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Lawrence Hill: Award-winning Canadian author

Lawrence Hill’s book Someone Knows My Name won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008 award. It is called The Book of Negroes in Canada and it is about the history of slavery. It follows African slaves from Africa to America and delves into the struggles for the character Aminato Diallo. Although it’s a work of fiction, it has been heavily researched and Lawrence named his book’s lead character after his daughter to ensure that he could love this Aminato enough to lift her story off the page and into readers’ hearts.

He co-wrote The Deserter’s Tale: the Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq, a non fiction account of Joshua Key’s desertion from the war in Iraq. The book was named by Quill & Quire magazine as of the top ten books published in 2007.

Lawrence has also written his memoir in 2001 Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. He grew up in a white suburb in Canada with a black father and white mother.

Lawrence’s books all touch upon identity, belonging and his ancestry and he has also written books about these topics called Any Known Blood and Some Great Thing.

Lawrence Hill is the son of a civil rights activist Daniel Hill III whose descendants come from African slavery. Lawrence began his writing career as a journalist and has volunteered in Niger, Cameroon and Mali.

He lives with his wife and five children in Ontario.

Click play to listen. Running time: 23.02


Someone Knows My Name

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Lawrence, thanks for joining us today.

Lawrence:
It’s my pleasure.

Valerie:
Now tell us, your lead character in your book, Aminata Diallo, how did she come into being and why did you want to tell this story?

Lawrence:
Well Aminata is a young girl of 11 when she’s abducted from West Africa in the middle of the 1700s. She came into being in my imagination as she’s a fictional creation but when I learned years ago about a movement of African people from Canada back to Africa in the 1700s and that some of them were born in Africa and were not just going there from Canada but going back home, I started to imagine this woman’s life story. And just imagining her life story became the core of this novel.

Valerie:
Now your family are descendants of slaves from Africa. Does writing about what happened to them help you at all find your own identity or is it something that you’re interested in exploring yourself?

Lawrence:
I have explored issues of my own identity in earlier works, particularly a memoir called Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. But this particular novel isn’t really about finding my identity unless it’s a figurative exploration. It’s really about imagining the life of an 18th century woman who’s born free and caught up in the transatlantic slave trade and liberates herself later and has a very momentous life. It’s really an attempt to flesh out and dramatise and imagine the gritty details of the life of a woman caught up in this era, this tumultuous time.

Valerie:
What was it like researching the historical aspects of that book and also writing from a girl’s point of view?

Lawrence:
It was fascinating to do the research. Although I read widely and did lots of academic researching, the most interesting parts of research were the personal ones reading people’s letters and diaries and personal accounts of men and women, black and white, kept in the 18th century. And I did look at these accounts and begin to sort of imagine what my character’s life might look like. So it was a very rich kind of research and it really sort of helped me situate myself in the time and place.

Writing in the voice of a girl and a woman was certainly a bit of a leap. They tell writers that they should write about things that they know and things that they’ve experienced but I find that as somewhat limited to tell a writer, and I found it liberating actually to imagine myself a woman in the 18th century and an African woman at that and to imagine the life and the passions and the trials that she would have experienced. It was somehow freeing to write about somebody who couldn’t possibly be me.

Valerie:
Was there anything you did to help you get into that head space?

Lawrence:
Yes, I did. Apart from all the reading which was quite extensive I gave her my daughter’s name. My daughter’s middle name is Aminata which becomes the name of the protagonist Aminata and I thought of her as my daughter. I tried to imagine that this was my child and what would have happened if my own daughter were caught up in the slave trade several centuries ago. How would she have survived, not just physically which is already a miracle but how would she have survived emotionally so that emerged from this experience with her soul intact?

Valerie:
When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

Lawrence:
Well I was writing with some passion from the age of six or so actually, letters to my father to get the things I wanted. I had to write letters for them. So really I was quite passionate about it then, but I’d say by 14 or 15 I was writing stories madly and ripping them up and writing them again and so forth on my mother’s typewriter. I think at that point I knew that I was going to write. I didn’t know that it would be possible to be a Writer with a capital W, that I could make a living from it, but I knew I had to write and that I would write.

Valerie:
So you say you started writing letters to your father and I understand that there’s a story you wanted a kitten and your dad asked you to write a letter telling him why you wanted a kitten. Is that true?

Lawrence:
Yes, it is true. I realise it sounds a little bit unbelievable but it is completely true. I was six and I wanted this kitten. And you know six year olds, when they want something they’re unstoppable. And he said no. He was an austere dominating kind of African American immigrant to Canada and an authoritarian father and he said no. And I asked again and he said no. And I asked a third time and he said, “Well, if you really want that kitten, write me a letter and tell me in the letter why you deserve it and whose allowance will pay for its cat food and how you’ll prevent it from having babies in the closet. And if it’s a well rendered letter with no spelling mistakes, I’ll give your request due consideration.” So he gave me that kitten after I wrote that letter, and from that point on any time I wanted anything I had to write another letter for it.

Valerie:
Oh that’s cute. I have to ask, what was the kitten’s name?

Lawrence:
Smokey. Not exactly the most original name.

Valerie:
When you say that you were writing a lot even from the age of six but you didn’t realize that you could be a Writer with a capital W, when did that point come about? When did you realise “I can make a living from this? I can write full time”?

Lawrence:
I didn’t know if I’d be able to make a living from it and frankly, most writers around the world can’t and never do. But that doesn’t mean they’re not writers. Most artists whether they’re playing the saxophone or dancing or painting or writing short stories or poetry or novels, most of them can’t make a living at it at least supporting a family and doing only that. Most people have to do other things.

So the real moment wasn’t so much feeling confident that I could make a living at it but that I would be able to do it as a main activity of my working life. And that was around the age of 27, about half a lifetime ago when I quit my job as a newspaper reporter because I worried that I was getting old at the age of 27 and felt that I should leave and go off to Spain and write around the clock and do nothing but write all day for a year and sort of isolate myself from my country and just get going.

So it was at the age of 27 I quit my job as a journalist and started writing flat out all day every day for a year.

Valerie:
Now you’ve co-written The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq. Tell us about how this came about and why you and Joshua Key decided to write this book about Joshua’s desertion?

Lawrence:
Sure. It was while I was finishing the novel Someone Knows My Name that I had the opportunity to write this story of Joshua Key, so it’s one of those books that’s kind of written in the style of the Autobiography of Malcolm X which is written by Alex Haley but about the life of Malcolm X. And I wrote this book The Deserter’s Tale but it’s about Joshua Key’s life and he gave me information that I needed in order to write the story for him.

It’s just a stunning story that so engrossed me about a poor Oklahoma farm boy who signs up for the military because he needs a job, gets sent off to the war in Iraq and ends up being ordered as part of his daily military duty to raid the homes of Iraqi civilians, blow out their doors with explosives, charge into their houses at 3 in the morning, terrorize the occupants and basically intimidate unarmed Iraqi civilians for the whole time he was in Iraq. And he was so horrified by what he was made to do that he eventually deserted, fled to Canada where he’s seeking refugee status.

And it’s a true story about his time in Iraq and why he chose to flee the war and why he felt that was the moral decision to make.

Valerie:
Have you had much feedback on this book?

Lawrence:
Well it’s been published around the world including in Australia so it’s been very widely published. But there’s been lots of media about the book in the world but most countries especially in Canada and the United States, audiences haven’t really stepped into it very much. It’s been a very quiet book. It’s not generated a huge audience or attracted a great many readers which is unfortunate but it is the truth.

Valerie:
It’s an amazing story. Do you get feedback from readers at all directly emailing you or contacting you about it?

Lawrence:
I do but most people are emailing me about the novel Someone Knows My Name. I do get a bit of contact from people with regard to The Deserter’s Tale but not nearly as much as the novel.

Valerie:
Did you first go into journalism as the first step in your career?

Lawrence:
Yes, it was my first job after university. Well, I worked for my father for a bit part-time while I was writing short stories but just for a year or so, and then I did some more traveling in Africa, and then my first full-time job out of university was to become a journalist.

Valerie:
Is it actually a hard switch to write to go from, because journalism is very factual, it’s non-fiction, there’s a certain way that you need to report, but then you write something that’s fictional such as Someone Knows My Name. Is it hard to make that switch?

Lawrence:
Yes, it is in many ways. I mean obviously it draws on some of the same skills, the capacity to observe and the capacity to draw things clearly for a reader. So clearly there are certain skills that overlap, but it’s a very different kind of writing. In journalism you spell out things in a very bald, overt, direct way and you just state things right up front, like “William was furious” if that were the case. But you just can’t get away with that in fiction. You have to illustrate things by action and by drama, so it’s a whole different way of approaching creating a reality and it is a very different way to write I believe.

Valerie:
What did you do though to get those different skills, because as you say it is different? What did you do to kind of hone your fiction writing skills?

Lawrence:
The most important thing I did which is what I think is the most important for other writers who are now developing is just to do it. As I say implicitly GYAIC, which stands for Get Your Ass In Chair; sit down and do it over and over again. And then read your stuff and realise what’s not working, rip it apart and do it again and again and fix it and rewrite it and rewrite it. So the doing is really where most of the learning occurs.

It’s kind of like playing basketball. You don’t become a good basketball player by reading a book about it. You have to throw the shots until you become really skillful at it.

And of course, you can read books about how to write and of course it’s vitally important to read literature and watch how other writers are doing things that you can’t develop without that, but apart from reading other writers and how they’re working I think the most important thing is to write and then to rip yourself apart and rewrite it and do that over and over again. And that for me was the way I learned, and much of that – not all of it – but much of that is self taught.

Valerie:
Just through sheer persistence?

Lawrence:
Persistence and through the sheer writing and revision. Many people who don’t write much think that they’re somehow cheapened by revisions, think they’re getting away from their original genius. But of course if you’re a serious writer, you must rewrite endlessly before you come up with something saleable.

Valerie:
For sure. So what are you working on now? Are you working on another book now?

Lawrence:
Yes. I’m writing another novel right now called Underground which you’ll be amused to know takes place in a fictional country which is a huge island in the middle of sea, one of the biggest nation’s in the world. And it’s not really a meditation about Australia but I do find myself amused to discover myself here in Australia when I’ve been writing this novel set in this fictional island that’s a massive island but in which one character has to be sort of hiding as an illegal refugee.

Valerie:
Right. And this is a completely fictional book, it’s not like set in a certain period of history or anything like that?

Lawrence:
No, no, this one’s completely from my imagination. It’s a contemporary novel unlike Someone Knows My Name which is out now in Australia which is a historical novel. And it’s a meditation on the life of people who are illegal refugees kind of living under the radar screen in developed nations.

Valerie:
When you are writing as you are now, can you describe to us your typical writing day? Is there a routine or how does it work for you?

Lawrence:
I wish I could tell you that my routine was that I woke up at 5 every morning, had a coffee, sat down at a quarter to 6, worked till 12 and then fiddled around and did other things. But my life is madness. I have five children who run in age from 9 to 18 and a wife and there are flute lessons and karate lessons and school and doctors and dentists and violin lessons. You name it, we’ve got it. So our lives are madness and I just write whenever I have the chance. And half the time it’s when the children are asleep, late at night or early in the morning or when I sort of steal time away or when they’re in school. But our lives are madness. I wish I could tell you that I had a perfectly organised routine but I just write whenever I can.

Valerie:
Right. Do you have a particular space that you need to do it in? Some writers only write in a certain room or anything like that or it sounds like you’re so busy that you’re kind of writing anywhere?

Lawrence:
One of the real advantages of having been a journalist before is that you learn to write in conditions of chaos and madness. You’re in loud newsrooms, people are swearing and talking on the phone and making noise all around you and clattering on typewriters back in the old days at least. So I learned to write in those conditions of chaos and that was good. It was good training. So now obviously if I can have a room to myself that’s quiet, that’s wonderful but I can also write in noisy conditions and I just sort of shut people out and just go.

Valerie:
Great. Do you have a preference for writing fiction or non-fiction or do you find one easier than the other at all?

Lawrence:
Yes, I do have a preference and that is to write fiction. I love to write non-fiction. I was a journalist for seven years and I’ve written some non-fiction books such as The Deserter’s Tale which I really love to do and I’m sure I’ll write more. But what’s closest to my heart, what really makes me most excited as a writer and a human being is to write fiction, to write novels. It just seems to be the most interesting challenge for me.

That doesn’t mean that it’s a better form of writing than non-fiction. It just means that it’s the one that speaks to me the most. So using my imagination to create human lives on the paper and sort of create stories about people and to draw readers into these dramatic tales, that’s what excites me the most.

Valerie:
And what would your advice be to people out there, up and coming writers, who would like to write?

Lawrence:
I’d say that you have to find a way to live while you’re writing. If you don’t have a plan to earn an income while you’re feeding your writing habit, then you’ll have to stop soon enough because you won’t have sort of made arrangements to be able to sustain it. So you have to find a way to live because it might take you decades before you can realistically expect to be earning any kind of serious income from it and you may never earn any serious income. Most writers never earn any serious or sustained income from their fiction so they have to do other things. So finding a way to keep living while you’re writing is one important practical consideration.

But other than that, it’s not really a very romantic thing to do or a very romantic lifestyle. It’s get your butt in the chair, sit down and close the door and stop talking on the telephone and get to work and allow yourself to spend huge amounts of time in your own imagination and to enjoy that process of just creating from nothing in your own mind. So you have to be prepared for long bouts of solitude, not just to endure it but to enjoy it and to revel in it and to find your own creative genius there. And you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time rewriting as well and not to feel that you’re somehow above that and that’s demeaning to you.

Valerie:
People do have a romantic notion associated with writing, don’t they? And as you say the rewriting is so important. Can you give listeners an idea of what proportion of your time would have been spent writing the first draft and then what proportion of the time in the gestation of the book is actually spent rewriting?

Lawrence:
I spent about three years working on the first draft and then about one year revising. But that’s a little deceiving because the three years was on and off and on and off. It took a long time to bring it out. It took a long time to reach into my own heart and bring out that story. So it’s not like I was writing around the clock for three years. It was slower. It was in bits and starts. I had to coax it out of my own heart. So it took a long time for it to mature on the vines and for it to come out. So that was in bits and starts for the three years.

But the one year of revision was a mad intense flat-out burst of writing for hours and hours and hours every day for a whole year. So the rewriting was extremely intensive and the fact that it only spread out over one year sort of underestimates the real time I put in it in relation to the first draft.

Valerie:
Sure. And you say that you do need to spend a lot of time in your own mind and in an isolated kind of space so that you can think about what you want to put in the book and let your imagination go. With five kids and all those violin and flute lessons, how in the world do you get that time or do you actually schedule that time in? How does that happen for you?

Lawrence:
Well, again I don’t usually schedule that much time when the kids are around because they need so much. But when they’re at school and when they’re asleep or when they’re away on holidays or when I’m out of the home, I get a great deal done.

Usually about two or three times a year I may go away for 10 days and just write around the clock in complete isolation for those 10 days. And I get huge amounts done then and really move my projects forward. If I’m really anxious to get going on something or keep moving on a project that’s sort of stalling, I’ll just go away and sort of say goodbye to everybody for 10 days and write fiendishly somewhere else. I’ll borrow somebody’s cottage in isolation and just write there or something. So I do that a few times a year also.

Valerie:
Sure. And finally, which of your books was the most enjoyable process for you and why?

Lawrence:
When you’re writing, sometimes it feels you’re ripping your heart out. It’s exciting to write and I do like the process of writing but it can also be quite painful. And I was writing about extraordinarily sad and difficult human experiences in Someone Knows My Name so it’s not necessarily a happy experience even though it feels like a rich and satisfying one. I tried to let some shafts of light into the story so it’s interesting and readable and compelling and so a reader doesn’t feel beaten over the head with the sadness of the novel, and I really worked hard to make it an interesting story with again some shafts of light or optimism.

But I would say that the most satisfying project to date has been Someone Knows My Name, the most recent novel.

Valerie:
Wonderful. On that note, thank you very much for your time today.

Lawrence:
Thank you so much. I’m delighted to speak with you and I hope one day to be able to visit your centre.

Valerie:
Definitely. Thank you Lawrence.

Lawrence:
Take care.

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