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Lawrence Hill, Writer

Lawrence "Larry" Hill is enjoying the success of his novel The Book of Negroes and all that comes with it, but he really wants to get back to writing.

By Kevin Somers
Published February 11, 2009

Last summer, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lawrence Hill, author of the multi award-winning, international best-selling historical fiction, The Book of Negroes.

Thanks, again, to Maxine Kendall and friends for inviting me to their book club the night Mr. Hill was speaking. The house was crowded and everyone, I dare say, had read the book and was blown away by it.

Larry, as he asked to be called, was a very good guest. He spoke, well and eloquently, for the right amount of time, then fielded (lots of) questions, mostly about his incredible book.

The Book of Negroes is a novel to be reckoned with for several reasons. The story is told from the perspective of a black female, Aminata Diallo. She's born in Africa, but at 11, is captured and brought to America, and sold as a slave.

Aminata is the name of one of Larry's daughters and he said he tried to love the character as he does his own child. Aminata endures all the hardship and indignity slavery promises, which makes The Book of Negroes a difficult read, at times. Not shockingly, Larry said it wasn't easy writing parts of it, either.

Decades later, Aminata makes her way to Canada and eventually is one of 1200 former slaves who return to Freetown in Sierra Leone, Africa. The names and a brief description of these remarkable people, who made the Trans-Atlantic voyage twice, is recorded in The Book of Negroes, the official document.

At the book club, someone said, "I didn't know about that," which was met with a chorus of, "Neither did I," in a room full of well-read people. This chapter of Canadian history has been well overlooked.

Larry said his intention was to make us more aware of our, less than ideal, past. Amongst other reasons to read the book, it's Black History Month in Canada and The Book of Negroes was chosen for the Hamilton Reads series.

Do yourself a favour, buy or borrow a copy of The Book of Negroes. It's good, it's educational, it makes you think, and it makes you feel. At the end of the evening, I asked Larry if he'd mind an interview and he graciously agreed. He was polite and professional in setting up the meeting and made all the arrangements himself. He'd just won the Common Wealth Writer's Prize and was due to meet the Queen two weeks after our appointment. There are always other commitments and Larry has five children, so I am still grateful for his time.

We met for breakfast in Burlington, and for an hour or so, we talked and I took notes. (This piece was meant to done months ago, but it's been difficult writing about a writer.)

Larry's father was black and his mother white. They moved to Canada the day after they were married in 1953. His writing career began at six, when he asked his father for a kitten. Larry's dad, in a stroke of genius, told his son to write a letter explaining who would look after the cat and other details of pet ownership. Knowing his father had high expectations, Larry went to work.

He got the cat, Smoky, and decades later, he's still passionate about writing, "The number one reason I write is because I can't live happily without it."

Larry's taught writing, been a speechwriter, and a newspaperman to support his writing habit. All of his experiences, he said, have helped him with is craft. Journalism, especially, helped him realize, "My work isn't sacrosanct."

He writes furiously, then goes back to it. "I write quickly, sloppily, but edit, edit, edit." Rewrites are, "Exhilarating."

Larry's a marathon runner and has good stamina at the keyboard, too. "I can write for up ten hours a day," he said. Occasionally, Larry takes off to a secluded place where he goes on writing binges for 7 - 10 days. "It causes discomfort for my family, but it's very productive." He also enjoys research.

When asked if he feels greater pressure or responsibility, now that he'd won several prestigious awards, he was adamant. "I've always felt a responsibility to be the best father, writer, husband, and citizen I could be."

The Book of Negroes was five years of work, 4 of which were spent, according to Larry, "In a long dark tunnel."

He's enjoying the novel's success and all that comes with it, but he really wants to get back to writing. "It's time to go back into the tunnel," he said.

Kevin Somers is a Hamilton writer.

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