The Best Stories Live in Hell

Tips on how to write good drama and more from Lawrence Hill

Renowned novelist and screenwriter Lawrence Hill spoke in Schwartz auditorium on Friday, October 19. Hill opened by speaking of the latest novel the professor of creative writing at Guelph University is currently writing. The release date of his book, announced to be titled Midnight Men at the event, has yet to be made official.

Hill was warmly welcomed to the stage by Kalista Desmond and the Strait Regional Drummers band. Desmond performed some new spoken word. A particularly moving line was “#powerfulnotpowerless”       encouraging women to own their empowerment. 

The drum group led by Morgan Gero performed three songs. Gero left her seat to distribute instruments to colleagues in the audience for a collaborative performance while her skilled drummers held the rhythm. Drummer Isaiah Williams spoke with The Xaverian Weekly post-show. Williams spoke about his favorite moment on Friday night, “I liked when I played the drums to welcome him here. One of the songs we played tonight was ‘Fonga’.” 

Hill made the point of showing his appreciation for the drumming performance. Williams, who has been drumming for two years, remembers how after their performance, “Lawrence said it reminded him of drumming he heard when he was in West Africa and being welcomed to villages.” 

 During his time at the lectern, Hill read excerpts from The Book of Negroes and spoke in detail about imagery and other realistic or fictional literary elements in the novel. One thing he mentioned was that the novel is not about slavery; it is about the resilience of a woman. 

During the question and answer period, Hill said that while his parents were not thrilled he desired to become a writer, they were instrumental in his upbringing as an author. 

Referring to some of the nonsense poetry that his mother read to him as a child, Lawrence recited from memory the first verse of “Disobedience” by A. A. Milne to a laughing audience.

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Williams asked Hill how long it took to write The Book of Negroes. Hill answered, “It took me five years. I rewrote the book eight times. That’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. To spend the time researching, writing, and rewriting, editing, rereading, and publishing over five years before I was satisfied. 

“I wrote some other books along the way, it wasn’t the only one I did. Most writers have to do two or three different kinds of writing at a time to get money. Sometimes things you really care about that are really difficult take time. You have to let them gestate. Let them have the time that they need and they will take over from there. You are ill-advised to rush something if it’s coming along well. If you give it some time, it has a chance to get better. 

By the way, unless you’re born with the genius of Mozart, chances are the first time you write something it’ll stink. That means you have to write it again, again, and again until it’s good. One of the reasons The Book of Negroes took five years is because it was so bad the first time. You have to keep working on it. Thank you for your question and your drumming.” 

Emcees Addy Strickland and Rebecca Mesay brought the event to a close by asking Williams to come back on stage for the presentation of a gift to Hill. 

The author stuck around post-show to meet the audience and sign everything from books to a case for glasses. 

Prior to speaking publicly at StFX in the evening, Hill spoke privately at Dr. John Hugh Gillis high school with 80 students from neighbouring high schools in the morning. The intimate student-led discussion was held with students who had read and researched a novel of his in the classroom. 

Even though Hill has travelled back home to Ontario, his authenticity and wisdom remain cherished in the community.

Interview with Lawrence Hill

Get your heads out of the sand!

Can you think back to time where you were given an opportunity to meet your idol or your hero… How would you feel in that moment about the things you would say to them and how would your interaction be? 

Well your girl had the chance to meet the renowned, brilliant and enthusiastic author, Lawrence Hill. I was honored and grateful for the opportunity to be in his presence. 

Hill is a Canadian novelist and is famously known for his award-winning book, The Book of Negroes, and other significant contributions to the canon of Canadian literature, including Black Berry, Sweet Juice and his 2013 Massey Lecture entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life, just to name a few. 

I was invited to a private dinner with Hill and others including faculty and teachers within the community. This dinner created an intimate space allowing me to communicate with Hill on a more personal level. It was tremendously fascinating to watch the engagement between Hill and everyone seated at the table, his openness and willingness to be included in the conversation gave me a sense of comfort. Let me not forget to add how comical Hill is, and it did not require much effort to keep us entertained. 

After dinner ended it was time for me to have a one-on-one discussion with Hill to gather further information about his success and his views on identity and belonging. It is evident that we live in a world that is not shy of displaying extroverted disapproval to those who do not fit their criteria of what a person should be. 

Despite being emancipated from slavery, abolishing segregation, and activist fighting for equality, it is important that these issues still exist today. Individuals, specifically of African descent had to and still are enduring many trials and tribulations because of the color of their skin; Hill addresses these issues that people of color may come to face. I wondered how Hill would respond if he were to be racially discriminated against, this brought forth my first question. He states, “I was raised by an African American father who was a solider in the American army and a white American mother, who then moved to Canada a day after their wedding, and at this time segregation was at its apex. My father informed me if I was to ever be insulated racially, I should respond with violence or oppose it in some way, but I refused to respond with violence. I believes if someone has the right to call me repulsive things then I has the right to tell them they are disgusting individuals.” 

On the topic of racism, Hill adds “if I were to see someone else being racially insulted, I believe that it is my moral obligation to step in and speak up. You must be careful about how you intercede because things can escalate in ways that may reverberate back on you in negative ways racially.”

 I recently attended a forum, where I acquired Angela Davis’ (American political activist) beliefs and opinions on what it would take to create a world where we all feel like we belong. I wanted to get Hills’ views on this subject matter, “I do not believe that we will reach that point anytime soon.  Canadians tend to assume they are morally superior to other people in different parts of the world who are experiencing racial injustices. They would disregard these problems within Canada by putting their heads in the sand, but will not hesitate to point out current problems in other countries. We would have to look within ourselves, look at our current injustices, look at our current life and not be afraid to acknowledge where we do not measure up.” 

He concludes, “everyone should not strive to be the same or look the same, instead individuals should be accepting of differences and learn to live together. We as humans must be committed to abolishing racism and committed to accepting people for who they are. The Book of Negroes touches on the vast majority of these issues, hence its success.”

Why was this book such a success? Hill believes his book gives readers comfort in reading past injustices that were triumphed. It also introduces readers to a history that individuals might have been oblivious to, giving insight and information about Black history in Canada. I concluded by asking Hill for advice for aspiring authors, he said “in order to become something or achieve a goal you must put in the work to get desirable results. The opinions of others should never supersede your aspirations in life, you only have one chance at life so make the most of it.”