Joanna Goodman, author of 'The Home For Unwanted Girls' talks life, inspiration and next steps
Joanna Goodman is sitting at a table inside the Wilk’s Bar at Langdon Hall, on a Tuesday afternoon in Cambridge, Ontario. Goodman’s order — a decadent-looking plate of Burrata and a side dish of devilled eggs — has just arrived.
Weeks of emailing with Goodman’s publicist has lead to a sit-down with the Toronto-based author, who’s most recent, national best seller, The Home For Unwanted Girls, was chosen for this year’s One Book One Community series in Waterloo Region.
She apologizes for picking away at her late-afternoon lunch during the interview, it’s a busy day for her. That night she would speak before a packed audience at the Knox Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, in the first of four speaking events taking place in Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and New Hamburg, last month.
Goodman loves the bougie Langdon Hall. It feels like sleeping at home, she says, which makes sense once you learn her Toronto-based linen business, Au Lit Fine Linens, is Langdon Hall’s linen supplier.
Like the linen business, Goodman hails from Montreal.
Goodman’s late mother, Peggy Byron, started the linen business in 1981 in Montreal, where Goodman worked as a teenager. Knowing she wanted to be a writer, but needing a degree, Goodman left Montreal for Ottawa's Carleton University, where she studied journalism. After graduating, she interned with Reuters, leading her back to Quebec.
It was 1995, and years of Anglo-Francophone tensions had culminated in a referendum vote for Quebec’s second attempt at sovereignty from Canada. Goodman was covering all things concerning the referendum for Reuters, and on voting night, Goodman and her boyfriend (now her husband) were at "No" headquarters.
The vote not to separate came in at 50.58-percent. “We almost lost by a hair,” she recalled.
As the couple emerged onto the street from "No" headquarters, a riot was starting.
“I was blown away at that riot by the French kids my age fighting for separation — shouting ‘C’est pas fini!’ — and being thrown into paddy-wagons and handcuffed, it was really impactful,” she said.
That October night, the seed was planted for the book.
After the referendum, Goodman returned to Ottawa, deciding journalism wasn’t for her. Her mother’s business was “on its last legs,” heading toward bankruptcy. In a last ditch effort to keep it alive, her mother opened a store along Mount Pleasant in Toronto. Goodman moved to work there until something better came along — it ended up taking off.
Au Lit Fine Linens now serves as Goodman’s day job, providing her the luxury to slip out early and write in a cafe — her preferred workspace. Home isn’t conducive with concentration, she says, particularly at night when she returns to being a mom to her 10-year-old son, Luke; 15-year-old daughter, Jessie; and a wife to husband, Miguel.
Goodman remembers wanting to be a writer when she was just five years-old, sitting on the sidewalk of her Montreal neighbourhood writing stories.
In the late ‘90s, she submitted a manuscript to ten small Canadian publishers, and in 1998, her first novel titled Belle Of The Bayou was published by The Porcupine’s Quill, an artisanal publisher based in Erin, Ontario.
“I was in my 20s — oh my God, the tears, the elation, I mean it sold four copies, but what it allowed me to do was get an agent,” Goodman said.
Originally titled, The Seed Man, she presented early parts of The Home For Unwanted Girls to literary agent, Bev Slopen, who she met for the first time with her mom. Slopen thought it had potential, though it would be more than 20-years before that potential would be realized.
“The story I wanted to tell was my mom’s growing up. She grew up French and half English in the ‘50s, in the Duplessis-era. I knew my experience growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but her experience was way more intense,” Goodman said, referring to the political and religious tensions of the day.
But despite having a backdrop, a setting, and characters, she knew it was missing something.
“I was not ready for this book to be what it is, but I started writing it and then I put it aside. There was an excerpt of it published in an anthology of Canadian stories, and I got a grant to work on it for a year, so I was always in it, but I just didn’t have the right story at the time,” she said.
Goodman managed to turn out three additional books in the two decades before The Home For Unwanted Girls was published, all of which are incredibly different from the underlying love story winding its way through the lives and loses between 1948 and 1974, in the book.
The missing piece came from her “first reader” and mentor, Billy Mernit, a L.A.-based screenwriter who suggested Goodman take readers on a journey into the orphanage where Elodie is confined; the estranged daughter of Maggie, who was forced to give her up by her parents after becoming pregnant at 15.
The novel takes place when Quebec’s government was under the rule of Maurice Duplessis, a period known as “The Great Darkness.” Tens-of-thousands of orphaned children were deemed mentally ill for the monetary benefit of the Catholic Church and the province’s government, as psychiatric hospitals brought in more federal money than orphanages. Orphans were subjected to sexual abuses and electrocution; elements of their stories which are drastically subdued in Goodman’s book.
In Goodman’s writing, reality informs fiction — she writes what she knows.
The story of orphan Alice Auinton, in a book titled Les Enfants de Duplessis, allowed Goodman to understand the plight of the "Duplessis orphans," as told to Pauline Gill, who wrote it.
Goodman also draws parallels from her own life with characters heavily influenced by her mother, step-father, and grandparents.
In all of the talks given for the book — an opportunity to give back what Goodman believes is owed to readers — she says it’s the orphans that people ask about the most.
The Home For Unwanted Girls has been well received, even after a year-and-a-half since its release.
“It’s so horrific and it’s so shocking, it’s such a scandalous part of our history that no one knows about,” she explained with emphasis, “I think that’s the piece that really resonates with people.”
Despite the unprecedented attention garnered from her most recent release, Goodman says she takes the praise with a grain of salt, and nothing for granted.
“You’re grateful, but you don’t want to get caught up in it. The ride is like this as a writer,” she says motioning in an up and down wave with her hand, “you could have the best seller, a literary award winner, and the next one will sell two copies, and I know that, I’ve been on that ride."
There’s a sequel to The Home For Unwanted Girls, planned for release in September of 2020, titled Forgotten Daughter. It covers a period from 1970, during the “October Crisis” in Quebec, through to the referendum in the mid-‘90s and into the early 2000s when the "Duplessis orphans’” lawsuits were settled by government payouts.
If they even qualified, survivors were compensated with an average of $25,000. In 2010, an estimated 300-400 orphans were still alive. To this day, the Catholic Church has refused to issue an apology, or accept any responsibility for their role in the treatment and abuses of the orphans.
In the wake of two national best sellers, Goodman is nervous, but excited for the forthcoming Forgotten Daughter, and promises whatever follows won't be a continuation into a trilogy.
After a long pause, tempted and seemingly sure to follow with an eager teasing of details, she opted not to give any hints, other than to say it won’t fit neatly into a genre.
Neither does The Home For Unwanted Girls. It’s been referred to as historical fiction, but Goodman disagrees. After all, the ‘50s are still visible in the rearview mirror.
What originally began as a politically-centred novel, evolved into a story about how the self-centred decisions parents make for their children can impact lives later on, and not necessarily for the better; though Goodman isn’t sure anyone sees that.
Perhaps that’s her understated strength as a writer: readers don’t know what to expect next, and even when you think you may have figured it out, it’s not written in stone. ♢