Thomas Wharton was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta, an agriculture and oil city located near the BC border. His father, a utilities manager, was transferred to Jasper when Wharton was a teen. The years Wharton spent exploring the mountains and glaciers around Jasper have had a lasting impact on his literary output; references to the Rocky Mountains weave in and out of the books he has written, most notably Icefields (NeWest Press, 1995) and The Logogryph. A life-long love of maps, history, art, and poetry equally informs his work.
After moving to Edmonton in 1982, Wharton contemplated a career as an illustrator and studied art and design during his first year at the University of Alberta. His calling was temporarily put on hold when, yearning for a more practical line of work, he switched to biological sciences. Thomas Wharton’s love of storytelling and myth eventually drew him back to artistic pursuits. The turning point came one summer when, while working as a medical lab technician, he picked up Ulysses. By the time he was halfway through he realized he had to go back into English, later noting that “the inventiveness and energy of the prose in that book totally revitalized me.” Soon after, he enrolled in a creative writing course taught by novelist Rudy Wiebe at the University of Alberta. While studying under the renowned Canadian author, Wharton began to write a series of fantastical tall tales set in Alberta. He envisioned a modern take on something an American ethnographer had done in the 1940s, in which the mythical adventures of Johnny Chinook were created out of regional stories collected from rural Albertans (Wharton’s grandfather among them).
Under Wiebe’s tutelage, and with the encouragement of his University of Calgary masters advisor, Kristjana Gunnars, Wharton drafted fragments of text that would later become Icefields. In a happy twist, when NeWest Press selected Icefields for publication, Wiebe was assigned as editor and guided the manuscript to its final form. When it debuted in 1995, Wharton’s remarkable first novel was well received both in Canada and overseas. In this country, where it’s now in its seventh printing, Icefields has sold over 30,000 copies. It has also been published in the US, Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, with publishing possibilities being explored for Italy and China.
Icefields has won a number of honours, including the 1996 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and Caribbean Division), the Henry Kreisel Award (Best First Book) at the 1996 Alberta Book Awards, and both the Grand Prize and Banff National Park Award at the 1995 Banff Mountain Book Festival. In addition, it was short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Prize in Mountain Literature and chosen as the 1998 Grant MacEwan College Book of the Year.
By the time his second novel was released, Wharton had developed a following of rapt and loyal readers. Salamander (McClelland & Stewart, 2001) won the 2002 Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction (Alberta Book Awards), was a finalist for the 2001 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was short-listed for the 2001 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Fantasy, and the 2002 Grant MacEwan Author’s Award. A collection of short stories soon followed. The Logogryph (Gaspereau Press, 2004) was named winner of the 2005 Writers’ Guild of Alberta Award for Short Fiction, nominated for the Sunburst Award for Canadian Fantasy, and short-listed for the IMPAC-Dublin Prize in 2006.
Thomas Wharton lives in Edmonton with his wife and three children. An assistant professor of English at the University of Alberta, his latest novel, The Book of Rain, will be published by Random House Canada in 2023.
Photo credit: Michael Burrows