“Books that I love become like friends I carry in my pocket for the rest of my life”
Last night, the Canadian author Lawrence Hill spoke of his experiences which led to him to write his most recent novel, The Illegal. The venue was a small theatre on the Waterfront as part of the Hamilton Winterfest Celebration. He not only discussed his latest novel but also his experience editing and publishing his late sister’s novel, Cafe Babanussa. It was an interesting evening and he openly shared the impact of his sister’s bipolar disease to an engaged crowd.
Hill’s first summer job, at the age of 16, was at the Toronto Airport where he greeted and assisted landed immigrants on arrival to Canada. He helped individuals find their suitcases, learn to use an escalator and assisted them to find a place to stay upon arrival. As he was responsible to aid the landed immigrants many refugees were also arriving in Toronto, having been expelled from Uganda to escape Idi Amin and arriving with little to nothing (to read more about this situation try reading Where the Air is Sweet by Tasneem Jamal). Hill acknowledged what an “incredible summer for a kid from the suburbs of Toronto” this had been.
A few years later, Hill volunteered in Africa and then visited his sister in West Berlin where many Sudanese lived with no legal status. He met many of her friends and was fascinated, learning how these individuals were challenged to make a life without legal status. He noted that tends to meditate on ideas for many years and that the combination of his experiences at the Toronto Airport, in Africa and in West Berlin inspired his latest book The Illegal.
The audience heard how challenging it was to write Keita, a character fleeing genocide, who was escaping his country and had to remain quiet, unseen, under the radar, avoiding any drama as he ran away from his past and ran towards a future as a marathon runner. He chose to write a novel with a quiet protagonist and supporting characters who were “colourful and thrusting”. Each characters in the novel either “wants something or is at risk of losing something” which offset the quiet persona of Keita.
Hill’s reading was from the perspective of Ivernia, the elderly woman who he said vaguely represents his late mother. She feisty and independent and following her car accident was having her capacity assessed to determine if she could continue to look after herself. Keita had assisted her after the accident and their lives became intertwined later in the novel, the two of them helping each other to gain their independence and autonomy.
The moderator, Annette Hamm (CHCH) asked the question that I had been pondering: why he had written this novel with a fictional setting when his other books had been set in actual countries. He answered that The Book of Negroes had exhausted him and that he did not want to be responsible for providing correct information about the complex immigration policies of real countries. He also felt that a fictional location might be “more haunting and seductive to the reader”.
The second part of the discussion involved the experience of his late sister, Karen Hill. As a young adult, she had witnessed her mother in and out of hospital suffering from bipolar disease. Karen had worried about whether she would follow her mother and 2 aunts who had been struggled with their mental health. She was diagnosed at age 24 and Hill told how he had been summoned to West Berlin and was instrumental in having her hospitalized. It took her 22 years to finish her novel, writing in between periods of hospitalization and times when she was highly medicated. Lawrence shared that he “was usually the one hospitalizing her and that it was difficult for her to read a novel let alone write one.” Hill encouraged his sister, supported her in a writing mentorship and read her drafts. He was a strong supporter of her novel, which was openly autobiographical, and told of her experience in West Berlin “being knocked down by mental illness”.
Karen Hill moved back to Canada, had a daughter and finally did finish her novel. Sadly, she passed away before her novel was edited and published. After her death, Hill assisted with the editing and publishing of her novel. He chose to proceed with minimal edits, adding nothing but removing parts that were redundant and circuitous. Like any novel, he felt that she deserved a good edit. His only regret was that his sister did not live to see her work published. He appreciates that her memory will live on through her writing and that proceeds will go to her daughter.
When speaking of mental illness, he talked of the stigma (especially within his community) that remains. He said that “we need to throw open the doors and have these conversations more openly”. This novel is timely in relation to Bell Let’s Talk Day and highlights mental health issues can affect anyone and is just like any other health concern that we should be able to discuss without guilt or shame. It is wonderful to hear authors such as Hill and Camilla Gibb sharing their own experiences.
As an aspiring writer, I enjoyed hearing him tell the audience that his first draft is usually about twice the length of his finished novel. As a teacher, he said that he provides an assignment in which students submit a story of 5000 words and then pretend that an editor has said that they will publish it – but only at 3500 words. The students are challenged to slash content and rewrite their tale without destroying the story. This was also the message provided by Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) who had to drastically shorten a story to have it published starting her on the path to become a successful writer.
“It is amazing how much you can improve your work just by hacking things out”
When asked about whether he writes for a moral purpose of changing people’s ideas he responded that his “chief goal is to offer drama”. He is cautious of advancing moral agenda in his fiction unless it is subtle and becomes a byproduct since “art helps us shape the vision of us“.
“Perhaps it is a novel will excite your imagination and our empathy”.
Hill was an engaging reader, a confident speaker and very open sharing his own life and the struggles that their family had experienced with mental illness. He stayed after for book signings and chatted amiably with his fans. I really appreciated learning more about the author and hearing his experiences that lead to the writing of both novels. It was very interesting to hear how he tends to meditate ideas for a long time before they germinate into successful novels. It was fantastic evening and I will be following this year’s Canada Reads contest on CBC. Can Lawrence Hill repeat his 2009 Canada Reads win?