How to navigate the literary life

Bestselling novelist Steven Heighton says living frugally lets him pursue writing as a full-time job

Steven Heighton says experiencing other cultures and literature is indispensable.
Steven Heighton says experiencing other cultures and literature is indispensable.

The artistic life is as unique as those who pursue it. But, it takes a lot of talent, not to mention perseverance, to survive as a writer these days.

Frugal habits, travel, self-discipline and reining in late-night creativity to work during daylight hours are all part of the life of Steven Heighton, ArtSci ’84 and MA ’86. Author of the bestselling The Shadow Boxer, Afterlands and the Governer General’s Award nominated collection of poems The Ecstasy of Skeptics, among other works, Heighton knew from a young age he was drawn to the arts.

“I went to Queen’s from ’81 to ’86 and it became clearer and clearer that writing was where I was going, where my heart and passion lay,” he said.

Heighton’s experience at Queen’s helped shape and refine his writing skills. Writing essays, publishing the odd short story and poem in campus publications and working with other student writers such as Russell Smith confirmed Heighton’s desire to write as entered the literary world.

“What you read in your late teens and early 20s are formative, they can affect you and change your whole way of looking at the world. … I was reading great stuff in my English classes and that really influenced me and helped me develop as a writer,” Heighton said.

“Having to write a lot of essays helped as well, learning how to be tough on myself as an editor. Fiction and poetry are different from essays but you still have to be disciplined and you have to edit ruthlessly.”

Fresh out of Queen’s grad school with a master in English, Heighton took off to Japan to teach. Once there, Heighton continued the student habit of pinching pennies so when he returned to Kingston he could afford to set himself up in an apartment and wrote for two years.

When he emerged with the book of poetry Stalin’s Carnival in 1989, he was able to kick-start his career. Now Heighton still writes full-time and takes on the occasional writer-in-residence teaching stints that come his way.

Teaching, doing readings and having his books translated into other languages and sold in other countries have contributed to sustaining his life as a writer and have afforded him opportunities to travel. Last year, Heighton travelled to St. Petersburg to teach. Italy and Turkey have also been destinations on his literary journey.

In this field there are small sacrifices. Recognizing that poetry and short stories are not financially feasible avenues for a writer, Heighton spends more energy and time on novels at the expense of the other art forms.

Based in Kingston, Heighton lives with his family and said he has adjusted his natural nocturnal tendencies so that now he wakes up every day to write, treating it like any other job. But for Heighton it still doesn’t feel like a job.

“Kingston has been a great place, it isn’t expensive and there isn’t a lot of temptation and distraction as in the bigger cities,” he said.

At one point Heighton became disillusioned with writing and considered becoming a doctor so he could become part of Médicines sans Frontières. He decided against this after realizing he didn’t want to go back to school for another five years. Instead, he’s now writing a novel about a man who works as a doctor without borders.

Heighton recommends aspiring writers read widely and indiscriminately.

“Read everything­—men, women from all places and times. Read trashy novels along with classics. Even if you’re just a fiction writer, read fiction and poetry and vice-versa,” he said.

“Read translations so you’re not just reading English-language writers. … The sensibilities of other writers [are] so different from the sensibilities of English-speaking writers. It’s important to immerse yourself in those writing sensibilities and most people don’t read enough. I didn’t read enough.”

Finally, he would remind them that writing isn’t a path for those with monetary aspirations.

“This is not a way to get rich.”

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