A Life of Books: Joanna Quinn, author of The Whalebone Theatre

Joanna Quinn is the author of The Whalebone Theatre. The book, originally released in the UK earlier this year where it became a Sunday Times bestseller, has finally come stateside. Waterstones called it “a ravishing coming-of-age story set in the shadow of an oncoming war.”

Debutiful asked the author to answer our recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers could get to know her better.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

The Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. They made me an adventurer. There are no powerful adults in these books. The children are the leaders and explorers of their domain. I made a swallow flag for my bike, gathered a gang of willing village kids, and set off to map the countryside near our home in Dorset.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

Oh yes! They’re great books. I don’t know if I have a philosophy on what children read other than that they should be able to choose their own books. Reading should be an act of personal discovery. So while I’ve left my Arthur Ransome books in my daughter’s room, it’s up to her if she picks them up. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I can’t remember hating any books (other than maths text books) but I didn’t have much time for George Eliot’s Silas Marner at school – I think I was too young and found all the weaving tedious – but I’m reading Middlemarch now and enjoying it. I think Eliot might be a writer best suited to grown-ups. 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

Whenever I’ve gone back to books I loved as a teenager, I’ve really enjoyed revisiting them. I spent much of my early teens reading nothing but comic books – Garfield, The Far Side, Peanuts and Asterix were particular favourites – and I still love them now, but I wouldn’t read quite as much of them! 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

I didn’t read much fiction while writing my book, mainly because I didn’t the time – though I did read a few novels that sounded like they might be similar, primarily to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently straying too close to an existing story!

The books that could be said to have shaped The Whalebone Theatre were the history books I read for research. Though my book is fiction, it sits within a historical framework and features real events, particularly in the section set in WW2. Often, it was finding something factual that fitted my book perfectly that took it in a new direction – for example, when I discovered that the theatres in Paris stayed open during the Nazi occupation of the city, I knew that was something I could use.  

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I’m in awe of writers who can do tight, intricate plotting, and Mandel is so amazingly deft at interlinking her characters and storylines – plus her writing is beautiful. Crisp and clear. 

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I recently finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, which I enjoyed enormously. I had already thought I would like to go back to the beginning and read them all again, and now, after the horribly sad news of her death, I am going to do just that. It is heartbreaking that we won’t have any more books from such a brilliant writer, but the ones we have are works of genius. 

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

A shorter book.

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