The Chat with Governor General's Fiction Award Winner Joel Thomas Hynes

joelthomashynes

Today we chat with Joel Thomas Hynes, author of the novel We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night. It’s this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winner for Fiction. 

From the jury citation: “Hynes’s portrait of Johnny Keough is an act of full-throttle imagination and narrative invention. Johnny is a startlingly original creation. His hilarious yet disturbing journey from St. John’s to Vancouver is unforgettable, tragic and ultimately transcendent.”

Joel Thomas Hynes—who divides his time between Toronto and St. John's, Newfoundland—has published numerous books and stage plays, including the novels Down to the Dirt, Right Away Monday, and Straight Razor Days. His screen adaptation of his novella Say Nothing Saw Wood was nominated for four Canadian Screen Awards and won numerous awards on the festival circuit. He has worked in the Canadian film and TV industry for 20 years, and has written and directed two award-winning short films, Clipper Gold and Little Man. He has had leading roles in productions such as Down to the Dirt, Book of Negroes, Hatching Matching and Dispatching, Rookie Blue, Mary Kills People, and Orphan Black and currently can be seen on the Netflix Original drama Frontier. The new comedy series Little Dog, created by Hynes and featuring him in the lead role, premieres in the winter of 2018 on CBC.

TheChat-GGs-2017

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Trevor Corkum: How did We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night come to life?

Joel Thomas Hynes: The initial idea for We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night was born out its setting, I suppose. I have a house in the downtown core in a notoriously scrappy and volatile area of the city. I guess you’d call it “the Hood.” I quite like it in the Hood. I feel comfortable most of the time. I bought into the area for its lack of pretense. I can’t suffer a certain type bullshit. Not to say I’m not full of it sometimes. But what I mean is that there’s nothing precious about my street. It’s wild and out of sync with time and casually populated by dealers and addicts and bikers and sex workers and jailbirds and otherwise marginalized types. Couple of crack shacks. A few red lights in a few windows. And lots of good, solid working-class homeowners too. Cops coming and going. Once I came home to find a SWAT team on the roof of my house. They weren’t looking for me.

Once I woke up to see someone staggering out of a house with a big kitchen knife stuck in his chest and blood running down his leg. He’d been stabbed in his sleep by a guy who’d busted in looking for a stash of cocaine. There’s a guy who goes around selling cheese. He carries a big block of cheese that he’s lifted from the grocery store, knocks on your door and offers to slice you off three or four dollars’ worth. I’ve never bought any but it seems like a good deal. One wicked sunny afternoon just this past summer there was a young woman who ran screaming, naked, from a house down the street from mine, after waking up in a bathtub of ice water and ice cubes. She’d apparently overdosed on Fentanyl and woke up in the midst of a full blown psychotic episode. Some boys further down the street came running with the antidote kit—Naloxone—and held her down and sunk a needle into her arm and she eventually leveled out. Cops and emergency workers showed up wearing those big spacey biohazard suits and carted her off to the hospital.

There’s a guy who goes around selling cheese. He carries a big block of cheese that he’s lifted from the grocery store, knocks on your door and offers to slice you off three or four dollars’ worth. I’ve never bought any but it seems like a good deal.

Really, I might be painting a pretty shitty picture of the place—dodgy and toxic and dangerous and inhospitable, but it’s so much more than that. Good times, community, lots of laughter too. I don’t lock my door while I’m home. I just won’t live like that. And I’m ready to throw down when I have to. Anyhow, you can imagine, I was standing out on the street one night a few years back, after having a violent interaction with this guy who’d just gotten out of jail (and ended up back in jail the very next morning for an unrelated incident), and I looked up and down the street and saw this old tomcat scurrying across the road and I thought to myself—I think I’ll write a novel about this place. And then the whole book sort of flashed through my head. And the guy who’d just threatened to kick my teeth down my throat, he became my main character, Johnny Keough. I became obsessed with the idea of getting inside his mind and ultimately breaking him.
 
TC: One of the strengths of the novel is its incredible vernacular dialogue. Can you talk more about how and in what ways your writing for film and fiction intersect?

JTH: No matter what form my work takes on—a stageplay, a movie, a book—a major part of my writing and editing process is testing the dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t work out loud then I tweak it and rewrite it until it works on the page. Or I cut it altogether. And because for fiction I mostly elect to write in the first person, then oftentimes the whole book has been read out loud several times throughout any particular draft. And when you’re writing for film or TV it’s just something that happens by default, because you know the end result of any written dialogue will actually be spoken out loud. So you have to be careful to make sure it’s natural and true to the character before you go to camera.

No matter what form my work takes on—a stageplay, a movie, a book—a major part of my writing and editing process is testing the dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t work out loud then I tweak it and rewrite it until it works on the page. Or I cut it altogether.

Then so many other factors come into play—a really good actor or a really bad actor, a director who interprets a subtext that the writer hadn’t intended. A location could fall through, say you were supposed to shoot a scene in the kitchen but the kitchen is no longer available so you have to shoot on the back porch, well your dialogue is gonna change too.

But in terms of fiction and film intersecting, I don’t really know. Each form offers the writer different freedoms and imposes different limitations. You know, for film writing, the only thing other than dialogue that a writer should lay down on the page is what can be seen on camera. You don’t internalize anything. Your story is going to be told with a camera, and thoughts and the inner life of a character is going to be implied through the actions of the characters on screen. You don’t “tell” a story, you “show” a story. And I guess that’s true for fiction too, but you can get away with the “telling” sometimes depending on how you execute it. But the major difference between writing fiction for the page and writing film for the screen is a budgetary one. If you want to burn the house to the ground in your novel then you just light the match and watch it all go up in flames. But if you want to do the same thing in the movie version then you better have the budget for it—safety coordinators, emergency personal, permits, a house to burn. It gets pricey.
 
TC: Newfoundland and Labrador has a spectacular and diverse range of writers. How has growing up in the province honed your storytelling?

JTH: I grew up running wild in the woods and climbing cliffs and jumping off the wharf for kicks. This is preadolescence I’m talking about. We never had paved roads until the late eighties. Cable TV finally arrived sometime around then too and there was a whopping eleven channels to choose from. So, talking and storytelling was a major part of how we entertained ourselves I suppose. Stories sustained our culture. Newfoundland does have a very vibrant literary community today, but we owe it to a centuries-long tradition of oral storytelling.

I grew up running wild in the woods and climbing cliffs and jumping off the wharf for kicks. This is preadolescence I’m talking about. We never had paved roads until the late eighties.

TC: What’s your own litmus test for great fiction?

JTH: Great fiction, in my opinion, is confident without looking too closely at itself, without being too precious. I prefer very raw, open, character-driven stories. My taste in fiction is very broad, but I do have a preference for protagonists that are untrustworthy, a main character who is very selectively allowing a story to unravel for their own gain, communicating a version of a story that may or may not be true. I really enjoy fiction that includes the reader in the storytelling process. Most of my books have “open” endings. Meaning they just stop right here, without catering to traditional ideas of closure. I like the idea of the reader keeping the story rolling by means of their own speculation.

Great fiction, in my opinion, is confident without looking too closely at itself, without being too precious.

JTH: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?

I just this past summer read Mary Walsh’s first novel Crying for the Moon. How could I not plug it? Mary is, admittedly, one of my favorite people, but she’s written a brilliant and brave book that feels more like an offering from a much more seasoned novelist.

Wayne Johnston’s new novel First Snow, Last Light is on my bedside table. I’ve read all of his books and will always rush out to buy the new one.

David Adams Richards is another writer I can’t get enough of. Mercy Among the Children remains one

of my favorite books of all time. I’ve read it seven or eight times and I always buy second-hand copies whenever I see one so I can have it on hand to give to someone I think might like it. Aislinn Hunter’s novel The World Before Us is well worth the read. She’s also a very accomplished poet and essayist.  

And finally, I’m smack in the middle of a kick-ass novel called The Winter Family, by Clifford Jackman. It’s set against the backdrop of the Civil War in the southern US, so I don’t know if it qualifies as “CanLit,” but Jackman is from Ontario and lives there still, so. The book puts me in mind of Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy—a bloody and violent exploration of what “man” is capable of when the standard laws that govern society no longer apply.

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Excerpt from We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night

What’s going on Johnny?
Come  on,  whatcha  doing?  How  are  ya? 

Poor  Johnny. Touchy Johnny. In this mindset. How you are? Imagine. How’s our John-John doing? How’s he makin out, comin along, doing for himself? How’s he keepin? Fuck. Slung halfways out the window for a haul, cause that’s what this piss-arsed place is come to. Imagine that, tumbling out onto the street for the sake of a stale Number 7 cause where he might pollute his own room. Where he sleeps alone. Poor old Johnny. The vinyl sill busted and gouging into his ribcage. Oh yeah, Johnny could very well settle out on the front step, but that means back and forth the stairs every time and then sat out there, watchin the street . . . the temptation is too much now aint it? Might get foolish. Might wander off.

Buddy from next door takes his garbage out for tomorrow morning.
How together he is, how on top of it all he must be, hey Johnny? Then he sees a splotch of birdshit on his rig and dont he go over and polish it off with his sleeve! Rather have diseased pigeon shit on the clothes he’s wearing than on the rig he drives. Pigeon shit. That’s what’s in his head too. All their heads. Dont bother askin Johnny what’s going on around him. Who’s screwing who. What the fuck is going on. Carry on little mouse, carry on.

From We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night by Joel Thomas Hynes ©2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

November 23, 2017
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