It took Joanna Quinn a decade to finish what is already being talked about in the U.K. as the book of the summer. The Whalebone Theatre is a rich family saga set between the two world wars, spanning Dorset, London and occupied France. It is the sort of book that makes real life dim as you become absorbed in its heartbreaks, love affairs and revelations. A debut novel this ambitious doesn’t come along often. What makes it even rarer is that its author, a 46-year-old single mum living in Dorset, had almost given up hope that it would be published.
Quinn stirs sugar into her milky tea and apologizes for feeling “fuzzy” after her book launch the previous night. She is adjusting to being a published author. Hers is a lockdown success story.
Two years ago Quinn had been made redundant from her job in communications at the RNLI and was busy home schooling her daughter Nancy, aged nine, trying not to panic about how to pay the rent. Then a friend told her that a literary agent, bored at home, was looking for manuscripts. Quinn sent off the beginnings of The Whalebone Theatre and was astonished when the agent emailed back asking when she could read the rest. “I was at home, surrounded by washing. I hadn’t been out in months. I practically fell over.” For the next seven months, when she wasn’t teaching her daughter, Quinn was at her laptop, writing in “a manic push — I nearly went blind from looking at the screen”.
She and her daughter lived off toast and put everything else on hold. “It felt like a last throw of the dice. I decided to dedicate myself to the novel rather than job hunting, even though my overdraft was getting bigger.” She was spurred on by a Doris Lessing quote that she wrote on a Post-it Note: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
Her resolve paid off. After a four-way publishers’ auction, the critics swooned and even compared it to The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Quinn hasn’t read them and says she was more influenced by Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; “books that span generations”). There are “rumblings” about a television adaptation (“Timothy Spall would be good as Jasper, the father”) and she has written to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall to suggest a play, like the ones the children in the book put on.
“It felt like a last throw of the dice. I decided to dedicate myself to the novel rather than job hunting, even though my overdraft was getting bigger.”
The novel begins on New Year’s Eve 1919. A beautiful young woman called Rosalind arrives at a country pile owned by her new husband, Jasper, a widower. His daughter from his first marriage, Cristabel, aged three, is waiting in the attic to meet her new mother. She’s a determined little girl who puts up with a lot of neglect and grows into an impressive woman trying to have a career at a time when that was not expected of her.
Quinn decided that Cristabel would build a whalebone theater after reading Bella Bathurst’s history book The Wreckers, which says that all whales that wash up on the coast belong to the monarch. “My girl finds something she thinks is hers, but it is owned by a man — it’s indicative of her journey. There’s a quote I read in a Mary Beard book I found at the hairdresser which says that women cannot easily fit into a structure that is coded as male, they have to make a new structure — that sums up Cristabel.” The theater idea came from a Kate Bush gig where the stage looked like a whale.
When Quinn talks about the book she lights up. She persevered because she enjoyed it — this shines through and makes it a pleasure to read. “In the pandemic it was lovely to have somewhere to go so I didn’t have to worry about the outside world,” she says. The only low point was two thirds in. “I felt so tired. I was too far in to give up, but I didn’t want to do the rest and started to hate it. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could finish a novel.”
When she wasn’t writing she was reading about the era when her novel is set with an eye for detail honed by her time as a reporter on the Dorset Echo. The novel is filled with historical color — what fighter plane engines sounded like; that theaters in Paris stayed open through the war; what Resistance spies had in their pockets. The pandemic helped her to understand “the wartime frustration of living with petty restrictions and bad news”.
She had the idea to set her story in a country house while driving past National Trust properties on the school run. Her MP in South Dorset is Richard Drax, whose family have historical links to slavery in the West Indies. This is not a positive country house novel. “My biggest fear is that people will compare it to Downton,” she says. “I am not an apologist for posh people. I wanted to unpick the failings of the system behind country houses through the eyes of children who grew up in one.” She was influenced by Sathnam Sanghera’s book about British Imperialism, Empireland, and Natasha Brown’s novel Assembly, about a black British woman visiting her white boyfriend’s family estate in the English countryside.
Daughter, Mother, Author
Quinn’s interest in history came from her father. A civil servant, he grew up during the Second World War, playing with paper airplanes in a Birkenhead air-raid shelter while German bombers flew overhead. The idea to include women who were undercover World War II agents in The Whalebone Theatre comes from a book she bought him. “He was interested in military history and I was always trying to push stories about women in the war on him. There was a book about special operations executives that I bought him and then read myself that informed the book.”
He died aged 85 after a fall in December 2020, while she was writing. “The hospitals were overwhelmed because of Covid so he deteriorated quickly,” she says. “I read him the first chapter of my book in the hospice and he smiled. It was nice to sit and read it to him. Everyone has been cheered by the book, but there is a sadness, wishing he were here to see it.”
Quinn was born in London. There is one other writer in her family; her great uncle on her mother’s side was the celebrated Welsh author Gywn Thomas, who was able to study at university thanks to a grant from the Miners’ Welfare Organisation.
When Quinn was seven, her parents divorced and she moved to the West Country because her mother, who taught children with special needs, wanted to live by the sea. As a girl, Quinn read a lot. “My mum was busy so I spent a lot of time in the company of fictional characters.” She won the WH Smith Young Writers competition, for a story about a girl who could turn into a kestrel, and always wanted to be a writer but also had to make a living. After studying English literature at Salford University, she went into journalism “because a friend was doing it and it sounded better than waitressing”. While she liked reporting, it was a means of funding a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmith’s University, part time. She squeezed writing in around the rest of life — in lunchbreaks and on her phone while pushing her daughter in her pram.
“I am not an apologist for posh people. I wanted to unpick the failings of the system behind country houses through the eyes of children who grew up in one.”
When she was accepted for the PhD, she was heavily pregnant. “I knew the baby risked taking me away from writing, but I was determined to have something of my own so I didn’t feel like a baby machine. It wasn’t easy; everything took longer.” She took her daughter to tutorials — her supervisor, the writer Francis Spufford, was understanding. She is grateful to him for taking her seriously as an author when she felt like an impostor. “I was writing in a flippant style because I didn’t want to be seen as trying too hard — it’s a mortifying ambition to want to write a novel. You expose yourself to the possibility of failing. But when Francis took me seriously, I started to as well.”
She learned to be “ruthless” about her time. “The danger point was after Nancy went to bed and I was tempted to watch TV.” Nancy’s father lives locally and took her at weekends. Her daughter was occasionally “not exactly grumpy, but wanted to do things with me — we were each others’ only companions in lockdown”. Nancy took her mother’s author photograph and also named a character in the book, Sophie, a double agent from east London who wears red lipstick.
At 546 pages The Whalebone Theatre is long — she thought publishers would “ask for something more marketable” and worries that people won’t want to take it on holiday. It contrasts with the trend for shorter, topical books by millennials (“although when I was that age I wrote about myself too”). Lots of people have told her it reminds them of books they read as children and she agrees: “There is something in it which harks back to the reading we do when we are young, which is so immersive and enjoyable.”
Quinn has an idea for her second book. “For the first time I have days stretching out with nothing in the way of writing. It’s a novelty, I’m a bit giddy.”
The Whalebone Theatre is out now in the U.K. It will be available on October 4 in the U.S.
Susannah Butter is the acting deputy culture editor of The Sunday Times