Writing is a matter of keeping distractions to a minimum: Steven Heighton
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj
by Bronwyn Chester
While the photographer was getting Steven Heighton to pose, Con-cordias
new writer in residence was asking him for advice on translating Le
Bateau ivre, the title of a poem by Rimbaud.
Heightons first novel, The Shadow Boxer, was considered a
Best Book of 2000 by the Globe and Mail, while his collection of
poetry, The Ecstasy of Skeptics, was nominated for the Governor-Generals
Award in 1995. Beyond being a gifted novelist, short-story writer and
poet, Heighton is also a translator.
He can read French, but not speak it. After completing his graduate and
undergraduate studies at Queens University, Heighton learned to
read French literature with a dictionary. Now hes thrilled to be
in Montreal at least one day a week, coaching students in Concordias
creative writing program.
The settings for The Shadow Boxer include Sault Ste. Marie, Lake
Superior, Toronto and Cairo. The protagonist, Sevigne Torrins,
spends time in Cairo visiting his mother, who has left The Soo to pursue
a life of comfort with a new husband. Its not a city Heighton knows
except through books, but it works.
Cairo notwithstanding, Heighton, now 40, has travelled widely. At age
18, he set off westward from Toronto, where he spent part of his childhood
(the other part was in Red Lake, northern Ontario, where his father taught
English and his mother wrote letters to appease the relatives regarding
her marriage to a non-Greek), to travel in Australia and Europe,
busking along the way. Later, he travelled in Asia, including Japan.
These days, travel involves a weekly trek by train from Kingston. This
is Heightons first time as writer in residence at a university,
and he plans to give readings, conduct master classes and work with students
He already has a lot of experience in the exchange of criticism with fellow
writers, such as Concordia English professor and novelist Kate Sterns,
who was on the writer-in-residence selection committee.
Steven is a tremendously generous and sympathetic person whos
engaged in the everyday struggle to write something good, she says.
Hes going to see the best in students work and help
them bring it out.
That likely wont be by e-mail or fax, however, as Heighton has access
to neither in the home office where he spends six hours a day working
on his next novel, which he described as an Arctic story set mostly
in Mexico, and a collection of poems, some his, some translations
of favourite poems fom the Greek, French, and Latin.
His decision to limit the technology in his life isnt a matter of
principle, even though some of his friends call him a Luddite. Its
just a question of keeping the distractions to a minimum.
I try to keep life as simple as possible and as physical as possible.
Food, sex, music and dancing are the visceral antidotes to the chaotic
state of my brain, he said, laughing.