Kingston’s Heighton breaks the rules

The acclaimed author and Queen’s alumnus speaks to the Journal about prizes, protests and pubs

Steven Heighton settled in Kingston after graduating from Queen’s in 1986.
Steven Heighton settled in Kingston after graduating from Queen’s in 1986.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of writersfest.bc.ca

While standing on a corner at Princess Street, I slowly realize I have no idea where Steven Heighton lives.

Normally, this lack of knowledge wouldn’t be an issue. But on this particular day, it’s a problem. I’m supposed to meet Heighton at his home at 1 p.m., and as the hands on my watch creep towards 1:05, I’m still staring at the address Heighton gave me over the phone that I wrote down. Sadly, the address doesn’t appear to exist.

Over the phone, Heighton seemed far too genuine to be the type who gets his kicks from giving Journal reporters fake addresses. Would someone who’s been nominated for a Governor General’s Award do something like that? I decide the answer is no.

Upon closer examination of my scrawl, I concluded I had simply misread the house number. I walk a few more blocks, and pause outside what I think may be chez Heighton. I look for some sort of sign that this is the home of one of Kingston’s most prominent writers—after all, this is a guy the Globe and Mail called “a young Ondaatje.” The house looks no different from the other houses in the neighbourhood, except for one important detail: there is an oversized mailbox.

I knock on the door and Heighton welcomes me inside. Technically, it isn’t the first time I’ve seen Heighton. Like most Queen’s students, I’ve walked past his photo and biography in a Mac-Corry display case hundreds of times.

For the record, Heighton doesn’t look any older in person than in the photo—even though he estimates the same display has been there for seven years. The only significant difference between the display-case photo and the genuine article is that the long hair in the display photo is gone.

“That was my Peter Frampton hair,” he says with a laugh as he rummages through his kitchen cupboards looking for tea to serve.

The Mac-Corry display is devoted to alumni-turned-renowned-writers, ranging from playwright Judith Thompson to Globe and Mail columnist and writer Russell Smith. Heighton is in good company, and deservedly so.

He is the author of eight books, including his 2000 novel, The Shadow Boxer, which was a Canadian bestseller. His short story collection, Flight Paths of the Emperor, was a finalist for the Trillium Award and in 1993 his poetry collection The Ecstasy of Skeptics was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award.

Heighton’s latest novel, Afterlands, was published in September and has been drawing critical acclaim ever since.

While steeping the tea, Heighton, 44, said it’s great to be recognized for his writing, but he takes in stride what awards and nominations really mean to a writer.

“They [awards] don’t mean anything aesthetically because any number of bad books have won any number of awards, but in terms of my ability to make a life [as a writer] they make a huge difference because they’ve helped me earn a living and win readers for the wrong reasons,” he said.

Heighton takes a seat opposite me at the kitchen table and stirs his bowl of Japanese macha tea. I sip a flowery herbal tea since I’m hesitant to try out the strong, earthy macha—he warns me it’s an acquired taste. He says he picked up an appreciation for macha while teaching English in Japan after completing his MA in English at Queen’s in 1986.

After returning from Asia, he decided to settle in Kingston—not for any grandiose desire to be inspired by his surroundings, but rather by the practical concerns of a struggling writer.

“I wanted to make a go of it as a writer [so] l chose a city that’s not expensive,” he said. “I knew it was a matter of making that commitment and funneling all my energies toward that ... [and] Kingston was a place I knew.” Asked what he likes about Kingston, Heighton is quick to reply with a smile and one word, “pubs,” followed by “the lake, good bookstores and access to wilderness.”

Heighton was first exposed to Kingston when he came to Queen’s as an undergraduate in 1981. He said he has had artistic ambitions ever since he was a child. The only question was whether he would be a musician, an artist or a writer. Sketches spread out on the kitchen table attest to his continuing interest in art—something he seems to have passed on to his nine-year-old daughter, Leni, whose artwork adorns the house.

Heighton said he decided to focus on writing while he was at Queen’s.

“I just eventually realized I was better cut out for a writing life,” he said.

But Heighton maintains all the artistic professions have one thing in common.

“They’re all kind of hopeless financially,” he said. “Luckily I’m blessed with low material aspirations.”

Heighton sheepishly admits many of the poems that formed the basis of his first published poetry collection, Stalin’s Carnival, were written during seminars and lectures while at Queen’s. But that isn’t to say he wasn’t interested in what was going on in the classroom.

“I was so inspired by what we were reading and studying,” he said.

However, Heighton also said he was less inspired by the atmosphere at Queen’s in the 1980s outside the classroom.

“[My friends and I at Queen’s] were a small coterie of artistic people who defined themselves in opposition to a student body more interested in school spirit or a group mentality that encourages uniformity, whereas artists need to be individuals and iconoclastic and resistant to group trends of all kinds.” Heighton said his coterie included writers like Smith and Mark Sinnett—after all, even the most individualistic artist needs others to hang out with to ward off becoming entirely alienated from the world around him.

As he’s talking about his experience on the periphery of the conventional campus social scene, something twigs in Heighton’s mind. He picks up a copy of Afterlands from the table and flips to a sentence that reads: “When flags start to wave someone must always refuse to join in.” Heighton explains the correlation between the passage and his own experience.

“The main protagonist is someone who resists joining into anything because he thinks it compromises your moral integrity,” he said. “Eventually he does join and declare an allegiance and join a war.” Heighton said that as an undergrad, he was inspired by a creative writing class taught by Victor Coleman. But Heighton doesn’t necessarily follow all the cardinal rules of creative writing—namely, to write about what you know.

“That’s good advice for two-thirds of writers,” he said.

Heighton said he is in that one-third who need to write about what they don’t know. Afterlands is one apt example: it’s a sprawling epic that takes place during the nineteenth century in locales ranging from the Canadian Arctic to Mexico.

“I prefer writing what you don’t know and then I give my mind free reign and riff and improvise and then afterwards I do more research. Whatever I need to check up on and correct where necessary.

“After all, that’s what fiction’s all about. It was never meant to be heavily researched ... I happen to detest research so I’d rather just make it all up.”

Heighton seems to have a talent for “making it all up:” at book readings he has been approached by readers who are concerned about an aboriginal people described in Afterlands.

“In the third section there’s a whole aboriginal culture that’s wholly invented,” Heighton said. “[Some readers say] ‘What a tragedy the Sina language died out’—and a lot of languages are dying out, but this one never existed.” Heighton said that when he begins a book, he never knows exactly where it will take him.

“For me, writing is really a molten process. I wouldn’t want to have it all planned out,” he said. “Many writers have an ending in mind and they write towards it, but for me that would be a mistake. I want to write towards an unknown ending with the same excitement that the readers feel as they move towards an ending they can’t foresee.”

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