Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Steven Hayward

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Steven Hayward

Steven Hayward talks to Open Book about Jim Morrison — a gangly boy from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, not the rock star — the books that inspire him and the doubt and worry that accompany the writing of any novel, including his newest, Don't Be Afraid (Knopf Canada).

On Tuesday, February 8th, join Steven Hayward and Miriam Toews at Dora Keogh Pub on the Danforth to celebrate the launch of Don't Be Afraid. See our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new novel, Don't Be Afraid.

Steven Hayward:

This is a story about a teenager named Jim Morrison. After his brother is killed in a freak explosion at the local public library his family more or less falls apart. His mother and father stop functioning as parents and act in obsessive, destructive ways; he finds it impossible to keep going to school and retreats from the world almost completely. The book is about how Jim and his family put themselves back together after such a loss. I was inspired to write the novel by a story I heard from a friend who was going to a birthday party a mother was throwing for a dead child. That got me thinking.

OB:

The main character of Don't Be Afraid is Jim Morrison — not the rock and roll anti-hero, but an awkward, unpopular seventeen-year-old who was born just days after the singer's death. Why did you decide to make this pop culture reference a part of Jimmy's character?

SH:

My Jim Morrison can’t quite understand why he — plain-looking, slightly overweight, ordinary — is still alive instead of his cooler and more confident brother. This guilt gets mixed up with his ideas about his connection to the rock and roll hero whose name he happens to have — a Jim Morrison who never seems to have doubted his significance. “This is what I tell people,” he says, in the opening lines of the book, “I’m Jim Morrison of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. It’s a sort of joke. A way of saying you’re no one at all.”

OB:

Your first novel, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke (Knopf Canada, 2005), was set in Toronto. Don't Be Afraid is set in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where you also lived for a time. Do you find that your writing is influenced by the setting you inhabit yourself?

SH:

I actually live now in Colorado Springs, Colorado — but Cleveland was where I was living when I started writing this book. Living in another city does change you as a writer — or rather it gives you other things to write about. This novel, for instance, is all about looking after little kids — one of the things that my Jim Morrison is made to do is take his younger brother to preschool — and that’s just set up differently in Cleveland than it is in Toronto. It’s still a very Canadian novel, despite the setting — Jimmy’s father is Canadian, and I have him say and do a lot of the things, some of them absurd, that I do myself as a Canadian living in the United States to preserve my Canadian identity.

OB:

You work as a creative writing professor at the Colorado College. Are you able to maintain a good balance between your teaching and your writing, and how do the two inform one another?

SH:

The experience of writing a novel, for me at least, is one where the idea of balance perpetually eludes you. When you start writing, you wonder if you’ll ever finish; when you finish it you wonder what happened to the book you started. Through it all, no matter how the writing is going, you worry about it. If it’s going well you don’t talk about it. If it’s going poorly you definitely don’t talk about it. In terms of my work at Colorado College, my students and colleagues are a great inspiration. Is there time enough to write? There isn’t. But I’d feel that way, I’m sure, even if I weren’t teaching.

OB:

Your first publication was a collection of short stories, Buddha Stevens and Other Stories (McArthur & Company, 2000). How does your writing process differ when you are working on short stories as opposed to a novel?

SH:

There’s less despair involved in the writing of a short story because it’s shorter. That’s not a startling observation, but it’s true. When you start a piece of short fiction, you can usually get it finished — published, sometimes — while the idea is still relatively fresh. The novel is a more ungainly thing. You must live with it for years. You worry about it.

OB:

Which writers would you say have had the greatest influence on your work?

SH:

The two books that inspired this novel are Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness and Whale Music by the late Paul Quarrington. Also John Irving’s The World According to Garp. These are all novels that deal with loss and grief in a somewhat comic manner — where the comedy masks (and reveals) the pain of the characters. This book aspires to do something similar.

OB:

What is the last book you read that really knocked your socks off?

SH:

I’m supervising a thesis right now for a student who’s writing on the British novelist David Mitchell. So, I’ve been reading/re-reading most of his work. I just read his first novel, Ghostwritten, for the first time. That blew my socks off.

OB:

Do you have another writing project on the go?

SH:

I do — I’m working now on a novel called Of Torino about a couple who head off to Italy in an attempt to save their marriage. Things go wrong in every way — including their attempts to get there. But who knows what it’ll finally be about when I’m finished with it.


Born and raised in Toronto, Steven Hayward currently teaches creative writing at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He is a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail and the Literary Review of Canada. His first novel, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, won Italy's prestigious Premio Grinzane Cavour prize.

For more information about Don't Be Afraid please visit the Random House/Knopf Canada website.

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

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