News and Interviews

Singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith on his debut novel, Dickens, and feeling awkward

Ron Sexsmith photo

Ron Sexsmith is a household name in Canada for his acclaimed, atmospheric, and beautifully moody music, which has earned him numerous awards including a Juno for Songwriter of the Year.

Given Sexsmith's lyrical sophistication and emotional impact, it's no surprise he's been successful in his leap to a literary career with the publication of his novel Deer Life (Dundurn Press). Whimsical and wildly creative, Deer Life plays with the structure and feel of a fairy tale to tell a story of bullying, friendship, and witchcraft. Sexsmith's writing is empathetic and warm and his memorable protagonist Deryn Hedlight (read it out loud) will have readers onside from the get-go.

We invited Ron to talk about Deryn as part of our In Character interview series. He shares his Dickensian strategy for naming characters, tells us what he has in common with Deryn, and reveals the exciting news that he is hard at work on a musical adaptation of Deer Life. 

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Ron Sexsmith:

His name is Deryn Hedlight. He’s basically an awkward but good natured boy from the fictional town of Hinthoven who goes out into the woods one morning on an ill fated hunting trip and experiences a strange transformation.


Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?


Yes, definitely and there were also a bunch of characters who I didn’t foresee at all who seemed to come to life on their own.


How do you choose names for your characters?


I’ve always enjoyed how many of Dickens characters would have these names that would almost describe their personality or their outward appearance. So I tried to do that a bit I guess.

Also, with this being a fairy tale that takes place in a fictional world, I wanted to think up names that I felt went along with this concept.


What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?


Because this was my first attempt at writing a book, I was a bit lost as to when to insert dialogue and when to leave it out. All I had to go on was my love for books and instinct. I tried to keep it simple and conversational, which has worked for me in my songwriting, but I had many questions along the way and so I don’t really have any tips to offer except to try not to be too crafty or clever.


Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?


Yes, I could feel a real kinship with the main character and I could see myself in other characters as well.

I’ve always felt a bit awkward in general and so the characters of Deryn Hedlight and Crad Grimsby almost felt like the same person at different stages of their life to me. I could definitely relate to both of them.


Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?


I’ve found all the character from Dickens classic Great Expectations to be quite memorable: Pip. Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham etc. That book definitely left a huge impression on me.

All the stories and characters that A.A. Milne created in The House At Pooh Corner have resonated with me since childhood. So much wisdom, humour, and heart.


What are you working on now?


I’m writing songs for a musical based on my book Deer Life.


Ron Sexsmith is an internationally acclaimed, Juno Award–winning recording artist. He spends most of his time writing songs, touring, and making records. Deer Life was mostly written on the road, during long drives and in dressing rooms and hotel rooms. Ron lives in Perth County, Ontario.

Buy the Book

Deer Life

A wicked fairy tale of witchcraft, bullying, revenge, and a mysterious bowler hat. Includes Ron’s own whimsical illustrations.

Deryn Hedlight was not having a very good day and it was about to get much worse. He’d read stories of witches as a boy, but never believed for a second they were true. That is, until an unfortunate hunting accident turns his world upside down. What seemed like an honest mistake leads to an altogether unexpected transformation. But poor Deryn wasn’t the only wronged character tied up in these gloomy circumstances and sinister forces.

Deer Life tells the story of a kind-hearted boy from Hinthoven and his motheṟs undying love. Mostly though, it’s all about patience, friendship, and heroism where you least expect it.