Steven Heighton closes out campus reading series

Alum and author talks about his career as a writer and poet 

Heighton as an extra in 'Crimson Peak.'
Credit: 
Photo supplied by Steven Heighton

On March 26, author and alumnus Steven Heighton returned to his literary roots with a reading in Watson Hall as a part of Queen’s Reading Series. 

Heighton shared a selection from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, his most recent work in a career that spans decades, 15 novels and numerous short story and poetry collections. 

“[Queen’s] is where I first started writing,” he said to The Journal over email of his days as a student. Heighton began working with professors and mentors at the University, including creative writing professor Carolyn Smart who introduced him at the reading on Monday. 

“Kingston has been a good place to make a life as a writer. I chose it (in 1988, after travelling and working in Asia for two years) because I liked the city, it was equidistant from Toronto and Montreal, and it was relatively cheap (I knew I wanted to write full-time),” he wrote. 

Heighton explained he’s been profoundly shaped by his life here in Kingston and sets his stories around the town. His most recent short story collection is set in Skeleton Park, his “neighbourhood park.”

“Being a student taught me to live frugally and I haven’t really stopped since,” he wrote, telling The Journal he still opts to buy his clothes from Value Village and Phase Two.

Meanwhile, one of the other habits Heighton picked up as an English student — fiction writing — has also stayed with him, though not without difficulty.

For Heighton, novels lose a lot of their appeal after the second or third draft. 

“Novels are impossible. Over the course of 300 pages, there are a thousand ways to blow it — and that fact weighs on anyone who’s struggling to write one,” Heighton wrote over email. His newest book clocks in at 352 pages. 

Poetry comes easier to the author. Heighton said a dream will occasionally inspire him, forcing him to wake up in the middle of the night to document his ideas. 

“I’ll push through the fatigue so that I can scribble whatever’s in my head down,” he said at the reading.

Heighton opened the event with several examples of his poetry, ending up reading more poems than his actual novel.

One poem, called “Fake News,” describes a bodyguard in Trump’s detail and the personal antipathy he has for the President despite being professionally dedicated to his protection.  

Another, titled “Christmas Work Detail: Samos,” profiles two Greek workers tasked with burying three refugees who drowned and washed up on a beach of the titular Greek island. 

These pieces presented on Monday highlighted Heighton’s tendency to take an emotional approach to current events. He writes from a point of sympathy for the characters in his works who’ve undergone trauma, pain and suffering from larger sweeping political change. 

Highly political works characterize Heighton’s recent output — his new novel is about a Canadian soldier under treatment for PTSD and on leave from Afghanistan who ends up living in a deserted Greek town in Cyprus. 

At his reading, Heighton read a passage between the soldier and the soldier’s doctor. The doctor has started to become so affected by the post-traumatic stress of his patients that he finds himself reliving the horrors they recount to him. 

After reading the passage, Heighton admitted to the crowd that he only researches his books after he writes them to check if he’s close to reality. A man in the audience, during the following question period, said he had worked as a psychologist with returning vets and had experienced the same recurring dreams and post-traumatic stress as the doctor in the novel. 

From his beginnings at Queen’s to later settling in Kingston, Heighton continues to strive for literary excellence. 

On his early writing career at Queen’s, Heighton told The Journal, “Support at any stage is helpful, but early support is essential, and I got it here.”  

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