‘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

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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.”

ANNA ROBERT­SON

“I want to weigh ev­ery word,” Steven Heighton says of his prose fic­tion. “I want ev­ery sen­tence to move per­fectly on a rhyth­mic level.”

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