Thomas Wharton hands me a book he’s painstakingly created that will never, ever be published.
It’s a scrapbook, one he turned to for free-association and inspiration when the manifold complications of his new novel, Salamander, twisted him into writer’s paralysis. Into it he’s pasted images of life in the 18th century: cobblestone streets, docks, shop interiors, sailing ships, printing presses, castles, noblemen and women. As we flip through them, the glossy illustrations and woodcut drawings culled from picture books and the Internet produce a textured collage of era and atmosphere. On the last page, there’s a woman of the serving class, head down, sweeping. At her feet, Wharton has stuck bits and pieces of surplus cut-outs. “I figured that’s what I’d do with it. All the stuff that’s leftover, I’d just sweep it up,” says Wharton, grinning like the mischievous student he resembles and not the internationally admired Canadian novelist he is becoming.
Tellingly, there are but a few, tiny snippets remaining for that woman and her broom. It seems every one of the ornate images in the scrapbook is knitted intricately into Salamander, a vigorous, imaginative novel about the power of reading and invention. The book, Wharton’s second, is one of McClelland & Stewart’s lead titles this spring.
Salamander opens in a burned-out bookstore in Quebec City just prior to Wolfe and Montcalm’s clash on the Plains of Abraham. It flashes back to the Battle of Belgrade in 1717 and then plunks us inside a castle on the Hungarian border that’s been refitted by its autocratic count as a labyrinth. As if that’s not destabilizing enough for a reader already astonished by the swift change of scenes, the labyrinth is cunningly designed to be perpetually in motion.
Into this surprising setting enters Nicholas Flood, a young English printer of novelty books. He’s been summoned by the count for a seemingly impossible assignment – to create an infinite book, a tome with no end.
The breadth of scene and the original paths running to and fro in Wharton’s novel should not surprise those familiar with the 37-year-old Edmonton-based writer’s debut. Icefields, published in 1995 by Edmonton’s NeWest Press, is an ingenious tale of a late-19th-century explorer who falls into a glacier in the Canadian Rockies and sees an angel embedded in the ice. His subsequent quest is revealed in shards of dialogue and description, diary entries, letters, and scientific field notes.
Icefields was cited by the Times Literary Supplement for its “crystalline beauty.” People magazine called it “a finely etched tale of love in a cold climate.” It won the Commonwealth Best First Novel Prize (Caribbean and Canada region), the Writers Guild of Alberta Best First Book Award, and the Banff Grand National Prize for Literature. In Canada, where it’s now in its fifth printing, it has sold over 15,000 copies. It’s also been published in the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany, with editions pending for Italy and China.
One might expect the author of books as irregular as Icefields and Salamander to be wildly eccentric. In fact, Wharton is a boyish and unpretentious house-dad. Think of a cheerful Matt Damon in the role. While his wife, Sharon, works in a hospital, he cares for their two youngsters and a budgie in a neat, underfurnished bungalow a few neighbourhoods south of the University of Alberta. He teaches creative writing part-time at the U of A and at Grant MacEwan College, and tutors 40 first-year English students at Athabasca College on the art of essay writing and sentence structure.
Nor do his origins betray an interest in either Transmoravian Bohemia (a prominent locale in Salamander) or life-altering obsession (one of Icefield’s themes).
Wharton was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a thriving agriculture and oil city near the B.C. border. His father, a utilities manager, was transferred to Jasper when Wharton was a teen, and the shock of landing in a close-knit railroad and tourist town, where there were few secrets, was immense. “I got very, very shy and had a complete crisis of confidence,” says Wharton, who didn’t share his three siblings’ love of sports.
To cope with his isolation, he dove into fantasy and adventure novels and wrote in his journals about his strange new
environment. “I was trying to work through these feelings of loneliness with words – writing as therapy.”
He also amused himself drawing comic strips, and he retains a fondness for the art form. Tacked to the bulletin board in his kitchen is a clipping reminding him of a Superman trivia contest on the local campus radio station. Wharton even contemplated a career as an illustrator and studied art and design during his first year of university. But he dismissed that line of work as impractical, earned a diploma in biological sciences, and went to work as a medical lab technician.
Still, for someone who had traded puzzles for years with a pen pal in Hong Kong, who invented a whole team of his own superheroes, and who had closely observed a cast of idiosyncratic townspeople in Jasper, lab work was much too dull.
“Then I picked up Ulysses,” recalls Wharton. “One summer, working as a lab tech, I sat and read that whole book. Then I went to the library and got an annotated guide to help me understand it, and I reread it and made notes in the margin. By the time I was halfway through, I realized, ‘I’m going back into English.’ The inventiveness and energy of the prose in that book totally revitalized me.”
He identified his calling as a novelist by a roundabout means, as well.
While enrolled in a creative writing course taught by novelist Rudy Wiebe at the U of A, Wharton attempted to write a series of fantastical tall tales set in Alberta. He envisioned a modern take on something an American ethnographer had done in the 1940s, in which the mythical adventures of Johnny Chinook were created out of regional stories collected from rural Albertans (Wharton’s grandfather among them). But Wharton was frustrated by how his stories continually shape-changed.
“Every chapter was like the beginning of a new book. I just kept changing my mind. It was a very slow process and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. At the end of that year, I had a discussion with Rudy about the course and he said, ‘So, you sure you still want to be a writer?’ That stung me because I was already feeling, ‘What am I doing?’ But maybe it was a purposeful goad, because I went home and said, ‘Dammit, yes, I do want to do this thing.’”
His breakthrough occurred when he applied to do his MA as a creative writing project – a novel, under thesis adviser and novelist Kristjana Gunnars. Gunnars looked over the story particles he’d amassed and advised him not to force a conventional narrative, but to honour the fragments as fragments.
“It was like somebody giving me permission to write the way I wanted,” says Wharton. “I thought the way you should write was to write an outline, then write Chapter One and Chapter Two. I thought I should approach a book in a very ordered, disciplined, outlined way. But when Kristjana said that, I realized, ‘No, I’m like a jigsaw maker. I’ve got to put a book together out of bits and pieces.”
Searching in his fragments for a character around whom he could link all the tales, he became enamoured of an explorer from England. He was an outsider, like Wharton. When Wharton’s research into Jasper’s history turned up the report of a real expedition member who had fallen into a crevasse, he knew he’d found his central image. The fact that he had no idea where it was going to lead his character made it all the finer.
“I’ve discovered that’s what works for me,” he says. “Writing as a road of surprises. I have to be surprised too, otherwise it’s not fun.”
Although it’s a longer, denser book, Salamander was written in much the same fashion as Icefields. It, too, began as a collection of fragments that Wharton worked on as a thesis project, this time his PhD under Aritha Van Herk at the University of Calgary. His initial impulse was to describe a series of imaginary, magical, and fantastical novels and what happens to people who read them. Wharton drew inspiration for this technique from the 20th-century Italian writer Italo Calvino and especially his collection Cosmicomics, in which each of Calvino’s playful yet lucid stories are spun off a different scientific fact.
But as he amassed his fictional library of stranger and stranger books, Wharton realized what he was really describing was the act of reading.
“When we pick a book off the shelf we start to imagine what might be in it, and when we read it we remember other books that we’ve read and they become part of the reading process. We anticipate where the book is going. I think all of those things entice us to read. That’s really what imaginary books represent to me, all those aspects of reading that are beyond what’s on the page.”
Sensing his theme, Wharton then selected the most tantalizing image he’d dreamed up while creating his imaginary books – a working printing press on board a ship. From there he allowed himself to do what has come naturally all his life. He read voraciously and widely.
“I realized that if he’s a printer sailing on a ship then the best era was the 18th century, an era of fantastical novels about voyages, like Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe,” says Wharton.
He began devouring 18th-century novels, essays, and history and determined that he wanted Salamander to be akin to the cabinet of wonders favoured by noblemen of the era – a repository of curiosities and marvels from distant places that opened the doors to more and more questions. “So the reader would find one door that leads to another. Then all these side stories started popping up.”
Side stories is an understatement. Each of the criss-crossing storylines in Salamander is a cinematic epic on its own, framed by reams of historic detail but spiked with a Wharton “What if?” One subplot takes us underground to what might be the legendary lost library of Alexandria, where millions of ancient manuscripts could have been hidden from Turkish marauders who most historians believe destroyed them.
Mind you, Wharton also gives free rein to his signature trick of weaving bogus but believable yarns so seamlessly into otherwise accurate reporting that many avid readers will spend hours of time fruitlessly chasing down the source. In Icefields, for example, there was a cameo by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a tourist in Jasper National Park, among many other fibs.
“I kind of delight in being the creator of a world where I can say, ‘This is my world and I can do as I please,’ ” laughs Wharton, defending these jokes he plays on his readers. But given Salamander’s theme, there’s an even stronger justification for this monkeying around.
“I’ve always thought that no matter how much a book tells us it is strictly fact, there’s always an element of fiction in it,” says Wharton. “There’s the point of view of the writer and there are also the reader’s thoughts, biases, and dreams. This is really a book about the reader who creates the book. We’re all readers, so any book is an infinite book, shaped greatly by our imagination and by what we bring to it.”
By letting his many side stories ramble far from Nicholas Flood’s printing press (although they are beautifully bound together in the end), Wharton was able to trash his original collection of imagined books and achieve what he figures he was striving for at the outset. “I always thought it was about reading, but not in a dry stuffy way. I wanted to draw readers into the book.”
The process was more painful than it sounds. All of Salamander’s original frame story was dumped. Convoluted subplots hit walls for weeks on end. He wrote himself into corners and trashed “tons of material.” To free his mind, Wharton turned to nonsensical tasks. He points to an elaborate, two-page pop-up in the centre of his scrapbook. “That took me four hours. I came up from the basement and showed my wife and she just looked at me and said, ‘This is what you’ve been doing? I thought you were working on your book.’ Well, I was.”
Yet Wharton’s willingness to let himself “fall off a cliff” while writing, to forget about adhering to tried-and-true technique, was certainly rewarded when it came time to shop the book. McClelland & Stewart, which controls Salamander’s foreign rights, has already sold it to HarperCollins in the U.K. and is on the brink of closing a deal in the U.S.
Ellen Seligman, fiction publisher for McClelland & Stewart and also Wharton’s editor on Salamander, had her eye on Wharton as soon as she finished reading Icefields. She was impressed by the author’s intellect, elegance of language, and control.
“He doesn’t strike me as somebody who will ever be short of ideas,” she says. “His range is really extraordinary. This book is quite different from (Icefields) and the books he’s already talking about writing next are quite different from Salamander.”
Wharton’s third project is already underway. Although, unlike Icefields and Salamander, it’s set in the present, it promises to visit dozens of locales, too. He calls it, “my anti-travel book.
“I read a lot of travel books and get amazed by the arrogance of a writer who purports to return and give us the soul of the place. Suddenly, they’ve become an expert. So it’s kind of a satirical book about somebody who comes from another country and visits friends.”
Thomas Wharton hands me a book he’s painstakingly created that will never, ever be published.