Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Can I Get a Hey? Can I Get a Ho?

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Alix Hawley (Photo Credit: Mike Hawley)

Writer Alix Hawley, author of the short story collection The Old Familiar, is a Penguin Random House New Face of Fiction for 2015. Her debut novel, All True Not a Lie in It (Knopf Canada), tells the life story of American pioneer Daniel Boone in his own voice, from his childhood in a Quaker colony, to his time in the Revolutionary War and through two stints as a captive of the Shawnee. Author Alexi Zentner compares Alix to "an early Ondaatje" and describes her writing as "luscious, lyrical and bloodthirsty."

Today on Open Book, Alix shares some thoughts about writing in the first-person and finding the right voice for Daniel Boone.
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By Alix Hawley

The other day, while driving along the highway, I listened to two rappers battle it out on CBC. It was electric and amusing, the two of them slagging each other off in snarly freestyle rhyme (“tax evader” came up, I’m pretty sure).

They were having a grand time. It made me think about Anglo-Saxon poets boasting away by firelight (Hwaet — “Hey, listen up” — remains my favourite Old English word. I’ve tried it on my kids). I thought about Homer reciting for hours, feeling his way around the inside of his own skull. Or Tudor and Jacobean actors, the first to speak Hamlet or Faustus for a crowd.

It made me think, too, about Daniel Boone, the subject of my novel, and about talking. My book is in the first person. It wasn’t originally so; the initial draft was a frame story about a modern researcher trailing Boone through his eighteenth-century frontier life. It had its moments, but it just didn’t work. I completely rewrote the book, focused on Daniel, but in the third person — “he.” Closer, but not close enough. It still felt a little clinical, as though we were still in the waiting room.

I started writing longhand, and I started writing “I,” trying to make a mouth for Daniel. It was extremely hard. Almost none of his letters or other documents remain, so I didn’t have many clues, and I’ve always found first-person stories tough to write. All I knew is that Daniel had to sound slightly removed from us, but close to us, believable in our time. I did a lot of research, and tried writing his early Quaker days with all the thees and thous. But that was wrong, too. All the gimmicks were wrong. I had to sit around and wait. Eventually the voice grew in my brain, and it felt real. And in the end it felt as though it was working through me.

My point is this: if something you write feels dead, it probably is. But you can pull out the functional organs, transplant what you can, start again. The voice was what I needed to animate the corpse, and I had to wait for it before I could fight with it.

I’ll probably never be invited to a rap battle. Rap is all voice, and so is poetry, which I used to write a lot of. Today I jumped in and wrote a two-line love poem as part of a Facebook project:

The drip on the sternum
The moth beneath the skin

So thanks for talking, Daniel. And take that, tax evaders. Hey! Ho!

Alix Hawley studied English literature and creative writing at Oxford University, the University of East Anglia and the University of British Columbia. She published a story collection, The Old Familiar, with Thistledown Press in 2008. She won the 2014 Canada Writes Bloodlines competition, judged by Lawrence Hill, and was runner-up for the CBC Literary Award for short stories in 2012 and 2014. She teaches at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC, where she lives with her family.

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