel, We’re All In This Together, has been chosen as the Thunder Bay Public Library’s first One Book: One Community title. Be sure to check out tbpl.ca/onebook for more information, and for details about our upcoming events and reading challenges!
Shauna Kosoris: What inspired you to write We’re All In This Together?
Amy Jones: I always knew I wanted to write a novel set in Thunder Bay, ever since I moved here. I had been working on a few ideas, but nothing really stuck. We had visited Kakabeka Falls quite a few times, and every time I was there I would always wonder if anyone had ever gone over, either on purpose or accidentally. We would come up with scenarios, like, if you fell in here, would you be able to swim to shore? Do you think anyone could survive this? And one day it all just came together and I was like, this is it, this is what I need to write about. It just made sense, that this place that inspired me so much in life would provide me with the inspiration for my first novel.
You always knew you wanted to write a novel set in Thunder Bay – why is that?
For a couple of reasons. One, I really believe in the importance of representation, and I feel like the more books and movies and art that are set in Thunder Bay, or recreate the artist’s experience of Thunder Bay, the better understood Thunder Bay will be. It’s also important for people to see their own experience reflected back to them in art, and the number of people who have come up to me since the book has been published, so excited to read about a place they know, just proves that to me even further. Two, one of the themes I really wanted to explore in the novel is the idea of “home,” and that whole push-pull it exerts on all of us. One thing about Thunder Bay that stands out to me is how rooted people are here, how strongly they are connected to their families, and yet how many people have to leave in order to find work, or for school, or whatever. People want to go out and make their own way, but also the north always seems to draw people back. So it was the perfect place to explore those themes.
That’s very true! When reading We’re All In This Together, one of my colleagues noticed that you name some Thunder Bay restaurants (like Norma Jean’s and Nippers) but not others. Was there a reason for that? Did you have to get permission to use the real names?
I use real names for places that don’t figure as prominently in the story, but I make up names for places that I don’t want to be beholden to reality when describing. For instance, Barkley’s is based on a specific bar but it’s not exactly that bar, and by naming it something else I can make it fictional, and therefore do what I want with it (no one can argue, for instance, about how “at the real bar, the bathrooms are on the OTHER side of the room!”)
I sure hope I didn’t have to get permission! I think my publisher would have told me.
I’m sure they would have! How many of the houses in your book are based on reality?
Most are based in some reality. I set the Parker’s house quite near my own for the same reason I made Finn and Nicki close to my age: laziness (it’s much easier to figure out years or distances that way!) But their house is not a specific house on Victor Street, it is more an amalgam of a few houses. Same with the house Katriina buys. I take elements I like from each house and put them together.
Remaining true to the way Thunder Bay people speak, your characters say things like “camp” instead of “cottage.” Why did you decide to use this distinction, especially since your book is being read by people who may not be familiar with Thunder Bay colloquialisms?
It was really important to me to get things “right” about Thunder Bay, especially the feel of the place, the atmosphere, the certain culture. I don’t think any of the references I make are so obscure that people who are not from here wouldn’t understand what they were (or if they are, I make sure they are explained somehow). I remember during the editing process my editor asked me about a character saying that her friend moved “down south.” She thought it meant, like, Florida or the Caribbean (as I did, before I moved here!) But when I explained to her that this is how people from Thunder Bay refer to Southern Ontario, she was like, okay, it should stay.
We’re All In This Together has ten different characters who all get chapters as the narrator. Why did you decide on so many narratives?
I didn’t really decide on it more than it just kind of happened. The novel began as two short stories, one featuring Finn and the other featuring Katriina. When I realized that there were similarities between the two, I thought, okay, this can be a longer narrative. Then as the story progressed, it became important to me for Kate to have a voice, because I didn’t want her story to be told only by others. Then London pretty much insisted on having a voice, too. After that, it became important to have the others in order to balance out the story, in order to show things from many perspectives. So much of the book is centred around perception, and how we all (especially within families) remember things differently, have different views of the same event. Having the multiple narrators allowed me to explore that further.
Did you have a particular character you identified with more than the others?
A lot of people tell me that they pictured me as Finn, maybe because she is the one who moved away from her family. And I definitely had a lot in common with London when I was younger. But if I were to pick a character I identified with the most, it would be Katriina—her constant over-thinking of things, of wanting to keep everything together for everyone. I find it hard to read over her scenes sometimes, because of that.
Okay, I have to ask – was the idea of the shark in Lake Superior based in reality at all?
Haha, no, it wasn’t! It’s just another of those things we always talked about, whether or not the possibility existed, if it had ever happened. I think I might have seen something on television about it once, probably on Shark Week. It became a joke between me and my boyfriend, because he is really afraid of sharks. And then, like everything else in my life, it just became fodder for fiction.
So what are you working on now?
A new novel! It’s in the very early stages right now, so I don’t want to jinx it, but I definitely feel like I want to keep up the momentum with the novel writing.
Good luck! Let’s finish up with a little bit about what you read. What book or author inspired you to write?
I don’t think it was just one… when I was a kid I loved to read, and would often invent new endings for books that I felt didn’t end the way I wanted them to (in fact, until I was an adult I always thought the blank pages at the end of books were there so you could write your own endings). When I first decided to try to write as a profession, I read a lot of contemporary Canadian and American short fiction: Lisa Moore, Barbara Gowdy, Annabel Lyon, Lee Henderson, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Rick Moody, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley. All of them inspired me in different ways.
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
I don’t think so, actually. Reading is such a personal thing, and it really breaks my heart when I try to match up someone I love with a book that I love and it doesn’t work. I don’t think there is one book out there that will speak to everyone, but as long as there is one book that speaks to you, that’s what matters.
And what are you currently reading?
I’m on a huge mystery kick, so I’ve been reading a lot of Laura Lippman, Tana French, Megan Abbott. I’ve just started the new Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me. I’m also really looking forward to the new Louise Penny at the end of the month!