‘CURSED WITH THE POET’S EAR’
Prize-winning bard chooses his words carefully in prose fiction, too The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep Steven Heighton Hamish Hamilton
TORONTO By the time Canadian writer Steven Heighton won the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry last autumn, he was wearing a different creative hat — that of novelist.
To be sure, the $25,000 prize he’d be receiving for his sixth volume of poetry, The Waking Comes Late, would help pay for a new roof for the family home in Kingston, Ont. But back in October, there was another concern — ensuring that his new novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, would be ready for publication this spring.
“I’ve written both poetry and fiction from the beginning and have never stopped writing either,” Heighton says in an interview in office of his Toronto publisher. Nevertheless, he is struck by the extraordinary number of Canadian writers who flourish as both poets and novelists.
A century ago, Charles G.D. Roberts was winning plaudits for both his verse and his fiction. And in the aftermath of the Second World War, revered Canadian poet Earl Birney knocked his admirers for a loop with his irreverently funny novel, Turvey.
But Heighton is part of a more recent wave formidable enough to include the likes of Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Anne Michaels, Michael Ondaatje and George Bowering. He thinks the example of Atwood is a factor in all this. “She’s been doing it right from the beginning of her career,” he says. “Or perhaps it’s simply that Canadian literature was in a formative moment when all these poets started writing novels.”
He knows he wants to occupy both niches — “to keep moving back and forth.” But he also concedes that fiction takes its toll of him — citing Nightingale, published this month by Hamish Hamilton.
Heighton’s book, largely set in an abandoned city on the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, is an elegant fusion of political intrigue and romantic lyricism. It’s the 55-year-old author’s fourth novel, but as always he was “cursed with the poet’s ear” in writing it.
“That means I want to weigh every word,” he says with a rueful smile. “I want every sentence to move perfectly on a rhythmic level. These are poet’s tricks from the poet’s tool box.” But transferring them to fiction is always tough. “Every time I finish, I say I’m never going to write another novel.” He sighs.
Meanwhile, with some 15 books under his belt, the accolades continue. Canada’s National Post calls him “a superb stylist.” The New York Times Book Review has hailed his “boldness and risk-taking.” And the late Al Purdy, a legendary Canadian poet, once heralded him as “one of the best writers of his generation — maybe the best.”
Yet, despite the awards and gold medals and an international profile that has seen him translated into 15 languages, including Lithuanian and Arabic, Heighton essentially sees himself as a working stiff — which is why he and his family ended up in Kingston.
“I wanted to make a living as a writer,” he says. “Kingston was a place I knew and liked and was cheap. I can afford to live there as a writer.”
And it’s from Kingston that he has been able to enter some richly imagined fictional worlds. His 2005 novel, Afterlands, ventured into Canada’s Arctic in the late 19th century. “It was based on a real historical event — people drifting for six months on a shrinking ice floe.”
With Every Lost Country in 2010, his narrative springboard was an actual incident involving a group of Tibetans trying to escape into Nepal. In the case of this latest novel, Heighton gives us a troubled 30-year-old Canadian named Elias, who’s been shattered emotionally by his army service in Afghanistan and is now reaching breaking point because of an unfulfilled need to “belong” — to belong somewhere, to someone.
Elias is trying to recover in Cyprus, an island divided between Greek and Turkish forces. But a brutal encounter with Turkish police on a darkened beach sees him fleeing for his life and ending up in a 21st-century Shangri-La — an abandoned Greek Cypriot town called Varosha. It’s there amid the ruins of a once thriving coastal resort that Elias finds a hidden colony of exiles and refugees, living comfortably below the radar of the local Turkish authorities. He also finds not just a refuge, but unexpected peace and tranquillity.
Varosha is a real place. Heighton, who is of Greek descent, first discovered its existence while reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a book about “places in the world that have been abandoned and gone feral.
“As soon as I read about it, and learned how it was almost like an old lost Mayan city in the jungles of Mexico, I thought I’d like to populate that place with a village of refugees and exiles and misfits and deserters.”
When Heighton looks at his past three novels — Afterlands, Every Lost Country, and now this one — he sees a “connection” stemming from his ongoing interest in “isolated, microcosmic groups of people.”
“I see the books as a conceptual trilogy, although each one stands on its own,” he says. “All the characters are interested in borders and belonging.”
The worlds Heighton creates in his fiction tend to be alien to his own experience, but this is an author who questions the familiar adage that you should write about what you know.
“I often write about what I don’t know and discover it in the telling,” he says. “Writing can be exploratory. Some writers, like Alice Munro, are chroniclers of a world they know intimately, and that’s great. But I’m drawn to worlds I don’t know, worlds I want to create.”