Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Colin Hill

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Ten Questions with Colin Hill

University of Ottawa Press recently published a new critical edition of Waste Heritage, Irene Baird’s groundbreaking novel about labour disputes in British Columbia in 1938. The new edition is the first book in the press’s Canadian Literature Collection and is edited by Colin Hill, who teaches Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. In his interview with Open Book, Dr. Hill explains why every Canadian should read Waste Heritage.

OB:

Tell us about Waste Heritage and Irene Baird.

CH:

Irene Baird (1901-81) was a Canadian writer from British Columbia who wrote four novels. She disguised herself as a nurse to gain access to the tragic events that inspired her novel. Waste Heritage is the best Canadian novel of the 1930s, but Baird and her work are almost unknown today. Waste Heritage is a remarkably focused, visceral, controversial and uncompromising novel that deals with the labour disputes that were front page news in Canadian newspapers in the summer of 1938. Unlike many novels of the period that offer idealized representations of Canada, Waste Heritage exposes a deeply hypocritical, violent and divided society. All Canadians should read this book. It is unlike any other well-known Canadian novel of its period.

OB:

Waste Heritage was first published in 1939 and then reprinted in 1974. Why do you think it’s gone out of print twice, and why is it a novel contemporary Canadians will want to read?

CH:

Well, few books stay in print in Canada for long, but those that do usually present a positive and self-congratulatory view of the nation. Waste Heritage is a shocking and in many ways ugly book. It doesn't necessary make you "proud to be Canadian." And we’re often so defensive of our culture that we don't allow room for books that show us in a negative light. Contemporary Canadians will read about a country they probably never knew existed in Waste Heritage. They might also be surprised at how much or how little has changed in 70 years.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you were editing Waste Heritage?

CH:

Not really. I expect that University students will be a big part of the readership since this book is perfect for Canadian literature, history, political science and women's studies classes. But this is a book that is highly readable and I think a wide variety of people in Canada and beyond will have a look at it.

OB:

Waste Heritage is the first book in University of Ottawa Press's Canadian Literature Collection. Can you tell us about the collection and why Waste Heritage is the lead book?

CH:

The Canadian literature collection, under the general editorship of Dean Irvine, is a series devoted to the publication of high-quality critical editions of neglected and/or previously unpublished Canadian works. University of Ottawa Press is planning numerous books in the series over the next few years. You can see what’s planned on the series website which also has a companion site to Waste Heritage. Waste Heritage was the inaugural title simply because Professor Irvine and I agreed that this book needed to be in print immediately.

OB:

What are some of the other books that will be published in the Canadian Literature Collection?

CH:

Some of the next titles include Dry Water, by Robert Stead (edited by Neil Querengesser and Jean Horton), The Wrong Side of the Road: Selected Prose, by Bertram Brooker (edited by Gregory Betts) and This Time a Better Earth, by Ted Allan (edited by Bart Vautour). There are several others listed on the website. All of these books present remarkable challenges to Canadian literature as we know it. It's a very exciting series and I’m thrilled that it’s generating so much enthusiastic interest.

OB:

Can you describe the research involved in editing Waste Heritage?

CH:

With the help of a small army of research assistants I carried out archival research in several special collections in Canada and the United States. Irene Baird's daughter and granddaughters provided much useful information through interviews and correspondence. And an enormous amount of work was done digging through old newspapers from 1938. And that's the tip of the iceberg.

OB:

Describe your ideal work environment.

CH:

My archival research means I frequently travel to conduct research. I enjoy long hours in university archives and special collections rooms. When I’m not traveling or teaching, I work mostly from home. I live in a quiet house in the country, north of Toronto. When I get into a project it is great to work undisturbed, and my home office allows this. Every few hours my dog Sacha tells me it's time to take a break.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

CH:

I’m re-reading Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage and the complete Alice Munro. I'm also reading Donovan's autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a "Welcome to Canada" gift, what would those books be?

CH:

Apart from Waste Heritage? Probably Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, Neil Bissoondath's Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada and something by an American writer.

OB:

What is your next project?

CH:

I’ve just finished a book on Canadian fiction of the early twentieth century. Now I'm working on editing another volume for the Canadian Literature Collection, A Man Should Rejoice, which is an unpublished novel by Hugh MacLennan.

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