Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Harry Crews, Writerly Yardstick: A Guest Post from Author Lisa de Nikolits

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Lisa de Nikolits

Writers are given to omens and portents and here’s one: I share the same birthday as Harry Crews.

If I could choose to emulate any one writer, it would be Harry Crews, and that we share the same birthday makes me feel (foolishly no doubt!) that at least astrology is on my side. But as much as I like the stars, I don’t depend on them for my writing skills and instead, I’ve taken the time to study Harry’s works.

His astonishing imagery, his larger-than-life characters, his observations and insights, his visceral sensual prose and his compassion for the most flawed and aberrant of human beings is the yardstick by which I measure my progress as a writer.

Feast of Snakes, Car, Body, The Preacher, All We Need of Hell and The Knockout Artist top my list of his works.

I realize that the comparison of an indie-published South African Canadian woman novelist and a burly American marine literary genius seems absurdly arrogant, ludicrous, and even impossible but you know what they say, go big or go home and Harry Crews was nothing if not big and I somehow don’t think he’d mind — or care.

Elements of Crews’ style have already found their way into my work: in Car, a man sets out to eat a car. He’s going to eat a new Ford Maverick, half an ounce a day, from bumper to bumper. In The Hungry Mirror, my unnamed protagonist sees food as a subjective luxury, a gruesome greed, as hard to swallow as chunks of metal. Car was accused of being hard to swallow, as was The Hungry Mirror and both explore the nature of appetite.

In Body, bodybuilder Shereel Dupont’s fierce determination to resculpt her body and her life, transforms her from Dorothy Turnipseed, secretary from Georgia, into “The champion on a stage of champions.” Hers was not a happy ending, unlike Benny in West of Wawa who reclaims her life as Bertha Gertrude, warts and all, and Benny triumphs, as does the unnamed protagonist in The Hungry Mirror, who in the beginning, like Shereel, conquered her desire for five ounces of water, drinking only two. But I loved the character in The Hungry Mirror too much to let her die and you see, Harry goes further than I can; his characters can, and do, perish with absolute madness and mayhem that I envy.

In A Feast of Snakes, it was the philosophy of chaos, the serpentine anarchy and glittering lust that inspired me; my admiration for Crews is more than the mere delight in the craft of his words, it’s his intuitive understanding of the wild, fearless, essentially homeless and always strange world of odd-ball characters that I relate to — and for me, being a writer means giving credence to my authentic writerly voice that sees the world that Harry saw.

I arrived in Canada in 2000 with a small black suitcase and my art director’s portfolio (still print in those days) and for a while I stayed on a cousin’s sofa, graduating to a furnished apartment and then, burnt out and aching for anonymity, flooded with the yearning to live a wild, strange and free life, adrift from office desks and regulated hours and the careful constructs of civilization, I got on a bus and left it all behind.

I think Harry would have understood.

Losing oneself in the invisible substrata of life, casting oneself outside the boundaries of the norm changes one’s perspectives forever; you can never ‘unsee’ that version of your unmoored self, not that I would ever want to unsee my truest self — and neither did Harry.

And I admit, the temptation is always there, to do it again, throw it all up in the air and have no idea what the landscape will be once the dust settles but an indigent life is a lonely, uncomfortable one and so, instead, I live vicariously through my characters, and through them, I bite chunks out of life and explore the dark and lonely places of the psyche that most people would never want to know.

In All We Need Of Hell, Duffy Deeter is obsessed with physical fitness, he is plagued by images of death and is horribly aware that his life is falling apart. The novel has been described as “a virtuoso blending of despair and hope.”

In A Glittering Chaos, Hans is obsessed by his love for his sister who vanished at when she was fourteen, he is plagued by nightmares that he murdered her, and he too watches his life and his sanity unravel.

I had a 25-stop blog tour planned for the USA but apparently A Glittering Chaos is too disturbing and ribald, with its notion of incest and its bold female protagonist and my tour has been amputated to a few author interviews. When I find this depressing, I think well those gals would hardly have appreciated Harry either.

A Canadian reviewer posted on Glittering chaos is what happens when a novel with a no-holds-barred — in fact everything bared — exploration of the wild and dark corners of human sexuality is written with empathy and compassion and irrepressive optimism.”

I think Harry would have approved.

Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen for nine years and has lived in Toronto for thirteen. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. As an art director, her magazine credits include Marie Claire, Vogue, Vogue Living and Cosmopolitan, SHE and Longevity. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed The Hungry Mirror, won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Women's Issues Fiction, and her second novel, West of Wawa, won the 2012 IPPY Silver Medal for Popular Fiction.

For more information about A Glittering Chaos please visit the Inanna website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.


Wonderful, Lisa! I have not yet read Harry Crews' work but your article has peaked my interest and I will certainly check him out!

I loved A Glittering Chaos - what a strange and wonderful trip filled with passion, lust, sorrow, loss and hope. I believe that the mark of a good book is that it evokes empathy in the reader - in particular, empathy for people whom the reader may not understand or not even like - your book achieves this and more. A thought provoking and entertaining read.

Wonderful and thought-provoking article by a great author. Loved A Glittering Chaos and not sure what all the fuss was about, especially considering the content of award-winning books like Maidenhead, etc. Will now be reading Harry Crews!

Lisa, this is such a great piece! And what a great idea to draw parallels in this way.

The best books come from those are fearless in their writing. Keep going. There are many who already approve, and there will be more.

I don't know about Harry but when I first met Lisa, I was immediately swept up by her magnetic energy. If the Bible Belt isn't ready for your prose, Ms. de Nikolits, consider yourself saved. Re-direct your sizzle back to the craft and jot on, my friend, jot on. Your audience awaits.

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