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An Interview with Lawrence Hill (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/01/08


An interview with Lawrence Hill. He discusses: the motivation for compassionate truth; religious or secular worldview influencing it; long time to write novels and this as either part of habit or personality; view on books in terms of their personal importance; strengths and weaknesses of the writing style; reason for writing more non-fiction than fiction; importance of nearly dying; importance of Malcolm X as an influence on him; influence of Martin Luther King on him; meaning of blood to him; and the dangers of associating blood with race or religion.

Keywords: author, blood, Lawrence Hill, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, novelist, race, religion, writer.

An Interview with Lawrence Hill: Professor, Creative Writing, University of Guelph, and Author, Novelist, and Writer (Part Two)[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.*

16. One thing that comes from the written word by you. For me, the genuine compassion and open-heartedness in pursuit of real narratives and concern for people. You write on slaves. You write on immigrants. You write on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press. Uncomfortable truths are still truths. The truth matters. To me, this seems humanistic. Universal truths relevant to everyone. What motivates this passion for compassionate truth?

It’s giving back. Most writers examine issues of injustice, imbalance, or societal wrongs, whether they are tiny wrongs or tiny instances of public awareness. No matter how heinous, tiny wrongs done in the household up to genocides perpetuated on the whole mass of people.

Writers tend to explore inhumanity. Hopefully, to put a stop to it or protest against it, I’m not alone in this. Writing is a profoundly moral act. You’re asserting your morality every time that you pick up a pen and take it to the page. For me, writing is engaging with the world.

Writing is a way of expressing our own humanity, failings, a way of struggling to make sense of life and inhumanity, and to push ourselves to a better place. But when I am at work writing, I don’t think on such a grand scale. Typically, it is pedestrian and manageable. I am burning to tell a story.

17. Any religious or secular framework, perspective, or worldview supporting it?

No. Certainly, not a religious framework, I was raised by two atheists. Those two atheists in turn were raised by two religious people. On my father’s side, my grandfather and great grandfather were both ministers in the African Episcopal Church in the United States.

My father went from being a church minister to being an atheist. I have great interest in religion and people’s perception of religion throughout history. Religion sometimes informs my stories, but I’m not a religious person myself.

18. You take three to five years to write a novel. You let the ideas, the contexts, and the personalities percolate for some time. Does this seem like an aspect of habit or personality?

I let them percolate in a passive way. I’m writing, writing, and writing, and not feeling happy with drafts. I keep writing again, and then rewriting. I take a long time.


Unfortunately, it takes me that long, 3 to 5 years, to write a novel. I need to feel satisfied with it.

I wish I could write faster, but I don’t seem to be able to do so. It takes time for characters to form, show themselves to me, and to get my head around the story. It is like giving birth on the page to a whole life or a set of lives. It’s hard for me to get my head around all of that and to bring it to the page.

Generally, I write non-fiction more quickly. I take 6-12 months to write a work of non-fiction.

19. You used the phrase “giving birth.” That seems to mirror some common themes among many writers. In a way, their book is like a child to them. How do you view your books in terms of their personal importance, especially based on the effort and time put into them?

I’m using the expressions of my own soul. Each form is different. In general, I try not to rank them in terms of value. It is better for other people to decide which book is better or worse. I don’t want to be in competition with myself.

That is, I don’t want to love any work more than another. I want to love them all in their own way. Each book is part of my mind, heart, and soul at the time of writing. However, once you’re done the production, the healthiest thing is to set them aside and move on.

I might read a translation or adapt a work for a mini-series. And I will tour and give readings and talks. But aside from working obligations, I don’t return to a book once I have finished writing it.

20. As you’re writing, it is not a passive percolation. Once done, the books are put to the side. At the same time, as you’ve noted, it takes time to get them out, but you’d rather get them out faster. What seems like the strengths and weaknesses of this writing style?


The weakness is I’m a slow writer. Some writers might produce 40 or 50 books in their lifetime. That won’t be the case with me. I’ll be lucky to write 5 more. So, I don’t have a body of work as extensive as some.

Ultimately, that’s okay. I work on my own terms. In the final analysis, if I write 10 or 15 books, it doesn’t matter. I am pursuing art in the best way for me. That matters to me.

The upside, it is important to be honest and faithful to yourself. When I write and produce, I work on something that reflects my own heart. It is an authentic reflection of longing, loving, and living. I’ve managed to get in tune with myself. I’ve found a way to express myself that feels authentic and rich.

21. You’ve written more works of non-fiction than fiction. Why?

Yes, I have written more non-fiction than fiction. I can write non-fiction faster. That’s the most practical reason. Two of the works of non-fiction were very slight, minor books. They were early career productions. Nobody knows about them. They are not available or no longer in print. They are in Canadian history.

I am proud of them. Even so, they are slight, minor books. If you put those books away, the slate is mixed. It leaves four more substantial books of non-fiction and four of fiction. In general, the works of non-fiction are more focused. They are thinner. They hone in on more specific targets.

22. You worked in Niger. You suffered from gastroenteritis. It kills millions of people around the world every year. It is a prominent killer throughout the African Diaspora. You were given blood transfusions. You nearly died. You have pointed out the important aspect of this to you. What was the importance of this event to you – and the blood transfusion?

It was a turning point, emotionally. It was important because I almost died. Apart from getting over the moment of danger, it provided the chance to reflect on my own racial identity.

Something that had been worrying me until the time of when I got sick at the age of 22. With the illness, I dropped the worry in a nanosecond. I no longer felt anxious about my own racial identity or who I was, or what people saw in me.

I felt no need to worry about it anymore. I came to accept, much more calmly, being both black and white. I had family ancestry spanning two continents. I didn’t have to worry other people’s perceptions of me. It didn’t matter. I knew myself.

It was a significant moment triggered by the illness in Niger in 1979. It took me to a place of emotional calm and confidence with regard to my own identity.

23. At the age of 15, Malcolm X was an important influence for you. What was the importance to you? How did that develop over time?

The Autobiography of Malcolm X written by Alex Haley. It was one of the first books for adults that I read. If you read a book that transports you and shapes you in your youth, then you’ll probably never forget it.

Books have a real mark on a young person, if that young person adores the book. You don’t forget it. Malcolm X, as he’s moving through prison, stepping out of prison, embracing Islam, hating white people, and declaring white people were devils incarnate.

He argued white people were devils. He believed that. He mounts a very racist, hateful argument during his early militancy. However, before the assassination, he becomes more compassionate. He envisions a more diverse picture of Islam. He comes to accept through his travels around the world that people of different racial backgrounds can be Muslims.

He was hard to read in print. That is, some ideas were nonsensical and oppressive to me. For example, such as his saying white people were devils incarnate. At the same time, he went to a better place with the diverse image of Islam. I was moved and shaken by Malcolm X’s writings as a teenager. He stayed with me all of these decades.

24. Martin Luther King was concomitant with him in terms of the period and the importance. Did he have any influence on you as well?

Yes, I was born in 1957. It was easy to be influenced by Martin Luther King. Even though, I was a boy at the time of the assassination. I’m from a generation that was most affected by Martin Luther King. His message of love and peace, and a color blind world. It allowed people to search and develop regardless of their race, creed, and color.

Also, he was a pacifist. He gave his life to advance the cause of civil rights. He was a hero of the generation. He was essential to my notion of courage, dignity, love, and transcendence of human evil.

25. Cornel West describes that as a love that starts on the chocolate side of the city and spills over to the vanilla side. In any case, the ideas of the purity or impurity of blood can lead to atrocities: The Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition is the expelling and murder of Jews and Muslims from Spain based on the idea of their impurity. What is blood to you?

The perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition expelled and murdered Jews and Muslims in great numbers. They burned them to death. They tortured them. They committed all manner of atrocities in addition to expelling tens of thousands or more.

“Blood” is many things to me. Blood is the physical fluid that pumps through our body. It keeps us alive. It can be given and replenished inside the body, which is rare. There aren’t many things that we can donate from our bodies.

People can’t donate a liver, a kidney, a toe, a finger, or an eyeball and have it grow back. In addition to being this ‘magical fluid’ that replenishes itself, blood represents life. It represents mortality.

It represents good. It represents religion. It represents nationhood. It represents gender. Blood evokes individual and collective identity. Blood can unite us. We can be generous and immediate in helping others with our blood.

When we see that our brothers or sisters are in danger, have been terrorized at the Boston Marathon or during 9/11, we can rush to the hospital and donate blood. We do this without public recognition or personal reward.

Blood can bring out the best in us. Also, it can bring out the worst in us such as nasty preoccupations, which can lead into the hell of genocide.

One of the easiest ways over time employed to demonize people and to justify murder is to suggest their blood is unequal to our blood. That their blood is impure. It is a very common, human feeling. We come back to this repeatedly to justify evil and murder.

We dehumanize victims. Blood has an important role as a metaphor. Sometimes for good. Sometimes for evil. It depends on personal conduct. It is more than the fruit of the body. It is a way of seeing ourselves. It is a way of loving. Also, it can be a way of hating.

26. We have the Rwandan genocide, Cambodian genocide, The Holocaust, and the Spanish Inquisition. Each relates to the ideas about the impurity of others’ blood. It justifies murder and subjugation in the mind of the murderer and subjugator. What other dangers exist with blood being associated with race or religion?

That’s a complicated question. I wrote about this in Blood: The Stuff of Life (2013).[5] In a nutshell, we have these ideas about blood, which are unscientific and unrelated to reality. Even as recent as the Second World War, the American government made it illegal for blood from black donors to be given to white recipients.

Even though, at the time, it was completely understood that compatibility between donor and recipient has nothing to do with race. Do the blood types match? That’s the question. If it’s a black donor and white recipient, or white donor and black recipient, it doesn’t matter.

Politics trump science. It becomes law because there’s fear of black people in white America. Bad science and bad social policies touch on this fear of blacks in white America. If you have wretchedly bad science forming wretchedly bad social policy and political interventions, even if it’s not a matter of genocide, it can lead to foul policy.

Also, it can lead to divisive ways of thinking about people. Over and over again, let’s say people in North America, have come to imagine, erroneously, that race can be equated to blood. That one’s blood parts can be counted up in racial bits. That you might be half black, quarter Japanese, and quarter Korean.

It doesn’t make any sense. However, we talk about racial mixtures. The language about racial mixing comes down to blood quantification. We’ve come to imagine that identity and racial identity can be defined by blood parts, which leads to vicious ways of thinking about people.

Appendix I: Footnotes

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

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 8, 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] Hill, L. (2013). Blood: The Stuff of Life. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press.


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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