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Author Steven Heighton. (Handout)
Author Steven Heighton. (Handout)

Steven Heighton: ‘No story begins until the word “but” appears’ Add to ...

Steven Heighton is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, including The Shadow Boxer, Afterlands, The Dead Are More Visible, and The Waking Comes Late, which won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2016. Heighton, who lives in Kingston, recently published his fourth novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, about a Canadian soldier in Cyprus who stumbles across a secret community.

Why did you write your new book?

I’ve always been drawn to situations in which a group of people becomes isolated, by accident, flight, or exile – a world unto themselves. The situation can be idyllic or survivalist, or both, and the isolation focuses the story as if on a stage. Anyway, a few years back, while thinking about issues of borders, belonging, and refugees, I came across a description of the ghost city of Varosha, sealed off and decaying since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. “Population: 0” it says on the Google satellite map of the subtropical ruins. Before long I was repopulating it with fugitives, deserters, misfits and outcasts, and the story began to write itself.

What’s your favourite word to use in a sentence?

Ever since reading Douglas Glover’s superb essay “The Drama of Grammar,” I’ve been in love with the humble conjunction “but.” She felt she’d been more or less happily married for 11 years, but … Along with equivalent words, “but” serves as a pivot or hinge, a semantic fulcrum, a switch shunting a sentence in a fresh direction just when you thought you knew where it was headed. “But” is not going to allow you, the reader – or you the writer – to pursue an easy, plausible arc. Nothing is as it seems. Something in the latter half of the sentence wants to delve under surfaces; “but” is a quick surgical cut through which the sentence can enter as it feels its way inward, closer to the core. “But” is the bump in the carpet that trips you up just when you’re hitting your stride. Not so fast: here comes a proviso, one that won’t cancel out what came before but co-exist with it. “But” says nothing is absolute, categorical, final. “But” is the rude intrusion of time – of limitation, mortality – into a phrase that starts off Trumpishly asserting that it knows, forever. No story begins until the word “but” appears and every story, for grown-ups, ends with an invisible “but.”

What scares you as a writer?

What used to scare me most (banality alert!) was failure. Now I think that writers have to accept that if they try new things and take risks, aesthetically and emotionally, they’ll always fall short, at least in their own eyes. These days what I fear most is going dry – losing my creative desire and zest. When I’m between books I always slump into sadness and creative anomie, and every time it happens I’m convinced that this time my appetite won’t return.What deepens the fear is knowing that sooner or later I’m bound to be right.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

For honesty’s sake I’ll classify my answer under, “Best advice I’ve consistently failed to follow.” Susan Sontag: “Don’t suffer future pain.” I expect she often failed to heed it herself. The better the advice, the harder it is to take. As if something in us does not have our best interests at heart. Still, the phrase is a good one to call to mind whenever you’re tempted to worry about outcomes you can’t control, which is most of them.

If aliens landed on Earth, what book would you give them to teach them about humanity?

For instructional purposes, no one book would do. But if you insist on a stringent minimum, I can come up with some polarized pairings to give our visitor a sense of the full range of human possibility. Mein Kampf, say, and Thich Nhat Hahn’s Peace Is Every Step. Or a pair of books by Machiavelli and Simone Weil. And lest the visitor jump to the conclusion that some of us are monsters and others saints, I’d throw in a single, short quotation from an Irving Layton poem: “Adolf Eichmann, compliant clerk / to that madman, the human race.”

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