canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Kenneth J. Harvey

Matthew Firth interview Kenneth J. Harvey by email in fall 2003.

MF: By way of an introduction, can I start by asking for a bit of background for the readers to whom you may be new or fairly new (i.e., what you write, influences, current project, anything else you think might be relevant)?

KJH: I am the author of fourteen books, including Directions for an Opened Body (Mercury Press, 1990), a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Brud (Little, Brown, 1992), shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and The Hole that Must Be Filled (Little Brown, 1994).

My novel Nine Tenths Unseen (Somerville House, 1998) was praised by Nobel Prize Laureate J.M. Coetzee as ďa harrowing journey into the dark underside of family life.Ē John Coetzee has also endorsed The Town That Forgot How to Breathe.

My editorials have been published widely in most major Canadian newspapers, and I have just started writing a weekly column for a new Newfoundland paper, The Sunday Independent. I have held the post of Writer-in-Residence at both the University of New Brunswick and Memorial University. I live in an outport in Newfoundland.

My influences include: Richard Brautigan, Mickey Spillane, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Sherwood Anderson, the Brontes, Flannery OíConnor, Guy de Maupassant, Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski, Nikolai Gogol, Paul Bowles, Timothy Findley, JD SalingerÖ I read all sorts of authors in many different genres. They need only be the best at what they do.

I am working on a new novel about a woman attempting to unscramble a series of traumas and find a missing child.

MF: How's the new novel - The Town That Forgot How to Breathe - doing?

KJH: Itís doing well on various levels. The reviews have been extremely positive. The sales are solid. Good reviews and sales often go hand in hand. Itís interesting to see that Iíve written a popular book. I never would have expected it to have been so successful with so many different types of people.

MF: The front cover is blurbed by J.M. Coetzee, who was just awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. What does his endorsement of your new book mean to you?

KJH: It means a great deal to me. J.M. Coetzee is one of the greatest writers who has ever lived. Iím a huge fan of his work. His endorsement helped the book quite a bit. He rarely gives endorsements. The book has just been bought by J.M. Coetzeeís editor in England, who also edits Umberto Eco, Andrť Brink, David Lodge, Tim Parks, Louis de Berniers, James Kelman and Caryl Phillips. The UK edition will be published by Secker & Warburg/Random House in Spring 2004.

MF: A few years back when I interviewed you for a feature in Front&Centre, one of your final statements lamented that the spiritual side of your writing is sometimes overlooked. The Town That Forgot How to Breathe has an overt spiritual dimension to it. Was it a conscious effort on your part to put the spiritual on the front burner?

KJH: No, never conscious. With writing, very little is conscious on my part. I just build the story and the elements fall into place. It's a process thatís impossible to explain. It merely happens as I go along. Many of the plot ties simply solve themselves in the back of my head and then appear on their own. I imagine the writing process is much like architecture, building one piece onto another, making certain everything is supported, and then it comes down to construction and then smoothing out the sentences like planing wood. Thereís definitely a parallel between writing and construction. But whatís driving a writer forward, the vision, is unknowable, unseeable. I have no idea how I do it, and when I read some things that I write I am often struck by the foreign quality of the writing as though someone else has written it.

MF: I'm impressed that you've broken new ground with The Town That Forgot How to Breathe. In addition to the spiritual, the book embraces elements of mythology, folklore, mystery, fantasy, and even science fiction at times. It also has thriller, social criticism and gutsy CanLit parts to it, like much of your work. Why are you pushing out into these new spheres of writing?

KJH: I always try to write a new book. I never want to write the same book twice.

MF: The Town That Forgot How to Breathe centres on strange goings-on in a small Newfoundland community. An eerie paranoia fills the book. But also a palpable sense of imminent disaster. Your timing is impeccable given the recent hurricanes, forest fires, ice jams, floods, blackouts, mysterious diseases, etc. We seem to be bouncing from one disaster to another. Have you anticipated this with the new novel somehow, or is this just a happy coincidence for you?

KJH: What is particularly peculiar is that when this book was at the printers SARS was running rampant and so the idea of not being able to breathe was quite topical. Then, a little while later, while the book was being printed the Newfoundland the cod fishery was shut down entirely. This happens in the novel. Everyone was quite excited about the idea of the book being prescient. Then, by the time the book was released in bookstores, SARS had disappeared and the fishery was no longer news.

MF: The book ends (not to give it away, I hope) with a caveat with respect to people forgetting who they are. And in the second half of the book, the question Who are you? or Who am I? is asked of several characters. Was part of your motivation in writing this novel to remind readers that they are losing themselves somehow, forgetting who they are, etc? If so, please explain why this is important to you.

KJH: We must always know who we are, where we came from. We must always protect our culture, otherwise we become someone else, our identities are leached off.

MF: You've just come back from taking part in the Ottawa International Writers Festival. What's your impression of these gala-type literary festivals? Are you comfortable participating? How was the beer? Do these big fests achieve much in your eyes?

KJH: The Ottawa Festival was just phenomenal. The organizers have the purest hearts. They really care about writing, no pretensions. The beer was very good, local micro-brewery concoction. I should ask you how the beer was. You drank enough of it. The festivals are great for introducing authors to new readers. I sold a number of copies of THE TOWN while I was there. People hear a snippet of the book and if they like it then they buy the book. These are usually new readers who havenít heard of me. Also, I also meet a number of people who know my writing and want to introduce themselves. This is always endearing. Young writers often appear at such functions and I meet them. I sometimes ask to give them a hand with submitting and rewriting their work if theyíre open to being helped.

MF: You founded the ReLit Awards a few years back. For those readers unfamiliar with the awards, what are they all about?

KJH: To honour new writing published by independent Canadian presses. We have a bonfire each year, one in Newfoundland, one in British Columbia, both on the same night, to announce the winners and to have readings around fire, by the water. Storytelling at its essence.

MF: What's your take on the whole awards and contests buzz that seems rampant in Canadian writing and publishing circles? Have we reached a saturation point with awards and contests?

KJH: Awards always sell books. I only wish there were more titles by writers with new vision on the lists. The lists are often dominated by writers with Victorian sensibilities. Sometimes theyíll toss in a cutting-edge writer and think theyíve done their little bit.

MF: I see/hear about a lot of young writers lusting after awards and diligently entering contests at every turn as a way they see to add credibility to their work. For example, I get submissions to Front&Centre where someone in their bio tells me they were fourth runner-up for some contest in Manitoba or North Carolina or some such place. Rather than impress me, it usually makes me wary, makes me a wee bit cynical before I've read a word of their fiction. Is it wise, do you think, for young writers to get caught up in awards and contests?

KJH: I think itís best to simply write a book, try to write something with vision, and let the rest take care of itself.

MF: Lastly, are you optimistic with respect to the future of CanLit? What do you see in your crystal ball in terms of what we might expect from CanLit in the coming years?

KJH: CanLit is growing in popularity in Canada and around the world. I hope that trend continues. Itís good for everyone. Itís surprising how strong CanLit is considering the thrashing publishers have taken from the collapse of Chapters and Stoddart. It only proves how strong the writing here is. I hope to see more new voices. Itís always such a thrill to come across a voice that is new. Thereís a first collection of fiction coming out of Newfoundland in November called IN THE CHAMBERS OF THE SEA by Susan Rendell. Itís just wonderful. I hope everyone reads it.

Matthew Firth is a writer living in Ottawa.







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