Wayne Johnston, novelist (born at Goulds, NL 22 May 1958). Born in a small community just south of St John's, Wayne Johnston spent most of his childhood moving from place to place within the St John's area - a fact reflected in his semi-autobiographical first novel, The Story of Bobby O'Malley. Johnston graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1978 with a BA in English and worked as a reporter for the now defunct St John's Daily News from 1979 to 1981. He then moved to Ottawa, where he began writing fiction full-time. He graduated with an MA from the University of New Brunswick in 1983, and later settled in Toronto.
Johnston published his first novel in 1985. Winner of the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, The Story of Bobby O'Malley contains many of the themes that define Johnston's work. The protagonist is the often uncertain son of a tightly knit, very Catholic Newfoundland family. Johnston's humour often rises from the pain and defeat experienced by the characters. In 1987, Johnston published The Time of Their Lives, winner of the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Most Promising Young Writer. The novel focuses on three generations of a Newfoundland family, each forced to leave home in their own way.
Human Amusements (1994) marks a departure for Johnston in that the family of the novel are not Newfoundlanders, but the Toronto-based Pendergasts, who navigate the new world of 1950s television and modern culture. The Divine Ryans was published in 1990 and won the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize. It was adapted into a film in 1999; Johnston wrote the screenplay. Revolving around another young protagonist and his Irish Catholic family, this novel garnered Johnston comparisons to Roddy Doyle and Mordecai Richler.
In 1998 Johnston produced his most commercially and critically successful book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. A fictionalized account of the life of Newfoundland's first premier, Joseph R. Smallwood, the novel is also Johnston's most controversial. With this book, Johnston truly earns comparisons to writers like Richler. As in the latter's Solomon Gursky Was Here, Johnston's novel follows a cast of characters over generations and continents while promising to reveal the secret that drives and determines the lives of the protagonists. Humour in the face of great loss defines this novel, as both narrators, Joe Smallwood and the fictional Sheilagh Fielding, try to find permanence and place on an island that changes identity from country to colony to province in the course of their lifetimes.
The liberties taken by Johnston in representing Smallwood and Newfoundland have been condemned by some critics, yet for many it is the Newfoundland novel. The novel gave Johnston his second Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize and won the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Fiction. It was shortlisted for a number of awards, including the Governor General's Literary Award, and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Johnston followed the novel with a sequel, The Custodian of Paradise, in 2006, continuing the irascible, witty, wounded Sheilagh Fielding's story through the Second World War and her retreat to an island off the south coast of Newfoundland. The novel was nominated for both a Trillium Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Johnston's preoccupation with Newfoundland's confederation with Canada becomes more personal in Baltimore's Mansion, a family memoir released in 1999. Winner of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, the text focuses on Johnston, his father, and grandfather. He explores their attachment not only to Newfoundland, but to the Newfoundland that could have been.
The Navigator of New York is another historical novel in the vein of Colony. Published in 2002, the novel is about Devlin Stead, whose desire to uncover his father's fate is intertwined with the race for the North Pole between Robert Peary and Frederick Cook. This novel seems to mark Johnston's permanent departure from the smaller, more focused texts of his early career in favour of epic, sprawling historical fictions. It was a finalist for a Governor General's Literary Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
2011 saw the publication of A World Elsewhere, which like Navigator intertwines Newfoundland's history with that of the United States, following the ambitious Landish Druken to Princeton University at the end of the 19th century, where he is entangled with the scion of the wealthy American Vanderluyden family, based on the Vanderbilts, and other characters drawn from history including Henry James and Edith Wharton. An exploration of friendship, inheritance, fatherhood and family, A World Elsewhere was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and quickly became, like so many of Johnston's works, a Canadian bestseller.
In addition to his remarkable books, Wayne Johnston has published short stories and musings in various Canadian magazines, and an edition of his Henry Kreisel Lecture, "The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland: Family, Memory, Fiction and Myth," was released in 2009. A Distinguished Chair in Creative Writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, from 2004-09, Johnston lives in Toronto - a "not-Newfoundland," as he has called it, from which he continues to meditate upon his home province. Johnston holds honourary doctorates from UNB and MUN, and in 2011 he was awarded the prestigious Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Prize, honouring the entirety of his body of work.