Local author Kenneth J. Harvey soared to even wider international acclaim for his novel, Inside, about a hard ticket, falsely accused Newfoundlander trying to get his life back on track after a 14-year stint in jail.
Stylistically fresh and compulsively readable, it was a damn good read … but it was not the Harvey novel that recently turned things around for one real life inmate, Travis Spicer, who credits a Harvey’s work for getting him through his terrifying time in jail.
For Spicer, it was Blackstrap Hawco that resonated. The novel is Harvey’s MASSIVE tome and Giller Prize nominated masterwork about Newfoundland’s working class. Spicer says he read it 3 times; it’s worth noting the book is a whopping 848 pages long.
“The fifteen years I thought I threw away writing Blackstrap Hawco, was well worth it just for this,” Harvey says, referring to the simple note from Spicer, who is now living in a halfway house in Cincinnati.
Blackstrap Hawco spans more than a century of life in Newfoundland, with the prose itself changing over time to reflect on the degradation of both identity and language over time. In Harvey’s own words, the book “deals with the resilience of certain types of people and, more precisely, about the indestructible nature of Newfoundland.”
In the book, Hawco is “heir to an island dominion picked over by its adoptive nation.” It captures everything from the arrival of Europeans in Newfoundland, through to the modern day relocation of outport communities.
Spicer says he was in jail for growing marijuana and making hash oil, for a cancer patient. It was his first time in prison and he was terrified. He says he felt like giving up and shutting down until he started reading the book.
“Several times I put myself in Blackstrap’s shoes and asked myself what he would do in some of these situations … I felt like I had it really bad, then I saw Blackstrap persevere through harder issues. I could relate when his wife left him. The same thing happened to me. I had no idea how to deal with these issues. Reading the words Harvey had written made me feel like I was not alone.”
He says that his life started changing immediately after he started reading the book. “I have had a very hard and difficult life and I keep going [and]I know how it is fighting the system for something noble. I have ghosts of my past also. It was very heartbreaking and inspiring. I’m a stronger man now having read that book.”
High praise for a book Harvey dubs a chore to have written. “It was a long chore, 15 years. It was the book everyone kept asking for. But I did not want to write the standard big historical novel,” Harvey says, “So, I invented my own sort of novel.”
And he wouldn’t give it to Random House unless they also agreed to publish Inside. Inside went on to outperform Blackstrap Hawco, as a shining example of why publishers should trust an artist’s instinct over industry sales data, when deciding what to publish and what to reject.
“It was only after my UK publisher bought Inside, that my Canadian publisher agreed to. Blackstrap Hawco picked up some nominations, received good reviews, but did nothing in sales,” he says candidly. Harvey has been very outspoken about the state of modern publishing, and has in fact quit writing.
“The monopolies are no longer supporting authors, but looking for big-sales books. Big publishers are no longer interested in being faithful to an author. They are only concerned about money. That’s monopolistic mentality. It’s anti-artist. Anti-creation. Plus 20 years alone in a room writing books was enough for me. Time to get out in the world and see what movement and colours look like.”
Writing an 848 page tome didn’t help, and he quit writing books some time after Blackstrap Hawco came out. “Fifteen years in a room writing that book stripped me of any desire to continue writing. The book defeated me.” Luckily, it revived Spicer.
And Spicer is not the only one raving about the novel, just the latest. In 2008, it topped Best Of lists with Quill & Quire, The Globe and Mail, and Amazon called it the Best Book out of Canada that year. That’s in addition to prestigious award nominations like The Giller and Commonwealth Prizes.
Kenneth J Harvey has not released a book in years, having turned to film inside as artistic avenue. His documentary feature film, “I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night: Gerald Squires on Creation and Death” is now screening at The Rooms this Summer, will be at the Nickel Film Festival in June, and CBC in the Fall.