Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Robert Hilles’ fiction piece, Little Pink Houses
John: The deadpan tone of this piece is quite striking, how both small events and large are rendered with the same even, understated way. How did you decide on this voice and this lack of interiority?
Robert: This story evolved over time, but I always wanted to create a story that explored the significant contrast between the very rich and poor in Calgary, an oil city where great wealth exists side by side with working class families. There is of course a strong middle class in Calgary too, but I was most interested in that extreme contrast. The voice came with the very first draft of that story. Josh, the main character, is loosely based on my brother when he was a teenager. In this case, Josh is headed in one direction in his life and is a product of a single parent home. He and his mother are hard-working good people but are barely getting by. His lack of interiority is partly to highlight his age but also to let the actions fill out the story more than thoughts. Josh does the right thing without hesitation. That is crucial to the story. I suppose the poet in me is drawn to how small events and large events are much more similar than we may first realize. The human scale does not change as much as we might think. Clearly Mann would not know about Josh just as Josh doesn’t know about him. I wanted the story to turn on that discovery for Josh along with how he has acted.
It would be easy to see events like these causing trauma in a person, but they seem to move Josh, in his inscrutable way, toward a more positive path. Is this a sign that you are an optimist?
I think I am an optimist. But at the same time I am a realist. I think that many of us are capable of courageous acts and by doing those selfless acts we are transformed by them. Josh is transformed by what he does. In mere seconds he makes a decision that changes his life for the better. I believe such acts are possible and that they happen every day. The opposite is true too, but it is the good deeds we do that give humanity legitimate hope.
The events of this story make us focus on the often ugly mechanics of death, something that Western society usually tries to insulate us from. Do you think that a less reflexively aversive relationship to death would serve us better than what we do now?
Ever since the death of my father in 1995, I have noted how Western societies (especially Canada and the US) attempt to keep us hidden from death. Those who work as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, doctors, etc. witness the harshness of death every day. I think that must be so demanding. At the same time to be kept distant from death is not a healthy approach either. Honestly confronting the brutality of death, even a death of a loved one from cancer like my father, is to miss out on a crucial part of the mourning process. In past generations and in other cultures today people interact much more directly with the dead. They wash their bodies and prepare them in other ways. They attend the funeral pyre and stay until the body is fully burned to ash. All of that makes death real and mourning so much more emotionally complete.
I am both intrigued and intimidated by poets, and fascinated by those brave souls who write both poetry and prose. Are there any similarities in your approach to those two literary forms?
For me poems and stories start the same way, but the revision processes are completely different. My stories and poems often are triggered by an image or sensation that moves me to write. For example with this story, I started with the image of a body floating in the river. I saw him scurry into the river to retrieve the body. The whole story evolved from that image. A poem can start the same way for me, although a feeling more often triggers them than an image. In either case, from that initial trigger I will write the first draft of the poem or story in one sitting. I then will leave a poem for six months or a year without looking at it. Then when I go back to it, the poem is completely new to me with the first impulse for it often lost. What I am left with sometimes is no more than a spark or impulse (although some poems have stayed mostly in their original form). Often a first draft of a poem is no more than a skeleton of what I want to say. When I revise a poem it is not uncommon for me to completely re-write the poem so it barely resembles the original draft. With short stories like this one I don’t leave it for very long before I revise it. I go through it from start to finish a second, third, fourth and fifth time, etc. By then the story is more fleshed out. When I first started writing fiction I left first drafts of stories for a long time like I did with poems but discovered that when I went back to them they were often stone dead and I could not resurrect them. Little Pink Houses always centred around Josh finding the body of Mann in the Bow River. What happens because of that event evolved over each subsequent draft. For example the crows, which play a key role, did not appear in the story until nearly the final draft.
Little Pink Houses is included in your upcoming story collection also called Little Pink Houses. Are there any stories from this book available to read?