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Books Lawrence Hill's much-anticipated The Illegal tackles a timely topic: the plight of refugees

Larry Lawrence Hill in Niger in 1979, about to start a run. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, Lawrence Hill papers

In October, 1971, a 14-year-old Lawrence Hill sent his father a letter, requesting it "be shown to you and Mother and nobody else." What followed was not a confession, some dark teenage secret from which Hill wanted to unburden himself, but a rather innocuous plea rooted in the fact that, before he was one of Canada's most beloved writers, Hill was – or wanted to be – a runner.

"Almost six months ago, I requested that my training be boosted from four days a week to five," he wrote in the letter, which is archived at the University of Toronto. "I am now six months older, bigger, stronger, and hopefully more mature then [sic] I was then, and I feel I am in great need of one more day of training. … I am now well into my fourteenth year, and I have the responsibility and knowledge to move up one more step in the stairs of training. Above all, I now know what I can handle, and how much I can physically take."

Hill had begun "seriously" running at the age of 12, but it quickly became "my absolute passion. I wanted to go to the Olympics. I wanted to win the 5,000 metres." He competed in everything from the 800 metres to cross-country races to, eventually, marathons. (He once petitioned the organizers of the Boston Marathon to be allowed to participate, despite the fact one had to be at least 16 years old to race.) His training partners in the Victoria Park Track Club included Brian Maxwell, who became one of the world's most celebrated marathon runners and later invented the PowerBar, and Paul Craig, who set the Canadian record in the 1,500 metres at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Hill was no slouch, though now, sitting and drinking tea in the kitchen of the Hamilton home he shares with his wife, the writer Miranda Hill, he laughs at this youthful pursuit, describing himself as "terrible" and "not a good athlete." (At 58, he still runs a couple of times a week.) Instead, he says, he preferred to watch the "real runners" train.

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"I would just sit in the infield and watch these guys run," he says. "It was such a thing of beauty – their strides were so smooth, they just ran so beautifully. And I didn't realize what I was doing at the time was absorbing art. It was art to watch that."

Decades later, he's turned that art into art of another kind: a new novel about a young man who, like Hill once did, dreams of becoming a world-famous runner.

The Illegal, out next week, is Hill's first novel since The Book of Negroes, one of the most successful Canadian novels of all time. It has sold 800,000 copies in Canada alone.

"The Book of Negroes, unquestionably, is our bestselling novel in Canada in the history of the company," says his long-time publisher, Iris Tupholme, of HarperCollins. "That kind of success is incredibly rare in publishing. There are, maybe, a handful of Canadian authors who've ever reached the kind of readership that Larry has."

The novel, which was published in January, 2007, was on The Globe and Mail bestseller list as recently as this past May, more than eight years after arriving in bookstores.

"I kept getting pulled back into The Book of Negroes," he says, the latest pull being from the four-part miniseries which aired on CBC-TV earlier this year. (He's currently working on the feature-film adaptation of The Illegal with Canadian director Clement Virgo.) "I wasn't sick of it in the sense of not liking the book any more. I was sick of talking about it, mostly because I felt it was impeding my artistic evolution. How would I develop as a writer if I kept going back to The Book of Negroes?

"I just needed to break free," he says. "I didn't want to write a book that would be seen as a follow-up to The Book of Negroes."

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Not that he's complaining.

"We all long to see our books do well," says Hill, who later this year will receive the Governor-General's History Award for Popular Media, better known as the Pierre Berton Award, for drawing attention to Canadian history in his work. "Believe me, I know what it's like to have your book sell 10 copies. I think Some Great Thing" – his 1992 debut, published by the small Manitoba outfit Turnstone Press – "in its first year probably sold 100 copies or something, and probably got two reviews and was probably available for purchase in three stores in the country. So I know what it's like to write a book that meets a deafening silence."

There's little chance that happens with The Illegal, which is HarperCollins's lead fall title and probably the most-anticipated Canadian book of the year. (It will be published in the United States in January by W.W. Norton and Company, whom his literary agent Ellen Levine says is going "all-out" to promote the book south of the border.) The novel tells the story of Keita Ali, a young man who wants to run marathons.

He lives in Zantoroland, a fictional island country somewhere in the Indian Ocean, along with his older sister, Charity, and father, Yoyo Ali, a journalist whom readers may recall from Hill's earlier work. After a military coup pushes the country to the precipice of an ethnic cleansing, Keita is forced to flee his homeland, ending up in Freedom State, a wealthy country with rather draconian immigration and refugee laws. There, Keita becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of government, forced to live underground in order to evade those that would send him back to Zantoroland and certain death, while, at the same time, pursuing his running dreams.

As opposed to The Book of Negroes, which was rooted in fact, "in this case I didn't want to feel beholden to any specific socio-political-historical reality," explains Hill. "I just wanted to invent, and I wanted to be playful. And I felt that I could be more so inventing a world rather than recreating a slice of Canadian reality. I wanted to write about some issues that are painful – dislocation and statelessness and alienation – but to have a lighter touch."

The plot is ripped from the headlines in terms of its timeliness, something Hill could not have anticipated when he began writing the novel five years ago. The day before our early-August interview yet another migrant ship capsized in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya; so far this year, at least 2,500 people have died making a similar journey.

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"We have people dying by the thousands, in 2015, drowning in their desperation to leave," he says. "I'm pretty sure that most refugees know when they're getting onto a boat that they're taking their lives in their hands. I think it's worth remembering they're doing this knowing that they might die, because they're that desperate to leave.

"We think that we're insulated from these things," he adds. "Even though we're not besieged by boats all the time the way Greece or Italy are, we have an awful record in terms of the way we respond to refugees."

More than anything, The Illegal is a condemnation of the plight of refugees, a topic Hill has been thinking about almost as long as he's been running. In the summer of 1973, Hill worked at what is now Toronto Pearson Airport for an organization called the "Ontario Welcome Centre." His job, as the name suggests, was to welcome newcomers to Canada – helping them find accommodation, apply for provincial health insurance and whatever else was needed to ease their transition. This was months after tens of thousands of Africans of South Asian descent were expelled from Uganda by the dictator Idi Amin, many of whom settled in Canada. It was, he says, "the first real spark that interested me in issues of refugees."

Yet Canada's policy toward refugees has changed in the intervening decades. "Canada, unfortunately, has embraced a really conservative approach," he says. The current government wants to "criminalize" refugees. "The words that are used generally are designed to evoke fear [and] paranoia: terrorists, criminals, illegals. … The language is meant to diminish the legitimacy of the needs of those people."

He points to the plight of millions of Syrian refugees; earlier this year, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander promised Canada would take in 10,000 by 2017, though it's uncertain how many have arrived so far. "If they were coming from France or England we would have made room for them in weeks," Hill says. "We're a rich nation – we have room for a lot more refugees than we take."

Hill, who also wrote about issues surrounding refugees in his 2007 non-fiction book The Deserter's Tale, co-written with the American soldier Joshua Key, is not optimistic things will change ("Look at the way the world's heading. Look at the right wing in Europe. Even countries that traditionally have been liberal, like Norway or the Netherlands, have really strong, vocally hateful right-wing advocates"), nor is he expecting it to be an election issue ("I don't think there are a lot of votes to be gained, even by the NDP"). But he is hopeful The Illegal will at least affect the discussion "in a way that a novelist can, which is to excite the imagination. Because that is, I think, where we fall down. We just don't imagine, or don't want to imagine, refugees in our midst."

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He mentions how, a few months ago, he was invited to participate in a fundraiser that Margaret Atwood co-organizes each year on Pelee Island in Lake Erie. Travelling there, Hill passed through Leamington, Ont., the "tomato capital of Canada." The fields were full of workers from Central and South America.

"Our country was built on immigrant labour. We have this idea that there's an ideal immigrant – rich, highly educated and able to contribute to our economy. So we've narrowed the idea of what we think is an ideal immigrant. But that's absurd! The country was built with the help of working-class immigrants more than white-collar immigrants. We still use them and we still need them, but we just don't let them stay. We bring them and then we send them back when their working visa has ended. I think we're a very selfish nation."

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