Steven Heighton claimed that I once wrote in the margins of the manuscripts of his stories: “Another excremental metaphor,” “Oh Christ, Heighton, are you kidding?” and “You can only say that about horses, you dink.” These claims may be true.
A writer’s style is the outcome of, among other things, temperament. Some writers write in a passionate outpouring of words and that approach seems to them the only way of capturing inspiration. Steve wrote in this way and in my editing I always tried to prune his tendency to lushness, to concentrate his gaze, to suggest the dryness of fino rather than the sugar of oloroso; rather than the shotgun’s blast, the rifle of the sniper.
Steve was unashamedly romantic in his attitude to literature. “At the turn of the millennium being a true rebel,” he wrote, “means being, by postmodern standards, unabashedly uncool – an aesthete, devoted to the old pursuit of truth and beauty in artistic form.”
His first novel, The Shadow Boxer, was reviewed in the UK Independent on Sunday:
“The Shadow Boxer fizzes with life and energy, its prose a heated mixture of lyricism and muscularity . . . its adhesion to the old vanities of authenticity and the primacy of experience [make it] nothing less than a full-blooded argument with postmodern trickery. Intense and poetic . . . has a swaggering, larger-than-life quality.”
In his first book of stories, Flight Paths of the Emperor, we see his loving entanglement with language. I always think with particular pleasure of the story “Five Paintings of the New Japan.” His interview for a job as waiter in the very traditional Yume No Ato restaurant is an elegant, perfectly paced, comic set piece.
“We have problems here every summer,” Mr. Onishi sighed during my interview, “with a foreign tourist people.” He peered up at me from behind his desk, two shadowy half-moons drooping under his eyes. “Especially the Americans. If I hire you, you can deal to them.”
“With them” I said automatically.
“You have experienced waitering?”
“A little,” I lied.
“You understand Japanese?”
“I took a course.”
“Say something to me in Japanese.”
I froze for a moment, then was ambushed by a phrase from my primer.
“Niwa ni wa furu-ike ga arimasu.”
“In the garden,” translated Mr. Onishi, “there is an old pond.”
I stared abjectly at his bald patch.
The poet in Heighton could not resist the broad comedy of Japanese English. “On a towering billboard, a wry gaijin – seemingly James Coburn – sipped whiskey above a slogan rendered in gothic script, as if it were a plug for a prog rock band: Of you Dream, Be Handsome Cad, For you Party Life And Nighties of Bachelor Fun.”
In an interview in Writers Talking, Steve described the kind of writer he was.
Writing of what she knows, the chronicler of home renews or reorients our view of the familiar, showing us how strange and foreign the domestic really is (“she” because I think first of Alice Munro.) Writing of what he doesn’t know, so as to discover it in the telling, the explorer of “away” makes the foreign and exotic feel as familiar as home. (“he” because I think first of Malcolm Lowry and Paul Bowles.) Clearly I was that second kind.
His next Porcupine’s Quill collection, On Earth As It Is (1995), was stories set in Canada. A third collection came in 2012, The Dead Are More Visible, a virtuoso performance stunning in its emotional impact. A mere decade after its publication, it has the word “classic” stamped all over it. Between the second and third collections he published three novels and followed The Dead Are More Visible with a fourth novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, in 2017.
He returned to working with me in 2020 on his memoir Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos. Following this, he launched into a fourth book of stories that we agreed to title Instructions for the Drowning.
He said to me one day on the phone, “I don’t know . . . novels. Money, I suppose. But writing stories again. It feels like coming home.”
“Plots, Steve,” I said. “Bloody plots.”
Instructions for the Drowning contains a story called “As If in Prayer” which draws upon his Mithymna experiences. He finds in a washed-ashore life jacket a tiny box:
. . . it might once have held earrings. The burgundy felt lining was stained darker where seawater had leaked in. Nestled on the felt, like pearls, lay three baby teeth that someone had kept . . .
The narrator takes the little box to a graveyard where the gravedigger buries the Muslim dead in accordance with Muslim tradition.
The narrator further describes the box as “the sort of thing in which a child might ceremonially inter the husk of a cicada or a dead mouse pup found curled in a field.”
Notice the words “husk” and “curled,” these indicators of a mind and talent essentially poetic. Notice, too, the title of this story – “As If in Prayer” – because it hints at a central aspect of Steven Heighton’s essence and achievement. His attitude to life was essentially reverential. We can feel that in the language he crafted to convey to us what he had seen and experienced.
Louise Glück’s poem Nostos ends with this:
We look at the world once, in childhood / The rest is memory.
Steven was one of those who never lost sight of the world anew and he conducted himself in it in priestly fashion. This statement will doubtless cause merriment amongst many who have experienced Steve sloshed, the stoned Steven, the wildly loquacious Steve, Steve the flamboyant, now bearded, now clean-shaven, now with sideburns, cowboy boots, distressingly pugnacious shirts.
But behind his changing facades he quietly observed the duties his vision demanded. He served the country’s literature; he ministered to young talent by reading their manuscripts, by editing, by phone calls, by directing other editors to unknown work he considered worthy of their attention.
After I found out about Steven’s death, I phoned Caroline Adderson because we’d been talking the day before about Steve’s illness and the progress on Instructions for the Drowning.
Her voice on the brink of tears, she said, “He was central in my life. I owe him so much.”
“How do you mean, central?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“What? Remember what?”
“I met him at the Banff writing studio. He read versions of my first stories and said he’d pass them on to you.”
These stories became part of Caroline’s first book, Bad Imaginings, that I worked on with her at Porcupine’s Quill, another superb writer of short stories welcomed into the fold in part by Steven’s intervention; for her, a seismic event, for him, simply a natural part of the vocation that had chosen him.
His stories will be speaking to future generations of aspiring writers on the thresholds of careers and to a growing audience drawn to his work by word of mouth. We will miss his physical presence but he will live on, honoured, in our literature’s memory.
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