On November 21, I had the honour of sitting with Wayne Ng to talk about his new novel, LETTERS FROM JOHNNY. Published by Guernica Editions, the epistolary novel has Johnny at its centre. “Set in Toronto 1970, just as the FLQ crisis emerges to shake an innocent country, eleven year old Johnny Wong uncovers an underbelly to his tight, downtown neighbourhood. He shares a room with his Chinese immigrant mother in a neighbourhood of American draft dodgers and new Canadians. In a span of a few weeks his world seesaws. He is befriended by Rollie, one of the draft dodgers who takes on a fatherly and writing mentor role. Johnny’s mother is threatened by the “children’s warfare society.” Meany Ming, one of the characters by the rooming house is found murdered. He suspects the feline loving neighbour, the Catwoman. Inspired by an episode of Mannix, he tries to break into her house. Ultimately he is betrayed but he must act to save his family. He discovers a distant kinship with Jean, the son of one of the hostages kidnapped by the FLQ who have sent Canada into a crisis.”
I loved the strikethroughs, language mistakes and run on voice of Johnny. How difficult was it to learn to speak with Johnny’s voice? Particularly choices like “verses you to a fight” instead of challenges to a fight. It feels so perfect and I imagine little Johnny’s finger scrolling through his new dictionary as the story moves forward.
I love talking to children and youth and of course I’ve been doing it for the past 30 plus years as a social worker. So, to be honest, tapping into that voice, especially when coupled with my biographical elements, made Johnny-speak feel natural and easy. I was essentially channeling much of my childhood and the many characters who’ve dotted my day job.
There is honesty in letter writing, particularly to a complete stranger like a pen pal and it also feels like we’re watching Johnny mature through his writing. What is it about the epistolary voice that drew you to it as the best choice for LFJ?
I had tried 1st and 3rd person POVs. But given that so much of the novel is based on biographical elements, they felt like artificial barriers, neither giving me the voice, the intimacy nor confessional tone I was looking for. I also wanted to give readers a natural, authentic experience that wasn’t hindered by an authorial presence. Letter writing comes with great risks, rendering the writer completely vulnerable. That sort of stripping away of Johnny’s boundaries and privacy felt exactly like where I wanted the reader to be – up close and completely immersed.
The novel is set in the middle of the October Crisis. Communism and an underlying anti-“the man” theme run throughout. There is Rollie, the draft dodger and the repeated run-ins with the principal and Children’s Aid. Was it a deliberate mash-up of historical events and personal crises, or was this a time in your own personal history that stood out?
Most of us have poignant memories of our childhood if not whole stories worth sharing. When LFJ was first written as a short story, it was very much about him and Henry St. Years later I returned to it and felt that I had more to say. I saw broader themes of change and coming of age, not only for Johnny, but the community around him, and the country. Like most children, I looked for heroes, and a sense of belonging. I was only eight during the FLQ crisis but I remember how it consumed people. Situating it within the crisis and during the early days of Toronto’s branching out from WASPY-ways became deliberate. It gave me an historical backdrop to amplify and parallel an immigrant boy’s story with a community and a nation trying to grow up.
Most of us have poignant memories of our childhood if not whole stories worth sharing.Wayne Ng
Your childhood neighbourhood (Henry Street) and the neighbours, play a big role in the novel. But there is also this bigger backdrop of separatism and the Felquistes planting bombs and killing people. The Irish police woman sums it up nicely, “sometimes a country is like a family. We don’t always get along. Sometimes neighbours don’t either.” How did community and your own personal history influence the story?
Just about every character in the story is a derivative of someone from my childhood. The tree-lined urban oasis of Henry St. was a ghetto of rooming houses for draft dodgers, students, immigrants and more established residents. We grew up with very little, including parental supervision as I was very much free-ranger, roaming the streets and alleyways of Chinatown and downtown Toronto. Really, I thought it was the best place to live. Thus, the setting is integral to both my childhood and LFJ.
How can I not ask about hockey? Have you been in touch with Dave Keon or his son? I’d love to think about Dave Keon reading little Johnny’s letters.
Dave Keon’s persona was that he is a humble, gentleman, in it for the team, a real sportsman who believed in fairness and respect. He’s also a very private man. It would be disrespectful of me to publicly share his thoughts and feelings about anything. I respect him too much to do that. What I am prepared to say is that he personally answered every piece of fan mail, and that the persona I spoke about is not a facade. He really is a class guy if that doesn’t sound too archaic.
Letter writing comes with great risks, rendering the writer completely vulnerable. That sort of stripping away of Johnny’s boundaries and privacy felt exactly like where I wanted the reader to be – up close and completely immersed.Wayne Ng
The sequel has been shortlisted for the Guernica Prize. The Family Code finds Johnny years later in another important moment in Toronto history. How did you discover Johnny’s more mature voice? How is life for Johnny in your new novel?
The Family Code is a completely different novel actually.
The sequel Johnny Delivers, is still being drafted. The voice hasn’t come as easily but I’ve extrapolated that street-wise, independent wanderer child into a parentified 18 teen year old. Thus, he’s rather cocky, believing he’s ready for prime-time. Why shouldn’t he believe that? He’s a master at holding everything and everybody together. The challenges in his life are edgier, the stakes are much much higher for him. Bickering family, mah jong, egg rolls, drugs and a very seedy Yonge St. form the backdrop. But he’s not quite ready for the big show, and won’t be until he reconciles his own infallibility. Shadows replace the child-like charm as he’s learned to spell, write and drive a car. Plus a first love. Can’t be 11 forever. Readers will grow with him.
Some have described your novel as YA and others see it as a novel for adults. Who do you think about when you imagine a reader of Letters from Johnny? Did you find it difficult to write or incorporate the very adult themes (FLQ crisis, murder, child welfare) while narrating from a child’s point of view?
I wrote LFJ for the generation who lived through and with the cultural references of 1970. I imagined only they would appreciate the many pop references and understand the tectonic societal shifts happening at that time. The child’s perspective was a shameless hook to our love for nostalgia and our romantic notions of childhood innocence, even if they are imagined. Honestly, I didn’t anticipate nor even consider the younger readers enjoying it as much as they have. However, a child’s perspective allowed me to use humour, dramatic irony and the unreliable narration to indirectly and perhaps more effectively tackle some of the sub themes–whether they were about race, class or dislocation. I love how a child’s lack of filtration and innocence allowed us to see things that might otherwise obfuscate truth.
Wayne Ng was born in downtown Toronto to Chinese immigrants who fed him a steady diet of bitter melons and kung fu movies. Ng works as a school social worker in Ottawa but lives to write, travel, eat and play, preferably all at the same time. He is an award-winning short story and travel writer who continues to push his boundaries from the Arctic to the Antarctic, blogging and photographing along the way. Wayne was recently nominated for the Guernica Prize for his latest book, THE FAMILY CODE.