One thing his early journalism career taught author Lawrence Hill was to pursue the adventure of his stories.
Alongside working on final drafts of his eighth novel, Illegal, due out early next year, over the past few weeks the Berton House writer in residence has been embracing the Yukon and doing preliminary research for a new novel.
He’s gone dog sledding with 2012 Yukon Quest musher Brian Wilmshurst, helped his team of cooks take third place at the 17th Annual Dawson City Chili Cookoff, and trekked across the frozen Yukon River to hold a reading at a cabin in West Dawson.
And he’s made notes—from politics and social dynamics, to personality traits of the community and characteristics of land.
“I’d never read Call of the Wild before,” Hill says, “I was struck, in reading the novel and mushingwith Brian Wilmshurst, that an animal that was domestically tame around humans could be completely savage and murderous with its animal brethren.
Last June, a group in Amsterdam threatened to burn Lawrence Hill’s book, The Book of Negroes, because of its title. His response and defence of the title earned him the Writers’ Union of Canada 2012 Freedom to Read Award
“Pack mentality kicks in and the weak one gets ripped to shreds.”
This need to be affected by his environment is what brought Hill away from his home in Hamilton,Ontario, where he lives with his wife and five kids, to the Yukon (his second visit, the first was in 2006) to fully engage with his research.
For the award-winning, internationally best-selling author ofThe Book of Negroes (2007), details are crucial to his fictional narrative.
“I wanted to see what it was like to go mushing,” says Hill, “Someone gave me Brian’s name, and I called him up and asked him if he could take me… whenever I am writing a novel, I have to be in that place.”
The new novel, which he is researching for, is based on 3,600 African-American soldiers who came north in the Second World War to build the Canol Pipeline and the Alaska Highway.
It’s an event he’s known about for a few years, and which he feels connected to through his family. His grandfather, Daniel Hill, was an officer in the First World War, and his father, Daniel G. Hill, was an American soldier in the Second World War (reflected by Hill in his 1999 novel, Any Known Blood).
Born in the U.S. in 1923, his father faced a segregated army and struggled for equal opportunity. In 1953, the day after their marriage, his parents left Washington, D.C. for Canada, settling in Toronto.
His father later created the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the first of its kind in Canada.
“I am drawn to the story of the Alaska Highway because it once more has people of African descent migrating all over the place—from military bases in the deep south, to northern B.C., Yukon and Alaska,” says Hill.
With this novel, like all of his novels, Hill hopes to break ground, unearthing less-than-discussed relationships between the African-Americans and the First Nations.
A result of a mixed marriage—a black father and white mother—Hill is looking into the romance and intermarriages between the people.
His curiosity follows a discovery in a document called “Together Today for our Children Tomorrow: A Statement of Grievances and an Approach to Settlement by the Yukon Indian People”, dated January 1973.
The document doesn’t speak to misogyny between the American troops building the highway and the First Nations in particular, but it does discuss African-American soldiers, he says.
“It is well documented that there were many instances of marriage and child raising between the First Nations people and the people of African descent,” says Hill.
“Indeed, one of my own very distant ancestors was of native ancestry, and married an African-American.”
Hill doesn’t always work alongside historians—for example, Illegal is set in the future—but he says he aims to provoke readers each time.
“When I write, I like to explore stories that I feel have not been dramatized before,” he says.
“I want to challenge readers, in Canada and elsewhere, to think more creatively about who we are, where we have been, what we have done, and what we are doing now.
“I also very much enjoy turning stereotypes on their heads and challenging received and passive assumptions about who we are.”
His residency is completed with the end of this month, but Hill plans to return to experience the North in every season.
“I want to be here on December 21 for solstice,” says Hill, “I want to come back several times.”
He jokes about biting the cold and taking a win in next year’s chili cookoff.
The last stop in the Yukon this term is Whitehorse, where he will give an evening reading at the MacBride Museum on March 28.
When he returns, one of his aspirations is to drive the length of the highway.
“I’d like to read my way up the highway,” says Hill, suggesting a way to find book clubs to put him up—”get to know the people and the landscape while doing so.
“Being on that highway is a process of imagination. The landscape is the same… I stand there and try imagining.”