Sharon Johnston's debut novel, Matrons and Madams, was recently published by Dundurn. Set in the aftermath of the First World War, it tells the intertwined stories of two women: Clara Durling, a war widow who establishes the first venereal-disease clinic in Alberta, and Lily Parsons, a former schoolteacher who becomes manager of a brothel called the Last Post. Johnston, who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., currently lives in Ottawa with her husband, David.
Why did you write your new book?
Matrons and Madams is the first of what will be a trilogy. At the heart of all three novels is the long-term effect of war on a family that led me to write this book. This is my first novel that I decided to write after discovering a dozen letters of commendation on behalf of my grandmother, written in 1929. I asked myself why would she need letters from business executives, doctors and politicians extolling her virtues as lady superintendent of the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge, Alta.? I flew out to Lethbridge to find the answer. The city and hospital archivist gave me the hospital board notes for the 10 years that my grandmother served as lady superintendent. All 300 pages were intact except for two pages for the meeting of March, 1929. I set out to discover what happened. This was an emotional journey.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through and why?
I would have loved to have lived during the Middle Ages, when people connected through their stories. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is an example of light entertainment that might be a popular sitcom today. The stories are funny and yet touch on human weaknesses and strengths. The Pardoner takes advantage of the widespread fear of hell. The Wife of Bath the perils of being a woman. I've spent the last 41/2 years hearing the stories of homeless, addicted and mentally ill people. These would be amazing tales to be shared on a modern-day pilgrimage.
What's a book every 10-year-old should read and why?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. All five of my daughters loved the story. The resurrection scene of Aslan dancing, twirling and somersaulting has all the wonder and joy religion should convey but usually doesn't. Every child would love to enter a closet to find a fantasy world on the other side where they could ride on the back of a roaring lion through the magical world of Narnia.
Which country produces literature that you wish more people would read?
I like European literature that has been translated. One recent example is Night Train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier, the story of a doctor who saves the life of the hated chief of the secret police during the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal. What follows is the agonizing life of the doctor as he wrestles with having done the right thing. Purge, by Sofi Oksanen, about family betrayal during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, is another excellent read. I had the chance to read and study Camus's L'Étranger (The Outsider) during a 20th-century French literature course. I still ponder decades later the dilemma of the judge who had to determine the sentence for Meursault, a French Algerian who shot an Arab without any apparent motive.
What's the best romance in literature and why?
Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds gets my vote for the most heart-wrenching love story. Throughout this saga we feel the struggle of Father de Bricassart, a Catholic priest who through talent and ambition rises to cardinal, all the while loving Meggie, a woman he has known since childhood. There is no end to the emotional tension as the reader hopes he will give in to love rather than the church. It's a tear-jerker for sure.