The Chat with Kevin Hardcastle

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TREVOR CORKUM cropped

This week on The Chat we’re in conversation with Kevin Hardcastle. His debut novel In the Cage—about an ex-MMA fighter named Daniel trying to do right—is receiving rave reviews across the country.

The Globe and Mail called it a “fierce and beautiful novel." The Toronto Star says that “Hardcastle has a talent for sketching believable but noir-tinged criminal types with a few quick details and gestures.

Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and Cardiff University. He was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and his stories have been published widely in Canada and anthologized internationally. Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, won the Trillium Book Award and the ReLit Award for Short Fiction.

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THE CHAT WITH KEVIN HARDCASTLE

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Trevor Corkum: This novel was a long time coming. Tell us more about the journey.

Kevin Hardcastle: The journey of In the Cage, as far as process goes, is that it started being plotted out in a journal back in Edmonton, and the first lines of it were written on a bus when I moved home to Toronto, on a commute to a goddamn terrible job. I finished the book in 2010, and rewrote it about four times since, and got it right after finding the right editor, publisher, and set of peers who told me what I’d got right and what I’d got wrong.

But, besides the writing of it as a process, it came from my family and what they’d been through, especially my father, who was a welder and a very good man who couldn’t catch a break. Much of the rest comes from my accepting where I came from up in North Simcoe, and my finding Mixed Martial Arts, and training in Muay Thai, where I learned a hell of a lot about why fighters are fascinating protagonists, and knew that part of it would fit with the rest of my concerns in writing stories.

Much of the rest comes from my accepting where I came from up in North Simcoe, and my finding Mixed Martial Arts, and training in Muay Thai, where I learned a hell of a lot about why fighters are fascinating protagonists ...

TC: You worked with legendary editor John Metcalf. What was that like? What did you learn from the editing relationship?

KH: I’ve made a point to mention, on many occasions, that I have no idea where I’d be in writing if it wasn’t for Metcalf. Especially with this novel, as it could well have been published as a far weaker version from another publishing house, and, if it had, I’d probably have written less short stories (which is how Metcalf found my work), and I’d likely have none of the same bearings on where the writing stands. That, to me, is a little bit terrifying.

But, he did find the stories, and encouraged me to write more, and later performed surgery on In the Cage to fix the pacing and drop weaker elements in the initial manuscript. I’ve learned to be much more precise in working with John, though we did get along because I’m ruthless when it comes to my own editing to begin with. But he will catch errors and imprecise words that have become part of the scenery to everybody else. And he does not pull his punches when he believes something. One of the things I hear people like best about my social media posts is the odd time I post a shot of his edits, all handwritten, where he’ll tell me “you absolutely cannot do this,” or that something is “PREPOSTEROUS!” Most of the time, when I’m reaching for something that isn’t there, or have took a chance that didn’t pay off, I know somewhere that it is a mistake. When he calls me on it, it doesn’t crush me, but brings my focus back to the things that work in my writing.

One of the things I hear people like best about my social media posts is the odd time I post a shot of his edits, all handwritten, where he’ll tell me “you absolutely cannot do this,” or that something is “PREPOSTEROUS!”

TC: In the Cage is a brutal book, but also a novel of spare and luminous beauty. How do violence and beauty inspire or move you as a writer?

KH: I think violence can be beautiful, or at least beautifully written as far as language goes, even if that is just a beauty of economy or function, or necessity. But, much of the violence in the book, especially the MMA scenes, the training scenes, are part of a sport that I consider exceedingly beautiful and impressive. A lot of readers seem to be counting those scenes as more “violence,” but hard, technical sparring is an extremely different physical activity than gun violence or even physical violence in the street.

If people can get past that, or at least except the violence as essential to this story, and not gratuitous, I think they’ll get to the more important parts of the book, which far outnumber scenes of violence and mayhem. The lives of the characters in the novel are hard, but their resilience, and spirit, and love for each other is the driving force of this novel. The small moments of relief or joy they share, made all the more precious by the uglier things the world does to them, those are the elements that I care about most, and that make life worthwhile, even at its most desperate.

TC: It’s a highly polished book, uniquely Hardcastlean. Your prose is taut and the cadence precise. You take many great liberties with compound words. Can you talk more about how and why style are important to you? What kind of tussles did you get into over language through the edits?

KH: All of those “Hardcastle words,” as Kris Bertin would call them, have just sort of developed over the course of my writing career. I don’t remember when I started using them so regularly, or how it started, but the ones that work best have a very specific function, to qualify something plain or usual and immediately link it to some other object or place that often mixes or magnifies a sensory reaction to the words. I didn’t realize I had a system to those until I started editing Debris.

The problem that I didn’t think about until the edits, however, was that it would become an editorial IED and would give copyeditors fits. There are always going to be inconsistencies, and a period of adjustment where readers and editors figure out why and how I’m using those words of this voice. And, after identifying them for me, and my many STETs all over the page, I end up in some kind of compound audit blackhole where I can’t even see the right use of a word I’m looking at. Unfortunately for Biblioasis, this is the cow they bought, twice.

I will say though, I believe in the style and I believe in its effect. I never wanted to be a writer with overstylized prose, just for the sake of being artsy or clever, but I don’t think this is at attempt at that. All my weird stylistic choices have a real, concrete function, and I think they augment the simplicity of the lines in an important way. But I also don’t begrudge readers who say it drives them crazy.

I will say though, I believe in the style and I believe in its effect. I never wanted to be a writer with overstylized prose, just for the sake of being artsy or clever, but I don’t think this is at attempt at that.

TC: This is your sophomore book, albeit your debut novel. What pressure did you feel publishing a follow-up to your Trillium Award-winning collection, Debris?

KH: When I was done with Debris, I knew that was the best possible book that I could’ve put out. I was entirely content to let it sink or swim, knowing it was exactly what I wanted to publish, and we were able to build it up from pieces that I’d written after I’d nailed down my style and voice. With In the Cage, I didn’t have that same level of confidence or as good of a sense of direction during the revisions. There were substantial changes made to the book, substantial cuts and segments added, characters changed in background and age, and some very important scenes written in the last set of edits that were necessary for the novel to be successful.

So, my biggest concern was making the novel as precise and effective as the stories in Debris, and to bring the writing up to that level. I first wrote the book in 2010, and have since rewritten in four times, with the other revisions before and after each rewrite. I figured if I could do that, the rest of the work would be much easier. I was most concerned with publishing a good book, and, now that I think we’ve done it, I will do what I can to get it into readers’ hands and try to build on the somewhat surprising success that Debris had.

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Excerpt from In the Cage

The first time Daniel fought in the cage was on his twenty-seventh birthday. He had boxed as an amateur and went twenty-two and two with twenty knockouts. The losses were decisions, and he had only ever been hurt once in those fights but he never told anybody about it. He didn’t like the boxing game and before he could be pushed to turn pro his trainer was sent to Fernbrook penitentiary for work he did with the local motorcycle club. He didn’t come back. Daniel didn’t go to the gym anymore and then he saw a Muay Thai fight on TV and he decided he was done with boxing. Within a year he had fought twelve kickboxing matches under North-American rules and won them all by knockout. He fought in Quebec and Alberta and on First Nations land and some of those fights weren’t on his record and some were under Thai rules and the pathetic canvas matting of those rings were stained and stained again with men’s blood.

In southern Alberta he found a gym that wasn’t much more than a storage locker with floor mats, and there he learned Jiu Jitsu from two white men who had learned a poor man’s version from a half-Brazilian day labourer. When he went back to Ontario, Daniel found a true Brazilian gym with men of suspect lineage to players in Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba and they beat him bloody about the ears and twisted him to pulp and he dreamt about it every night, lying battered and aching in his one-room shithole apartment in the east end of the city. He didn’t talk to his father anymore and he didn’t go up north to the place he was born and grew up. His old man wanted him to come home and weld but the boy wanted no part of that life. He’d had offers to work in places remote and frozen without fight gyms but they were long withdrawn and Daniel cleaned the halls and toilets of his would-be alma mater and sometimes he shovelled snow out of entryways and laid salt on the pockmarked stone of the steps out front.

He turned twenty-seven in a cage near Fort McMurray. The man he fought had a huge, mutant head and cauliflowered ears and his nose buckled in at the bridge. At two-hundred and four pounds Daniel gave up a lot of weight to the other man but he had no true manager and the fight had been re-classed as a catchweight bout and he would not see his money if he walked away. The only punch the big man threw was slipped and then that other man ate a one-two and fell and he was swarmed by Daniel and had his brow cleaved by elbow-strikes and his head bounced off the mat while he tried to get his forearms up.

Daniel fought in a legion hall in Lethbridge and there he left an American ex-wrestler turtled up against the cage with his rib broken from a knee and his left eye swollen shut. He fought in Red Deer and in Grande Prairie and the men he fought were younger and both lasted no more than a minute and when he got to his next fight at a cut-rate casino in Lloydminster the other fighter was not there. The promoter didn’t want to pay Daniel but he did pay him and then Daniel sat in a motel room on his own and drank all of the unearned money away.

Excerpted from In the Cage by Kevin Hardcastle, copyright 2017. Published by Biblioasis.

October 2, 2017
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