March 29, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight
Lawrence Hill and Clara Hughes Chat With Fans
Before going out to celebrate their Canada Reads win last Thursday night, Clara Hughes and Lawrence Hill answered fan questions in a Facebook chat co-hosted by CBC Books and Chapters Indigo. Lawrence won his second Canada Reads title with The Illegal, having previously won for his bestselling novel The Book of Negroes.
1. Clara, how did you become the defender of The Illegal? What did the process feel like to you, can you compare this to anything else in your life? How will this experience/this book change your life?
CH: I was able to make suggestions for the book I’d defend and CBC Books then offered suggestions. The Illegal was the one book I had suggested. In the end we each had to have three choices that were selected from. Important that all the books work together and are on the same theme. But more important that you believe in the book you are defending. That connection has to come from the heart. I love this story on so many levels.
2. Clara, what did you and Lawrence talk about prior to the debates starting?
CH: We talked about many things, from The Illegal to sport to mental health. I feel I’ve made a great new friend through the Canada Reads experience.
3. Clara, why do you believe you were chosen to defend The Illegal and would you have read it if you weren’t the defender?
CH: I requested this book to defend and it happened to be one that CBC Books was considering for me. Lucky!
I had already read it before I found I would defend it! So yes!
4. Clara, was there anything about The Illegal that you wanted to touch on during the debates but didn’t get a chance to?
CH: Yes, I didn’t get a chance to touch on the use of humour in the book. With such heavy subject matter, humour was absolutely necessary.
5. Lawrence, you’ve spoken openly about your own love of running. Did you feel like your connection to Clara was deepened not just by your shared humanitarian involvement, but by your passion for sport?
LH: Yes! Every time we have met, Clara and I have gone for a brisk walk. I would like to invite her out for a jog, but am pretty sure she would decimate me and then there’d be no more writing from yours truly.
6. Lawrence, other than your own book, which of the four others would you have championed?
LH: I will have to chew that one over. However, let me say that one day I would LOVE to be invited to defend someone else’s book on Canada Reads.
7. For Clara: How long did it take you to prepare for Canada Reads? How many times have you read The Illegal at this point?
CH: I’ve read The Illegal clear through twice and then in bits and pieces. I only read reviews of the book to see what I might be challenged by from the other defenders. I found, listened to and read as many reviews as possible from Lawrence Hill that I could find online, and then I had the great gift of asking him questions myself. My mom also gave me a ton of feedback (she is an avid reader) and my husband too. So I had a lot of help and did a lot of research since about October, just after The Illegal came out. I actually bought the book in the Toronto airport bookstore before I know I would defend it!!
8. For Lawrence, how did writing The Illegal compare to writing The Book of Negroes? Was it easier or more difficult?
LH: Writing The Illegal was much, much harder technically. But I would say that writing The Book of Negroes was harder on my soul, and caused more nightmares.
9. Lawrence, The Illegal was a departure in style from The Book of Negroes. What motivated you to choose the writing style for The Illegal?
LH: With The Illegal, I wanted to bust out, be more playful and imaginative and loud on the page, and have a lot more fun in the writing. No point writing the same book twice. Nobody respects a writer who does that, so you have to take chances and keep trying to do something new.
10. Clara, did you use a thesaurus or computer to refer to much while reading? Did you have questions after?
CH: I have a nice old dictionary that I used from time to time.
11. Lawrence – what advice do you have for amateur writers who have had a book in their heads forever?!
LH: The first step is to get it out of your head and put it down on the page! It all comes down to one thing. GYAIC. Do you know what that stands for?
It means “Get Your Ass in Chair” if you want to write. Turn off the phone and the internet and the texting, and close the door, and get comfy with yourself, and start writing.
12. Lawrence, what inspired you to write about illegal immigrants?
LH: There were many points of inspiration, but the first was going to work as a 16-year-old kid from the suburbs at Toronto airport in the summer of 1973. I worked there 9-5, Monday-Friday, all summer, and I watched refugees streaming in all summer. They were Ugandan Asians, who had been expelled from Uganda by the dictator Idi Amin.
13. Clara, did Day One make you change your defence?
CH: Not at all. But I knew I was in for an ambush after not really being challenged on Day One. So I was ready for it!!
14. Clara, you always look so collected. How do you maintain calm under fire?
CH: I connected back to the breath like I always did in sport. I was prepared so it was easy to be calm in the debates. Preparation is everything!
Believing in what you do and stand for brings confidence and calm. Knowing this is a great book allowed me to go in there with a clear feeling of just being myself and respecting everyone and the other books. Also I didn’t want to show any stress so I was maybe more chilled than usual!!
15. Clara, what do you think of Ammayya in The Hero’s Walk?
CH: I took a lot out of knowing her character. She was so bitter and so full of paranoia – and at times hate – but I really felt like I knew why she was like that. What her life was and the things that happened to her that made her that way. The Hero’s Walk is a brilliant and beautiful book. Did you like it?
16. Clara and Lawrence, what has been the reaction online and from strangers these four days during the debates?
LH: I haven’t been meeting any strangers, online or in person, because I’ve been so tied up doing lovely things for Canada Reads. It has been quite a whirlwind.
CH: Very positive. Many people have commented on the respect and the interesting discussions during the debates. I’m really proud to have been a part of Canada Reads this year!
17. Clara and Lawrence, have the debates changed you in any way?
LH: It is too soon to say, apart from the fact that the debates showed me how incredibly demanding the task is for each of the book defenders.
CH: Yes! I have not done a debate in my life, so yes, I have learned so much. More than anything, the clear reminder of bringing respect into everything you do and never hurt another to get ahead yourself. But fight to the end always!
18. Clara and Lawrence, what will you do tonight to celebrate?
LH: I will have a glass of wine and a meal with my wife, Miranda. Clara, want to join us?
CH: Put an ice pack on my head – it is too full, it’s going to burst!
LH: Clara, you did all the work, so why do I feel like I need an ice pack too?
CH: Lawrence, because YOU WROTE THE BOOK!!
LH: Clara, you worked so hard out there that it felt that the book was as much yours as mine. But yes. I need that ice pack too. Pass it over, please.
19. Clara and Lawrence, the theme for Canada Reads this year was “starting over,” which many of us do many times in our lives. Can you share a time in recent years where you had to start over?
LH: I had to start over so many times. One time was in 1978, when I left the University of British Columbia where I was studying, and transferred to become a student at the all-French Laval University in Quebec City. Talk about starting over.
CH: Many times in sport and then retiring from Olympic sport for good after competing at that level for 23 years (over half my life) was definitely starting over! I think life is a series of re-boots and you have to embrace them and ride the wave. Even if it comes crashing down on you, you will eventually be spit out the other side.
20. Clara, you wrote a wonderful biography last year, are you working on anything now?
CH: No writing – I will leave that to the real writers like Lawrence Hill.
21. Clara and Lawrence, can you tell us a little more about the fundraiser you held to raise money for sponsoring the refugee family?
CH: It was with Lawrence and his wife, Miranda, and their community group in Hamilton that is working with a local group that manages sponsoring a family. It was a beautiful event with me and Lawrence and a great moderator on stage. Full support form the community. I lived in Hamilton for seven years. It’s a place I call home!
LH: Clara helped so much. We helped raise funds to bring a refugee family to Hamilton, Ontario, and now my wife, our friends and I are lined up and waiting to welcome a new family to Hamilton.
22. Lawrence, how did you feel knowing Clara would be defending The Illegal? An Olympian and a driven marathoner seem to be a perfect combination!
LH: It was so touching that a great Olympian and philanthropist like Clara would defend The Illegal. It meant the world to me that, as an Olympic gold medallist, she loved reading about Keita running through the pages of The Illegal.
23. Clara, you defended Keita with such a fierce passion but you also shone spotlights on many of the other diverse characters. Besides, Keita who was your favourite?
CH: Yoyo. A man of conscience and such a caring person. He was so brave. Viola because she was so fierce. Even Lula was a dynamite character who was so bad but also had a heart in there somewhere… such dynamic characters. I absolutely loved Ivernia Beech. She reminds me of my mom in so many ways.
24. Lawrence, as a winner of literary awards, do you see Canada Reads as a writers’ award or a readers’ award?
LH: That is a good question. The answer is a bit of both. It is an award given to a writer. But it is given by readers.
25. Clara, was preparing for the debates more mentally challenging than when you prepared for sport competitions?
CH: Yes! I have no experience with debating so I was very nervous and didn’t even know if I was prepared. I guess I was!
26. Lawrence, who are some of your favourite authors and did any of them inspire you while writing The Illegal?
LH: I have more favourite authors than you could shake a stick at. That’s one of the expressions that my late father, Daniel G. Hill, used when I was growing up. Some are Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston. And of course, Alex Haley, author ofRoots and of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Check out Lawrence Hill’s list of favourite books here!).
27. Lawrence, this is another brilliant book you have written. Once I started to read it I had a very difficult time putting it down. In fact I find that your stories pull me in and it is like I am there watching but also wanting to be there to help the people that are being wronged. You also could not have had a better person to defend your book. My question is, what inspired you to write The Illegal?
LH: I have written above about one point of inspiration. Another point of inspiration was spending time in West Berlin in the 1980s with my late sister, Karen Hill. She fell in love with a Sudanese refugee, and that got me thinking about writing a novel one day about a refugee.
28. Lawrence, how does it feel to win for a second time?
LH: Actually, it is the third time. The French translation of The Book of Negroes, called Aminata,won Le combat des livres, which is the French version of Canada Reads on Radio-Canada. And it feels amazing, fantastic and humbling. I never thought I’d see the day, and I’m so delighted that Canadians are being encouraged not just to read The Illegal but to think more deeply about refugees.
29. Lawrence, would love to see The Illegal come to life on screen, who would you like to see star in a TV or film adaptation?
LH: I have sold the screen rights and am writing the screenplay. But I don’t get to pick who plays what role.
30. Clara, what was your favourite moment from the debates (besides winning,, of course!)?
CH: Listening to the perspectives of the other moderators. I was fascinated by their ideas and how they saw each book.
31. Clara, you had great chemistry with all of the panellists. Will any of you keep in touch?
CH: I hope so! All wonderful people. I feel I have a new circle of friends. Also meeting and getting to know Lawrence and Miranda Hill has been a gift.
32. Lawrence, my sister lived in Sierra Leone and after reading The Illegal she was convinced that you must have researched the plight of people living there. Is that true?
LH: Not specifically Sierra Leone, but I sure thought a lot about that country when I was writingThe Book of Negroes.
33. Lawrence, which scene or part of the book was your favourite one to write?
LH: The scenes about running. When Keita is racing.
34. Clara, how nervous were you before the vote was cast?
CH: I was really calm because I knew both books, The Illegal and The Hero’s Walk were fantastic works of fiction. I felt I did my best and had prepared well but also spoken from the heart and truly felt a sense of happiness before I knew we won. Then of course I was STOKED when I knew it was true!