Emerging Canadian Writers: Seven Interviews, Part Two

November 5, 2015 by Lisa de Nikolits

Author Lisa de Nikolits interviewed seven writers with new books this fall season that are considered "emerging voices" as these are their first book-length published works. Yesterday we showcased part one of Lisa's interviews featuring Andrew Battershill and Pillow (Coach House Books), Erna Buffie and Let Us Be True (Coteau Books), and Matt Cahill and The Society of Experience (Wolsak & Wynn).Today we continue with part two of the interviews, featuring Debris by Kevin Hardcastle (Biblioasis), Travel is So Broadening by Wasela Hiyate (Quattro Books), Amity by Nasreen Pejvack (Inanna Publications), and Meadowlark by Wendi Stewart (NeWest Press).

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Author Lisa de Nikolits interviewed seven writers with new books this fall season that are considered "emerging voices" as these are their first book-length published works. Yesterday we showcased part one of Lisa's interviews featuring Andrew Battershill and Pillow (Coach House Books), Erna Buffie and Let Us Be True (Coteau Books), and Matt Cahill and The Society of Experience (Wolsak & Wynn).

Today we continue with part two of the interviews, featuring:

(Click the titles in the above list to go directly to their interview below)

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Debris

We start part two of my interviews with Debris by Kevin Hardcastle, published by Biblioasis.

"There is a sure-handed display of craftsmanship in these eleven stories. Kevin Hardcastle's characters make dire decisions; violence is commonplace but indelibly described. Everyone gets hurt, but everything makes sense, and the storytelling is so good—the language, a soothing balm for the pain." —John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules

Q1. How fantastic to have a blurb from John Irving  do you know him personally or how did that come about?

Kevin Hardcastle: I met John when he was in the process of relocating to Toronto late last year. It just came by chance after I’d been speaking to Nick Mount, and had been working through a story called Montana Border that came out this summer in The Walrus (where Nick is fiction editor). John and Janet Irving were trying to find some good candidates to be Mr. Irving’s new assistant, and Nick put my name forward and I interviewed for the job.

The position went to someone better suited for it, but John and I got along right away, and he’d read my forthcoming Walrus story and liked it, so that was pretty incredible. Both John and Janet are very genuine, down to earth people and they showed a real interest in my work and in offering up support if they could. John has his new book, Avenue of Mysteries, out this fall, and he is the kind of writer that puts in a lot of hours at the desk and, of course, has many other projects and obligations that are always in motion. We emailed back and forth and were to try to meet up for a beer to catch up and talk about the books, probably. Various events kept us from meeting again for a while, but I figured I’d have been a fool if I didn’t at least ask him if he’d be willing to read Debris and share his thoughts on it. I knew that he didn’t have much time to do any outside reading given his schedule with the new book, but he said he’d take the advanced copy and see what he could do.

A few days later John emailed me with a quote for the book (most of which can be found on the back cover and in the promotion for Debris), and it really floored me. John strikes me as a sincere and honest sort of guy, and I don’t think he’d have shied from telling me if he didn’t think the book was any good, so that really meant a great deal to me. And, it goes without saying, it meant a hell of a lot to my publisher, Biblioasis, given all the upcoming work they had to do in marketing and getting some eyeballs on this book.

Q2. Which John Irving novel is your favourite and why? 

KH: I’m partial to The Cider House Rules, as far as the novels go. It has all the hallmarks of Irving’s best work. Despite fairly significant differences in our actual writing, and especially our taste in writers, I’ve always felt that Irving writes about things that matter. Life and death and joy and hardship, as they actually are. He also manages to write these characters in The Cider House Rules, these orphans and outcasts, in a way that articulates these greater issues outside the novel, but without letting that colour the narrative or get in the way of the story itself. There is, of course, that sense of fatalism and permanence that Irving gets across so well, and a lasting melancholy that I like in all his best work.

When I met Mr. Irving, we also spoke at length about his life as a wrestler, and my far less accomplished years of training in Muay Thai (Thai Boxing/Kickboxing). He gifted me a copy of The Imaginary Girlfriend, his wrestling memoir, and that really struck a chord with me. So few writers have tried their hand at combat sports, and, while I was never the competitor Irving was, there is something to be said for someone who can train that hard in something, know that the only way they’ll ever win is by outworking the pure athletes, and have the presence of mind to know that this is all going on while they take their licks. In any case, I wrote to John about that after reading it, and all the ways that this kind of knowledge can find its way not just into the writing, but also into your work ethic as a writer and your focus while improving your craft. 

Q3. Are you familiar with the work by Nick Cutter and do you enjoy a good horror tale? (I am a great fan of Craig's, in every genre.)

KH: I am familiar with Nick Cutter, but I’ve not read his books yet. I’m more familiar with Cutter’s alter ego, Craig Davidson, and have read his books. That is a talented guy and a real glutton for punishment for all of the work he puts in with both sides of his writing career. As someone who started with the idea I’d write horror, and with a number of friends who somehow balance both literary fiction and more genre-based crime or horror fiction, I do appreciate the ambitiousness of that, and the reasons why a writer might do both. It’s probably not in my wheelhouse though.

But yes, I love a good horror tale, whether it’s on the page or on the screen. I guess I don’t read much straight-up horror in books anymore, but I watch a hell of a lot of horror movies, and the best of them are among my favourite movies in any genre. I’m big on atmosphere and tension, and I think that is something that I’ve kept on from my early days reading Stephen King far too young and trying to see how to build a real, material sense of dread for a reader.

I have had readers say that some of my stories seem to be informed by that history, especially in the title story, "Debris," and in "Most of the houses had lost their lights," the story that closes the collection. Even after I’d given up any ideas on writing horror, I drew a lot of inspiration from books that were heavy on tension and mystery, with gothic elements to some extent. Stories that deal in a fair bit of darkness. Especially when it comes to the handling of the natural world and the wilderness. My favourite novel of all time is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and that is still the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. In fact, it was after I started reading McCarthy that I knew I was done writing horror fiction for good. His work taught me that you could use the best elements of horror in literary fiction, much as you can use the best of crime or noir fiction, and bend it all to work together without getting into the supernatural or more commercial horror tropes.

Q4. What are you working on now? A novel perhaps? I look forward to your next work very much.

KH: I have a novel that will be published by Biblioasis, probably in fall 2016. It is called In the Cage, and John Metcalf is editing it as we speak. The novel was written before most of the stories in my collection, and couldn’t find a home or an editor willing to do the hard work on it, especially when only a few people knew my writing. In any case, Metcalf found me through the stories, and then asked if I had any more in the drawer. And I had this other book.

The novel was done, but I went through it line by line and now we’re getting down to the real edits. I’m excited to see what we can shape it into, especially as Metcalf can really sink his teeth into this one. A good number of the stories in Debris were most of the way there, and many were published already, so we finally have a chance here to rework this book and this narrative from the ground up.

In the Cage is about an MMA fighter (or cagefighter, as many would say), who has been retired due to injury and is now scraping by as a welder and by working as muscle for a mid-level crime figure in rural Ontario. And he is gradually being replaced in that capacity as well by more vicious career criminals. The ex-fighter has a young wife and daughter and they’ve been through the wars together already. Of course, like most of my other stories, it is a story about a family in peril, putting their lives on the line for each other, and it might have a little bit of violence and mayhem in there.

For those who read my story "Montana Border" in The Walrus, they may be interested in the fact that I wrote that story after John Metcalf first read the novel, and suggested that I mine the same material for another short story or two while we worked the novel out. That story shares a lot of the same territory as the novel, and I was encouraged by the response that readers had upon reading "Montana Border." That’s material I know well and that interests me a great deal, and I think there is a damn good book there when I get it right.

Q5. Did you ever have a job like the one in "Hunted by Coyotes"? If not, where did the inspiration come for that story? 

KH: I did have a job like that. If fact, I had that exact job. Knocking on doors and signing people up for five-year gas and power contracts around Alberta. I worked those towns all over the province for ten months before I burnt out. It took me a long time to get clear of that one and to be able to write about it objectively at all. It was actually in reading Post Office by Bukowski that I saw how I might be able to get this kind of story done. In the end, Pamela Mulloy at The New Quarterly was actually very hands-on in our edits and gave me the chance to fix that story up and make some substantial cuts and changes. I have always been grateful to her and to TNQ for taking that chance and not simply dismissing "Hunted by Coyotes". I had about two thousand more words in there involving other nonsensical happenings while the characters knocked doors in the middle of nowhere and slowly lost their minds, but Pamela saw that I was just writing more of the same and we refocused the story to what really mattered.

That was not an easy job but it was so bewildering and unusual that you couldn’t help but get some stories out of it. And I saw pretty much every city and town in Alberta, and met the people who lived there, often in the house that they actually lived. I’d not recommend that method of collecting material necessarily, but my time in the prairies did lead to some of my best work. No doubt about it.

 

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TravelIsSoBroadening

Next up is Travel is So Broadening by Wasela Hiyate, published Quattro Books.

From the publisher: All ten short stories in this collection demonstrate how travel can be a catalyst for self-discovery. Each one of protagonists in these stories experiences a life-changing epiphany while visiting a place away from home. Some become aware of the social injustices that are hidden in their own country but are revealed in foreign places, some become aware of certain freedoms and possibilities that are not permitted on their own native ground.

Q1. Does travel reveal our truest selves? Would you say it’s a good test of personality, love, and morality?


Wasela Hiyate: Yes and no. I think being in unfamiliar environments can reveal aspects of ourselves that we may not have expected or been aware of. We never lose sight of who we are at a core level, since our personalities are developed, but there are all those little quirks we may not yet have discovered about ourselves that become apparent when living in or visiting other countries. In new places, outside of comfortable surroundings, we might have a completely different response than our standard reaction to dancing, certain types of music or food or religious worship, or an aesthetic that once seemed unappealing.

Maybe there is something in the idea that travel is a good test of personality, love, and morality. Travelers are tested and sometimes the boundaries for what might not be acceptable in one's own country can become tolerable in other contexts. People can easily use the excuse of cultural relativism if it somehow suits their interests. I think that is, to a degree, what happens in the first story of the collection that takes place in Thailand, but it also happens in the story set in Nunavut.


Q2. Which one of these stories did you enjoy writing the most and why?

WH: The title story "Travel Is So Broadening" was an interesting one to write since the Caribbean is such a complex socio-political landscape to work with. The history and modern society of places like Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana is at times difficult to grapple with, but if conflict creates a good story, there is certainly enough to be found there!


Q3. Which part of the world that you have travelled to, changed you – and was there a particular place where you yourself had some life-changing event, particularly with regard to a relationship?


WH: I think returning to Guyana as an adult was the experience that changed me more than other places. I hadn't returned until the age of 25 after leaving the country at age 1, so I had no real recollection of anything. But it was the first time I'd been to a developing country and the fact that it was the developing country my family had been fortunate enough to flee from made all the difference.

I learned how completely invisible certain parts of the world are to the West, and the degree of suffering that can come from corrupt politics, bad economic policies and social issues that should have been resolved, or at least discussed, since independence. It's really one thing to study the reality of developing nations in a history or political science class, and another to know it viscerally.


Not sure if this counts for the life-changing event, but Mexico was an important place for me and my partner at the time because the experience of living and working there together bonded us. I think it was simply the process of living somewhere foreign, learning the language and cultural etiquette and exploring our interests while learning to survive as expats that created such a strong bond.

Q4. Your stories are about travel but they are also largely about love and relationships and fidelity and trust. I found that to be as much a focus as the travel aspect. Not that I am saying that is a bad thing, the two worked in tandem particularly well. Would you have any comment about that?

WH: It is funny that relationships are a central theme in many of the stories, considering I've done a fair bit of traveling on my own. Every relationship is tested in the process of travel. There is always a lot of negotiating and compromising (which might explain why I have traveled on my own, quite happily). The journey anywhere is a metaphor for life. If you can travel successfully with someone, chances are you are also compatible in other important ways.


Q5. What are you working on now? Do you have a novel in progress? Is that something short story writers are often asked and I wonder if that gets annoying? Do you ever want to say, I am perfectly happy with my short stories, thank you very much!


WH: Yes, I do have a few other projects that were put on hold while I worked as an ESL teacher and in legal publishing. One of them is a historical novel dealing with the colonial enterprise of indentured workers after the abolition of slavery, and another – on a much lighter note – relates a story set in the art world of Toronto.

I love short stories – I think sometimes writers write killer stories and mediocre novels and voice versa. I hear that the process of writing short fiction is a way of cutting one's teeth on fiction as a genre, since you learn the basics elements of creating a narrative ... Hopefully that will be true in my case.
 

Q6. Is there anything else you would like the readers to know?


WH: Well, maybe just that the travel itch is something that, even with all of its discomfort, doesn't ever go away. I may be just a ridiculously curious person, but even after having a nightmarish experience with a lost passport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia a few years ago, I'm still ready to book a flight at a moments notice. Maybe I had a few years to recover and that helped to 'erase' how terrible that experience was ... Actually, I'm answering these questions in Prague right now!


 

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Amity

Next up is Amity by Nasreen Pejvack, published by Inanna Publications.

From the publisher: Amity provides a window to the wreckage caused by war and conflict that leave behind destruction, displacement, pain and struggle resulting in life-long and irreparable psychological disorders. It is a story about the lives of various people who are dealing with the devastation of war and conflict, here specifically within the contexts of Yugoslavia's dissolution and Iran's revolution.

Q1. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write this book?

Nasreen Pejvack: The Syrian civil war was breaking out, and another mass killing and displacement of people started to show its ugly shape. It was hurting me deeply to think of yet another part of the world burning, and seeing what was happening to people of those lands was maddening. We had witnessed the Yugoslavian disaster, the unwarranted bloody conflicts in Iraq that ultimately plunged the entire region into chaos, and now Syria. 

I felt compelled to use my pen to bring some sense and awareness of how it feels to be one who lives in such situations.

Q2. How long did it take you to write this book?

NP: About 6 months.

Q3. How did you meet your publisher, Inanna?

NP: The Writers Union has a listing of all publishers across the country with a good description of the types of books they publish. Looking through which ones might consider publishing the genre such as mine, Inanna seemed to be one of the best fits. I sent in my synopses, and the first chapter. They liked it, asked for the rest of the book, and quite soon we had a contract to publish Amity.

Q4. Payvand and Ragusa have such an immediate and strong connection. Is there anyone in your life with whom you have had the same connection?

NP: Not really. But I always ached for it; and perhaps a vision of how easy it could be to be friends and to respect one another regardless of colour or culture has helped me shape the beautiful friendship of these devoted characters.

However, years ago, I did use to be a member of an activist group in Iran, where I met, worked, and lived with many good-natured, kind, and dedicated people who were like a perfect family to one another. I can say I had a deep connection with those comrades; nonetheless, not quite in the way I developed the Ragusa and Payvand friendship. I developed a different circumstance.

Q5. Tell us a bit about yourself as I know readers will be fascinated to hear how you came to be so knowledgeable about so many important political, social, and cultural issues.

NP: I believe my personal life challenges, which started at a very young age, were a great help. Being a girl/woman growing up in a Muslim country is no fun. If you are aware of rights and what equality means, you are already in trouble. And to me, trouble means life lessons. 

Also, to be able to have a just fight for my rights, I had to have the necessary knowledge, and for knowing one must read and observe; in the English culture they seem to call someone like me “a book worm”. 

I read a lot of history, literature, novels, and poetry; they all were immense aids, each in their own category.

As a young curious spirit my whole attention was following the uprisings and turmoil in 70s such as Chile’s revolution and the subsequent coup by Pinochet with the help of the CIA. The same with El Salvador and many other such unmerited conflicts created by agencies of control, their purpose being to dominate the wealth of the world and its peoples for the elites and corporations. 

What’s more, the European colonialism here and there; the breakdown of apartheid in South Africa; yet another awakening of our hideous and bloody history. Who won’t learn reading and following up on what they have done to the people of areas with rich resources?

I was also constantly moving, thus becoming involved with other cultures and working and living within each. Another path in my life learning was my diverse occupations; from Iran as a student and activist, to completely different surroundings in Canada where I spent many years in the computer field, then many more in psychology; two quite dissimilar fields of science which had me work with people who view the world in different ways. It was all learning, observing, and then implementing.

 

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Meadowlark

Last but certainly not least, we have Meadowlark by Wendi Stewart, published by NeWest Press. 

From the publisher: When her family's car goes through the ice on Rainy Lake one cold March day in 1962, six-year-old Rebecca Archer is the only person her father is able to pull from the sinking vehicle. But as Rebecca grows up in a farmhouse haunted by the absence of her mother and baby brother, raised by a man left nearly paralyzed with grief, she wonders if her father really did save her after all.

Q1. How long did it take you to write this novel, from the time you had the first idea right to publication date? 

Wendi Stewart: I started working on Meadowlark a little more than nine years ago. I had completed my first novel and set it aside to "ferment" and I woke up one night and wrote the prologue, almost as it is now.

I knew very little more than that about the story other than loss and grief. In 2006 I left my job as an accountant and started writing full time, putting in days of often more than eight hours of writing, editing, researching, submitting; all the work of being a writer. As Stephen King said in On Writing, "put your butt in the chair and write". I may be paraphrasing. :-) I did have to return to work when my "writing savings" ran out, but I wrote full time for about three years.

Q2. Was there anything in the novel that didn't turn out as you had expected it to? Were you surprised by anything that happened to any of the characters? 

WS: Rebecca was the main and only character when I began writing. But Chuck popped up before I was too far into the novel as someone Rebecca could save. She needed to save someone so she could save herself. I'm not exactly sure where and when Lissie came along. I have Cree in my genes from several generations back, as many of us do, and I wondered about that, about being not quite something specific. Add into that being adopted and I wondered about how empty that must feel, how alone, with no history to trace back. Rebecca surprised me often with her determination and courage, fuelled by the friendship of Chuck and Lissie. 

Q3. How do you know Lisa Moore and how involved was she in helping shape this novel? 

WS: I attended the Piper's Frith writing workshop in Newfoundland in 2012 and worked with Lisa Moore. 

In 2006 I took the Humber Summer Writers Workshop and Lisa Moore was one of the mentors at that time. I didn't work with her. We were all encouraged to read aloud and it is something that terrifies me still. I signed up to do a reading to challenge my fears. I read and my knees were banging together and my voice was shaking. After I was done and we were all filing out of the lecture hall, Lisa stopped me and congratulated me on my writing. I thanked her, thinking she was being kind and she took my arm and said, "No, you are a very good writer." That one sentence stuck with me and buoyed me up many times when I doubted I had something to say in my writing. And she was wonderful to work with at Pipers Frith though she had no recall of our previous encounter. She had no idea how much she had firmed up my path and fuelled my commitment. 

Q4. You live on the east coast and write about the west. What would you characterize as a few of the main differences in the personalities of the people in each?  Or are they similar, merely suffer different climates? 

WS: I grew up near Rainy Lake in Northwestern Ontario, the setting of Meadowlark. I grew up on a farm along the Rainy River, a childhood that I consider blessed and idyllic. I never had any intention or desire to leave there. I wanted to farm with my father. But he insisted I complete a post-secondary education first. I enrolled at the University of Manitoba in the Faculty of Physical Education with a minor study in Calculus. My father died three weeks after I left for university. He died Thanksgiving weekend when I was home for turkey. Going back to school was very, very difficult. 

I moved to Nova Scotia four years ago so I am only just coming to understand the people who live around me, those who were born here and those who have, like me, wandered here "from away". 

The climate in Northwestern Ontario was harsh when I was growing up. Plus that part of Ontario is very different from what we consider "Ontario" in Toronto and surrounding area. Poverty was a harsh reality, farming was a difficult challenge, travel was limited. Nova Scotia has many of those things, though there seems a greater acceptance of such here, as though they've had more generations of training to "make do with very little". I think the essence of each of us are far more similar than we realize, no matter what geography we consider home.

Q5. What gave you the idea for this novel and, in particular, those three characters? 

WS: As I mentioned earlier, my father died suddenly, died at home, crumbled at our feet. I'm not sure I recovered. I'm not sure I had any idea of who I was without him. I didn't have my own opinions, my own favourite colour, my own idea of what my life might look like. I admired him, I adored him, I emulated him. I felt very much like Rebecca, a balloon without a string, adrift. It's only in the last few years, perhaps in the writing of Meadowlark, that I have understood that I am a separate entity from him, that I always was I just didn't know it. Of course, Rebecca's father in no way has any resemblance to my father. But he may very well have been the part of me I let die, or the part of me that had no fleshing out, no meat. We learn very little about Rebecca's father in the novel and though that was intentional, I didn't realize that I was writing about my sense of self, the part of me that I gave very little value to, that I was cruel to at times, a part of me I knew very little about. How unfortunate. 

Maybe each of these characters: Rebecca, Chuck and Lissie have a bit of me in them and maybe they had the parts I wish I had. I think in many ways, this novel wrote itself, I was merely along for the ride.

Q6. What are you working on next? Another novel? 

WS: I have gone back now to my first novel that I wrote before Meadowlark. It is about two-thirds completed. The main character is delightfully odd in such a wonderful way. I enjoy writing about her. It fills my day with great purpose. I'm eager to complete it, to see where Jane and her sisters will take me.

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Thank you to Lisa and all the authors for participating! You can read part one of the interviews here.

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Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived and worked in the United States, Australia and Britain. Her award-winning novels include The Hungry Mirror (2010),  West of Wawa (2011), and A Glittering Chaos (2013), all published with Inanna Publications. Lisa recently released her fourth and fifth novels with Inanna, The Witchdoctor's Bones and Between the Cracks She Fell. Lisa lives and works in Toronto.


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