ZANY PLOT, SERIOUS FAMILY
Author draws on experience to write laugh-out-loud caper novel
No Good Brother Tyler Keevil HarperCollins Canada
LONDON The craziness of his main plot line had Canadian writer Tyler Keevil worried.
Yet it wasn’t just a matter of getting away with a novel that, among other things, would turn into a laugh-out-loud caper comedy about the theft and illegal smuggling of a prize racehorse by boat from the British Columbia mainland to the United States.
He also faced the challenge of integrating this zaniness with a more serious narrative about family ties and loyalties. Could he pull it off ?
“Writing is like swimming underwater and not coming up for a breath,” Keevil says now. “I think we’re always plagued by doubts.”
So even after he started working on his latest novel, No Good Brother, those doubts kept surfacing.
On the surface, the award-winning ex-Vancouverite might seem well equipped to write a story like this one. After all, he had actually worked on an ice barge during the West Coast herring season and had intimate knowledge of B.C.’s Lower Mainland and its waters — components important to the narrative. He was also sympathetic toward the tragicomic absurdities of human behaviour.
Yet, it wasn’t until he completed his first draft that Keevil started feeling confident.
The novel has earned praise from early readers, evoking the freewheeling spirit of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the unhinged film comedies of the Coen brothers. And fans of the late Elmore Leonard’s quirky thrillers will note Keevil shares that master’s entertaining talent for chronicling the misfortunes of low-lifers.
But there is also poignancy in its pages as Keevil delves into the complicated relationship between two brothers — honest, hardworking Tim and his wayward sibling Jake, an ex-con who has “loser” written all over him and drives his loyal brother along shady paths that Tim would rather not travel.
“It’s not a tragedy, and it’s not purely comedy,” Keevil says by phone from his home in Wales. “So it was a matter of shifting gears without being jarring for the reader.”
But could he pull it off ? Keevil, 38, who now teaches creative writing at Cardiff University, wasn’t sure he could.
His earlier books were also set on the B.C. coast. The North Shore is the setting for Fireball, a comingof-age story. The Drive, he says, is “kind of a modern take on the road novel that tracks a path from Vancouver to San Francisco.” Burrard Inlet is a collection of short stories set in the Lower Mainland.
“But this new novel was more ambitious — particularly the idea of the horse on the stolen herring boat, which is kind of outrageous,” he says. “Could I bind together its tones and write a heartfelt novel that also made people laugh? Could I take readers on a kind of retro-western adventure without losing my core theme of family and fraternal love?”
The theft of the horse is prompted by Jake’s frantic attempts to settle a debt with the mob and by Tim’s reluctant agreement to help out. As a result, they find themselves in flight both from the underworld and the law.
“I’ve always been drawn back home with my books even though I’ve been living in Wales for 12 or 13 years,” Keevil says. “I did a couple of summers working in a boatyard similar to the one featured in the novel. I have a friend who’s done a lot of sailing and he and I did a trip through the San Juan Islands, charting some of the path that Jake and Tim go on. Drawing on those memories really helped.”
Keevil was born in Edmonton and moved to Vancouver at the age of eight. The family later moved to Deep Cove on the North Shore, which he still considers home. While attending the University of British Columbia, he took advantage of an exchange program that allowed him a year of study at England’s Lancaster University. That’s where he met his future wife, Naomi, who was exploring a career in theatre. After graduation, Keevil returned to Wales, initially doing manual labour and also working with the travelling theatre company that employed Naomi.
“One thing led to another,” he says. “We married and had a couple of kids.”
He also started to write. “I’d always had an interest in story and narrative, but had never taken the idea of writing seriously,” he says. “But looking at the passion and commitment of the theatre company kind of spurred me on to try writing. There were a lot of rejections to start with, a lot of missteps, but I didn’t want to let it go, and eventually started to make inroads.”
Earlier novels led to awards in the United Kingdom, and in Canada his short story Sealskin won him the coveted Writers’ Trust/ McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize in 2014.
Sealskin was inspired by his experience working at a fish processing plant in Vancouver’s Canfisco shipyards. The idea for No Good Brother had more unlikely origins — a teaching stint at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, England.
“I remember the exact moment when I came up with the entire plot,” Keevil says. “We had loaded a van full of our things and had driven from Wales to move into a new house. I passed Cheltenham’s famous race track and started thinking about the Hastings race track in Vancouver — and then about family bonds.”
And then, suddenly, this bold idea. “I started talking to my wife. Imagine these two guys and what if they tried to steal a race horse and then couldn’t get it over the border? And then there’s this ‘Eureka’ moment: on a boat. Who in their right mind would try to transport a horse on a boat?”
No Good Brother is a novel that blurs the boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction, and that’s fine with Keevil.
“I didn’t necessarily think of it in terms of genre or placement when writing it,” he says. “I just knew I had this idea and wanted to see if I could pull it off.”
Canadian author Tyler Keevil had an outrageous idea and decided to accept the challenge of trying to capture it in his latest novel.