Skip to main content

Whom will Wayne Johnston anger this time? As a leader in the booming genre of highbrow historical fiction – or "fictional history," as he is happy to call it – the Newfoundland-born writer is always prepared for a fight.

Although hailed as a "brilliant and bravura performance" by The New York Times, Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams was also criticized – mainly by Newfoundlanders – as a flamboyant distortion of the true life of its fictional hero, former Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood. More recently, the heirs and partisans of Robert Peary cried foul at Johnston's unflattering depiction of the polar explorer in The Navigator of New York. More harrumphs will undoubtedly greet his latest fiction, A World Elsewhere, which boldly rewrites the story of New York's Vanderbilt family to include a dark crime and a pivotal role for two impoverished Newfoundlanders.

"I'm conscious of the people who had a problem with the book about Smallwood," says Johnston, a writer who guards his lush imagination behind a disarmingly plain, almost diffident manner, one that becomes weary when confronting yet again the same question that readers of previous books always ask: Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? In A World Elsewhere, he provides the answer in an author's note that explains how the real family of George Vanderbilt became his fictional Vanderluydens and the North Carolina mansion they inhabited, called Biltmore, became Vanderland – all while other characters who figure in the story, including novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton, retain their identities.

But the note is no disclaimer. "I want people to think about the question of what a novel is," Johnston says. Facts are only an aspect of history, he suggests – and by no means the most important one.

"I believe that right from the beginning history and fiction were identical twins that somehow got separated after birth," he says. "In many of my books so far, I've brought them back together again, and that's what I'm doing here."

These are not the only disparities Johnston unites in his latest book, which, like The Navigator of New York, inserts Zelig-like Newfoundlanders into the history of the U.S. Gilded Age, telling the story of Vanderland in part through the eyes of the self-hating son of a ruthless sea captain and the sickly orphan he adopts. Similar to the strategy adopted by Australian novelist Peter Carey in last year's Parrot and Olivier in America, which illuminated the biography of Alexis de Tocqueville with the insights of a fictional manservant, Johnston's conceit is even bolder.

Johnston first encountered the real Biltmore while working in Virginia as writer-in-residence at Hollins University. The monumental chateau, isolated within its own vast forest, impressed him as a study in character as much as architecture. "In the Gilded Age, you just didn't build one of these houses any more than a few miles from New York," he said. "To build one in North Carolina was almost an affront to the other houses. George Vanderbilt was saying, 'I don't want to have anything to do with you guys. I want to have the biggest house in the world and I want to have it somewhere in the wilderness.'

"That intrigued me. The question was why. Why would he do that?"

Preparing to write what he called "a big meaty historical novel" about Vanderbilt and his mansion, Johnston was surprised to learn how little was known about George, the most obscure member of his famous clan. So he set his imagination free, inventing a dual narrative in which the life of his Padgett Vanderluyden is mirrored and intertwined with that of Newfoundlander Landish Druken, the educated son of a famous sealing captain modelled on the real-life character of Abram Kean, notorious for his role in the deaths of 78 sealers in the S.S. Newfoundland disaster of 1914.

"I saw both of these people as being islanders," Johnston says. "Biltmore is a massive island. There's nothing around it even today." Although Landish and his young ward eventually exchange their heavily circumscribed life as indigents in a cramped attic in St. John's for promising new beginnings at Vanderland, they discover it is "even more small and cramped in emotional terms," according to Johnston.

The author himself embraces no such extremes, living anonymously with his wife, a senior civil servant in the Ontario government, in a bourgeois neighbourhood of Toronto, keeping his distance both from the local literary scene and the life of the island where he was born. "Even though you sometimes pay a personal price for it, a writer really needs to be unaligned and unaffiliated," he says.

That makes living in Newfoundland – his birthplace and the stubbornly persistent focus of his literary imagination, impossible. "There just isn't enough of a remove for me," he says. "You can go down to a bar in St. John's and see other people you know are writing books set in Newfoundland. It's not a feeling I find reassuring. I need to be away from it, and I need to make friends outside the artistic community."

"I'm quite sympathetic with the idea that a writer needs to get out," he adds. "I just don't necessarily think they need to get out and hang with other writers."

Canadians will enjoy a rare opportunity to hang with Johnston when he embarks on a busy cross-Canada tour this fall to promote A World Elsewhere. And if any still wonder where he draws the line between fact and fiction, the answer is easy. "You can take whatever liberties you want," he says.