Tonight we are joined by Kevin Hardcastle, award-winning author of the collection of short stories, Debris, and the recently released, highly-acclaimed novel, In the Cage (both Biblioasis).
I loved Debris – I believe Kevin’s voice is one of the most original on the writing scene and I was tremendously excited to read his debut novel, In the Cage, (which I am categorizing as Literary Noir, in this Sixteen Shades of Noir series), and I was not disappointed by this beautifully written, at times harrowing, and often heartbreaking text.
LdN: Thank you for being with us today, Kevin! The first question (which you are probably asked a lot) is how different did it feel, working on a novel as opposed to short stories and what were some of the highlights and some of the challenges?
KH: In most cases, writers tend to have worked on short fiction and then move on to writing a novel, which is what most people assume happened here. In fact, I had written the novel before, and couldn’t find a home for it, and then rewrote it many times over the years that I was having stories published. As a result, I had to sort of retrofit the novel with the skills and voice I’d developed over time.
Other than getting the voice to be uniform and the quality of the writing up to the level of the stories in Debris, I used the lessons I’d learned from writing and revising my short fiction, in journals and in the collection, to cut the fat from the novel, and make sure there were no unfocused passages or filler. In writing short fiction, I am always focused on the greater aim on the work while I write each word and line, and am always invested in what I’m writing at that moment. I had to make sure there were no parts in the novel where I was writing to bridge to a significant passage or event, without the connective tissue being as engaging and full of meaning as the parts of the book that contain major plot developments, or consequential actions or violence. That was the greatest challenge, and I think, under the crucial editorial eye of John Metcalf, and his no-bullshit notes, we were successful.
The highlight was having the room to allow a narrative to build, and to have the pressure build with it, so that, with my ongoing focus on the cost of violence and hardship, eventually the result of all of that is that, when everything blows up, the effect is massive.
LdN: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
KH: There are draws to both, and I’ve heard some smart people and very good writers stump for one or the other as the most important, or definitive form, but I think I will always write both. I agree with writers like John Irving and Cormac McCarthy who would tell you that you can have a tremendous impact with novel length fiction, and can develop a narrative and characters in ways that you just can’t in shorter fiction. However, I also believe that many of the best writers, as far as craft and technique goes, are experts at short fiction, and the very best of them have learned to apply that level of precision and focus to the novels they write as well. I have another novel in the works now, but it is my intent to write a lot of short fiction in the next year or so as well, as I think it is essential for me as an exercise in honing all of the most effective tools I’ve got. If you want to go to novels exclusively, I get it. But I we’d be far better off in our literature if authors who can write both do not quit short fiction for more marketable forms.
So, in short, I don’t favour one over the other for worth. But I do like the process of writing stories a little better, the speed and feel of it all. Though, as I mentioned earlier, I am at my best in writing novel length work when I apply that approach to the novel writing as well.
LdN: Your writing has been described as gritty and bone-crunchingly vivid. In my review on Goodreads, I said this of Debris: “This collection of short stories is addictive and gritty reading, superbly crafted and grounded in compassion and understanding for the unlucky whose lives are chipped and broken. Reading these stories is like walking a tightrope laced with a hidden electrical charge, you’re waiting for the voltage to flash through your system and dismay you, but then, there is something in the distance that beckons with hope.”
KH: It’s a small target to hit, to try and write heavy, dark, and sometimes heartbreaking things, but to figure out a way for the reader not to get bogged down in despair and punt the book into the river. I don’t mind a bit of misery and heartbreak in what I read, but not just for the sake of being miserable. The hope that keeps a reader interested in the stories comes from the characters that endure despite broken lives, who keep on fighting, even if they’ll lose. If I’ve written them right, then there’s always going to be some amount of dignity these characters hold on to, and an understanding of the things they do to endure, especially if they’re acting in the interests of those that they love. I think that keeps people reading, but it is important that the stakes be very high, and the odds very long for those characters, so that the weight of their endurance and any small reward that comes from it seems all the more defiant.
LdN: And I feel the same about In the Cage but, (and not to give any spoilers) there is less hope in this novel which of course, makes it classic noir as well as literary. I have to ask – why did it have to be so tough for Daniel and Sarah, so heartbreakingly tough? Did you purposely keep it like that or did the book write itself in that way?
KH: It just seemed like the way things had to go. I always knew the way this book would end, for the most part, but I had to write it effectively enough for readers to keep holding out hope for Daniel and Sarah to win. I didn’t have all of the minor details down in the planning (and I do plot all of my stories and novels out beginning to end before I start), but I had all of the major beats plotted out. The novel had to be this heavy, and this dire, in order to really raise the tension throughout and the magnitude of the characters’ actions, the risks that they take in order to just try to keep a roof over their heads and try to live a regular type of life. The best way they know how, in any case.
There are lots of lives like this, many far, far worse, but they still contain important stories. Sometimes the brief little moments of beauty or relief or even success, they shine that much more for how rare they can be in a book like this, and by the unlikeliness that they’ll last.
LdN: You unflinchingly, and yet with the utmost kindness and compassion, portray the daily lives and struggles of the luckless. Is this something you have to work hard at, or do the descriptions and characterizations come fairly easily to you?
KH: A lot of what I write comes from experience, unfortunately, but then I’ve also used what I know to imagine or extrapolate the extremes of say, poverty, mental illness, violence, addiction, and the systemic societal and economic failures that exasperate all of those conditions. Somehow, I’ve always found that it helps me to process some of the harder things I’ve experienced by working them into stories, and trying to look at them objectively through the course of a narrative. I don’t know what I’d be like if I wasn’t able to do that. I doubt it would be very pretty. I also have been lucky enough, whatever hardship I’ve seen, to have family that have supported the writing, and were very generous in allowing me to use the material from our lives, much of it very accurate and very personal. That is where the compassion and empathy comes from. Because I actually know these people, or people like them, and cannot allow them to become just caricatures or tools for reflection.
LdN: How would you describe your writing schedule?
KH:I keep an odd schedule compared to most other writers I know. I don’t have set times to write, or word or page targets for each day. Instead, I spend a lot of time outlining and thinking on the work, and then trying to make each line and paragraph right before moving on, instead of churning out page after page that ends up in the trash, or that has to be gutted later on to make sense of it all. I do most of my best writing in the afternoon, or sometimes in the evening, preferably on my own somewhere on a porch or in an old, lesser-used university library, or holed up somewhere quiet in the winter. I have a far harder time writing anything useful in a coffee shop with everyone else who is working on their many screenplays. That is my goddamn nightmare.
That being said, I wrote a first book, that nobody will ever see again, in a computer lab at Cardiff University because I didn’t own a computer then, and will do what I gotta do if I have no other option.
LdN: Who are some of your favourite Canadian writers and why?
KH: My favourite Canadian writer ever is Alistair MacLeod, and it’s not even a close contest. He’s the lone Canadian on my shortlist for the best and most influential writers for my own work. There’s nobody who wrote lines as cleanly as MacLeod, while still subtly filling them with meaning and weight. His writing is world class, and deserves to be recognized more as a high watermark for what a story can achieve, and why the craft of writing should be paramount over everything else. For my money, he wrote the most powerful and affecting short stories that have ever came out of this country.
It probably makes sense then that one of the best books I’ve read in recent times was Bad Things Happen, a collection of short fiction by Kris Bertin. He was a student of Alexander MacLeod, son of Alistair and a very, very good writer as well. MacLeod taught Bertin in creative writing courses and edited the book and brought it to Biblioasis, and the lineage there shows, with Bertin, of course, bringing his own unique voice and set of skills to the page. There are many more Canadian writers that I admire, but those two connect generations of good writing, so I’ll leave it there.
LdN: You’re a meticulous self-editor – how you know when a sentence is finally perfect?
KH: I come to it differently every time, but sentences each have their own function and set of aims. Some are meant to seamlessly move the story along, some are meant to draw up a vivid image, and some are meant to crush the reader, or haunt and linger. I go through each one trying to know what they are as I write them, and I do go back through them line by line before moving on to the next day’s writing, and revisit them frequently between sessions. There are small changes made all the time, because hunting for a perfect sentence is a difficult thing to do. If we relate it to In the Cage, and the meticulous fight training described in the book (and inspired by real-life training), it’s like trying to throw a perfect round kick, or jab, or right cross. You eventually get a feel for it through work and repetition, by getting rid of ego and preciousness and analyzing what you did right or wrong in the technique, and then you try to better that with every rep. When you get a good line, you know it by feel, much as you know when you’ve felt your shinbone dig into the heavybag and know all of the technique that got it there was sound.
LdN: What’s next for you?
I’m working on another novel, and plan to write a lot of short stories in the next year or so, as I’ve been occupied with pretty substantial rewrites and edits for In the Cage. I definitely need to get some stories under my belt and get back into the process of submitting work and being given the thumbs up or down. That is important to keep momentum going. With this novel ready for publication, and out of my hair for revisions, I figure I’ll also be able to push-hard through this new novel, and have a solid draft ready for submission before the touring and readings have dried up. Then we’ll see what I should do with it.
KH: As far as those tours and readings, I have a bunch of them coming up, and people can find them on my crappy Wordpress. I do enjoy that part of the process as well, the travel and practice of performing the work to an audience. I have some festivals I’m part of with this book too, and I always enjoy meeting new readers and writers that I admire during those events.
LdN: Thank you very much for being with us, Kevin, and for the pleasure of this great interview.
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.
Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived in the U.S.A., Australia, and Britain. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels, including her most recent novel, No Fury Like That (Inanna Publications). She has won the IPPY Gold Medal for Women's Issues Fiction and was long-listed for the ReLit Award. Lisa has a short story in Postscripts To Darkness (2015), a short story in the anthology Thirteen O'Clock by the Mesdames of Mayhem, and flash fiction and a short story in the debut issue of Maud.Lin House.