A dark voice out of Newfoundland, writer Kenneth J. Harvey has received accolades for his novels, stories and poems, but at heart, Harvey just writes because that’s what he has to do.
There is no voice like his in Canada, no one shrewder about the publishing business, but writer Kenneth J. Harvey is anything but haughty about his occupation. He’s always had to write, Harvey says, “Just like people dream of dentistry.” And write he does. Since 1990, he’s published 13 novels, two collections of short stories, a collection of poetry and a biography he co-wrote with an abused woman. He’s published in 17 countries.
In fact, you can’t yet read his most recent book, Reinventing the Rose. It’s just been released, but only in Russia, marking the first time a Canadian novel was published in that country before any other. About an artist whose gynecologist boyfriend wants her to have an abortion – the development of the embryo parallels a court battle between the parents – it’s his fifth novel to be translated into Russian.
In 2008, Harvey published his 825-page epic novel Blackstrap Hawco: Said To Be About a Newfoundland Family to rave reviews. Fifteen years in the making, this book will likely remain in print long after some of his others. Named by Amazon as the “Best Book Out of Canada in 2008”, the story spans the generations of the Hawco family in Newfoundland from its Irish roots in 1886 through to 2007.
Episodic in nature and experimental in narrative style, the prose often mimicking the style of the period in which it’s set, the book challenges the reader to piece together the grim, sometimes surreal story of Blacksrap Hawco – a rough man with a big heart who is said to have died several times over – his ancestors and his children.
Blackstrap Hawco may prove Harvey’s masterpiece, but in 2003 he published his breakout novel, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe. The accolades and awards for the little novel that married life in a dying Newfoundland mining town with Stephen King inspired horror continue to pile up seven years later. Optioned for film, the book won both the Thomas Head Raddall Award and Italy’s Libro del Mare. Recently it was named by the National Post as one of the best books of the previous decade. And in 2006, his novel Inside won both the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Winterset Award.
On top of a busy writing schedule, Harvey is the founder and judge of the Re-Lit Awards for books from independent Canadian publishers. He reads about 250 books a year from over 60 publishers. “If I see anything magical, I recommend them to my agent or other agents.” He also keeps a blog for disgruntled former Wal-Mart employees and hauls his own firewood by hand, one log at a time. “It’s a great way of testing your heart,” he says.
I spoke with Kenneth J. Harvey about growing up in Newfoundland, the source of his dark stories and about the writing life:
Q Where are your parents from?
A They come from Belle Island off the coast of Newfoundland. You can see it from space. It’s just one big chunk of iron ore. In 1962 they shut down the last mine. A cosmopolitan place. There were people there from all over the world. It was this little tiny place that was just so prosperous. There was a great mishmash of stories come out of there.
Q Did you live there?
A I spent some time there because of my grandmother. It was one of those big old square houses with two stairways, one really ornate and a servant’s stairway in the back, narrow and steep. I can picture it perfectly. It was one of those really beautiful houses with a parlour, a dining room and a kitchen and a hatch in the floor in the kitchen where you went down to get the coals. Six bedrooms. There was one room towards the back, we called it the glass room. My mother’s father’s first wife died of tuberculosis, so that was her room. Interesting place for a kid to hang out.
Q You grew up in an apartment building in St. John’s. What kept you busy?
A Breaking open washing machines and stealing the quarters. Robbing people’s paycheques out of the mailboxes, and trying to cash them over at the bank.
Q What did you do with the money?
A Oh, they wouldn’t let me cash them. You mean the quarters? You know those bubble gum machines at Zellers? When we ran out of quarters, we’d stick matchsticks into them and they’d spin forever. You’d empty them out and fill your pockets.
Q What did you like to read?
A I was a slow reader when I was younger. My mom used to pay me to read books. I didn’t like books and I didn’t like reading. I still read very slow.
Q What was the first piece of fiction you remember writing?
A I used to write books when I was 10 and 11. Detective stories. Frisbee was the villain. Canine was the detective. They’re great comedy now. Then I wrote a mystery called, “The Butler Didn’t Do It,” which was ripped off from Agatha Christie.
Q Do you remember making a decision to be a writer?
A No, no. I just had to write. I wanted to be an architect, a lawyer, a psychologist – that’s what I studied in university – but I ended up being this because that was probably the strongest vein running through me. What is the difference of somebody wanting to be an undertaker or a writer? Yet, artistic endeavours are given a pretentious glow. It’s ridiculous. It’s just another job. I think the whole pretentious façade people take on is anti-human and I have no time for it.
Q You seem particularly good at making a living as a writer. Do you think your approach is different than other writers?
A It’s a business. I was self-employed since I was 18 doing magazine publishing, trade shows. This is no different. It’s just a business. My Chinese agent asked me this morning, “Why do you deal with all these agents?” I like the business side. I like knowing who’s handling my work and having personal contact with people.
Q What are you working on now?
A I’ve got five, six books going now. Every one of them is completely different. One is about a contemporary woman painter. Another one is about the 1800s, a guy who lives off shipwrecks. People are comfortable reading about the same place, so a lot of people write the same book over and over again because readers like familiarity. It has its place for sure, but it doesn’t work for me.