backofthebook.ca editor Frank Moher talks with Kenneth J. Harvey, author of this Fall’s Giller-nominated novel Blackstrap Hawco. Read Frank’s review of the book here.
Moher: Were you born in Newfoundland?
Harvey: I was born in St John’s, grew up in St. John’s. My folks are from Bell Island, which is a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. I grew up in St. John’s and moved to where I am now 16 years ago, an outport in Conception Bay, an hour from St John’s.
Moher: Why is it so many of your writing colleagues leave Newfoundland?
Harvey: I guess they want to have more fun.
Moher: And do they?
Harvey: I really don’t know. I’m perfectly content to be where I am and I don’t think I could have written this book unless I stayed there, because you really need the stories to authenticate the project, you know? And a lot of the stories in Blackstrap I picked up from living out in where I am now for 16 years.
I don’t know if that answers your question about why they moved away. I really don’t know, I guess they wanted to be more cosmopolitan perhaps, or there’s lots more connections. I think from a business point of view it’s probably a good move because any business that you’re in, the closer you are to connections, the more people you know, usually the better you do in business. I don’t really care about that. I was never like a part of any literary group or any arts group or people like that. I always just sort of went off and wrote, you know, and I find if you hang around people too long, if you’re doing a lot of workshopping and stuff like, I think that sometimes you run the risk of being homogenized. Everyone starts sounding like everybody else. And the best thing to do is to get away. Hide. And waste your life writing. Not seeing anybody. Being a hermit and then regretting it all when you’re old. Regretting all those cocktail parties you coulda went to. And all the free booze.
Moher: So do you have any university training? Or are you just school of hard knocks?
Harvey: I went to university for a while, yeah I did. I was going to be a psychologist, that’s what I wanted to be. I studied psychology for three years and minored in philosophy and did some religion courses. I was in The Muse, the student newspaper, and on radio. I was in the council of the students union, I was the entertainment coordinator, I brought in all the bands and movies. I had a lot of fun there. I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends. My son is going to university now and his friends and I tell them the stuff I remember the most are the times at The Muse, at the student newspaper and on radio. That’s where I learned how to put together a newspaper, you know, did paste-up and all that kind of stuff. Back when we used to roll hot wax on the back of the news stories and slice them with an X-acto blade and paste ’em up. And from that I learned to put together newspapers, and then me and my father did a offshore oil magazine.
What I learned was not necessarily from what I was studying but from the extracurricular stuf. And then I ended up getting into business. Since I’ve been 18, I’ve always been self employed one way or the other.
Moher: Right. So, your book — which, unfortunately, I keep wanting to call Blackhawk Down or Blackstrap Darko, but it’s called Blackstrap Hawco —
Harvey: Jockstrap Hawco I think some people call it.
Moher: First of all, what is a “transcomposite narrative?” Did you coin that term?
Harvey: Yes I did. I made it up all by myself and no one was holding my hand either when I did it.
Moher: That was clever.
Harvey: Yeah, it was pretty good. I’ll tell you where it started. In 2000, I put out a book called Skin Hound: There Are No Words. It’s about a serial killer who skinned his victims. I write thrillers and I write literary fiction and all different non-fiction and stuff.
Moher: You say you write genre fiction?
Harvey: Oh yeah, I’ve written lots of thrillers. My bestselling book, one of them, is a thriller in Japan.
Moher: Do you write them under the same name?
Harvey: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed if you’re a good writer you should be able to write anything, if you want to. I’ve always read everything from Mickey Spillane to Stephen King to Dostoevsky, and everything in between. If you’re going to be a writer, I think you really need to be familiar with all the best writers in their genre. I really don’t think there’s any difference between Stephen King and Michael Ondaatje, you know? They’re both the best at what they do.
Harvey: And this literary bigotry, snobbishness, pretentiousness, is foolish you know.
But getting back to the transcomposite thing. When I write a book I just don’t want to write a book — I want to do a whole bunch of stuff with it because otherwise I get bored. So I’m always looking to do something different — change something, invent something. So at that time I had in my mind the whole idea about how much of the author is actually the character? ‘Cause I used to get this all the time, if your write anything dark it’s like “Oh, you’re really dark”; if you write anything about a serial killer, “Oh, you must be a serial killer”. I wrote a book about a simpleton but nobody thinks I’m a simpleton. Just ’cause I write about an apple doesn’t mean I’m an apple, you know?
Anyway, this is something I always used to get: why are you so dark? Your writing is so dark. Particularly the earlier stuff. So I took personal journal entries I had written and I made them the journal entries of the serial killer, so I kind of humanized him. But it was also playing on the whole idea of how much of the character is the author. I also had my DNA in sample booklets that went out — just little skin scrapings and stuff which was put into the paper; my wife is a paper maker. And that got huge international press, Publishers Weekly, all over the world. And that, again, was playing on the idea of how much of the author is actually in a character. Well I was actually in the book, you know, my DNA was in there. Anyways, that’s where it started,
With Blackstrap Hawco, I was messing around with the idea of storytelling, you know, and what is real and what isn’t, and what is truth and what is fiction. And storytelling is always a bit of both, you know, it’s based on fact but we blow things up or leave things out or try to tell a story to make
it exciting or have us to play a bigger part, when we actually didn’t. So we’re always stealing and changing. So with this book I took letters from other books. One of the examples: I took a couple of letters from a book called White Tie and Decorations, actually by my cousin, because I wanted a tie into family, my family here — which were the letters of Lady Hope Simpson, who came over with her husband and sort of tried to make Newfoundland better in the ’50s. And I took those letters and I made them the domain of one of the characters in the book, who was actually writing them. I changed the names to suit the characters, and I also took some poems from some of the great Irish poets and made them Patrick Lambly’s poems, which are the beginning of the Hawcos in Newfoundland. I also changed some of the lines as well and made it either mine or his, whichever way you want to look at it. So there’s all these kind of transcomposite meldings throughout the book and again that plays with the whole idea of what is fact and what is fiction? I don’t think there really is such a thing. I think everything is always a mix of that? And so that’s what the transcomposite narrative is all about.
Moher: So some of the material in the book is found prose that you’ve fiddled with.
Harvey: There’s also stuff from some of my stories and stuff too, put in there, just transcomposed in there so that it fits hopefully seamlessly into the book.
Moher: Is transcomposed another word for “rewritten?”
Harvey: Transcomposite. No no no, just stitched together, you know, like a big Frankenstein monster. Because that’s what books are, books are a big Frankenstein monster: you take stuff from somewhere, you take something from somewhere else, you put ’em together. Characters are like that. And making a character is just like making a Frankenstein monster. You know you’re taking bits and pieces of different people all the time and that’s why people read a book and they go, “Oh, okay, this character is definitely about you.” Or “I read this and this is about me.” But it’s not – it’s about you and, you know, 15, 20, 30 other people. ‘Cause that’s the way a character’s made and that’s the way a book is made.
Moher: Does your family reach as far back into Newfoundland’s history as the family in the book?
Harvey: I think everybody does, yeah. But you know strangely, too, people always say that they’re from somewhere, they’re from Newfoundland or wherever and they’re very nationalistic about it. But nobody’s ever really from anywhere, you know? I mean, my people came from Ireland or England or wherever. We lay claim to some place that we come to and we become very nationalistic about it and say, “Oh, you know, this is where I’m from,” and you’re not really from there really, you’re from — your people — you come from somewhere else. Always come from somewhere else.
Moher: Are you a Newfoundland nationalist?
Harvey: Well, I’m proud of Newfoundland. I’m from Newfoundland, that’s my culture. But it’s strange, ‘cause I grew up in St. John’s. As I mentioned, we moved to out around the Bay, to an outport, around 16 years ago. And even though we came from an hour away, we were considered immigrants, “Townies” as opposed to “Baymen.” And even though my children have been raised completely in that community, they’ll never be “from there,” you know? Which is kind of bizarre when you think about it. That’s one of the things the book speaks about too, is not knowing where you’re from. You need your family or your history, because in the first part of the book, we learn all the stuff about Blackstrap Hawco’s history from the 1800s when these people came over, and it jumps back and forth in time. And then in the second book it’s Blackstrap’s story in a chronological order and when you get to the second book we know more about Blackstrap Hawco than he does. And what he knows about himself is different than what we know. And I think that’s one of the core issues in the book too, you know — identity, loss of identity.
Moher: You created the “ReLit Awards” did you not?
Harvey: Yes I did. In 2000.
Moher: What was the impetus behind them?
Harvey: Well it was that the award winners were always the usual suspects, you know? And there are a lot of young voices, young Canadian writers — not even necessarily young, middle aged or whatever age — who are writing very good fiction, a little different, not the Victorian novel over and over again, something different and those people needed some kind of recognition. And also the focus in the press was so-and-so wins $50,000, so-and-so wins $130,000, and that was kind of what the book was about. It was how much money, it wasn’t about ideas anymore. That started to bug me and so in 2000 I thought, well, you know, someone should start an award for literary presses, big and small, and independent presses, and I said why don’t I do it? So I did, and it’s been going. We get submissions from over 50 publishers every year. As long as they’re Canadian owned and literary presses, they can submit. I do the long lists, and so I read a lot of Canadian literature. A lot of great stuff’s going on.
Moher: Does it make a difference to you, however, to be published in this instance by Random House?
Harvey: Oh yeah, of course it does. I mean I have to live. In a sense, the literary press is a starting ground. It’s one of the reasons why it’s very hard for them to make any money — everybody leaves them eventually. Margaret Atwood started with them, Ondaatje, you know. But eventually you get a family or whatever, you need to eat, buy things and survive. You begin to look for bigger advances and, you know, you have to tap into the machine. They can sell books – that’s the business they’re in.
Moher: So what is next for you?
Harvey: Well my next book after Blackstrap is finished and off, It sold in Russia actually, which is the first place, the first country, it sold in. I’ve got probably three or four other books in the works. I usually have, because I write under different names, pseudonyms. I usually have six, seven books going at once.
Moher: That you’re actively working on?
Harvey: Oh yeah, always.
Moher: Alright Ken, well thanks for your time.
Harvey: Thank you.