Writing the Next Chapter with Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill is the acclaimed dude behind, The Book of Negroes. Click to view print edition.

We take a seat with one of the hottest authors of the past couple of years. Lawrence Hill is more than acclaimed for his engrossing take on the slave trade in The Book of Negroes. What we wanted to find out from Hill is two-tiered: What’s important and what’s next for the big-time wordsmith.

By Blake Dillon

“Why did they pick the coldest and shortest month to celebrate Black History?”

Yeah, the famed, multi-award-winning author, Lawrence Hill raised my eyebrow with that counter-question, too. “That’s a joke,” he chuckled. “Sort of.”

Hill is the product of an interracial marriage. He is the son of a black father and a white mother; just like Barack Obama come to think of it. His parents came to Canada in 1953, shortly after they wed in America. His mother was a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and went on to become a civil rights activist. His father is from an educated family and was heavily involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And it’s this unlikely family tree that has inspired Hill to become passionate about Black History Month. He exerts his interest and passion into his evocative writing. He is the man behind a line of critically-acclaimed books such as Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada and the recent long-standing bestseller, The Book of Negroes. Although it was published in 2007, it still sits out-front on Chapters’ display cases.

But Hill doesn’t seem to share this interest and passion with the rest of the country, he believes. “The sad truth is that most Canadians either know extremely little or nothing at all about the history of black people in their country. It is a history that seems to be ignored, swept under the rug, or completely forgotten,” says the novelist. “I am thankful that at least Black History Month can help bring some of that history out from beneath the rug and make Canadians more aware of the fullness that Canada really is.” But, as any good author knows, there are two sides to every true and proverbial story.

“On the other hand,” he says, “it can be a bit ridiculous that these issues are seemingly only discussed in the month of February. There is no reason why we can’t talk about, think about, or incorporate these issues into curricula.”

Though it has seemingly faded out of headlines, the catastrophic earthquake that shook the foundations of Haiti is still tormenting day-to-day life there. Hill felt that the message of his novel should become the message of suffering Haitians. It’s a bold claim, but Hill is one of those guys that can make such a pronouncement.

“The biggest message that you may pick up when reading The Book of Negroes is a message of courage and of fortitude—simply having the strength to carry on when your life is literally falling apart around you,” Hill says. “The thing about the book is that it celebrates a woman’s courage in the face of momentous difficulty, the courage to just continue living; not just to survive, but to love, and to live lovingly.”

“The people in Haiti have been completely insulted with this horrible time of calamity and indescribable suffering. However, even though many have died, I know that many others will survive, and show great courage in doing so.” This so-called “courage” that Hill speaks of, he not only writes about it, but also lives by it. He’s a man of words and a man of his word, so to speak. “Growing up, I think that the desire to racially make sense of myself in a largely white suburb showed tremendous amounts of courage,” he said. “That desire and courage is what has ultimately given me the impetus to become a writer. For that, I am thankful for any ambiguities that I may have.”

The people in Haiti have been completely insulted with this horrible time of calamity and indescribable suffering.

Okay Lawrence Hill, we’ve heard your story, read your book and noted your advice. But, before you go, let me ask you, “What’s next?” After slight hesitation, he proudly exclaims, “A movie!” Oh, look out Hollywood, you might have to deal with an actually well-done book adaptation. “The Book of Negroes has been optioned for film development,” Hill further explains.

Clemente Virgo, a Canadian filmmaker purchased the rights to turn The Book of Negroes into a feature film. Hill has been co-writing the treatment with Virgo, and he plans to co-write the script as well. Something he’s done before; he penned the screenplay for Seeking Salvation, a documentary about a black church in Canada.

“It’s an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he says, before throwing in a hint of reality about his role. “Unfortunately, the writer is at the bottom of the totem pole in the hierarchy of film—it’s the director and the producer that call the shots.”

Nonetheless, Hill is allowing Virgo and his crew to venture forth in the transitioning of book to film. He feels that the film will be a great method to get more of the community actively involved with black history. “Sometimes, using fiction or drama is a really exciting way to draw people into history,” he says. “I used to think that history, Canadian history especially, was completely and colossally boring. However, history truly is an alive and fascinating beast.”

“Hopefully someone—student or faculty—at Sheridan College will also find a way to step into history by means of fiction, theatre or drama and help bring it to life.” So yeah, you’re what’s next Sheridan.

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