Instant Hook Winner and Runners Up!

HB Creativity is delighted to announce the winner and the runners up of the Instant Hook Literary Award for 2013/4.

The winner is Nathan Downey for his novel-in-progress After Batavia

Runners up are Michelle Lacroix for Set Adrift and Daniel S. Rubin for Floater.

The contest, which asked for entries of a first 250 words of a novel draft or novel-in-progress, attracted a great many ingenious, thought-provoking and dramatically adept submissions from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador. I am certain I have viewed quite a number of fine novels which will hook many a reader in months and years to come!

The remarkable thing about many entries and, in particular, these three, is that they managed to introduce a strong theme, hint at an interesting backstory, and reveal something about the internal reality of one or more character — yet all while moving forward dramatically.

I asked winner Nathan Downey some questions about his inspiration behind After Batavia.

PB: Your entry successfully achieved a number of things at the same time. You brought me very vividly, through the senses, to a place with which I am unfamiliar — Jakarta — while painting an inner portrait of your protagonist and suggesting themes both environmental and socio economic. It seemed to ask many questions and locked the reader into the narrative. What brought you to this story? and whereabouts are you (beginning, middle, or end) of this creative journey?

ND: Far-off places have always captured my imagination. One of my earliest interests was world geography and I’ve nurtured this interest ever since. If I had to pick a literary kindred spirit, it would be Joseph Conrad. I find his works absolutely packed full of a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the exotic (that perhaps equals his pessimism about the universality of human failings). I find my own writing guided by that dualism to a large degree.

Indonesia has been a crossroads for centuries. Arab traders brought Islam to its shores, which mingled with the Hinduism and Buddhism that were already well established there. Later, the whole region was chopped up into European colonies by the Dutch, the British, the Portuguese, and the Spanish. Even today we see a form of neo-colonialism as foreign resource companies vie for the archipelago’s minerals and oil. It’s a land divided on racial, linguistic, religious, economic, and class lines. In one way it’s a fantastically diverse region, and in another, it’s a cruelly stratified nation. For me, this is a fertile setting in which to explore the type of themes that have always fascinated me — post-colonialism, language and communication, sectarianism, and race relations.

I’ve written perhaps a third of the novel. I’ve finished the first draft of the first act. I have more or less the entire story mapped out, but owing to the setting in a different time and place, it’s required a huge amount of research at every turn. (Linguistically, historically, geographically, and so on.) I work full-time as a writer/researcher for an entertainment company, which means I get a ton of writing practice, but I frequently don’t have enough gas in the tank at the end of the day to work on the novel. In the next year or so, I plan on taking a research trip to the region (Indonesia and the Philippines). Following that, a few marathon months of writing should see the manuscript ready to move on to the editing/rewriting stage.

PB: I found your descriptions very cinematic. You begin with the image of a(n) (upturned, dead) chicken’s claws “cracked and burned in the equatorial sun”. Do you think of prose in cinematic terms? Do you find it helpful to do so?

ND: I would say my sense of place comes more from a prevailing aestheticism than from cinematic imagery (although there is certainly a crossover between these two concepts). It’s cliché at this point, but I get a lot of my inspiration from the natural world. The closest analog to a spiritual experience for me comes from witnessing the raw spectacle of nature. The places to which my imagination wanders work vividly on my senses, and I find it easy to put that same level of richness into the places in my writing. I don’t subscribe to Arcadian fantasy — for me the world is both beautiful and savage, both susceptible and indifferent to human machinations. That’s why I find it easy to zero in on something stark and unpleasant like a dead chicken’s sunburnt claws, and a few breaths later, zoom out a little further to describe the lush tropical verdure fringing the swimming pool.

PB: Is it possible to say which comes first for you — character, plot, a feeling about a place or a situation that needs to be conveyed? What motivates you to start tapping on your word processor?

ND: Place definitely comes the most readily to me. It’s hard to divorce place from context, so usually history follows on its heels through my synapses. This particular story arrived quite fleshed-out in my imagination, so character has really been the last stage in this case. In Indonesia, for example, centuries of colonialism have deeply affected the country’s trajectory through history. Even 20 years ago, the scars of history resulted in brutal race riots, particularly against the large Chinese minority in the country. My protagonist is a member of a new private-sector colonial elite, who is insulated — at first — from all this seething tension. The place is real, the history is real, the situation is real. The characters bring to life this complex historical/social/geographical narrative, and they arrived last in the process.


Congratulations again, Nathan! And many thanks to all the participants. We will be repeating this competition — or a variation of it — again this fall/winter coming, so stay tuned for the call for submissions and keep those pencils sharpened! (I know you all use word processors but “keep your computer plugged in” doesn’t have the right ring to it!)


Many thanks to the marvellously talented Valerie Francis for tagging me for this Blog Hop!

What am I working on?

I am working on a couple of novels. The first, which will out in September, is called The Good Doctor. It is a kind of faux biography of Wilfred Grenfell, the self-styled Labrador doctor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, treated from the point of view of an imposter who is pretending to be Wilfred Grenfell for reasons which become apparent as the story unfurls. We see the two men shadowing each other through the known history of Grenfell ― from the East End of London in the 1880s, to the expanses of the America’s and the fundraising tours of the 1900s.

I’ve also been working on an off for some time on a fictional manuscript  set in St. John’s during the terrible winter of 1818 when the harbour was iced over, food supplies were running out and the governor, Francis Pickmore, felt besieged by both the elements and the rowdy, desperate elements of the city. It might not sound like it, but the novel-in-progress is actually fun to write.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is a difficult question as I’m always a little stymied by the idea of ‘genre’; the term in itself is so limiting and if so often used as a put down, particularly in phrases like “genre literature.” The books that appeal to me tend to defy genre or at least play with the idea of genre. I think because I wrote two books, Easton and Easton’s Gold, which had as a central figure a privateer turned pirate (Peter Easton) I have felt somewhat bracketed by the term ‘historical fiction.’ Yet the term ‘historical fiction’ is loaded. It often means fiction that follows a familiar pattern, fiction that is plot-driven rather than character-driven. This is a perception that I have personally struggled with because don’t see any reason why a book which includes a pirate should be less serious or weighty, or more predictable for that matter, than a book without a pirate. But certain preconceptions can get relayed to the reading public.

Both of my Easton books had modern as well as seventeenth century themes. Easton explored the very fine line between legal force and illegal force, at least as much part of the political ether in 2004 with the invasion of Iraq as it was in 1610 when peace with Spain saw ‘loyal’ privateers crossing the dividing line into piracy when they continued to live through plunder as before. Easton’s Gold (2005) carried the theme further to examine the existence or non-existence of a universal morality. Some commentators picked up on the parallels but many didn’t and that label of “historical fiction” probably didn’t help matters.

Easton’s Gold was actually about the inner life of a former pirate, how a sudden upsurge in repressed sensitivities can come upon a person in old age. If a novel about a former pirate’s psychological turmoil sounds vaguely comical I think it says more about “us”, our reader expectations, than it does about life or art.

One refreshing thing about writing today is that writers are bursting through those genre demarcations all the time. What’s been happening with the mystery novel is a case in point. No one could argue that Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, for example, is populated by characters less real, or less three dimensional than any work self-consciously labelled ‘literary’. Yet there is a crime and a detective. And once the crime is solved, the novel is over. To me this seems like the best of both worlds. So, short answer: I dislike the word “genre” so much, I don’t even want to engage with it. To me it’s a marketing term and has very little to do with the creative process.

Why do I write what I do?

Well, the quickest and most honest answer is I write what interests me, so I can circle a character or event ― real or made up ― for a very long time before I get an ‘in’ where I know I will remain interested in what happens and how people will deal with a situation. Picking a time and a situation in the past sometimes yields questions both about the era in question and about ourselves in the 21st century. I remember that when I was circling the legend of Sheila NaGeira, noticing that something was drawing me in, I became aware of a kind of retrospective goddess worship in this character with so much invested in her (legend has her as the first woman of European descent who was supposed to have given birth on the island of Newfoundland; this would make her the mother of the Newfoundland nation, if you like). At the same time there were some tenuous folkloric connections with the image of Sheila Na Gig in Ireland, a rather fearsome gargoyle-like character. If you add the two you arrive at a character who was despised and feared in their own lifetime but deified afterwards. This seemed too rich a vein not to mine, especially with another strand of the Newfoundland legend, that Sheila was a healer, a midwife and by extension a witch. In many cultures, the scapegoat has a very specific role of being the recipient of all the community’s collective fears, then being ejected. We don’t have to look too far to find how the role plays itself out in later generations, how we later worship what we destroy. Anyway, I’d like to think that I look for the stories behind the stories ― or the stories behind history perhaps.

How does your writing process work?

Well, I don’t really think about process that much so I’m not sure it’s always the same. Usually I have an idea and the idea tugs at me for some time. I will often do a lot of background reading while a concept is forming. I suspect I think about something for a year or two ― perhaps longer ― before actually committing something to the word processor. I don’t work with written plans or spreadsheets and when I do ― as a special aid to organize thoughts ― I find I don’t actually look at them again (I wouldn’t be able to read my own writing anyway!) The essential thing is to know each character, to commit to feeling what they are feeling, to keep to it and stop the writing, if necessary. If I suddenly don’t know how they would feel, I’ll wait until it feels truthful again.

Next week, watch for the acclaimed author of Hull Home Fire and The Loss of the Marion, Linda Abbott: Linda Abbott was born in St. John’s, the eighth in a family of ten children. She is a graduate of Memorial University, with a Bachelor of Arts and Education. She holds a Certificate in French from Laval University, Quebec City, and attended the Frecker Institute in St. Pierre. She is a retired French Immersion teacher, having spent most of her career at Holy Trinity Elementary School in Torbay. The Hull Home Fire is her second novel. Her first novel was the critically acclaimed bestseller The Loss of the Marion. She resides in St. John’s.Here is Linda’s blog address:

NOTE: The Instant Hook Literary Award (see earlier post) has been adjudicated. The winner and two runners up will be notified this week, and all entries (there were several dozen) will be contacted soon after with my thanks and a brief written response to their entry. Many thanks to all those who entered!