Lawrence Hill is a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph. He is the author of ten books, including The Illegal, The Book of Negroes, Any Known Blood, and Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. He is the winner of various awards, including The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and two-time winner of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads.
A 2018 Berton House resident in Dawson City, he is working on a new novel about the African-American soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia and Yukon in 1942–43. He is a Member of the Order of Canada, has been inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, and in 2019 was named a Canada Library and Archives Scholar.
MARJORIE SIMMINS: I’m interested in how you came to your memoir and what the motivation behind that was. I loved the structure of Black Berry, Sweet Juice, beginning with personal stories and then sharing interviews with Canadians of black and white parentage, and their experiences of growing up and their thoughts on racial identity.
LAWRENCE HILL: Thank you. I wasn’t looking to tell the story of my life up to that point of writing. I just wanted to meditate on one specific angle of my life: growing up in a family that was black and white and coming to terms with a sense of mixed racial identity.
Yes, this theme guided the book well.
At the time that I was writing it, there wasn’t yet a single-authored book in Canada that examined how black and white identity is formed. Americans had been writing about it, but I felt that conditions were quite different in Canada and that it merited its own book. So I was motivated by the need to express myself and to work through my own identity evolution as a child, adolescent, and young man, but also I wanted to make a mark on Canada and to offer something that hadn’t been written before. […]
Because of my own experiences, I feel deeply about racial identity and how it is construed. What does racial identity mean? How is it formed? Who gets to be what, and how might self-perception be challenged by others? But traditionally, Canadians have been loath to examine this subject.
Many of us feel that it’s a dirty question and if we just don’t talk about it, we’re not as bad as those nasty Americans who’ve done so many dastardly things. I’m saying that playfully, because I don’t believe Americans to be uniformly nasty and dastardly. Canadians tend to think that we’re superior and if we just don’t think about these things, then we’re cleaner in a way. And so I wanted to smash that to smithereens and go to a place that was verboten: who are you, how do you see yourself, and how did you come to be seen by others?
If you’re going into areas that are considered verboten, did you find that you were apprehensive at all?
Yes, I was apprehensive. Although I found certain issues interesting, I worried that others might find them trivial, superficial, or unimportant. For example: how do people of mixed race deal with their hair.
I was just reviewing that. It was a new subject for me.
I worried that people would think, people are being shot and put in jail and segregated, so who cares about their hair? When I did write that chapter about my own hair and about other people’s experiences around hair and identity, it turned out to be the most popular chapter in the book.
Can you tell me how your background in journalism served you when you came to write this memoir?
First of all, I learned as a journalist how to interview people. So I didn’t feel shy conducting interviews and that was helpful because I had to ask all sorts of intimate questions, such as what were your dating preferences and were your dating preferences affected by notions of racial identity? Or how about your hair, or when did you first start becoming aware of who you were racially, when was your first perception of race for yourself or for others and when did you first start to ask questions about your own racial identity? It takes a certain kind of boldness to ask that kind of stuff. You have to establish a trusting relationship and you also have to be kind and unthreatening. I felt that having been a journalist helped me approach people confidently, but also with kindness and in a way that would seem disarming.
Yes, and I presume you told them that you did have this background, and did that develop a little extra trust too?
Absolutely. Being a journalist helped me understand how to organize the story. I didn’t want to write a memoir that was only about me. Perhaps deep down I didn’t feel that I was important enough to write about me and me alone. And so to address that insecurity, I chose to interview other people and then to work their observations and their life experiences into the book. It helped broaden the scope of the writing and it made me feel more confident that I was writing something valid because I was exploring the experiences of other people who also had one black and one white parent.
Did you find that when you had decided on your structure of Black Berry, Sweet Juice that you were away and running?
Well, that’s interesting. I guess that depends on what ‘away and running’ really means.
At some point, the memoir was simply an idea. You’re poking at it and considering the parameters, and thinking, Okay, how am I going to get started on this? I guess I’m interested in the moment when you did decide on the structure. After that, did you feel that you could move along at a very steady workman-like pace?
It didn’t work like that for me. I didn’t decide on a structure and then fill out the pages of the blueprint. I just started writing and started exploring as I went, and the structure emerged after I’d written about two hundred pages.
I started writing and coming upon a bunch of different themes and essays and bits and bits of journalism and then I started to ask myself how I could stitch it all together. So the writing itself sort of drove the elaboration of the structure, as opposed to the structure fitting into place and then the writing following.
It’s not a moral principle. It’s just how I work, and how I discover my material. I write novels like that, too.
This should be very reassuring to somebody who’s obviously not as experienced a writer as you are, when they first start a project. If they make one hell of a mess, just carry on with it. To have someone such as yourself say, ‘Don’t sweat it, that first draft is pretty messy, it won’t ever be all tidy and straightforward, but from it, you get the roadmap to wherever you’re going to.’
Yes, that’s very true.
It’s almost a skill to trust yourself like that, not to fuss but to just jump in, make a mess, scribble and cross out and put arrows backwards and arrows forward and simply trust in your own creative energy.
It’s called blind faith. And you do have to trust that you’ll find your way. I never tell anybody else how to write, but it’s how I like to write. And when I do try to approach it more intellectually by scratching my chin at the kitchen table, I never come up with anything that I end up using. I never have and I probably never will.
It’s as though that first draft that is so messy and almost violent in a way is more piped in to your psyche than your intellect, right into the maelstrom of the creative process.
You said it perfectly. I’ve never quite said it that well but that’s exactly true.
From the interviewer, Marjorie Simmins
I was fascinated to hear Hill say, in relation to the practice of writing and structure, that “the writing itself drove the elaboration of the structure, as opposed to the structure fitting into place and then the writing following.” This is the way writing works for Hill. He’s in the minority—and in my own more modest realm, I am with him in that group. I do like to lean into a single, strong narrative line, so perhaps my heart and psyche know where to start, which is always helpful. But thereafter, I am dashing and darting and digressing, all the while taking my reader very firmly by the hand, alongside. If they squeak that they are getting lost, or I feel that I am, I just look around for that narrative line, and pounce back on it. It’s like the train that rides the tracks of the story.
For your memoir
Like Hill, you may be interested in writing about a single, central aspect of your life. Perhaps you are a para-athlete, preparing for the Olympics, or perhaps you grew up with three moms, and no dads. Maybe you were raised as a single child—and only just found out that not only were you adopted as an infant, but you also have a twin brother. In a heartbeat, the world is completely different. Is this an A to B chronological story, or will you need to write the passionate stream of the story first, background mixing with current day, without worrying yourself about what happened when?
The short answer to this is … see what happens. If, having decided on an aspect or a period of your life you wish to write about, you then sit down at your desk and take off like a rocket, I’d say not to worry about an outline. If, on the other hand, you feel stuck and awkward, sketch out an outline and see if that frees you to get started. I’d offer the same advice if you get stuck midway, or even towards the end. What is the story you really want to recount? If you, that para-equestrian, actually want to compete on the Great Canadian Baking Show, but three-quarters of the way along, your story remains stuck in the barn, while you yearn for the kitchen, you’re going to have to decide on the most important story, and change your structure.
The good news is … story always comes first. So no matter how you get to a completed memoir, ride the story train first.
Writing exercise inspired by Hill
Put a photograph or illustration on your desk that represents the individual or community you believe may be your intended audience for your memoir. Write a paragraph or two, no holds barred, to that person or those people. Write as though no one in the world but them could understand your stories. Now, read it back to yourself, aloud. Does it ring true? Do you feel excited and ready to write more—or a bit lost, and maybe even embarrassed and self-censored? If the latter, then change the photo or illustration and try again, with a slightly different but related subject.
When you feel safe and limber and motivated, you are writing to the right audience.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the book Memoir: Conversations and Craft by Marjorie Simmins.
Marjorie Simmins is the author of Coastal Lives, a memoir about living on Canada’s East and West Coasts (Pottersfield Press, 2014), and Year of the Horse (PP, 2016). Simmins began her thirty-year career as a freelance journalist in Vancouver, appearing regularly in the Vancouver Sun and writing for trade magazines. She also published numerous essays and articles in magazines and newspapers across Canada, and in the United States, and has stories in many Canadian anthologies. She has won a Gold Medal at the National Magazine Awards and another Gold Medal at the Atlantic Journalism Awards for the best Atlantic Magazine Article. Memoir: Conversations and Craft is Simmins’ third nonfiction book, published by Pottersfield Press.