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Kingston poet-novelist Steven Heighton has found literary success by following some sound advice – his own.
Last year was a big one for Steven Heighton, Artsci’85, MA’86. The Kingston-based writer published a couple of books: his fifth collection of poetry, Patient Frame, (House of Anansi) and his third novel, Every Lost Country (Knopf ). The latter, a provocative tale about a humanitarian doctor, his daughter, and a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker, who get swept up in a violent refugee crisis in Tibet, explores the ideas of borders and belonging, along with heroism and human failure. The book already has been translated into six languages and has been widely and well reviewed. A writer for The Globe and Mail compared Heighton to Joseph Conrad and noted, “Every Lost Country not only rivets readers to their seats, it challenges them to rethink the David-and-Goliath inequalities of this new millennium.”
And if all of this activity, adulation and media attention weren’t enough, Heighton also copped the Ontario Arts Foundation’s K.M. Hunter Award, in the literature category, and the National Magazine Award gold, for fiction, for his story “Shared Room on Union,” (published in The Fiddlehead). In addition to book tours and a variety of public engagements in 2010, he also perfromed a dizzying array of other literary duties, including serving as the the Writer-in-Residence at RMC/CMR Kingston from January to May.
In person, Heighton brims with ideas and beautiful language. His answers to an interviewer’s questions move quickly into discussions of big concepts. Yes, he has been to Tibet during an extended trip through Asia with his wife Mary (née Huggard) Artsci’85, in 1986-87. Yes, like the characters in his novel, when he was younger he did some amateur mountain climbing – which he now describes as “foolhardy.” But it is now the years since that visit to Tibet that interest Heighton most. He has had ample opportunity to reflect on his experiences, to read, and to add layers to his thoughts. “This is vertical resonance – the depth of thinking that comes from time, knowledge, and gradual understanding,” he explains. “Vertical resonance makes writing real, and brings places and people to life.”
Many readers felt Heighton’s latest novel deserved to be nominated for a major literary award. It wasn’t, but he doesn’t let it bother him. “While awards do matter, I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to be able to make my living by writing fiction, and I’ve learned to metabolize the disappointment [of not being nominated for certain awards] within hours,” he says.
Heighton is a rarity in the writing game: a literate stylist whose books also sell. His audience is faithful. “Readers are what matter,” he says. “I sometimes wish there were no literary prizes. They create a kind of class system for books.”
Despite his indifference to awards and honours, Steven Heighton’s CV includes a lengthy list of accolades. His 2000 novel, The Shadow Boxer, was a Canadian bestseller, a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Afterlands was also a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and was named as a book of the year by an impressive list of national and international newspapers including The Independent and The Globe and Mail. Heighton has won numerous awards including the 1989 Air Canada Award; the 1990 Gerald Lampert Award; first prize in the 1991 PRISM international short story competition; the Stand (U.K.) short story competition prize-winner; and now three gold medals in the National Magazine Awards for fiction.
He also has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. His work has been translated into Italian, French, German, Turkish, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian.
Heighton plans to keep writing. His next project will be another novel, probably also about the general theme of belonging. If you ask him what advice he might give to young and would-be authors, he offers some straight-forward advice. “It’s simple, there are two things,” he says, “One is to cultivate low material aspirations; it’s freeing. And two is if you want to write, do it. Just make the commitment.”
Steven Heighton is one of those rare individuals who is not only pursuing his dreams, but also following his own, remarkably sound advice, and he’s achieving dramatic results. That, in itself, is profoundly inspirational.