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Interview with Kenneth J. Harvey
Kenneth J. Harvey

Kenneth J. Harvey's novel Blackstrap Hawco was fifteen years in the making. Below, Harvey discusses this 848-page epic of the Newfoundland working class with his Random House Canada editor Craig Pyette.


CRAIG PYETTE: At different points in Blackstrap Hawco, your protagonist finds himself in Halifax , Boston and Toronto. Blackstrap seems to be tracing the footsteps of so many Newfoundlanders who left the island before him. He also appears in some defining moments, real and imagined, in Newfoundland’s recent history: the sinking of the Ocean Ranger and his confrontation with foreign fishing vessels come immediately to mind. When crafting this character, how representative of the Newfoundland diaspora, if I can apply that term, did you intend him to be?

KENNETH J. HARVEY: Blackstrap is as much a product of Newfoundland as any Newfoundlander might be. He is a witness to the events of his life, which are the events of the world in general, and those particular to his specific character.  He does, in fact, trace the footsteps of countless Newfoundlanders who have left the island in search of work, and he experiences a true sense of displacement when he is not in Newfoundland, coupled with a sense of failure at having to be away, of living a ghost of an existence in places that mean nothing to him.

The number of Newfoundlanders leaving the island to work has increased dramatically since the collapse of the cod fishery. But what we are seeing now is Newfoundlanders, qualified tradesmen (carpenters and electricians) who could work in Newfoundland, going away to Alberta to make more money so they can do what? Buy more toys? They might come home and buy bigger pick-up trucks, bigger all-terrain vehicles, bigger campers, and other outsized shiny gadgets, when they could be staying home and creating a more solid backbone in the Newfoundland workforce.

There is a real dearth of tradesmen in Newfoundland now. And it's because Alberta is offering so much money. In a sense, these people are damaging Newfoundland. I am not referring to the people who have to go away because they simply cannot find any work in Newfoundland. I am referring to the qualified tradesmen who can work in Newfoundland, and for a fairly decent wage, yet choose to turn their backs on Newfoundland. A friend in my area has just started a construction business and cannot find carpenters to work, even though he has contracts to build a number of houses. And good luck trying to find an electrician to do work for you. The tradesmen are all in Alberta.

CP: There’s a profound sense of loss that permeates Blackstrap Hawco. Especially with respect to memory—memories of ancestors, ways of life, etc.... Over the course of the 120 years in which this story unfolds, what to your thinking do the characters, representative as they seem to be of Newfoundland’s working class and its way of life, truly lose as the twentieth century progresses?

Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey

KH: They are losing their identity. The twentieth century, particularly the period following the proliferation of television, will, perhaps, be regarded in history as the decades when the people, particularly in North America, as they are the newest of cultures, lost their lives to the lives of strangers, scripted to resemble them in vague ways combined with the product of what a homogenous human is intended to be, as dictated by the standard sit-com living room, the California beach, the streets of New York, the mean-girl high school, the animated feel-good laugh-a-thon, the romantic comedy…. This is what we all are becoming.

CP: Some of Blackstrap’s forebears and relatives exist in the book after their deaths, though the diminishment of such presences in the lives of their remaining family seems as much lost comfort as it is the excising of nagging ghosts. What or who haunted you during the fifteen years you spent writing this book?

KH: The entire island of Newfoundland haunted me, in the way that a dramatic, massive, imposing chunk of rock looming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean might.

The idea of writing a large novel that somehow tries to encapsulate Newfoundland haunted me. I hope I have managed to offer some sort of idea of what it is like to be not only a Newfoundlander, and there are many sorts, of course, but also any person trying to hold onto their identity in this carbon-copy world.

CP: The story moves from moments of near idyllic existence of people living, even if dangerously, off the land, to scenes of abject moral impoverishment, when the notions of family and identity that ought to sustain the people of this book have crumbled and left them wandering. To what extent were you deliberately turning the stereotype of the salty, grinning fisherman inside out? I wouldn’t ask you to  prognosticate on the reactions of others to the book, but to your mind is the book a view of life in Newfoundland that Newfoundlanders themselves tend to accept?

KH: The view of life is the life I have lived, witnessed or heard stories about. I have always been at odds over how Newfoundlanders have been portrayed as ignorant people, while it is actually the ignorant who know nothing of Newfoundlanders and continue to propagate that view. We are more than fishermen here.

CP: Blackstrap is an abrasive man, perpetually grinding against his and his people’s lack of status in the larger status quo. How would he live if he could have his way? Or is that part of your point, that there is no ideal to aspire to? The past as it’s understood is not true and the future as it’s being cast is not promising?

KH: Blackstrap laments the loss of a life he never really knew. It this sense, the character might be someone who suffers such an affliction anywhere in the world.  Of course, the life he laments has been romanticized to a great extent, as is outlined in the book.

The past is not always a good life, yet it is all we have to hold onto. It fills our heads, so it is a good idea to weed out the bad memories and cling to the bright spots and polish a little more sheen into them. It’s part of surviving.

Random House Canada editor Craig Pyette

CP: What of Blackstrap’s people? Key to your book seems to be that Blackstrap is both a manifestation of what it is to be a true Newfoundlander, but also that whatever a true Newfoundlander is, is a fractured and inherently impure identity. I’m thinking here of his own English/Irish (and poorly traced) parentage?

KH: The book addresses the idea of being proud of where you come from, when, in reality, we never really know where we come from. We are proud of our home, yet it is barely our home. It is nothing more than a set of familiar glimpses impressed upon our mind that somehow gives us comfort. Yet it somehow enters our bodies and melds with our physical beings. I often find myself feeling agitated and out of place in unfamiliar landscapes. But when I return home and step out into the Newfoundland landscape, I feel the tension ease and the pieces of the external jigsaw puzzle click into place inside of me. The picture is complete and I can wander at ease.

CP: You resist calling Blackstrap Hawco a novel, preferring to call it a “transcomposite narrative.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

KH: The transcomposite narrative was introduced in my novel Skin Hound: There Are No Words (2000, The Mercury Press). It transcomposes passages of non-fiction with fiction. It combines true-to-life passages that describe actual people with passages featuring fictional characters. It lifts newspaper reports of news events and transplants them, word-for-word, into descriptions of fictional events. It takes the exact wording of journal entries or letters written by real people and attributes them to the hands of supposedly fictional characters. It takes poetry, for example, and uses lines from poems written by the masters and places new lines within the poems that are written by fictional characters.... The transcomposite narrative tries to mirror what we actually see in our memories, because what we see in our minds is always a mixture of fact and fiction or history and myth. It is never entirely one or the other.

CP: I’ve always been curious, how were you inspired to name your protagonist after a brand of molasses?

KH: I liked the name Blackstrap. It struck me as a strong name. And Hawco fits well with it. Hawco is a good Newfoundland name. Plus I like molasses quite a bit.

CP: Is there hope in the book, some thread of faith in the ability of the spirit Blackstrap embodies to overcome the world’s inclination to pacify it, and to once again, or perhaps finally, find its place in the world?

KH: There’s always hope and the other saving grace that keeps Newfoundlander’s afloat: humour.

Blackstrap continues to exist despite the fact that he is destroyed many times in the book. Ours is a persistent battle against cultural and economic obliteration.

And there is a good measure of hope in Newfoundland, presently, because the willful whoring of our province's natural resources to mainland industries is beginning to be curtailed by a premier with character and gumption and economic smarts.

Blackstrap might be symbolic of the hardships faced by Newfoundlanders, and our steadfast determination to overcome those odds, how those hard times have shaped us into people with a solid storehouse of personal knowledge relating to workmanship and the practicalities of survival.

 


Kenneth J. Harvey’s books are published in the US, the UK, Russia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, France and Japan. His novel The Town That Forgot How to Breathe (Raincoast) garnered raves and will appear this fall in the US from St. Martin’s Press. In Canada, it won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Harvey’s works have also been nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He lives with his family in a Newfoundland outport.

Craig Pyette is an editor at Random House Canada in Toronto. A former bookseller and musician, he has worked in Canadian publishing for over a decade. His short fiction has appeared in Pilot Pocket literary journal. He lives with his family in Oshawa.

(photos courtesy Random House Canada)

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