Writing World: Wayne Johnston

Savagely talented author Wayne Johnston releases his latest creation, a novel in which the main character’s life parallels that of The Herald’s own founder, Geoffrey W. Stirling


The last time The Herald caught up with Wayne Johnston was shortly after the release of  his brilliant novel, The Son of a Certain Woman.

With the press release that teased; … “Ned becomes Newfoundland’s first media mogul, building an empire to insulate him from his loss,” the question had to be asked;  was this book at all loosely based on the life and times of Geoff Stirling?

Johnston chuckles a little.

“That’s probably a good way to put it; loosely based. Sort of like ‘inspired by’ to some degree. Geoff Stirling. I thought for years when Geoff was alive how interesting of a character he was,” Johnston begins thoughtfully.

Every now and then their paths would cross, he continues. 

“I spent some time with him at his place in Arizona and I thought about a biography, non-fiction, but he was fairly elusive when it came to his own life. But I found what I did know about him somewhat fascinating. So what I ended up doing was deciding to write a book about someone somewhat like him and sort of cherry pick things from his life that especially interested me.”

From the enduring sting of losing loved ones in car accidents, to athletic abilities, Johnston’s main character Ned Vatcher and the real much-larger-than-life Geoff Stirling share some similarities.


“There’s many parallels between Ned Vatcher and Geoff Stirling. There’s the car accident where he loses his mother at a young age, plus he was a high-jumper, just like the guy in this book – which interested me because when I was a teenager I was a high-jumper too. So there were some parallels there.”

Johnston says his interest in Geoff Stirling began when he was quite young.  “I was fascinated with the real life Geoff. I was often frustrated too when late at night or even on Sunday morning you would expect some program to come on NTV and instead whatever it was you were waiting up for would be preempted and Geoff would come on to talk about whatever was on his mind. As a kid, that’s not what you wanted on a Friday night or Saturday morning. But I found those things fascinating, that he would come on and directly address, using his TV station, all of Newfoundland or anyone who was watching late at night. And in my experience, that was a good many people.”

Johnston, who proudly shares his own work-by-night-sleep-by-day schedule with anyone who asks, says Newfoundlanders in general are interesting. “They stay up late. I think that’s how I got to my crazy schedule in the first place. I remember when it was Double Daylight Savings Time. Newfoundlanders still stayed up to watch overtime NHL hockey and went into work the next day bleary-eyed. We stayed up. Incredible.”

As with every new book’s release, Johnston as had to reset his inner clock, so to speak.

“It’s that time of life whenever a book comes out I get out from behind my desk and see the world. I still have this nighttime schedule for writing and daytime schedule for sleeping that works perfectly until I have to go on the road … I’m adjusting now and my tour is about half done,” he laughs.

Remember the Feeling

Johnston should be used to making schedule adjustments. His first novel, The Story of Bobby O’Malley, was written while he was a graduate student. There’s a funny, personal story Johnston shares as he reflects back.

The Story of Bobby O’Malley. When I got that acceptance letter from my former publisher … I remember that feeling. When the book came to the house months later I was so excited. I put it in my wife’s purse and closed her purse and made up some reason why she should go to her purse; get me a pen, or something along those lines. And she went over and opened up her purse and the book was right there, with my name on it, and she lifted up the book and started rummaging through her purse for a pen and never noticed the book. It’s a fun memory and I tease her about that. Rose is my wife’s name, and whenever I tell Rose something good has happened, like the book has been a best seller for over a month now, whenever I say anything like that she pretends to take out what we call the head clamp, which is to keep me from getting too swelled a head. Rose keeps me grounded, no question.”

If his head does swell from time to time, he could hardly be blamed.  

Award Winner

Johnston’s second novel, The Time of Their Lives, won the Air Canada/Canadian Authors Association Award for Most Promising Young Canadian Writer in 1988, then The Divine Ryans won the 1991 Thomas Head Raddall Award, and was subsequently adapted to the screen with Academy Award nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite starring in the 1999 movie version.

Johnston’s 1998 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams – shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction – portrayed the life of the Father of Confederation, Newfoundland’s own Joey Smallwood. The novel was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review when it was released in the United States, and was an international best seller.

In fact The Colony of Unrequited Dreams can be enjoyed at the Arts & Culture Centre, or Robert Chafe’s adaptation can, anyway.  Starring Colin Furlong, Carmen Grant, Brian Marler, Jody Richardson, Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell, Paul Rowe, Bernadine Stapleton, and Willow Kean (October 14-26) Johnston says he’s delighted it still has fans. “I thought it was great when I saw it the few times that I did. It was quite a success and I say that for Robert’s sake as he’s the one who adapted it.”

So, is it fair to say he’s living ‘the dream?’

“I’ve been living that dream for a long time. Career wise my eureka moment was finding out my first book was going to be published. It’s one of those things you only feel once but you never forget and whenever I have a new book out I always wish that it was my first. When your first book comes out, or when you are leading up to your first book coming out, absolutely everything seems possible. You are too young to know that it’s not, but things seem that way,” he adds with a laugh.

Back to his latest; First Snow, Last Light. There’s more teases, more parallels, he shares. “The Herald is in the book. It’s one of the few things I didn’t change. Ned Vatcher, who is the parallel to Geoff Stirling, goes to the states for a while then comes back  home and he starts off a tabloid newspaper just like the original Herald, that goes on to becomes The Newfoundland Herald with the television guide, columns and everything else in it.”

Now don’t get too excited, he cautions. There’s parallels, and there’s not.

Still, he’s excited to hear the reactions of readers from this province. “There’s many similarities that you and many Newfoundlanders will pick up on. Newfoundlanders who are reading it are probably saying to one another, this sounds familiar. And so it should.”

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