Just hours before the Georgia Straight reaches Kenneth J. Harvey at his publisher's Toronto offices, the Newfoundland author has learned that his new novel, Blackstrap Hawco (Random House Canada, $34.95), is in the running for the 2008 Giller Prize, one of Canada's most prestigious literary awards. This pleases him, but he's not necessarily impressed.
"All the media focuses on is money, and a lot of times it's [the winners are] the usual suspects," he says of awards such as the Giller, sounding more than a little skeptical. "In this case I think I'm becoming one, which is unfortunate-but good in a way, as long as the book is something different. Anyway, I noticed that in the press the headlines were always 'So-and-so wins $50,000' or 'So-and-so wins $180,000 prize'. It wasn't about ideas, it wasn't about the book-it was about the money."
Harvey knows a little about literary prizes. Not only have his own works racked up their own fair share of acclaim, both at home and abroad, but he's started his own ReLit Awards, devoted to independently published books. There's no cash prize, just a handsome alphabet ring and the knowledge that your work has met Harvey's tough standards for literary flair, originality, and heart.
"There's a lot of young writers in this country who are very, very good writers, and they can't get media anymore," he notes. "They can't get any kind of publicity, and they deserve it. So I wanted to create an award for those people's ideas."
Harvey's own ideas have sometimes proved controversial: some copies of his 2000 thriller Skin Hound came laced with the author's own DNA, in the form of skin scrapings and other effluvia. "That became a big international story," he notes.
But Skin Hound also broke new literary ground, as the first example of what Harvey calls the "transcomposite narrative". "It was about a serial killer who skins his victims," he explains. "And what I did was I took excerpts from my actual journals and personal writings and made them the journal of the serial killer. I was kind of playing with the idea of, you know, how much of the author is in a character.
"So that was kind of the beginning of the transcomposite idea," he continues. "And then with Blackstrap Hawco, I realized that it could also be used to talk about storytelling, and where we take information that is supposedly nonfiction and then change it to suit our needs."
Consequently, Blackstrap Hawco incorporates letters lifted (and then slightly altered) from historical archives, poems adapted from a selection of Irish bards, and stories from Harvey's own family history. But that's only a small part of its complexity: the book is delivered by several different narrators, each with a distinctive literary voice, and almost every character's life is a metaphor for some greater social condition.
Blackstrap Hawco himself is "very much symbolic of the spirit of Newfoundland-this thing that continues to be killed but doesn't die", according to his creator. During Newfoundland's cod-fishery crisis in the mid-1990s, this fearless if illiterate fisherman almost single-handedly stares down the Portuguese trawler fleet. But he ends up broken-literally, as the result of hitting a moose while driving a tractor-trailer, and psychically, because of his inability to change the cruel gears of the global marketplace. And he's not the only one ground under the wheels of the greater world: the loss of local culture and the callousness of power are two of the novel's underlying themes.
Assembling this sprawling, 829-page tome cost its author many sleepless nights-and a couple of unanticipated visits to the dentist. "It took me about eight years to come up with it, and I was, like, snapping teeth and everything," Harvey confesses. "I mean, I broke teeth doing this thing. I had to get them mended twice, put back together. Struggling with the structure was one of the most difficult things I've ever done in writing."
Even today, he's still discovering new subtleties in his latest work. "When you're doing interviews, you learn what your book is about from the questions you're asked, a lot of times," he notes. "I mean, I really don't know what I'm doing. I'm just writing books. It's good to put some stuff in there, commentary on society and what you think is going wrong and everything, if you can. But I also write thrillers, too, and that's not really saying much about anything. It's just kind of fun."
Kenneth J. Harvey will be featured on a Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival panel at 1 p.m. October 24, at PTC Studio (1398 Cartwright Street, Granville Island), and as part of the festival's Literary Cabaret, 8 p.m. the same day at Performance Works (1218 Cartwright Street).