Q & A With The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes Author, Bridget Canning

Merriam-Webster defines satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn,” but is seems to me that the best modern satires, particularly topical satires, do a little more than this. The vices and follies they expose are collective rather than individual and they implicate us all because we are all drawn into collective absurdities.

I became acutely aware of this when reading Bridget Canning’s debut novel, The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes. The novel sees an obscure young woman, the Wanda of the title, turn into a media — and social media — sensation when she instinctively knocks out a deranged gunman by hurling a can of coconut milk. Her modest home becomes the location for a 24-hour media scrum and she comes under intense pressure to become the person the news networks, Facebook, twitter etc. . . want her to be. All the time, of course, she has problems of her own and these are on a far more human and humble scale.

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Q1. It seems to me that satire is quite separate from other literary forms in that writers either have a satirical gene or they don’t. You clearly do, and while you obviously have mastered all the other accepted crafts of writing, your type of satire seems to require a super-sensitive understanding of trends and currents of collective thought and behaviour – Zeitgeist, if you like. I found myself recognizing almost everything, although I hadn’t necessarily noticed noticing them before. Are you a very keen observer? And how much of this is conscious?

Bridget Canning: I try to take note of things as much as possible – there are different lists on my phone of descriptions, snippets of dialogue, interesting names. As for unconscious observation, I think my background in teaching has trained me to be reflective – for example, considering how a lesson went, what worked, what didn’t, etc. I spend a lot of time journaling and attempting to pick apart why things are the way they are. Teaching and studying education has made me a better writer.

Q2. One thing that comes through very clearly in this novel is a sense of place and society. I can experience St. John’s in this book – its hip, arty side as well as its more bourgeois side – and I think anyone reading the novel would emerge with an idea of what the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador feels like. How do your themes relate to your own relationship with St. John’s?

Bridget Canning: I’m not originally from St. John’s, but I consider it my home and love it dearly. It has everything I want in a city and community. However, it can be a frustrating devotion – unstable economy, heartbreaking spring weather, blatant nepotism, history of poor leadership. For me, St. John’s feels like a beloved friend who gets really stubborn when you gently suggest they maybe take a little better care of themselves.

In The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, I wanted St. John’s to be recognizable, but universal – as in, what happens to Wanda could happen in any city. Wanda is also not originally from St. John’s, so through her, I hoped to create recognizable “St. John’s scenes” –  but since she’s not really a part of them, there’s a distance that can make them interchangeable.

Q3. One of the strands in the novel is that we are all frantically searching for heroes and saviours. Do you think there is something about the present era that intensifies this belief in heroes? Would this story have been different in a different time?

Bridget Canning: I believe so. We’re the starter generations of the information age and concepts like fame and notoriety have expanded their inclusion. You could be the leader of the free world or someone who made a really funny video with your cat and the same amount of people will know who you are.

There is so much information that we reduce people to nuggets of meaning – listicles, memes, gifs. And we do this with our “heroes” – for example, the two Swedish students who caught Standford Rapist Brock Turner a few years ago. I read Buzzfeed articles praising their heroic actions, their faces were everywhere. I read comments about how people wanted their children to be like these two guys. Yet even with their actions and testimony, Brock Turner got a slap on the wrist. The heroes were idealized, but it still didn’t get appropriate justice for the woman they saved.

Q4. Do you think this kind of satire is uniquely urban? Can you imagine a rural topical satire, or would a rural story have a different objective and a different tone?

Bridget Canning: I don’t think it’s uniquely urban and much of Wanda’s situation is not distinctly urban – St. John’s is small enough for her to be recognized, and of course, she’s from a small town, so there’s the awareness of how her identity is impacted there.

When I consider a rural topical satire, Michael Crummey’s Sweetland comes to mind. The actual shrinking of rural life, the young people who leave to make money and it makes them worse – there’s so much play between different worlds there.

Q5. I wonder how this novel plays out in generational terms. Your protagonist is educated and a conscientious employee but is also precariously employed, and this landscape of young(ish) highly educated underachievers is all too familiar everywhere in the western world where the kinds of certainties the older generations enjoyed are no longer available. Is this consciously part of the satire? Do these circumstances give Wanda’s generation more bite than those that went before?

Bridget Canning: Oh definitely. When I consider so many of the “baby boomer” novels I read in my 20s and 30s where the young protagonist got a good, solid job or backpacked across Europe or went on a drug-fueled road trip, I think, how’d they do that? I had creditors after me for my defaulted student loan and I couldn’t afford a futon.

For many people of my generation and younger, economic security feels like a non-renewable resource older generations have depleted. It’s a frustrating reality, but fun to write about.

Q6. What are you working on now? Might the next Bridget Canning novel be a continuation of the same brand or something quite different?

Bridget Canning: I’m involved with a few projects. Currently, I’m working on a screenplay through the From Our Dark Side Incubator program. It’s a psychological thriller about a serial killer who targets internet trolls. I’m also doing the Masters in Creative Writing at MUN with a short story collection as a creative thesis. There’s also another novel manuscript I hope to pick up when I have time – not the same brand as The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes – it takes place during the early 1990s and is kind of a coming-of-age story. I’m also working with my writing group to put together a kind of coffee table book with photos of bathroom graffiti and writing inspired by it. So not busy at all!

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Q & A with Call of the Sea author, Amanda Labonté

The discipline of writing fantasy and supernatural fiction has always fascinated me. An author in these genres has to convince a reader of events, characters, and situations that the reader knows cannot be real.

This seems like an extraordinary challenge. It’s far from straightforward to convince a reader to believe in events that can and do occur, let alone those that don’t. Adding known impossibilities to the burden of literary proof takes a great deal of guts and imagination. I admire the ambition, the focus, and the steadfastness of writers who work in the fantasy genre.

One particularly fine example is Amanda Labonté, whose recent novel, Call of the Sea, was published by Engen Books.

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When I first read Amanda’s fiction, I was struck by how well she had interwoven timeless-seeming folklore and legend into thoroughly modern settings. Her protagonist is Alex who comes under suspicion when his twin brother disappears over the side of their fishing boat. His search for his brother, combined with his need to clear his name, sees him plunge into a world of magic and mermen lore.

Q1: One quality in Call of the Sea is that rather than disrupting the atmosphere of mermaids, mermen, siren calls and ancient songs, the taut and contemporary passages actually heighten the magic, partly through contrast, partly by anchoring the overall experience in a world we know. Was it a conscious decision to write a ‘modern’ fantasy with ancient, folkloric elements?

Amanda Labonté: In many ways, this is the only way I could have written this story. I toyed with setting the story in the past, but the story really dragged. Once I moved it up to the here and now, the story flowed much better and the motivations of the characters made a lot more sense to me, making them easier to write. Since Call of the Sea was my first book, getting the story out was the most important part of the writing process. As for the fantasy elements, incorporating mermaid mythology felt really natural. The setting really lends itself to the idea that there’s more under the waves than we can possible comprehend and I felt like this mythology made sense with this setting.

Q2: Connected to the above, would you ever set anything in an entirely fantasy world? How might the challenges differ?

Amanda Labonté: If the right idea struck me, I would definitely consider setting a story in an entirely fantasy world. It would have some interesting creative challenges because world building is its own special skill set. The biggest issue would be making the world relatable. Even when a reader hasn’t been to a particular city or town, there’s a preconceived idea of what that place is like because it’s part of our collective conscious. Whereas an entirely made-up world doesn’t have that built in awareness. At the same time, stories like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are timeless, so it’s something I would like try in the future.

Q3: The richness of the mythology in Call of the Sea is very striking. It seems there must have been a great amount of working out the folkloric details in advance, and the sheer discipline is impressive. How much of this is imagination, how much research? Which parts do you, as writer, find most exciting?

Amanda Labonté: The fun thing about writing a fantasy story set in Newfoundland is that there’s an appreciation for the paranormal and supernatural. I grew up with the idea that you leave bread on your doorstep at night in order to appease the fairies. Since I grew up around these kinds of stories, I think that made creating my own mythology a lot easier. I really jumped into researching sea creatures like mermaids and sirens but I was less interested in how they were supposed to look or act – that’s what I took from my own imagination – and much more interested in what elements I could take that would make their existence as believable to my characters as the fairy stories were to me. In the end, the use of music was one of the key elements of the mythology that I highlighted in my story.

Q4: The setting is Newfoundland, your home, and in particular an aspect of Newfoundland culture that resounds strongly to people who were raised in Newfoundland and Labrador i.e. in the beginning in which the brothers are taking part in the food fishery. What did it mean to you to start the story here? I’m thinking particularly of the thematic underlay of a young man going missing, apparently being swallowed by the sea – does this have more resonance post moratorium?

Amanda Labonté: The circumstances at the start of the book are definitely something I thought a lot about. In many ways, the fictional Clad’s Cove is very much affected by the same issues plaguing most rural parts of Newfoundland. The transition from a fishing based economy after the moratorium of the 1990s meant that many communities had to seek out new ways of making a living. Many communities turned to tourism with mixed results. Alex, the main character, and his brothers are growing up in an environment and lifestyle that they love, but that likely won’t be able to support them as adults. In many ways that makes the setting a little bittersweet.

Q5: Connected to the above, is there an inherent sadness is setting a Newfoundland fantasy at sea. Do you, and do you think your readers, associate the ocean with loss or at least yearning?

Amanda Labonté: The sea is both the most beautiful and most terrible setting imaginable. I love to look at it, especially when I visit the Cape Shore where the story is set. But at the same time, the ocean is terrifying. Not only because of all the tragedies that have taken place, but because it has so much potential to take away. Yet, for Newfoundlanders, being able to see the ocean is very comforting. Being landlocked can be a very uncomfortable feeling when you are used to seeing water on a daily basis. This juxtaposition is something I still find really interesting and I’ve experienced both feelings myself.

Q6: What other genres are you working with at the moment?

Amanda Labonté: I am currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Supernatural Causes. It’s very different from Call of the Sea in many ways in that it’s a vampire driven medical mystery series – all things that I had no idea I was interested in until the idea came to me. Like Call of the Sea though, I think Supernatural Causes is very character driven. I’ve really enjoyed trying something completely different.

I am also working on the sequel to Call of the SeaReturn to the Sea – which is also a great experience as it allows me to continue following the characters as they experience new, exciting circumstances.

Q7: In terms of reaching your market what special challenges, and indeed opportunities, are there for the fantasy writer?

Amanda Labonté: The thing about fantasy readers is that, if they like what you write, they want to see more of your work. They are voracious readers and they often reach out to authors, letting you know directly what they think of your novels. That means there are a lot of opportunity to sell your books directly at conventions and signings, but also through word of mouth since fantasy readers are quick to recommend books to each other. That can put some pressure on the writer, because you don’t want to disappoint a reader you feel like you know, but it’s also very rewarding.