Coming Back to Winnipeg, by Lawrence Hill

I always love coming back to Winnipeg. The city gave me so much, in my 20s. My first job after university: a cub reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press. My first novel: Some Great Thing (virtually every page of which is set in Winnipeg), which I wrote a year or two after quitting the job to go off and live in Spain. And my first publisher: Turnstone Press. I always thought that the hardest thing I might ever try would be to write a novel. But it turned out that the hardest thing was to get it published. After receiving enough rejections to wallpaper my bathroom wall, that first novel finally found a home with Turnstone. So I forgive the city its mosquitoes. I will stop saying that violates your Constitutional rights to have your blood sucked by mosquitoes in the heart of a city. Who cares? The job, the novel, and the publisher all made up for it. And I haven’t even come to the people yet. Manitobans welcomed me warmly into their midst, when I moved to the city in 1982 to take that job with the Free Press. So warmly that I forgave them the cold. How cold is Manitoba? Well, let me tell you what I learned. Minus 40 is minus 40, whether you are talking Fahrenheit or Celsius. Use a block heater, or forget starting your car in the morning. Join a squash club because what idiot would run on permafreeze on the city’s sidewalks?  Don’t drive into the country roads without sleeping bags and chocolate bars. Yes, my gas line froze on the way to St Anne.
I made great friends in Winnipeg. I still have some of them. I learned to write on deadline, although that skill seems to have ebbed with the newsroom in my distant past.  Winnipeg politicized me. Arriving in Winnipeg right when the Pawley government was attempting to introduce legislation to expand French language rights and modify the Canadian Constitution (here we go again) gave me my first exposure to people who got fired up about political issues. Fired up enough to shout down Cabinet ministers at public meetings. I happened to agree with the NDP’s position, but it was still striking and instructive to behold the visceral opposition that it encountered.

Let’s leap forward a few decades. I don’t work as a reporter any more. I haven’t, since 1985. I quit my job with the Free Press to see if I could make it as a novelist. I loved being a reporter, but I burned to write fiction. Once I had a first book out, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival invited me. Later, Thin Air kept bringing me back for other books. This will be the fifth time I have come to Thin Air or its precursor. The organizers, volunteers and audiences are great. Charlene Diehl is as kick ass as they come. Last time I came to Winnipeg, Charlene  brought in a jazz quartet led by Steve Kirby to do its thing while I read aloud from The Book of Negroes. Yes. While I read. It was a load of fun, and a lovely reiteration of a tradition embraced in early and mid  20th century by American poet Langston Hughes and various jazz and blues musicians. Here, by the way, Hughes is doing his thing in Canada:http://arts.gov/art-works/2014/jazz-poetry-langston-hughes. I’m proud to return to Winnipeg, this time with a new novel called The Illegal. I’ll try to hurry up and finish another book, so I can get another invitation to come to Thin Air.

Lawrence Hill