When Joanna Quinn sat down to write her first novel, she knew she wanted to create the sort of sprawling epic period piece she loves to read. Of course, writing a novel like that takes longer than the typical autobiographical coming-of-age debut, 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 and independent young girl named Cristabel, as she grows up an outsider in her own wealthy British family; she dreams of becoming a theater director before World War II tugs her, and her beloved cousin Digby, down a new and more dangerous path. It clocks in at 576 pages and took Quinn a decade to complete.
Quinn says her inexperience allowed her to take on this massive task.“Not having done it before was useful because I had no idea how long it would take or how long the book would be,” she said during a recent video interview. “A lot of my ideas in the early days were written into the notes app on my phone while I was walking around pushing my pram.”
Quinn started off aiming to write a chapter a month but when she was too tired to write she’d dive into her research. She had two false starts with structural elements she had to remove and there were times the book would be sidelined by life. “And when I got to around 1941 in the writing I wondered, ‘What am I doing,’” Quinn recalls. “But I kept telling myself, ‘Just get to the end and even if it’s never published then you’ve had a go and the next time will be better.’ So I just kept plugging on.”
Near the end, she was laid off from her job and then the Covid lockdown hit but all that time off was “weirdly a blessing in disguise” – she had just gotten an agent who wanted her to finish and that motivated her while she finally had time for extended stretches at the computer. “The wartime section of the book has a gathering of pace so actually writing relentlessly at a gallop then was a good fit for me,” Quinn says, though she adds with a laugh that she has been mildly chastened by her experience. “My next book will be a novella.”
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 mom with a full-time job and no agent or publishing connections. Did you consciously see yourself in Cristabel? Did she motivate you?
I came up with her as someone not very like me at all. I put the qualities I like in her – she’s more forthright and braver than me. I always like those girls who don’t fit into a male-dominated environment. Cristabel and the other characters did teach me a lesson in perseverance. I lost my dad and stepdad within nine months, though not from Covid. I’d finished the book by then, but these people in my book carry on despite the fact that they’ve gone through hard times and lost people, and I had to do the same. They taught me a lesson ahead of me needing it.
Q. There are real-world touches like the evacuation at Dunkirk and the popularity of the play “Antigone” in Paris during the war. How important is the research to you?
I go into local records and memoirs and newspapers looking for details, like food that was served, what people were wearing, the smells. There’s an amazing series of books by the Imperial War Museum called “Forgotten Voices” that are extracts from interviews of people who served in the war, so it’s in their own voices and you get the slang and first-hand accounts. It’s just brilliant.
I really liked having a framework of fact when I could, so I loved finding a detail that would stake the direction of the novel, like when I found out the theaters in Paris stayed open during the war. And then the story of “Antigone” was such a gift — especially because it’s the story of brothers and sisters and loyalty.
Q. Do you have to be careful not to get weighed down by your research?
Finding something that adds elements of truth brings the book to life, but you can get super interested in things like the effects of bomb blasts, and you have to be careful that your research doesn’t show too much. I had pages and pages about what happens when a whale rots and I had to take all of that out.
Q. When we meet Cristabel’s father Jasper, he’s a stuffy, wealthy and 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 quite different from their first impressions. Was that a conscious choice?
I love books and TV shows where you do a full 360 on people. I was talking to someone yesterday about “Six Feet Under” and how the characters I liked at the start of the series were not the characters I liked at the end.
I’m aware that the English country house does come with its own set of stereotypes and we feel we know these people, so it’s interesting to think, “What would it actually be like to be the heir of a house if that role feels like a burden?” I wanted to look under the stereotype.
Working on the book for a long period of time meant I was less inclined to go fast and shallow and more inclined to really look at Rosalind. She is vain and wants to be a socialite, but the reality of her life is that she has no other options — she’s been bred to be married, she can’t get a career, she can’t live on her own, and all the available men were killed in the first World War.
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Q. Did you want to write about women’s roles and the constraints they felt or did those 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 who. That made it feel like fun, like I was playing. That was the impulse.
The other stuff, the themes, came along with the characters – I started thinking about what it would be like to be a girl born in this time into a system that venerates men over women. That came in the telling. Cristabel grew up reading books where all the heroic figures are men. It’s through the people that you discover the themes.