||Inside Kenneth J. Harvey
by Olga Stein
Kenneth J. Harvey
International bestselling author Kenneth J. Harvey's books are published in Canada, the US, the UK, Russia, Germany, Japan, Australia, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and France. He has won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, and Italy's Libro de Mare (the first Canadian author to win this award). His first novel, Brud, was nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and his short story collection, Directions for an Opened Body, was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Random House Canada will publish his epic family saga, Blackstrap Hawco, in 2008. He lives in an outport in Newfoundland.
This interview was conducted by e-mail in early August, 2006.
Olga Stein: This novel is about a man wrongfully accused of murder, returning to a life in an impoverished, seedy St. John's neighbourhood. Mr. Myrden has been profoundly affected by his 14 years behind bars. He feels dislocated, untethered to the world around him. Are you interested in the issue of wrongful imprisonment or are you more interested as a novelist in trauma and the state of mind it produces?
Kenneth J. Harvey: The concept of wrongful imprisonment worked well with regard to the idea of the individual being trapped inside a family. Man is made guilty by circumstance, and yet the guilt isn't rightfully his. And, yes, trauma is an interesting issue in that it seems one of the few ways a person might be inherently changed. I've heard it said that this or that person will never change, but I believe that trauma is a force profound and cataclysmic enough to realign the inner landscape that shapes personality.
OS: So you're working with the idea of imprisonment in a broader sense.
KJH: Inside deals with the claustrophobia of family, and how a certain family dynamic limits the possibilities of its children.
I lived in the sort of St. John's neighbourhood depicted in Inside. I lived there for years, and I would live there again, but never with children. I feel at home in that sort of ravishingly crippling neighbourhood, with that particular sort of wounded eloquence, but I wouldn't want my children to feel at home there. That's why we moved to the country. We couldn't see ourselves raising a child in an area dominated by brutality and where corrupting influences are too strong. I used to see children on the street where I lived. They were all the same as babies, at the age of two, three or four, but as they grew a little older, they began mimicking their parents. I would hear parents saying to their young children: "Get in off the street or I'll break your fucking neck." A child becomes that, or, in some cases, the child rejects it. Myrden comes to reject it later in life, only after being locked away in a cage for a crime he, perhaps, did not commit.
OS: How much do your abbreviated sentences, the choppiness of the writing style in this novel have to do with Myrden's psychological state?
KJH: The style tries to convey the manner in which Myrden sees the world, in a limited way, but with an edge of poetic abbreviation, persistent impossibility. It's a compressed form of perception, reigned in. What do you do with that sense of defeat? I imagine it creates a view of things fed by tension.
OS: I definitely had the feeling that my own sense of the world, or Myrden's world, was being manipulated, skewed in some way. You're persistent in the very particular way you present Myrden's painful but full engagement with his world.
KJH: Myrden is an artist, after all, a gifted pianist. It's there in him, but it was never developed. It was only ridiculed because that behaviour is utter frivolity in a world where muscle dominates. So, his vision reflects that but with great weight, the weight of generation after generation of defeat and abuse carried around in his thoughts, in every single firing synapse. That's not always bad. Sometimes this weight does translate into art. Other times, it translates into crime. I don't think there's much of a dividing line between crime and art. That's why artist are often preoccupied with the plight of criminals. If I wasn't a writer, I might very well have been a thief or a murderer.
Writers and artists are, in a sense, armchair criminals, abusers with aesthetic toolkits. They try to shock. They try to bring the reader/viewer to tears. It is an accomplishment if they make their audience weep, if they terrify them, if they disturb and penetrate them to their cores. Artists are constantly working to manipulate their audience in some way, working as they often do as sensitive and thoughtful fiends.
OS: The regional maritime setting of your last novel, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, was crucial to the story. How important is the setting this time?
KJH: The neighbourhood as depicted in Inside is important because the human targets reside in this sort of neighbourhood. The police rarely show up at a suburban door and take someone away who turns out, in the end, to have been wrongfully convicted of a crime. The victims of wrongful convictions come from neighbourhoods where the people are perceived to be of lesser value and, so, are more quietly put in shackles and disposed of.
Judges and lawyers deal constantly with people from these sorts of neighbourhoods. They are bored by it all. They are worn down by it. They want it done and over with.
OS: Why do you never refer to Myrden by his first name?
KJH: He hates his first name. It's his father's first name. He is called Mister Myrden throughout the book, mostly by the media, because it's supposedly a sign of respect, yet it's anything but.
OS: This is a dark novel because it seems like Myrden's life cannot escape a certain trajectory. He isn't in good physical shape. He loves a wonderful woman, but he has little experience with normal relationships. He has learned to solve his problems with violence, and he is surrounded by various individuals with violent histories. And yet there are hopeful moments. Is there hope in the end or is Myrden doomed to unhappiness or something even worse?
KJH: In the end, Myrden commits a deed that might be viewed as an act of liberation and salvation, or as an act that further enslaves him, leading him to the fate he anticipates for himself. It's up to the reader to make that judgement. Ultimately, however, I believe the act to be one of hope, in that it is done for the only person he loves, his beloved granddaughter. In other words, it is done for the sake of his own future, despite the fact that it might be viewed as a selfless act.
OS: Is there anything else you're aiming for in this novel? For example, at one point Myrden is watching two politicians debating with one another on television, but he cannot understand either one. People on the margins of society often feel they're powerless and outside of all political and social processes. Is that what you were getting at there or were you making a larger point about politics and the language of politics?
KJH: Inside is very much about the power of words, and the power of the absence of words.
When writing, I have very little idea about the purpose of the scenes being typed out. I am not conscious, in the true sense, of what I am ever doing. Only after the fact can I look back and say to myself, I see, maybe that means that, and in the bigger picture of the book it might mean this.
So, looking back at what was put on paper perhaps not entirely consciously, I suppose the political discussion in Inside was created in order to reflect the social hierarchy that persists and that excludes people.
OS: Thank you, and congratulations on the recent sale of US rights for Inside to US publisher Drenka Willen at Harcourt. ò