Novelist John Jantunen on Opening Scenes, Naming Murderers After Friends, & the Strange Time He Met His Protagonist in Northern Ontario
In the not too distant future, a prison filled with hardened inmates is suddenly plunged into darkness. The power has mysteriously gone out, and it's not coming back. The guards flee the prison, leaving the inmates trapped and doomed, including the man dubbed "Savage Gerry", for whom John Jantunen's Savage Gerry (ECW Press) is named. The novel is a rollicking ride through a dark future that feels both uncomfortably possible and wickedly surreal.
Locked up for killing the man who murdered his wife, Gerry is a complicated character. When a jailbreak saves his life, he's ejected into a world even more precarious than the prison. A dystopia ruled by gangs of bikers, it's a ruthless place. Gerry is desperate to find his son and is soon forced to decide how far he'll go to make that happen. A story of violence, love, and sacrifice, set in contrast to the natural beauty of the Northern Ontario setting, it's fast-paced, gritty, and smart.
We're excited to speak with John as part of our Long Story interview for novelists. He tells us about how he came to discover his Mad Max-esque opening image, why he thanked a friend for help with the book by naming a murderous biker after him, and the surreal moment when he unexpectedly "met" his main character in real life.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
Writing Savage Gerry began the same way as have all my novels: with the certainty that I knew exactly what my opening line would be well before I ever sat down at my laptop, followed by two months hammering away at the manuscript before I found the line which would actually open the book. For Savage Gerry that original line was: “He often thought of the months he’d spent with his son, on the run from the law.” Seemed a reasonable place to start since I knew I wanted it to begin with the titular Gerald Nichols in prison, where he did indeed spend a lot of time thinking about Evers, his son (he’s serving a life sentence for killing the three men involved in the shooting death of his wife — two of which were off-duty police officers — before he and the thirteen year old Evers fled into the northern wilds only to be apprehended nine months later by the father of the two slain cops). The problem was that it led to a lot of rather ponderous exposition, which is death for any thriller, and after writing twenty thousand words I decided there was nothing to do but transfer all of it to my “Reject File” and began anew.
While revising my third novel, A Desolate Splendor, Emily Schultz, my editor, had suggested that I add a short prologue which introduced readers to my villains. That had worked out pretty well and I thought doing so with Savage Gerry would be as good a place to restart as any. The villains in Savage Gerry are a murderous band of bikers. With the end of civilization well in the offing, I figured they’d be on their way to spring their fellow gang members from the same correctional facility where Gerald was languishing in a cell with a rotting corpse, five days after the guards have all fled. So “Four Harley’s led the way” became my new opening line and it seemed only natural that behind them a transport truck would be hauling a giant excavator to assist in the jailbreak. But it wasn’t until I got the idea that the excavator’s trailer would be pulling a second smaller trailer furnished to resemble a parlour now set to rocking and reeling with a motley assemblage of musicians playing an old-timey barn hall jig version of Trooper’s “Raise A Little Hell” that I would find the tone I was looking to set for the rest of the novel.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
Gerald was originally meant to be from Thunder Bay, where my paternal grandfather had settled back in 1939 after emigrating from Finland. It was just a matter of happenstance that I shifted Gerald’s grandfather’s farmstead from there to Capreol. I had always planned to relocate to Northern Ontario, so I could conduct the necessary research and get back in touch with my own roots, and while looking for suitable accommodations my partner Tanja stumbled on a listing for a rental house in Capreol. Capreol, I’d soon learn, is an old CN rail town and since the bulk of the novel was to have Gerald hiking the train tracks home, where he hopes to reunite with his son, it seemed a natural fit. I’d later discover that the town was named after a real person who’d appear in Atwood’s Alias Grace and that Hemingway had travelled through Capreol on his fishing jaunts north when he was working at The Toronto Star, so its literary pedigree was pretty solid too. Because of its origins and its relative isolation, Capreol maintains a very “frontier town” feel about it and that atmosphere greatly informed the narrative, transforming it more and more from a traditional thriller into a modern day western as the writing progressed.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
Without a doubt that would be Clayton Crisp, who I had conceived of as an homage to the hapless sidekick another titular character met in prison — Eugene Harrogate in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. I hadn’t figured out what to call him yet when a writer friend* from Capreol asked if I wouldn’t mind auctioning off a character’s name as part of the town’s centennial celebrations (Capreol was founded in 1918). I agreed thinking that if it was a shitty name I could saddle a side character with it, but low and behold the highest bidder was a locomotive engineer at Bombardier named Clayton Crisp (his family was from Capreol and he’d returned home from Toronto for the festivities). I couldn’t possibly have conceived of a more appropriate name for my own hapless sidekick and as soon as he appeared on the page during the jailbreak, introducing himself to Gerald as “Clayton, Clayton Crisp”, he pretty much took on a life all of his own.
*Matthew Del Papa, after whom I’d name the leader of the murderous gang of bikers in repayment for his efforts.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Set in a future all-too-near our own against a backdrop of Northern Ontario’s natural splendor, Savage Gerry is a refreshingly Canadian spin on the Mad Max films.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
The first time I hiked up to the stunningly picturesque Long Lake, just north of Capreol, I knew I’d found the place where Savage Gerry would ultimately end, so that was pretty exciting. But it was hiking up to another lake north of Capreol that would provide my most memorable moment. I’d determined that Gerald’s family farmstead would be located at the end of Stull Street, a dirt road which dead-ended at The Vermilion River. Google maps informed me there was an unnamed lake a couple of kilometres north of it and since it was situated in the exact location as the proposed lake in the book where Gerald and his family often camped, I decided I’d better go and at least have a look. It was a fair slog through some pretty heavy bush and I knew it’d be easiest to approach in the winter. For Christmas that year, our landlord, a remarkable landscape artist and predator hunter named Shawn Robichaud, had given me a pair of antique snowshoes he’d refurbished and I set off with them one crisp January morning. The unnamed lake, as I’d suspected, wasn’t nearly as picturesque as Long Lake but while I was snowshoeing across its frozen expanse, I happened to run into a cross-country skier who told me he’d been skiing the lake for some thirty years. In all that time, he then related, he’d never met another soul and after an idle bit of chit chat, he asked my name. I told him and he responded, “Nice to meet you, John. I’m Gerry.” I’d later learn from one of my youngest son’s teachers that Gerard “Gerry” Poulin (as this real-life Gerry is known) was a bit of a loner who spent most of his time in the woods, hunting and trapping just like my Gerry. As I’d come up with the title of the book some five years previous, the encounter felt like I’d actually got to meet one of my fictional characters in the flesh which was definitely a first and pretty memorable, and strange, for sure.
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
I dedicated the book to my eldest son, Drake. We’ve had a rather challenging relationship ever since his mother disappeared with him when he was three (I’d later learn that she’d taken him from Vancouver to Salmon Arm, BC along with his older sister, to live with, in Drake’s words, “some piece of shit Hell’s Angels wannabee,” which is one of the reasons crazed-bikers play such a prominent role in the book.) He ended up in foster care eight years later, just like Gerald’s son Evers does in the novel. While he’s visited us on numerous occasions since it’s been difficult maintaining a relationship with him after having missed out on so many of his formative years. Savage Gerry was thus a means for me to spend a little more time with him, on the page at least, and was also meant to bridge some of the divide all those missing years have created between us. As such, it was written with him as my foremost reader in mind. Drake is a big horror movie and comic book enthusiast and that gave me free range to play with some of the more fantastical elements which made the novel so much fun to write.
John Jantunen is also the author of Cipher, No Quarter, and A Desolate Splendor. He has lived in almost every region of Canada and currently lives in Kingston, Ontario.