On this week’s chat, we’re in conversation with Amy Jones, author of the big-hearted novel We’re All in This Together. The book follows the various members of the Parker family, whose stories and lives intersect after matriarch Kate plummets over a local waterfall in a barrel.
In a starred review, Quill & Quire says Jones “has created a novel of great psychological insight and a kind of sharp-edged tenderness that revels not in family dysfunction, but in its “beautiful, crazy chaos.”
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 UBC, and her fiction has appeared in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. Her debut collection of stories, What Boys Like, was the winner of the 2008 Metcalf-Rooke Award and 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.
THE CHAT WITH AMY JONES
Trevor Corkum:How was We’re All In This Together born?
Amy Jones: It actually came out of two separate short stories—one about Finn and one about Katriina. I had written another novel and it was really terrible, so I went back to writing stories for a while, but I was still really focused on trying to figure out a way to develop a longer narrative. Then Katriina showed up in Finn’s story, and I thought, well, let’s try this again.
I began writing the story from just Finn and Katriina’s point of view, with the idea that maybe Kate would come in later, for one chapter. But then—and maybe it is the short story writer in me—I started seeing all these loose story threads and pulling on them to see where they went. And everything fell apart, in a really good way, and I spent a long time weaving it all back together. So it was sort of an ongoing thing. I didn’t even add in the Shawn chapters until I began the revision process with my editor, Anita Chong. She questioned why we never heard his voice, and I didn’t have a good answer. Once I started writing his chapters, it felt like that was when everything really came together.
TC:Imagine you’re on a road trip with Kate Parker, the matriarch of the Parker clan. Where do you go? What do you talk or argue about? What do you learn from her?
AJ: I think I’d like to take Kate to the Maritimes, maybe to Cape Breton or Prince Edward Island, some place with winding roads along the edge of a rugged shoreline. The whole time we are driving she tries to convince me that she has been there before, and I just laugh at her, because I know that she hasn’t, I know her that well. But still she perfectly describes to me a summer beach community at the end of a dirt road with a row of cottages, and a canteen up behind the dunes that sells hot dogs and French fries and homemade ice cream sandwiches, and I think she must have seen it in a movie or something, until she tells me to turn here, and then there, and then there it is, just as she has described it—the weathered wooden porches, the red doors with the peeling paint, the old Coke machine in front of the canteen.
And I ask her how she knows about this, when had she been there? But she can’t remember. And I’m frustrated, but she can’t tell. And I realize it doesn’t matter anyway, that this moment, like all the others, will be gone for both of us someday. There is no point in trying to make sense of it, and there is no point in trying to hold onto it.
(Sorry, that’s probably really depressing. But if you’ve ever been on a road trip with someone with dementia, this is exactly what it’s like, that sense that every moment is simultaneously so important and monumental and life-altering and also so completely, utterly inconsequential.)
If you’ve ever been on a road trip with someone with dementia, this is exactly what it’s like, that sense that every moment is simultaneously so important and monumental and life-altering and also so completely, utterly inconsequential.
TC:Let’s say Finn curates a music playlist of all-time faves. What songs are on the list?
Oh, I’m sure that Finn is still super stuck in the past when it comes to music. She probably doesn’t listen to anything produced after 2003, and almost exclusively listens to female artists. She still has that mixed CD that she made right after she and Dallas broke up, and it’s all Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair and Fiona Apple. When she’s in a good mood, she puts on the Fugees or No Doubt, and she has a massive secret crush on Trent Reznor. Her guilty pleasure is Britney, although she also will crank up Taylor Swift in her car when she comes on the radio—I mean, she’s only human.
Her guilty pleasure is Britney, although she also will crank up Taylor Swift in her car when she comes on the radio—I mean, she’s only human.
When I was writing We’re All in This Together, I had a song for every character (along with a different colour sharpie!) and when I was trying to get into their heads I would listen to it. They were only tangentially related to the characters, but for some reason made me feel closer to them. Finn’s was “Breathing Underwater” by Metric. I think she would probably like that.
TC:Do you have any rituals or superstitions involved in your writing process? Do you generally have a fixed writing routine?
AJ: I’m a big believer in writing when you can, where you can. I travel so much, and my life is so unpredictable that I have to get the work in when I can get the work in. I did a lot of major edits, for instance, at the kitchen table at my dad’s house last summer. At home, I have an office, but I rarely use it; I’m at the kitchen table, or on the couch, or at the Bean Fiend. When I’m in Halifax, I work quite a bit at the new Central Library (which is amazing, if you haven’t been there!) I write in the afternoon when I’m on the road and often late into the night when I’m at home, but I don’t have a fixed routine. The only thing I ever have to do is walk by dog at noon; that’s non-negotiable.
I actually do a lot of writing in my head before I sit down with my computer, so I guess if I had any superstitions it would be that I can’t write before I can hear the character’s voice in my head. I actually worked out a lot of the plot of WAITT while I was on a road trip to Minneapolis with my in-laws. The only real ritual I have is that I like to have tea. And if I’m not connected to the internet, I can’t write. I know that’s the opposite of most people (and all reason!), but if there’s something I need to know, like what year a song came out or what’s the word in French for pistachio, I need to know RIGHT AWAY or I can’t keep going.
I actually do a lot of writing in my head before I sit down with my computer, so I guess if I had any superstitions it would be that I can’t write before I can hear the character’s voice in my head.
TC:This is your second book, your first after your award-winning collection What Boys Like. What was it like to move from shorter fiction into the novel form? What were the joys pitfalls and challenges of having a larger canvas?
AJ: It was definitely a steep learning curve! The main thing is—and this is going to sound self-evident, but for me it took a long time to sink in—is that writing a novel is not just like writing a longer short story. It is a completely different beast right down to the sentence level. We spent a lot of time unpacking, turning sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes. I had been so used to being economical with my language, to leaving things ambiguous, to ending things in the middle. I had to completely alter my way of thinking, and this is something I never would have been able to do without Anita.
That said, I really, really loved the process—I am a problem-solver, and I loved trying to take all the pieces of this massive puzzle and trying to put them together in a way that makes sense (this also might by why I decided to go full out and write a novel that had multiple POVs and timelines). It was actually really fun for me, especially when the big picture started to take shape—at the beginning I wasn’t really sure what it would look like (or even if it would look like anything!) so it was actually kind of a relief when it revealed itself to be a real, recognizable thing. _____
Excerpt from We’re All in This Together by Amy Jones
When Finn and Nicki were young, their mother used to tell them the story of Green Mantle, an Ojibwe princess who saved her father’s tribe from certain destruction by leading their Sioux attackers down the Kaministiquia River and over Kakabeka Falls to their deaths, including her own. If you look closely enough, her mother Kate would say, you can see the image of Green Mantle in the mist at the bottom of the falls. From then on, every time they visited the falls, the girls would climb down to the lowest platform built into the escarpment and stare hard into the mist, waiting for Green Mantle to appear. It never happened, but they waited anyway, until their father started complaining their parking pass was about to expire, or Kate’s camera ran out of film. Why couldn’t they see her? Finn wondered. What were they being punished for? Did they not believe hard enough? Were they not true-hearted enough? The failure of magic can be tough on little girls.
Now, watching footage of her mother’s own epic plunge, Finn couldn’t help but think of Green Mantle. Thankfully Kate, unlike Green Mantle, did not die. According to the news reports, her barrel – white oak with a steel rim, which Finn knew was used by her brother-in-law, Hamish, to make bootleg whisky in the back shed – was carried on the Kaministiquia River to the precipice of the falls, then plunged forty catastrophic metres over the edge. The barrel hit the shale cliff face halfway down the falls with a sound like a gunshot, then flipped into the air before disappearing into the mist gathered in the gorge, carved twenty thousand years ago into the Precambrian Shield by meltwater from the last glacial maximum. The barrel stayed submerged for another twenty metres before bobbing to the surface of the Kam and beaching itself on the western bank.
The rescue team called the coroner. Radio stations cut into Rush and Nickleback to report the death of a woman at Kakabeka Falls. No one was making a joke of it yet, but they would – it’s natural selection, they said, modern-day Darwinism, where the stupid will fail to survive. But in the end it was Kate who had the last laugh – Kate with her two broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, two chipped front teeth, a ripped-off pinky nail, and a severe concussion. The barrel, the reports said, was actually what saved her life – hitting the rock face directly on one of the steel rings, which kept it from shattering, then trapping her in an air bubble when it flipped over, which saved her from drowning. No one could figure out how she didn’t get pulled down into the whirlpool. A one-in-a-million chance. Survival of the blind-luckiest. The giant pain in Darwin’s ass, smiling meekly on the homepage of the local news site, waving a trembling hand to the camera from the back of an ambulance before slipping into a coma on her way to the hospital.
“I’m not going home,” Finn said to her neighbour’s dog, who just stared at her. “I’m not.”
Max spun around once and thumped down on the floor with a sigh, resting his chin on his paws.
She knew Max was right. If she didn’t go home now, she would never be able to go home again.