We are thrilled to have debut author Kevin Hardcastle on board as our November 2015 writer-in-residence at Open Book. His short story collection, Debris has created tons of buzz, especially after Kevin's Journey Prize nomination and his popular short story "Montana Border" appeared in The Walrus. We couldn't be happier to be working with him as his career takes off — be sure to visit Kevin's WIR page throughout November to hear from him!
He talks to us as part of our Lucky Seven series, and tells us about coming into publishing his new book backwards, how great books change you and his upcoming novel.
Tell us about your new book, Debris.
It sort of all happened backwards, with a novel on the block that nobody wanted. I was always writing short stories between the longer work, and I started having them published pretty regularly. I’ve learned that if you wait on something without working, you’ll have squat if what you’re waiting from doesn’t come. In any case, John Metcalf read a story of mine, Old Man Marchuk, and called me up on the phone, sent me a letter about it. He told me that he wanted that one for Best Canadian Stories and that he was also the fiction editor at Biblioasis. He asked if I had any more short fiction, and I told him I had a pile of it. I sent most of what I had to him and he wrote back saying we’d get a book done. That was it, after all those years of trying it the hard way.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
I wouldn’t say that it is a question, but if there is an overarching theme and drive that runs through all of these stories, it is the idea of endurance. Most of the stories are pretty heavy in material and tone, but I don’t see them as hopeless or inspirational. There aren’t many epiphanies or grand changes that happen to the characters in there. They don’t lament their hard lives or try to escape without it happening organically. They endure until they can’t anymore, or until that becomes enough to live off.
As I wrote all of these over time, and without designs on them being a collection, I didn’t think of any real central or unifying element. But I think these stories and characters inhabit a cohesive enough universe that that sort of theme was bound to run through them all.
Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
By the time this all got to Metcalf, most of the stories had been published or were on the way to being published. I am pretty goddamn hard on myself in the writing and editing, and John and me have sensibilities that line up well, so mostly he liked what I liked. Mostly. I wrote some new stories after signing with John and Biblioasis, but I think they turned out to be some of my best "Montana Border", "The Rope", "Most of the houses had lost their lights". If we are talking about the project as far back as the oldest story in it, "To have to wait", that one was written in 2009. But, by and large, the stories that are the strongest I wrote over the past three years. The editing on the back end took a lot of work, to get all my compound words and bad English consistent. But the actual process of compiling and arranging the stories, and the major edits, didn’t take much time at all.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I don’t need much other than a computer and my notes and a place where there are no other people, or at least none that I have to interact with. I’m not a believer in totems and rituals and writer’s block. Probably that comes from some very lean times where I had to write stories and most of a book in computer labs and such, as I didn’t have a computer of my own or many resources. And the writing for me has to happen. It’s not regimented in words a day or anything, not at all. But it has to happen at some point and for that I will do whatever it takes to get it done. Luckily now I have the few things I need, and have found a couple spaces to be alone to write. That might sound like it’s not much, but I remember harder days and I think it helps to think on them when things seem tough.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I deal with all of it by keeping notes and planning stories wire to wire. I usually have point form notes of all the major plot points by the time I start anything, and, if anything interesting happens between those points, or if the story veers off a little, that’s alright, because I’ve figured out the drive for that story and almost always have the ending locked up.
Focus is everything for me. I can jump in and out of it, luckily, but when I write best I’m fully zoned in and I am not wasting words or lines. I almost never move on to the next line until I’ve got the last one right. It seems like that would be a pain in the ass, but if I’m focused and the story matters I can write at that pace. I think it helps with precision, and it saves me a ton of grief in revisions.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
A great book changes you. When you’ve read it you are never the same again. I also believe that the best books are those that have real vision but, also, the finest craft performed by the author throughout. I know that you can be affected by the idea of a book or what it signifies, but for the books I’m talking about you don’t need to be partway invested or of a mind to absorb them beforehand. If you find them at whatever time in your life, they will do a number on you.
I’ll name two that I think are truly great. The first is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. That book ruined me. It’s my favourite novel. It is not as lean as some of his other novels, but the ground it covers is so absolute, and there is an almost biblical weight to the storytelling and the seemingly inevitable path of the characters. There are those who might say McCarthy pushes it a little with some of the prose, but, given that he is aiming for heights that most writers wouldn’t and shouldn’t dare aim for, the odd line that gets off the leash is a very small price to pay. What you get in that book is some of the finest writing and one of the most terrifying and permanent novels in the English language. McCarthy’s technical precision and his way of bending history to his means are untouchable.
Another one is a collection of short fiction, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, by Alistair MacLeod. I’ve been on the record more than once about this book, and how important those short stories have been in my development as a writer. It is a true master class in craft and in not wasting a single word, in how to get real, honest sentiment out of a story. Anyone who knows what they’re talking about knows how extraordinary that work is. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood carries so much heft for a small book. I believe it is the high watermark for short fiction writers in this country.
What are you working on now?
I eventually ended up finding a home for that novel I mentioned earlier, with Biblioasis and John Metcalf. It is called In the Cage, and it’s tentatively scheduled for release next fall. Unlike the collection, the novel really gives John something to tear into, as it was written before this run of stories and has already gone through some rewrites and line edits before we reshape the thing. For anyone who read and enjoyed my story in The Walrus, "Montana Border", the novel will probably be up their alley. Metcalf actually suggested I mine the material of the novel for a story or two while he read it over, and that is what I did there.
The novel is about a retired MMA or cage fighter, who is reduced to working as muscle for a mid-level gangster in rural Ontario, and taking piecemeal work as a welder, to make ends meet for his wife and daughter. As the crime landscape changes, and his situation gets more desperate, the protagonist takes some risks with more violent, career criminals, and also gets back in the cage again as a fighter. It covers a lot of that territory people might have come to expect in the stories, and it is violent and a lot of people don’t get out of it alive, but it is really a story about that young family and their fortitude. They are on the margins geographically and financially, and when what little they have might be taken away, they do as they always have at the worst. They fight.
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.