Hello readers. As you might have gathered, I am the incoming Writer-in-Residence for Open Book Toronto, and will be with you through the entire month of November. I’m happy to be here for the month, and I’ve got some things planned that I hope will be of interest to a good many of you.
All of this comes on the heels of the publication of my first book, a collection of stories called Debris (Biblioasis). I’ve been on tour, reading with a number of very talented, and very different Canadian writers, some of them first-timers like me, and others that have already had success in this business and who are major players in our country’s literary scene. I thought perhaps, since I’ve been writing for most of my life, and as I am now experiencing what it is like to have a book published, I would talk about it all a little in this first Open Book Toronto post.
That escalated quickly…
About three years ago, I had two paid publications, a novel that nobody would buy, and a job that felt like running at a brick wall for eight hours of every day. Nonetheless, I knew in my guts that I would keep at the writing, and that my work was steadily improving. I wanted to have my writing read, and to build a career, but the writing itself was what drove me and what gave me a charge. In 2012, I found out that I had a story in the 24th Journey Prize Stories anthology, and that story (To Have To Wait) ended up as a finalist. I did not win the Journey Prize, but I met a number of emerging and established writers, and good people involved in the industry: publishers, editors, agents, volunteers. And, bit-by-bit and person-by-person, I made inroads into the literary scene in Toronto and Canada. I made friends that were writers, something I’d long given up on or didn’t think necessary, and those connections helped change my life.
In the three years since then, I’ve had twelve stories published, and one of those stories caught the attention of an editor, John Metcalf, leading to the publication of Debris. That story was in the 26th Journey Prize Stories anthology (Old Man Marchuk), and will be in Best Canadian Stories 15 very soon. Metcalf and Biblioasis will also be publishing my second novel next year, "In the Cage," a book that nobody would take a chance on three years ago. So, I don’t know that there is any singular message here, but I would say that you are best served to focus on the work, and yet, you should keep your mind and your eyes open while you try to navigate the business of writing and publishing. You should be vigilant about where you publish and who you work with, but, if you find something that makes sense, you should never turn down a chance to make a connection and have your voice heard. That leads to my next bit.
Don’t be a jerk.
When I didn’t know anything about the literary community in Toronto, or in Canada, I was kind of a jerk about it. I thought that I didn’t need it and that I had little to learn from it. Most of that stemmed from my lack of success so far, and probably a little bit of immaturity (in writing terms at least), as well as a deep-rooted feeling that I was an outsider, a working class guy from a small town with no literary pedigree. I thought that, if I had success, it would be from the work alone, and probably from getting my writing published in another country. With some more grays in my beard now, I know that this was an unfair assumption, and that this is not a solid plan on how to make it in this business.
Outside of the magical year or two that you can spend in an writing MA or MFA, where you have a perfectly valid claim as a productive member of society without making spreadsheets all day or breaking rocks or hauling trash (aka – student), you will be on your own in finding people to read and support your work. If you don’t try, even a little, to find those people, you will have a much tougher go than you need to. Sure, there are some real beauties out there, and you will not play well with everyone, but I learned that most writers in this city, and in this country, are pretty damn decent people. And, almost always, the best of them have learned to bury their ego and really give back to the community, to find like-minded folk who battle their way through and lay themselves bare and have their voices heard. It is plenty tough on your own, and, while I think that my writing style and voice might have been made somewhat unique by being apart from a community for so long, my best work began while I was part of some kind of community or collective. I wouldn’t like to think where I’d be if I’d kept up believing that I could do it all alone, and I would suggest that you reach out if you can. It made all the difference for me.
Things have changed. We still carry the fire...
People will tell you all kinds of crap about how print is dead and the novel is toast and nobody reads and we are beating a tiny little drum for a crowd of three. But, hey, you are here reading this and I am here writing it. I care about things. I care about writing, and about stories, and about the permanence of the best of them. Things have changed, that is for certain. But literature has endured and it will as long as we endure. Readers and writers are passionate and they will scrap for what they care about. Do not believe what “experts” tell you. The act of writing itself, and getting anywhere near a career out of it, is a war of attrition that makes little practical sense to begin with and that you are doing because it is necessary to you and because it is part of who you are. You might struggle and things might not turn out how you thought. Your heart will get broken by the work. Writers around you will drop and quit. It is hard work and it should be, but there's no need to make it worse by simply absorbing all of the negative commentary and thinkpieces on the merits of literature (especially in Canada), and its supposed decline. “Experts” thought we’d all be on e-readers by now, and indie bookstores would be gone. I’m not even going to get started on the hilariousness of digital textbooks.
That being said, there is little magical celebrity or rock star money in this game, and if there is it seems to often find authors who couldn’t hold a candle to those that can really, really write. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a very successful writer, if you want it for the right reasons, and I think we’d all do a little better not to aim for the middle, to really try to be world-class, and have our literature trade blows with the best international writing out there. But, with reality sitting on us, we use the tools we have, and adapt to the world we live in. Young writers start off with the same aims and dreams as veteran authors who’ve experienced a time when literary fiction writers could be millionaires and not live in Toronto basements. There is something to be said for getting into this trade at a time when you have to be hands on, when you can market yourself and connect directly to the reader and to the public using resources that were simply not part of the deal a few decades back.
Social media has been good to me, in that I’ve met friends and fellow writers by using it, and in that I’ve got the word out about published stories and the book and things like readings. I have also been baffled and enraged by it at times, but, by and large, it has connected me to readers and writers in a way that I did not expect. Even if you just post your writing particulars and engage in a very professional, businesslike way, that is something that people can access and use to find your writing. It becomes another kind of work, this promotion and peddling of wares, but it is work that can pay off, and I think most young writers are far ahead of the curve in their aptitude for this aspect of the trade. Things have changed, but the enthusiasm I’ve seen for literature through these avenues is encouraging.
I read to strangers. They liked my stories and some bought me a beer...
It is also encouraging to have gone on this trek around Ontario (and Montreal), to towns like Windsor, Guelph, Hamilton, London, Kingston, Ottawa, and soon, Waterloo. I started off doing all of the main Biblioasis launches, with Anakana Schofield and Larry Tremblay, mostly, and in one or two spots with Samuel Archibald and A.J. Somerset. We launched in Montreal, Toronto, and Windsor (the home base for Biblioasis). Then I went on a little hit-and-run tour with two other emerging writers, Jess Taylor (her collection of stories, "Pauls," is out with BookThug), and Andrew Battershill (his novel, "Pillow," is published by Coach House Books). I read to a room of hundreds and a room of one person plus bookstore staff. All of the events were interesting. All of them were good practice. All of them will be memorable to at least one person (me). Reading to the big room where you have friends and colleagues is incredible, but there is also something to be said for reading to the small room and having a sense of humour about the trains and buses and the fact that someone put you up in a hotel somewhere. I’ve thanked them elsewhere, but I am very grateful to all of the hard work put in by staff at all of those publishers, especially Biblioasis, and my fellow writers that I spent time with.
While I do think big and try to imagine some way that I can make a proper living off of my trade, and that I have the chance to do good work and maybe get lucky and break through on larger and larger stages, I also took heart in having one or two strangers buy the book I wrote and talk to me about it. People I didn’t know (and some I did) came out in the rain or on break from work or drove some miles down the road to support new writers and hear some stories read. I’ve heard from them later, after they’ve finished the book, and they tell me what they think of it. As I mentioned at the start, this has all happened in a hurry, and it hasn’t quite settled in entirely, but having somebody read or hear your words, and have an emotional, personal response to them, is a beautiful thing. It makes it real in a lot of ways, and takes the sting out of some of it in others. I’m sure there’ll be more that I learn and get to know as I gain experience as a published author, but I know that much right now.
That’s what is on my mind on this first day as Open Book Toronto Writer-in-Residence, and I’ll leave it there. I’ll have more to say as the month goes on. I’m at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo from November 6th to 8th, on a panel called “Pushing Boundaries” with Rhonda Douglas, Russell Smith, and Kathleen Winter, moderated by K.D. Miller. I’m sure I’ll have something to report about that one afterward. Otherwise, you can find my book, Debris, in stores all over. Stories from that collection have been in a number of journals, and you can find a few of them just by using the Internet. So, I hope you’ll give them a go, and stick with me this month. I appreciate you reading this, each and all.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been widely published in journals including The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Joyland, Shenandoah and The Walrus. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and his short fiction has been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories 24 & 26, Best Canadian Stories 15, and Internazionale.
Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, was published by Biblioasis in 2015. Debris won the 2016 Trillium Book Award, the 2016 ReLit Award for Short Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.