News and Interviews

The In Character interview with John Jantunen

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Guelph-based author John Jantunen's A Desolate Splendor (ECW Press) is an end-of-the-world tale told in multiple voices. Hidden in the wild outskirts of a world forced back into a pre-technology existence, the characters are preyed upon by sadistic ex-soldiers. The family at the centre of the novel bands together to survive, with their hopes pinned to their young son.

This tense, smart story has impressed readers and writers alike. Craig Davidson praised the novel as "fierce, intelligent, and heartwrenching" and Clifford Jackman called it "one of the most intense CanLit novels of all time".

We're pleased to welcome John to Open Book today to talk about the characters in A Desolate Splendor, as part of our In Character interview series. He tells us how a book is like an engine, why what's left out of dialogue is even more important than what's included, and how his own sons influenced the main character of "the boy" in A Desolate Splendor. 

 

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

John Jantunen:

The main character in A Desolate Splendor is known only as the boy. He lives on an isolated farm in northern Ontario with his mother and father a hundred or so years after an unnamed cataclysm has brought about the end of civilization. Though he's had his fair share of hard times, he's lived a rather charmed life compared to the girl whom he rescues from a religious cult bent on burning the world back to Eden. The Echoes, as they are called, had been using her and several other women as breeding stock — and it's the tension that arises between what the reader knows about the girl's past, and what the boy doesn't know, which fuels the suspense leading towards climax.

OB:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

JJ:

If one's characters don't take on a "life of their own" something is seriously wrong. I'd go as far to say that it's fiction's emergent property, and, as an internal combustion engine is just scrap metal when devoid of its flame, without it a novel is nothing but an inert jumble of words. In my experience, complexity is the key. The more complex a character is (i.e. the more experiences the writer has shared with them) the more likely it is that you'll find yourself in one of those moments when your progeny does indeed seem to come alive right there on the page. In one way or another, each of the seventeen characters in A Desolate Splendor afforded me such a moment, but none so unexpectedly as in the scene where, following the death of his mother, the boy has led the group of refugees back to the farm. One of the women, Adele, is pregnant, and as the boy's father has wanted nothing more than another child, it seemed natural to me that he should be drawn to her. And maybe he would have been, too, if Adele's sister, Reed, hadn't been injured in a previous scene. While he's tending to her wound, there passes between them a moment of tender intimacy; the next time their eyes meet the way she is looking at him makes the man blush. After that, it was all I could do to keep up as they took their first clumsy stumbles towards a love that neither could have imagined still existed in such a cruel and merciless world as is theirs.

OB:

How do you choose names for your characters?

JJ:

I do a lot of prep work before sitting down to write, most of which revolves around character breakdowns (Conscious Goal, Subconscious Goal, Central Conflict and Biographical Information). I find it very rare that once I've engaged in this process the character's name isn't right there on the tip of my tongue. However, sometimes I'll want to be a little more conscious in my choices, choosing a name to evoke a particular image, for instance naming a woman Cherry (a reference to her cheeks which had once been as round and smooth and red as her namesake), or a giant Yoke (his shoulders as broad as a team of oxen), and sometimes I'll want to instil a latent possibility in a character (such as Jude, who may or may not betray his brother, Lemon). Sometimes the names simply arise from my research, as was the case with Nisi & Ostes (Nisi meaning "younger brother" in Cree, and Ostes meaning "older brother".)

OB:

What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?

JJ:

Early in my writing career, screenwriter and novelist Sharon Riis advised me that it's not what your characters say that really matters — it's what they don't say, and I've used that as a guide ever since. As to any tips for aspiring writers, before becoming a novelist, I'd written over twenty screenplays and that seems to have served me pretty well.

OB:

Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?

JJ:

Like the boy, I lived on a farm when I was young, and when I went out into the wider world (of Regina and then Vancouver) I met a couple (or three) young woman whose pasts made my own seem charmed by comparison. Really, though, I was mainly thinking about two of my sons when I was writing the book. In the first part, the boy is five and my thoughts tended to drift towards Kai, then seven, and in the later sections he's twelve and so my now thirteen-year-old son Anyk was most ever present in my mind.

OB:

Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?

JJ:

If there is a better novelist when it comes to characterization than the late John Gardner, I have yet to encounter him or her. His Grendel lured me away from the horror and fantasy novels of my youth, and before I finally tracked down a copy of Mickelson's Ghosts, I doubted I would ever meet a character who affected me as deeply as Fred Clumly did in The Sunlight Dialogues. Otherwise, a few that spring to mind are Cormac McCarthy's Suttree & Lester Ballard, Roberto Bolaño's Benno von Archimboldi, Hemingway's Robert Jordan & Pilar, Alan Duff's Beth and Jake Heke, Walter Mosley's Socrates Fortlow, the narrator (unnamed) of Doris Lessing's Memoirs Of A Survivor, Thomas King's Nicholas Crisp, Marjorie Rawlins’ Jody Baxter, Forest Carter's Little Tree, White Fang, Harry Lime, Rollo Martin, Atticus Finch, Scout, Tom Robinson, Arthur Radley and, of course, Raoul Duke. Also, I'm currently about halfway through Halldor Laxness's Independent People, and am finding that Bjartur of Summerhouses is truly a wonder to behold.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JJ:

My latest novel, No Quarter, revolves around the mystery presented by the unfinished manuscript left behind by a recently deceased writer named George Cleary, a novelist who wrote twelve books between 1968 and 1993, all of which dealt with the fractured relationship between Canada's Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. He is the writer that Canada sorely needed, and never had. Through him, No Quarter endeavours to reconfigure our nation’s past so as to bring this truancy into clear relief.

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John Jantunen lives with his wife and two sons in Guelph, Ontario. One of his short stories appeared in Fractured: Tales From the Canadian Post-Apocalypse and his debut novel, Cipher, was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. 

Related reading

A Desolate Splendor

A chilling portrait of a family fighting to preserve their humanity in a cruel and merciless world

The collapse of civilization has left the survivors scattered amongst a few settlements along the wilderness fringe of a land ravaged by war. Preyed upon by roving bands of sadistic ex-soldiers and ever at the mercy of a natural world that has turned against them, a family is facing their final days. Hope appears in the guise of their young son. Raised in isolation and taught by his father to survive at any cost, he is thrust headlong into a battle for the future of humankind after rescuing a girl fleeing from a savage and relentless cult bent on burning the world back to Eden.

Raw and unflinching, A Desolate Splendor weaves a stark, and eerily familiar, portrayal of life on the brink of extinction and heralds the rise of an exciting new voice in apocalyptic fiction.