When Joanna Quinn sat down to write her first novel, she knew she wanted to create the kind of sprawling epic period piece she loves to read. Of course, writing a novel like this takes longer than typical autobiographical debuts, and for Quinn, who had a six-month-old daughter and a full-time job in communications, the challenges were even greater.
‘The Whalebone Theatre’ is the saga of a feisty, independent young girl named Cristabel, as she grows up as an outsider in her wealthy British family; she dreams of becoming a theater manager before World War II takes her and her beloved cousin Digby down a new and more dangerous path. It is 576 pages and took Quinn a decade to complete.
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Quinn says her inexperience allowed her to take on this daunting task. “Not having done it before was helpful because I had no idea how long it would take or how long the book would take,” she said in a recent video interview. “A lot of my early ideas were written down in the notes app on my phone as I walked around pushing my pram.”
Quinn started out aiming to write one chapter a month, but when she got too tired to write, she would immerse herself in her research. She had two false starts with structural elements that she had to remove and there were times when the book was sidelined by life. “And when I got to about 1941 in the writing, I was like, ‘What am I doing,'” Quinn recalled. “But I kept thinking to myself, ‘Just go to the end and even if it is never published, you tried and the next time will be better.’ So I kept hooking up.
Towards the end she was fired from her job and then the Covid lockdown hit, but all that free time was ‘strangely a blessing in disguise’ – she had just found an agent who wanted her to finish and who took her motivated when she finally had time for long stretches in front of the computer. “The wartime section of the book has an accelerated pace, so writing relentlessly at a gallop was a good fit for me then,” Quinn says, though she adds with a laugh that she was slightly chastised by her experience. “My next book will be a short story.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q Your protagonist is an outsider with an independent streak. You wrote a novel as a mother with a full-time job and no agent or publishing relationships. Have you consciously seen yourself as Cristabel? Did she motivate you?
I came with her as someone who doesn’t look like me at all. I put in her the qualities that I like – she is more outspoken and braver than me. I still love those girls who don’t fit into a male dominated environment. Cristabel and the other characters gave me a lesson in perseverance. I lost my father and stepfather in nine months, but not to Covid. I had finished the book by then, but these people in my book carry on despite going through tough times and losing people, and I had to do the same. They taught me a lesson before I needed it.
Q There are real-world touches like the evacuation in Dunkirk and the popularity of the play “Antigone” in Paris during the war. How important is research to you?
I search local archives, memoirs and newspapers for details, like what food was served, what people were wearing, smells. There’s an amazing Imperial War Museum book series called “Forgotten Voices” which are excerpts from interviews with people who served in the war so it’s in their own voice and you get the slang and the first-hand accounts. It’s just awesome.
I really liked having a factual plot when I could, so I loved finding a detail that would mark the direction of the novel, like when I learned that the theaters of Paris had remained open during the war. And then the story of “Antigone” was such a gift — especially because it’s a story of siblings and loyalty.
Q. Should we be careful not to get weighed down by our research?
Finding something that adds elements of truth brings the book to life, but you may be very interested in things like the effects of bomb explosions, and you have to be careful that your research doesn’t show too much. I had pages and pages of what happens when a whale rots and I had to take it all out.
Q. When we meet Jasper, Cristabel’s father, he is a stuffy, rich, unhappy man. Then through flashbacks, we get to see a much more sympathetic character. The other adults – his brother, Willoughby, and his second wife, Rosalind, also turn out to be very different from their first impressions. Was it a conscious choice?
I love books and TV shows where you do a full 360 on people. Yesterday I was talking to someone about “Six Feet Under” and how the characters I liked at the start of the show weren’t the ones I liked at the end.
I’m aware that the English country house has its own set of stereotypes and we feel like we know these people, so it’s interesting to think, “What would it be like to be heir to a house if this role feels like a burden?” I wanted to look under the stereotype.
Working on the book for a long time meant that I was less inclined to go fast and superficial and more inclined to really look at Rosalind. She’s vain and wants to be a socialite, but the reality of her life is that she has no other options – she was raised to be married, she can’t have a career, she can’t live on her own, and all available men were killed in the First World War.
Q Did you want to write about the role of women and the constraints they felt or did these themes just emerge?
I started thinking about writing about a family in a big house and one of the first things I did was draw a family tree. Then you start talking about family dynamics and who will fall in love with whom. It was fun, like I was playing. It was the impulse.
The other elements, the themes, came with the characters – I started thinking about what it would be like to be a girl born in that era into a system that worships men rather than women. It came in the story. Cristabel grew up reading books where all the heroic figures are men. Themes are discovered through people.