Hynes talks new book, writing process, isolation from writing community

Newfoundland writer Joel Thomas Hynes is taking home the prestigious Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction for his fourth novel, We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, at an exclusive event at Rideau Hall on Monday, Nov. 27.

The award was established by the 15th Governor-General, Lord Tweedsmuir, in 1937, a time when Canadian fiction was still sparse and the culture industry small.

Hynes’ novel is about an extreme outsider, a Newfoundland-based convict, who narrowly escapes a prison sentence, and sets out on a cross-Canada road trip. Hynes is well-read, and this new book seems to come out of a love for Don Quixote, and the Beats and counter-culture literature.

“I’ve told it very honestly. I’ve written a unique book, a unique voice, about an extreme outsider,” Hynes said. “It’s got some rough-and-tumble language, some rough-and-tumble subject matter.”

While excited and honoured to win the award, Hynes was quick to think of other strong writers who could have been in his place.

“Yes, you feel good, you want to celebrate, you want to pat yourself on the back but … it’s a complex accolade,” Hynes said. “There’s lot of people who are just as deserving of the Governor-General’s Award this year as I am. At times, you gotta look at it and say, ‘It’s the luck of the draw.’”

Hynes seemed destined to be a writer, saying that books had always been a source of enjoyment for him. When he began seriously writing as a teen, it wasn’t surprising.

“I found a lot of comfort and solace and company in books from the time I was a very small child,” said Hynes. “It just seemed natural to me when writing started bursting out of me when I was a teenager.”

Hynes writes unflinching portrayals of the down-and-out, often inspired by his own rough situations. The protagonist of We’ll All Be Burnt, for example, is a combination of an inmate Hynes taught in a prison school, and a freak event where a man tried to break into his house and fight him.

“I took that guy and I said, ‘I wonder what it’s like in his head, I wonder where he’s going, I wonder where he comes from. I’m going to build a story around this whole experience,’” he said.

Though Hynes likes the stories he tells and is proud of his unfaltering portrayals, he does admit that finding the perfect audience can be hard, since there is a disconnect between the people he writes about and the average reader.

“I think it’s hard for me to find my audience,” Hynes said. “I sometimes think my audience are not readers. My readership are people who don’t normally read books, and that’s a hard audience to reach.”

Hynes worked on the book intermittently for five or six years, mixing it with his other work (namely as a writer for the CBC and an actor). Hynes switched his writing process for his latest novel, too, writing the book from start to end, instead of his usual technique of patching together scenes and chapters.

“I knew my ending, but I was only moving forward in my document,” Hynes said. “I wrote it from beginning to end with the pace of (the protagonist’s) story in mind.”

Hynes’ work and career is a little outside of the usual Canadian literature community, and that has reflected on his status within the writer community, which he is skeptical a community exists in the way that a lot of outsiders looking in think it does.

“I found myself to be less welcome … I feel more solitary and more isolated as I work harder and put my head down,” Hynes said. “I know there’s an old CanLit scene out there somewhere but I don’t feel like I’m a part of any community.”

He figured that loss of community partially stemmed from artists not supporting other artists as they buy into the idea that one writer’s success is another writer’s failure. Hynes doesn’t believe that line of thinking, instead saying that everyone has a style and no one else can mimic that.

“The world doesn’t want anything else but you and your voice, and you’re the only one who has that voice,” Hynes said. “In a sense, you don’t have any competition out there.”

Joel Thomas Hynes will be in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 30 for a reading and book signing at the Canada Council of the Arts at 150 Elgin St. at 11:30 a.m.