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An Interview with Lawrence Hill (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/01/01


An interview with Lawrence Hill. He discusses: geographic, cultural, and linguistic family background; familial influence on development; parents’ love story; influence on parents’ relationship on him; influences and pivotal moments in major cross-sections of life; being read to each night by his mother; journalistic experience influencing writing to date; self-editing for writers; number of drafts; singer-songwriter brother, Dan Hill, influence on professional work; recommended songs for listening pleasure by Dan; affect of Karen Hill’s mental illness and death on him; advice for coping with the emotional pain; Café Babanussa (2016) and an essay inside called On Being Crazy; and Karen’s written work and impact on him.

Keywords: author, Canadian, Dan Hill, Karen Hill, Lawrence Hill, novelist, writer.

An Interview with Lawrence Hill: Professor, Creative Writing, University of Guelph, and Author, Novelist, and Writer (Part One)[1],[2],[3],[4]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, & citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview has been mildly edited for clarity and readability.*

1. To begin at the beginning, you were born in 1957 in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. Now, you’re one of Canada’s greatest novelists.[5] Let’s explore your story. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your familial background reside?

It is complicated, like most people. My early ancestors came from Europe and Africa. On both sides, they have been in the United States for many generations. My parents met in 1952 and married interracially the next year.  My family culture spans Africa, Europe, Canada, and the United States. In terms of my family cultural background, Canadian, American, and black and white cultures.

Language-wise, I was raised in an Anglophone family who spoke only English, but my sister and I became enthusiastic language learners. Learning other languages and living in them has become central in my life.

2. How did this familial history influence development from youth into adolescence?

It is difficult for a person to look inside of their own life and say, “This is how my family history influenced my development from childhood to adolescence.” However, a vivid interest in identity, in belonging, in the ambiguity of culture and race, in moving back and forth between different racial groups: all of these things marked my childhood and adolescence.

3. You mentioned your parents married in 1953. What was the origin and nature of your parents’ relationship with each other? Their love story.

They met in ‘52 in Washington, D.C. and fell in love, quickly. My father had just completed an MA in sociology at the University of Toronto. He went back to live in Washington and to teach at a college in Baltimore for a year. My parents met and married that year. The day after they married, they moved to Canada. They became ardent Canadians and never looked back. They never moved back to live in the United States, although they visited often and took my brother, sister and me with them.

4. How did this relationship influence you?

For one thing, they loved each other. They were opinionated and argumentative, not about domestic things, but about political and social issues. There was always debate around the kitchen table. I was steeped in that culture. A lot of talk, especially around meal time.

5. When looking at formal development, in standard major cross-sections in life, what about influences and pivotal moments in kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, high school, undergraduate studies (college/university)?

I had a fabulous Grade 1 teacher named Mrs. Rowe. She told us stories every day. I longed to get to school to be sure I didn’t miss any of her stories. My father was a great storyteller. My mother read every day to us. We came – brother, sister, and I – to love the readings.

My parents instilled a love of language and story. I had other great teachers. In high school, they encouraged me to write. I wanted to do it. I told them. They encouraged me, but they didn’t make me.

I was an avid runner and had a track coach. In addition to being my coach, he was a reporter for the Toronto Star. He was the first professional writer that I met. He encouraged me to write better and to expand the range of my reading. These were early formative developers. Adult figures looking on and leading me toward the excitement of writing.

6. I’m thinking about your mother reading these stories each day to you. Was there a common author for each night?

She read one a lot. I memorized it. It is by A.A. Milne.[6] One of her favourite poems that we memorized quite young called Disobedience.[7] It says:

…James James Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he;
“You must never go down
to the end of the town,
if you don’t go down with me…

On it goes, it is this crazy story about a woman who loses it. It is quite a story.



It is quite a dark story, actually. Also, it is playful, language-wise. Of course, we ate up Dr. Seuss. The crazier and more playful the language, the better.

7. Following that influence from the first professional writer that you met, you were a journalist for The Winnipeg Free Press and The Globe and Mail. How did the time as a journalist at these publications inform the work writing to date?

It helped me learn, quickly. I learned to edit myself. I was able to call people ‘out of the blue’ and say, “Hey, there’s something I need to understand. You’re apparently an expert in the field. Can you explain it to me?” It made me feel confident approaching strangers and asking them to help me get my head around things that I needed to know as a novelist.

I also learned that words aren’t sacrosanct. That is, my world wouldn’t come to an end if people altered words of mine. I realized everyone can be edited. First and foremost, we can edit ourselves. I learned to write more rapidly and to allow the natural rhythms of thought to percolate unfettered onto the page, and then to come back and edit myself. Those lessons come from journalism.

8. Would you consider self-editing one of the most important skills for writers?

Certainly, it is for me. Unless you’re born Mozart, your first drafts will be sloppy. Mine certainly are, so I have to rewrite my work and work it into shape. Editing is fundamental to progressing through the drafts of a novel.

9. How many drafts?

In a novel, I easily work through ten drafts.

10. Now, back to the family, your brother, Dan Hill, is a singer-songwriter.[9] Has this relationship influenced professional work at all?

First, it influenced me as a person, which influenced professional work in every imaginable way. He is (and was) totally passionate with art. He lived for it. It was exciting to see my brother as an artist doing his thing.

I could see the personal fulfillment for him. It normalized the possibility of achievement in the arts. The idea of going for it, pursuing the dream, and believing in its achievability. His most important influence: being there, seeing him, and showing the possibility for me too.

11. Any recommended songs by him for listening pleasure? Songs that you enjoy by your brother.

I love the song Hold On.[10] It came out in the 70s.

12. Your late sister, Karen, suffered from bipolar disorder. She went to a restaurant, choked, lost consciousness, and died in the hospital 5 days later. How did this life battle with mental illness and then the death affect you?

It affected me in all the imaginable ways. It took my sister from me. I lost one of the people that I most love in the world. It was a visceral, immediate, loss. Many will face it. It is hard to lose a loved one unexpectedly far before their time. It affected me by taking someone from me that I love very deeply.

13. For those that might read this in the future with family members suffering from mental illness, any advice for coping with the emotional pain that might coincide with it?

My advice: don’t be alone. It is tremendous work emotionally, intellectually, and financially to help somebody who suffers from mental illness. It is alienating if you have to do that alone. If you have a community of people to come and work together in supporting the ill person, it can help.

If you are alone, it can be brutally alienating, lonely, and crushing. However, if you have institutions, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, friends, family members and neighbours involved with the ill person, everyone can help in their respective ways. It can become less overwhelming. That’s one of the most important things: to build a network. If you are helping an ill person, you will need help too.

14. She wrote a book entitled Café Babanussa (2016) and an essay inside called On Being Crazy.[11]You have read these.

Yes, I read them.

15. Did her written work impact you?

I have been reading Karen’s fiction and non-fiction for decades. It has been a lifelong process. Karen worked on Café Babanussa for 20 years. I’ve been reading it, tuning into her life, commenting on it, encouraging her, and being a brotherly figure by reading her stuff for a long time now. The book was intertwined with her own life. Discussing it became an extension of our sibling relationship.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Professor, Creative Writing, University of Guelph; Author; Novelist; and Writer.

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 1, 2017 at; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2017 at

[3] B.A., Economics, Laval University; M.A., Creative Writing, John Hopkins University.

[4] Photograph courtesy of Lawrence Hill and photograph credit to Lisa Sakulensky.

[5] The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2016). Lawrence Hill. Retrieved from

[6] A.A. Milne. (2016). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[7] Disobedience (n.d.) states:

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
James James Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he;
“You must never go down
to the end of the town,
if you don’t go down with me.”

James James
Morrison’s Mother
Put on a golden gown.
James James Morrison’s Mother
Drove to the end of the town.
James James Morrison’s Mother
Said to herself, said she:
“I can get right down
to the end of the town
and be back in time for tea.”

King John
Put up a notice,

James James
Morrison Morrison
(Commonly known as Jim)
Told his
Other relations
Not to go blaming him.
James James
Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he:
“You must never go down to the end of the town
without consulting me.”

James James
Morrison’s mother
Hasn’t been heard of since.
King John said he was sorry,
So did the Queen and Prince.
King John
(Somebody told me)
Said to a man he knew:
If people go down to the end of the town, well,
what can anyone do?”

(Now then, very softly)
W.G.Du P.
Took great
C/O his M*****
Though he was only 3.
J.J. said to his M*****
“M*****,” he said, said he:

Milne, A.A. (n.d.). Disobedience. Retrieved from

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2016). Dan Hill. Retrieved from

[10] [Kelly Mark]. (2013, October 21). Hold On – Dan Hill. Retrieved from

[11] K., Hill. (2016). Café Babanussa: A Novel. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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