Mini-interview: Jean Van Loon

Jean Van Loon is an Ottawa-based writer of fiction and poetry, whose first poetry collection, Building on River, was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award.

About the poet: I have known the poet for closing in on twenty years. She is precise-minded, detail-minded and diligent so none of the poems will be sloppy and half-rendered. As I mentioned in the most anticipated book list her previous book was research of a local figure, lumber baron J.R. Booth. Most books require research and a little obsession, but with this book she turns her gaze nearer home. The risk in such a collection

Book: Nuclear family by Jean Van Loon (McGill-Queens University Press, April 2022) 

Green Depression glass glows under a black light due ​to the uranium oxide content in the glass. It’s a unique collectible. This sets an era and a tone.

Might I say this makes for the perfect cover for the book. The cup and saucer evokes domesticity and something not quite right and natural. And beyond that, is a striking image and ties directly to a poem and themes in the book.

Sample:

In the night her whitened toes
cold sole on his calf
between his palms he warms
a slender foot –
twig bones, taut skin.

Book description:

In Nuclear Family violent events, global and familial, permeate a girl’s coming of age in a story of cataclysm and, ultimately, recovery.

Jean Van Loon’s father was a metallurgist in an Ottawa lab that contributed to the Manhattan Project. The Geiger counter he brought home exposed her mother’s dinner plate as radioactive. Her childhood friend’s father sold cobalt bombs to the Soviet Union. Unbeknownst even to the family, her mother worked for Canada’s Cold War intelligence service.

Rooted in memory and history, Nuclear Family carries the reader into the sense of impending nuclear doom and the explosions of material wealth that shaped Van Loon’s childhood. Poems come alive with image, sound, and texture, portraying the innocence of childhood games, the worldwide effects of prolonged nuclear testing, and the long-lasting legacy of her father’s suicide – a fallout of radioactive silences.

Questions:

PP: How did this book originate?
JVL: The troubled story at the root of this book, my father’s death by suicide, was in my mind for forty years before I tried to write it. My initial attempt was a short story for the first creative writing workshop I ever took, and the response was so devastating I set the story aside for another twenty years. By then I had completed my first poetry manuscript, in which poetry helped me inhabit the mind and heart of a historical character, lumberman J. R. Booth. I wondered if I might be able to get to know my father in the same manner. I started on this second work before the first was accepted for publication. Then, after months of distraction to edit, publish, and promote the first book, I came back to this project. But I kept setting it aside. My father was a tougher nut to crack than Booth, because no media had covered his quiet life, and over the years my mother had tossed most of his correspondence. The final version is cast in part as a search to know him, and part as a search for the world that, to all appearances, terrified him.

PP: Best moments in the writing?
JVL: Much was fascinating, including learning about the Manhattan Project itself, which may have been the most exciting science and technology project before the moon rocket, with top minds from different countries and disciplines working together with desperate urgency and few budgetary limits.

The most fun was probably revisiting childhood memories – playing jacks on the porch floor, bouncing an India Rubber ball, picnics disrupted by the tension between my mother’s fastidiousness and birds’ undisciplined toilet habits. These memories resulted in many poems which have not been included due to a desire for focus and balance in the whole.

The most satisfying – and initially terrifying – was to reveal a draft manuscript to my brothers. While I feared they might hate the idea of publishing this story, both responded very positively, and it opened up a conversation about our shared past that was long overdue and much appreciated by all three of us.