PW talks with Joanna Quinn

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Quinn’s The Whale Bone Theater (Knopf, Oct.) An Englishwoman stages plays with her friends and family in the ribcage of a whale after WWI, then becomes a spy in France during WWII.

How did you come up with the idea of ​​a theater built from the ruins of a whale?

I read a non-fiction book called The Demolishers by Bella Bathurst, who said whales that wash up on English beaches rightfully belong to the monarch – it’s an ancient law. I liked this fact because it touches on the themes of law and tradition that I was interested in exploring in my novel, so I included a beached whale. But I didn’t think of making it a theater until I went to see Kate Bush in concert in 2014. She had a set that looked like a whale’s ribcage.

Did you deliberately decide to do comedy as a thematic line?

It evolved quite naturally thinking both of social expectations in the English class system – which relies on people playing certain roles – and of childhood imagination, which so often includes pretending to be other people.

Why do you think so many contemporary English writers revisit the Second World War?

For me, it’s history at hand – my parents were born at this time – so there is a personal interest. But I’m also fascinated by the social changes wrought by larger historical events, and World War II seems to be almost the turning point of the 20th century. So much changed between pre-war and post-war, and we still feel the ramifications of those changes.

The Whale Bone Theater you took 10 years to write. How much has your outlook changed during this time?

When you start a book, it’s a perfect abstract marvel that exists in your mind as a sparkling citadel made of clouds. The writing journey is all about ditching that glorious apparition and building your own smaller, crazier replica from tiny handmade bricks. It’s humiliating, but in a good way. It’s a bit like running a marathon, you start dreaming of crossing the finish line in a burst of glory, and you end up praying to get there in one piece.

Why did you decide to go big with a multi-decade loaded narrative?

I think I naturally gravitated towards this style of book because I enjoy reading them myself and because featuring lots of characters and portraying different eras is so much fun. It was like playing for me.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 08/29/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: The Play’s the Thing

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