Joan Clark, acclaimed Canadian author, dead at 88


A black and white photo depicts a middle aged Joan Clark in front of a bookcase.
Joan Clark was the author of several critically acclaimed novels and lived in St. John’s for more than 30 years. (University of Prince Edward Island)

Joan Clark, an acclaimed author who spent much of her life in Newfoundland and Labrador, has died. 

Born in 1934, Clark wrote more than 15 books, including novels such as An Audience of Chairs, Latitudes of Melt, and Eiriksdottir: A Tale of Dreams and Luck. Her work has been translated into at least six other languages and published around the world.

“She was a very vital force within the cultural and literary community of Newfoundland,” said Kevin Major, one of Clark’s friends and a fellow writer in St. John’s.

“She had a beautiful way with words and it was a privilege to know her and just to share personally in some of the time that she spent in Newfoundland.”

Major credits Clark as a significant voice in shaping the literary scene in the the province, a place that became the subject of her writing.

“She dearly loved Newfoundland and Labrador, and it stirred something in her writing soul,” said Major.

“I think by coming here it maybe propelled her writing in a different direction than she would have thought beforehand. It was a mutual relationship, the landscape and the history of Newfoundland and Joan’s ability to write about it. That was a great coming together and we should be very thankful for that.”

An older white woman is wearing a colorful outfit and sun hat in front a field of grass overlooking the ocean
Joan Clark is pictured here on the set of An Audience of Chairs, a film adaptation of one of her novels. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Though Clark was a lifelong reader, she initially had no intention of becoming a writer. In an interview with CBC Radio’s Weekend AM in 2012, Clark said she started writing during her first child’s nap times. 

“One day I picked up a scribbler that was kicking around and I started to write,” Clark said.

“The story, it popped into my head and I just kept on writing. And I thought, ‘Oh, gee, where’d that come from?'”

Clark said she soon filled three notebooks with what became the manuscript of her first novel for children, Girl of the Rockies, about a girl and her pet bear. Its publication kick-started her career in 1968, and she continued to write novels aimed at younger readers.

In 1988, Clark published her first novel for adults, The Victory of Geraldine Gull, about a Swampy Cree community in Hudson Bay. It went on to garner nominations for some of Canada’s highest literary honours, including the Governor General’s Award and the Books In Canada First Novel Award.

Clark is also the only writer who has received both the Marian Engel Award, recognizing her body of work in adult fiction, and the Vicky Metcalf award, in honour of her contributions to children’s literature. Clark received the Order of Canada in 2010, for her work in the literary arts communities in Alberta and Newfoundland. As well, she was a two time winner of the BMO Winterset Award, which celebrates excellence in Newfoundland and Labrador writing. 

When Clark lived in Alberta in the 1970’s, she was one of the founding members of the Writer’s Guild of Alberta and co-founded the acclaimed literary journal Dandelion. After moving to St. John’s in the mid-1980’s, Clark was also a founding member of the Writer’s Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Clark was a passionate mentor of writers across the country and served as Writer in Residence in locations such as Banff Centre of the Arts and the University of New Brunswick, where she completed her last novel, The Birthday Lunch.

“Joan was a very generous woman with her time and very helpful to other writers,” said Major.

“She was very supportive of any activities that could bring writers together.”

Three book covers are next to each other.
Three of Joan Clark’s acclaimed novels. From left to right: An Audience of Chairs (2006), The Dream Carvers (1995), and Latitudes of Melt (2001). (Penguin Random House Canada)

Dean Cooke, the founder of the CookeMcDermid Literary Management Agency, represented Clark as a literary agent, beginning with her 2001 novel Latitudes of Melt. Cooke credits that book’s international success as being a pivotal moment in establishing his agency. Beyond their business relationship, Clark and Cooke were also good friends. 

“She made the effort to engage with you on a personal level,” Cooke said. “And she was sincerely interested.”

Cooke fondly recalls long, warm conversations with Clark about a variety of topics from family and pets to the latest publishing industry news. Cooke said this type of close personal connection is how a lot of people will remember Clark. 

“After she had published her first book with Doubleday Canada, they sent her an orchid and Joan would just call them out of the blue every once in a while to say ‘The orchid’s blooming again.’ That kind of thing was so typically Joan.”

However, Cooke said Clark also remained focused on improving the literary industry for the generations to come. 

“I don’t know if authors today are aware of the efforts that she made on their behalf on things like copyright protection and the income that was generated by library lending and photocopying,” Cooke said.

“Anyone who cares to look into her career and all of the activism that she engaged in, around publishing and writing, can only be grateful ultimately to Joan for the things that she contributed. And it was out of sincere love for writers, writing and publishing.”

A woman with a wound along her temple looks toward the ocean from a wooded shore.
Carolina Bartczak stars in An Audience of Chairs, pictured here in a dramatic moment. Screenwriter Rosemary House says Clark loved the adaptation. (Wreckhouse Productions)

Another milestone in Clark’s career was Deanne Foley’s 2019 film adaptation of An Audience of Chairs. Filmmaker Rosemary House adapted the book into a screenplay and worked on the film for seven years. She had known Clark as a friend of her parents and Clark had encouraged her to adapt one of her books into a film. House said Clark was impressed with the finished result. 

“She just loved it and was thrilled to see it go to screen,” she said.

As both a friend and a colleague, House said she has fond memories of Clark. 

“Lovely, smart, intelligent, creative, she had a great smile,” House said. “And her husky voice. She was just a lovely person who I think had a very good life and enjoyed her work tremendously. She was pretty fabulous.”

Joan Clark was 88 years old.

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