Au­thor draws on ex­pe­ri­ence to write laugh-out-loud ca­per novel

Calgary Herald - - BOOKS - JAMIE PORT­MAN

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.

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