Malahat Advisory Board member Linda Rogers talks with Kevin Hardcastle, whose story, "To Have to Wait" (issue #177, Winter 2011) was named a finalist for the $10, 000 2012 Writers' Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize.
Congratulations, Kevin, on being named a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize. How exciting is that for a writer with few print credits to date. Given that writers have mixed feelings about the expectations and disappointments of literary competition, do you see it as a page turner for a young artist hoping to build an audience?
Thanks. It is pretty damn exciting. To be honest, I didn’t think I would ever get a nomination for a Canadian prize. Just getting published was a long time coming and, as you mention, I’ve only had a few journals take a chance on my work so far. I had a good response from The Malahat Review before, and when I started the last round of submissions I saved this one for them specifically. They accepted the story and supported it and we got the nomination. That process was a big deal for me from beginning to end. As for literary competition, I’m not going to lie, I want to win the Journey Prize. But the nomination alone might help me get my name and a few more stories out there, get the right sets of eyes on them, and there is some serious weight to that for a writer that has been working a long time but nobody knows about yet.
One writer I know told me that whenever she gets a windfall that is meant to give her writing time, she spends the cash on her pleasures and writes practically nothing. What would you do with 10K; would you hunker down or go out and grab some memorable otherwise unaffordable experiences?
Well, for me, that money buys me about four months of food and rent. So, if I had the choice, I’d be writing full-time for those four months. I only had one other period of time in the last ten years to write and put work on hold, when I was sponsored to go overseas on an MA program. Unfortunately, halfway through I knew there was a problem with the sponsor and I wouldn’t have the money finish the program, but I also knew I would be able to ride out one last term and take advantage of the opportunity to write my ass off while I was there. It took a while for that work to bear fruit, but having that time to work and knowing it was short made me a much better writer. So yeah, I would do ten thousand dollars worth of writing if I could.
You mentioned somewhere that the Journey attention might give some traction to your first novel, which, I gather, is in the can and waiting for an eager buyer. Are the short stories you've written appetizers for the big dinners you want to serve or do you feel equally compelled as some writers do? In your heart are you Sinclair Ross or Alice Munro in overalls, Cormac McCarthy, or the whole enchilada?
I’ve actually had a first novel in the can for a while now, and that is what got me an agent a couple years back. Unfortunately, despite all her hard work, my agent hasn’t been able to find a buyer for that one yet. So I went back to writing and submitting stories, and started work on a second novel, which is what I just finished and hope to submit on the heels of the Journey Prize nomination. Then I’ll be writing short stories again while I see what happens with the new book.
The bottom line is that whenever I haven’t been tied up working on those two novels I’ve been writing short stories. And I think that every period I’ve gone through where I’ve written a lot of shorts stories has made me a far better writer. Anything I’ve learned about constructing a good sentence, how to be descriptive without being too verbose, or just the cadence of the writing, all of that came from working on short stories. I use the same tools but I guess I try to plumb the depths a little more in a novel. I think I will always write both, and I think a lot of the best writers have. Cormac McCarthy is my favourite living writer, and I can respect his take on the novel being the be all and end all, especially if those novels have little or no fat on them. Personally though, I would rather go the route of Alistair McLeod, or Hemingway, and write both. There is something to be said for a writer who can do that and do it well.
Regardless, I promise I won’t write any poetry.
I mentioned the writers in the last question because all of them are very much attached to a certain place and time. They define the worlds they have chosen or were given to them. Is that your aim?
I’m fine with the prospect of being tied to a certain place and time, or to a couple of them. I didn’t plan it that way, but I see it going more and more in that direction. Of course, I would consider it a massive accomplishment if I could lay claim to a region in a fraction of the way that Daniel Woodrell does with the Ozarks and the Bayou, or like McCarthy does with Tennessee and Texas, but we’ll have to see what happens. All in all, I doubt I’ll ever spend too much time writing something that is a dramatic departure from what I write now, and I’m happy with that, because I think there’s real value in the stuff I’ve got to use if I can pull it off. I didn’t plan it that way, but I see it going more and more in that direction.
One thing I’ll say is that I do try to avoid specific details that will define the place and time for certain for the majority of readers. People familiar with the area the stories are set in will know where and what I’m talking about, but anyone else could peg the region or people in the work as part of a similar setting in a different part of the world. In the nominated story, for example, it’s probably got to be a rural and somewhat eastern part of North America, and by the dialogue it’s probably set near to our day and age. It’s that kind of place, but it could be that kind of place in a few different parts of the Canada or the U.S. The editor of The Malahat, John Barton, thought it was set in the Maritimes somewhere, and that’s great. Some of the stories and novels would identify as Canadian if you do a bit of Googling, but if not, the fact that a lot of the work could be set anytime in the last fifteen or twenty years, in Ontario, or farther east, or maybe a place like Maine or West Virginia, I think that gives a wider range of readers the chance to identify with the story and the characters in there.
Are you describing your own heartland and provenance in rough environments that sometimes allow transcendence and dignity, a way out?
Yes, I would say so. I write what I know. Learning how to be objective while getting a real story out of personal material was the single best lesson I learned during university, and I think that got me into writing proper, fully developed stories. But I’ve been mining my own experiences and the places and people I’ve known in everything I’ve written. I’ve been out of my hometown since I was nineteen, and I’ve lived in cities ever since, but knowing that heartland and accepting how it shaped me was essential, and it makes its way into the writing. I’m goddamn terrible at not laying it all out there, or telling people a lot of personal shit, and that comes out in the writing for sure. I’ve got better control of how it gets out in the work than in talking like this, but usually that’s all me in the writing, the world around me at whatever time. I was lucky when I was a younger man that I had a lot of loyal, intelligent friends to drink beer with, that knew the score on where we lived and that there was a lot more of the world outside of it. There is an interesting balance of quiet moments and outright havoc in places like that, depending what circles you choose to move in. Sometimes you just have to keep it together until you get out of there, but when you’re out you start to see what a place like that can articulate for you. It can be like a pressure cooker that makes you ready to be of value later in life in other places, to offer something to other people. I know that now, and, whatever hard times there were, I would never roll the dice again and risk not being from there and not having those ingredients in my life or in my writing.
When Matthew mentions his brother's educational aspirations in "To Have to Wait," we feel his hunger and disappointment, just as we experience the failure of Thomas's hockey career as much as his frightening medical diagnosis in your story, "An Appointment" [on Word Riot ]. Are stalled lives in waiting or is the redemption in endurance?
Redemption in endurance, for sure. I don’t want to tell everybody how a story ends outside the actual pages I wrote. But I like to think of the characters I write about as always building to something, good or bad, even if it seems like they’re stalled out. For intelligent people who have some hardship, the world is always acting upon them, keeping them in constant motion and forcing them to make moves, big or small.
Whether redemption will come is ultimately often left for the reader to figure out, especially in the shorter stories. Whether it is going to work out or not I hope the reader gets the impression that what happens in the stories, if it isn’t resolved, is going to precipitate some serious action by the main characters, some kind of change or deliverance or maybe even a hard fall. Some readers have said that they want to know what happens to the characters after, that they think some of the shortest stories I wrote are really the seeds of a novel, and that gives me the impression that those readers got enough out of the characters in that short while to care about where they end up. Whether they are ruined or redeemed isn’t written, but the characters will damn well try their best.
In both "To Have to Wait" and "An Appointment," the main characters are at a pivotal dramatic point in their lives. Do you structure the drama before you begin to write or do you begin to improvise with a character, and, having written short and longer fiction, is there any difference to the way you approach the design of your lives in progress?
I plan almost everything point by point, major events and significant dialogue and also a lot of the pivotal scenes of violence or other action. I start with who the character is and what they are made of, and, for a short story, I have usually one or two dramatic events that helps lay the character bare for the reader. I often break it up by short segments or chapters and leave a lot of story to be guessed at between those gaps, so you can cover a lot of ground in a short while, which is a style that I stole from a lot of better writers than me. In the novels I’ve worked on there are a lot more significant moments or events, and more time for the world around those characters, and when I’ve sat down for a bunch of hours there is some improvisation in there and some things just come to me that I hadn’t thought about yet. For me, a novel takes the same kind of planning but I do try to get deeper in, move at a slower pace and lay the characters out more thoroughly without actually telling the reader all about their psychology or personal histories outright. There are still plenty of big things happening in the longer work. I just hope the writing will be good enough to keep the readers invested in the small moments too.
Having just finished John Irving's new novel In One Person, a study of gender behaviour and sexuality, I have to ask about your man's men whose tenderness is revealed even in repressed and violent stereotypically male situations. In the post-feminist era, are you making a case for the bruiser/boozer with a heart of gold?
Absolutely I am. But it’s funny, because the tough guys I’m writing about are really not the kind of men I learned from, and I don’t know where that came from to want to identify with them. My father is as tough as you can get just from what life threw at him, and I know that now as a grown man, but he was not a busted athlete or fighter or brute. He was never quick to spark violent confrontation. Neither were any of my friends. But when push came to shove these men I grew up around would turn your life inside out to protect their lives or the lives of their family. It might not even always be the right thing to do, but sometimes it is just the animal reaction, or pre-emptive action, that you have to take a gamble on to protect whatever it is you feel you have to protect, even if it doesn’t work. And it is almost always a kind of violence that comes from a place of love, or of tenderness, and not from hate. It sounds crazy, but if you take a real man who is resolute and calm and sensible, and you try to make him fight just to fight, to prove a point, he won’t do it. But you have him thinking about his wife or his kid or his friend and that he is the one thing between you and their coming to harm and he might brain you with the nearest thing he can get his hands on. Like I said, it isn’t necessarily right, but it’s part of life and a huge manifestation of human emotion, and that makes it important to write about.
It’s not for every reader, and it should be noted that the violence and darker aspects of maleness that I write about are the things that made publishers balk at the work, while they are also things I think I write best. One of my main readers who gave me feedback on my work always got on my case for the violence and man’s men stuff, but she was always incredibly interested in any sexual content. Violence and sex are the two most significant and serious physical expressions of human emotion, for men and women, and so I find them both extraordinarily important if you are trying to write anything of any worth about human beings. It just so happens that I am way better at writing one than the other. But what does that say about me?
You have a day job that allows you access to books. Is that pretty much ideal or do you dream of being able to live as a writer with no other occupational responsibilities?
I’ve been working in university bookstores for the past five years or so, and it isn’t a bad job to have for a writer, especially during the less busy times. But being on the retail side of things isn’t all that beneficial for a fiction writer, especially if you’re worn out when you get home. Even working with literary fiction head on doesn’t mean it’ll help you do your real job of actually writing. I see a lot of people making ends meet by teaching, editing, blogging, and whatever else, and I’m not great at doing any of those things, especially not when I’m trying to focus on my own work. Really I’d like to write for a living and not have to punch a clock again. Until then I’m just trying to keep my head down from ten to six and earn enough to eat and not take it home with me at the end of the day, so I can get to my real job.
How much importance do you attach to journals like The Malahat which showcase the work of emerging writers and allow exposure to opportunities like the Journey Prize?
Journals like The Malahat Review are as important as it gets for an emerging writer. After leaving university, and the writing workshops there, I sometimes felt like I was out in the wastes, with no real outside opinion on whether I was writing anything good or not. I was extraordinarily lucky to have some instructors and classmates offer their support during that time and give me feedback on my work, but interacting with journals like The Malahat drastically improved my writing and vindicated my suspicions that the writing was worth reading, and probably a lot of it was worth publishing if I could nail it. I had some very good rejections from journals like The Malahat, and that kept me tough and it kept me going. Submitting to all of those journals eventually got me an agent, got a few stories published, and most importantly proved that the work was good enough and that I should keep writing even if a lot of journals or publishers didn’t quite get it yet.
Of course, being published by The Malahat Review carried a lot of weight and it was their support and belief in the story that won the nomination for the Journey Prize. And that nomination could possibly help me do this for a living. Even though I’m almost certainly the least published and least known writer in the anthology this year, I’ve been grinding it out for years, spurred on by the journals that accepted the work and also by those that gave me some good rejections with words of encouragement. So I don’t necessarily feel like I got lucky, but I would be a fool to think I could have gotten here all of a sudden without submitting to journals like The Malahat Review, or without learning from that process over the years.
You have studied literature and creative writing in Canada and Great Britain. Do you feel there is an essential difference in the approach to writing? What have you taken from mentors in both locations? Do you feel Canadian writers enjoy a certain freedom from tradition as we experience a newer culture?
The issue of a writer forging their own identity seems to be the most prevalent hang-up in a lot of popular Canadian and UK writing, and popular writers seem to get subsumed into a traditional, proven way of writing prose narrative that will make a book club, or they try to buck the trend too hard and be edgy and stand out, which can wear thin very quickly. This happens all over the place in Canada and the UK. And I think the issue is not that there are not damn good writers in Canada and the UK, who are writing without pretense and who have a real voice, but I think they are rewarded in both places far less than they should be.
I had first-rate mentors in Canada and in Wales. In Toronto I had Albert Moritz, and in Cardiff I had Lindsay Clarke, and I found an excellent editor and reader in Leah Chamberlain, from Colorado, who I met as co-student on the course in Cardiff. Not one of them wrote the same kind of fiction as I do, but they all seemed to find something of value in the writing and helped make me better at it. Moritz pushed me to write fully formed stories, and Clarke helped me sharpen my skills and write those stories better, and he was the first one to tell me that I could write a novel.
Chamberlain read and edited my stories and novels in the years since I left Cardiff, and she introduced me to a crazy person named Cort McMeel who got part of my recent novel published in an e-book journal and continues to egg me on. Everywhere I’ve gone I sort of felt like I wasn’t part of the scene, that I was more suited to going it alone and figuring it out myself, but I’ve been very lucky to keep running into at least one or two mentors at a time to help me keep it together and do the work the right way, even if our styles are very different.
As far as other Canadian writers go, I think they should be able to shuck loose of tradition and convention, to take advantage of the myriad experiences and landscapes and peoples that real writers observe in their lives, and turn those ingredients into an authentic narrative told with an authentic voice. But, as I said, I feel like very few of the writers that really try to pull this off are given their due, at least not when they are starting out and really need the support. Over the last couple of years there have been some interesting nominees for the big national prizes and accolades, and perhaps that will teach young Canadian writers that the best thing they can do is write well and hope to develop a real voice, ignore the conservative tastes of most publishers and write from the gut. It’s hard when you keep eating rejections, and you see some of the stuff they are publishing, but the worst thing you could do is let the market dictate the kind of writing you produce. All it might take is for one brave soul to publish your stuff, or to nominate your story for a prize (thanks Malahat), and maybe you’ll be able to write your own ticket without compromising the work.
Who are the writers you most admire and what would you say to encourage them to read "To Have to Wait?"
There are three writers that I admire most, living writers anyway. They are Cormac McCarthy, Alistair McLeod, and Daniel Woodrell. They all tend to be fairly private, and you don’t often hear them talking about other writers. I don’t think they even associate with very many other authors. McCarthy might be a lost cause because I don’t think he even reads fiction anymore, but I’d at least tell him that I owe a great debt to his work and that I can write a decent sentence. Also, I write violence and mayhem fairly well and the subject matter might be up his alley. Mostly, I would ask them all to take a chance on reading a real story, a narrative with heart, that doesn’t waste words or the precious time spent soaking them up.
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