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The power of the novel: an interview with Arts & Science Book Club author Lawrence Hill

Posted on 2016-11-07 in Arts & Culture

Lawrence Hill visits the College of Arts & Science for two events on Nov. 21. (Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

By Colleen MacPherson

Author Lawrence Hill admits he has “thousands of things to say” about his latest novel The Illegal, but as is good book-club etiquette, he will make sure others have a chance to talk as well.

In an interview from his home in Hamilton, Ont., Hill said he is looking forward to two College of Arts & Science Book Club events on campus Nov. 21—a talk and discussion about The Illegal at 1:30 p.m., and a presentation entitled My Writing Life at 7:30 p.m., both in Convocation Hall.

The Illegal
Lawrence Hill's 2015 novel The Illegal, published by HarperCollins Canada, is the 2016 Arts & Science Book Club selection

“I never make too many presumptions about whether people have read one page, or two pages, or all or none of the book,” he said, “so I won’t talk a lot myself. I prefer to go straight into a conversation” about his award-winning 2015 novel.

Set in the near future, The Illegal is the story of Keita Ali, a young boy born to run. Caught up in political turmoil that claims the life of his father in the invented country of Zantoroland, Ali parlays his running skill into an escape plan only to find himself without documentation in the country of Freedom State, where the ruling party is pursing a policy of deporting refugees.

With an obvious nod to the plight of displaced persons around the world, Hill weaves the issues of race, discrimination, identity and belonging into a plot that unfolds at a breathtaking clip. As he trains in secret and runs to elude capture and deportation, Ali finds himself running not only to save his own life but his sister’s life too.

Saskatchewan Connection

It will be a homecoming of sorts when acclaimed author Lawrence Hill visits the University of Saskatchewan Nov. 21.

“I have this real sense of connection to Saskatchewan in my heart,” said Hill, who spent the summer of 1977 as a train operator for Canadian Pacific Railway in Gull Lake, Sask. Working the night shift, Hill’s job was to pass, by hand and stick, messages to the engineers of the three or four freight trains that barreled through town without stopping each night.

To make extra money to pay for his next year at the University of British Columbia, Hill also wrote news stories for the Gull Lake Advance. He was paid 25 cents per column inch, “so I wrote the longest stories I could. I wrote all night looking out into the darkness and watching the sun come up. It was an incredibly rich and unusual summer that marked me forever.”

The short story Hill wrote based on his summer in Gull Lake, entitled Meet You at the Door, was published in The Walrus in 2012.

Hill said he was delighted to have been asked to participate in the book club. “I think it’s fantastic. It’s an honour to be read by students. You know, the books I read when I was 15 or 25 and that I loved are permanently embedded in my brain.”

He is also a staunch advocate for making room for fiction in all disciplines across campus, not just in English class.

“Literature is meant to excite our imaginations and provoke us. There is an absolutely compelling reason to include the occasional provocative and stirring novel in every class at a university, especially if the professor has an attitude that is worldly and interdisciplinary, and understands the various ways to excite someone about a subject.”

The same hold true for non-fiction works that fall outside the realm of academia. Referring to his 2013 social history Blood: The Stuff of Life, Hill asked, “if you’re studying medicine or biochemistry, why would you not be excited by a book that explores blood as a metaphor for identity? Why not be provoked in our imaginations and empathy by reading?”

His evening address about writing will be more personal, Hill said: a look at how he became a writer “and the missteps along the way.” He will also have a special message for young people in the audience about another important aspect of his world—volunteerism—and the value of having “an engaged and exciting life.

“As students, we’re so preoccupied with degrees, marks, money and whether this university education will pay off that we can lose sight of some of the most beautiful things in life like travelling and volunteering,” he said. “When you’re young is a time when it’s possible—you don’t have to worry about a mortgage or a two-year-old—and rarely do you meet a volunteer who’s had a major international experience who returns with regrets.”

Colleen MacPherson is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer.

Learn more about the Arts & Science Book Club with Lawrence Hill:


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