Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 24th annual Journey Prize in 2012, and his short stories have been published in Word Riot, subTerrain, Noir Nation, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Little Fiction, The Puritan, The New Quarterly, PRISM international, EVENT, Joyland, Shenandoah, The Walrus, and The Journey Prize Stories 24 & 26. He also has short fiction forthcoming in This Magazine, and Best Canadian Stories 15. Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, is published by Biblioasis and is in stores and available for order now. His novel, In the Cage, will also be published by Biblioasis in fall 2016.
I was first introduced to Kevin Hardcastle after reading “Bandits” in The Puritan Issue 21. “Bandits” is about a small crime family in Central Ontario that drives out on snowmobiles to heist rural LCBOs, and after that I wanted to read as much Hardcastle as I could. Fortunately, when literary events take place at the right kind of establishment, Hardcastle can usually be found there with two bottles of Bud in hand.
It wasn’t long before he agreed to an interview over email.
Jason Freure: In Debris, there are three main settings: Simcoe County, Alberta, and Toronto. What kind of relationship do you have to Simcoe County?
Kevin Hardcastle: My relationship to Simcoe County is a contentious one. I mine that area and the history of it for material, and I also mine a lot of local knowledge and personal knowledge that happens to come from growing up in the wondrous town of Midland, Ontario. As I get older, and spend more and more years out of that town, it keeps figuring out a way to crawl back into the work. That whole area is deceptive to outsiders and more complicated than it needs to be when you get into the guts of it. It is a pretty, pretty part of the country to look at, but growing up there can be hard on a person.
There’s a serious wealth gap, for the most part, between rich folks that have name and status in the region, or people who moved there rich from the city, and the average person who can’t find good work and doesn’t own the cottages and boats and the toys. There are significant problems with depression and addiction, and a rather unique history as far as the way the First Nations and Métis populations have been treated in the region, historically and socially. It is only two hours from Toronto, but there is a fishbowl effect that can be very powerful and lasting. And however rough it might get in Midland or Penetanguishene, you have other embattled, isolated rural towns and villages surrounding that play into the overall atmosphere and behaviour of the area.
Now I think back on a lot of it and know what it was worth, the good and bad. I’m much more likely to see the good in it now and use all of the knowledge I got the hard way growing up there. Still, whenever I cross those town lines I feel weird right through. It seems like a whole other life. For any reasonably intelligent teenager that is a tough place to grow up. We had nothing to do and a general feeling that there was something really wrong with the town and the people that settled for living there—or worse, wanted to be the goddamn king or queen of Midland. There was a lot of drinking since early, early on in high school, and there were only ever two or three bars in town at one time. On a Friday or Saturday, everyone looking to get hammered and rowdy came into town and went to the same bar, or the same bush parties. You get into a scrap and it never ends. When people ask if I got into fights there, I always say I only ever got into the one fight, but it lasted for three years.
But yes, there’s some pretty country, and some beautiful lakes and wilds and places you can get to even if you aren’t the guy with a boat or property. The land has a real character to it up there. But I do believe that there is something funny in the water.
JF: “Hunted by Coyotes” goes to the edges of suburban Lethbridge and Fort McMurray, where the unfinished houses and trailers sidle up to the wilderness. Why do you go there? What kind of stories do you associate with the West?
KH: My stories set in the West are informed by my experience living out in the Prairies, and especially by the first year and a job I had knocking doors all over Alberta selling gas and power contracts (as it goes in “Hunted by Coyotes”). I was not fond of Alberta. I met some good people there, but the politics and the rhythm of day-to-day life were not for me. Regardless, I paid a lot of attention to how people lived and where they lived, what they did for a living. I got to see a lot of what happens when an entire province has hedged all their bets on a frontier-style oil-boom economy, and all the trappings of that. There are a lot of people who are born in Alberta or the Prairies or who move there, call it home, live normal lives, and work normal, uneventful jobs. [But] those were not the people I generally met in my door-knocking days.
Those most far-flung towns to either end of the province were really interesting to me. There was a real sense of people casting out and working these dangerous, high-risk, high-reward jobs and settling in places that were still being carved out for people, some of which probably should have been left well alone. With the kind of population boom out there, especially in towns like Fort McMurray, you’d have neighbourhoods just thrown together quick, with people moved in and no paved roads or stores or proper infrastructure yet. In the end of that story there’s a part where a guy in a trailer, sitting next to his loaded rifle, tells the salesmen that nobody is from there. That was a common thing, that nobody seemed to be from the place you’d end up in. And it could get interesting if you found someone that was. I guess my Alberta/Prairie stories often deal with that sense of being an outsider and trying to carve out a place for you or your family, and a general sense that rules that might have applied in an older, more gradually settled place don’t always hold true in these unusual towns that have sprung up in an unlikely part of the country.
JF: There’s a myth that Canada never had a frontier. We’re taught in school there was no Wild West here because the RCMP got there first, whether there’s any truth to that or not. But so many of your characters are modern day cops, robbers, vigilantes, and farmstead types. What do you think about Canada’s frontier? Did it exist? Does it still?
KH: When I think of the Wild West or the frontier, I generally think of it less in the historical sense, and more in terms of a human condition or situation that influences behaviour and the mentality of people who live in a certain spot. I think of a pretty high level of instability and uncertainty, and the ambitions that folks might have to endure that kind of instability, and to perhaps ignore greater historical or social patterns that do not apply immediately to their situation. If that is what the frontier or Wild West is—if it is more about the wild than it is about the west—then it does, has, and likely will always exist in this country.
Probably it’s the percentage of our population that lives in cities that shifts our attention away from considering or experiencing this frontier lifestyle. But there are still many people living out of the cities, or those that move between the city and the country for whatever reason, and they might tell you that the frontier is very much out there. I think of it in rural terms simply because I come from a place that doesn’t ever feel quite settled, or at least never has for me. Even just the lack of eyeballs on you or your access to larger spaces and lands without constriction, that is something that changes how you behave and perceive space and the people you come across in it. In my stories I think that there is a bit of a frontier character in that the people are usually outsiders trying to carve out a homestead or some kind of viable lifestyle, or poor people who have a meager bit of property or wealth to protect, but will defend that little plot and the people that live on it with everything they got.
If the frontier and the Wild West is thought of in that way, as the lives of people on the fringes who might have to bend or ignore social boundaries to survive or thrive, then I think we will have stories like that in this country as long as we have this country. Even the city stories I write are frontier stories if you take it that way, and that is the kind of story I’m most interested in reading and telling.
JF: “One We Could Stand to Lose” laments the loss of the Hotel Waverley on Spadina. It isn’t gone yet, but it’s owned by a developer and there are plans to tear it down. Do you think there’s an element of Toronto that’s disappearing? I don’t just mean the city’s historical buildings.
KH: As someone who isn’t from Toronto, who has come to call it home but left and come back more than once, I can tell you that this city has changed a good deal even in the fifteen years I’ve known it, and not all of it for the better. However, I also don’t have any romantic ideas of old Toronto that some other people might, and I welcome some of the changes that people lament. Although, maybe stop building these fucking condos everywhere.
Part of Toronto’s character is its mutability, and I think that it is fine to have the city change over and over in appearance and character as long as it is the work of the average people that live in our neighbourhoods and want to make a good life here, as so many people do. Where we are at risk is in the terrifying rate at which we are wiping out the middle class and letting the wealth gap between rich and poor expand further and further. If we lose that middle ground, where people of all cultures and classes can meet in this city, we may well lose the city as we know it.
JF: Characters in your Toronto stories seem trapped or lost in the city. It seems to me that often characters who’ve grown up in a big city can’t imagine their lives, or even a trip, outside of the city. Does the myopia clear when you get out?
KH: Those are tricky stories in that the characters may have lived in the city for some time, but it is hinted at that they aren’t from there originally either. I think they’ve adapted, but when things go bad the city can seem awful lonely and daunting. In a story like “Most of the Houses Had Lost Their Lights”, the main character ends up on the outskirts of the city, at the border between city and country, but I don’t think that clears anything up for her. It’s just a little walkabout that leads to some work and some interesting changes in her life, by chance.
Sticking with that story, there is also the fact that the problems they had in the city follow them out there, and now they are more isolated and dealing with another set of potential difficulties, should everything go sideways again. I don’t really write anything that follows the urban trope you mention, just because of the rarity of a character being only from the city in my work, but I would suggest that such myopia wouldn’t clear in the country. In some ways you have more space and freedom and quietude, but in other ways you are more isolated and the way the city overwhelms you can be replaced by you overwhelming yourself. The city has its own set of rhythms and safeties when you figure out how to work it. In the country you gain some things but you lose all of that, and you go from being very much alone to very visible when you are in the towns. If being in the country clears anything up, that is something you did. It will not solve problems for you.
JF: The other side of the coin to urban myopia might be rural escapism, where characters spend much of their time trying to move elsewhere. Why is this almost entirely missing from your Simcoe County stories?
KH: As it follows from the last question, I plainly don’t believe in these personal reinventions or progressions just by moving to the city or the country. If you are a certain type of person, you’ll move to either and it will reveal things about you that were likely always in there. I definitely don’t truck with the kind of stories where somebody goes on a journey to either place and they are suddenly new and magically changed, and have some kind of amazing revelatory nonsense happen to them.
I think there is a feeling in those Simcoe County stories that the characters are a little smarter than we’d usually give them credit for, and they know some of the world outside of their townships or counties, but the other side of it is that they live where they live for a reason, and they aren’t fighting that on top of all the other difficulties in their lives. They might have chosen to live there, or they might have to stay because of obligations or hardships that have to be dealt with. Either way, they have their hands full and they are not usually the type to cut and run or romanticize things that may or may not be in the future.
JF: Some of your stories, including “Most of the Houses Had Lost Their Lights,” “Hunted By Coyotes,” and “Debris” share certain elements with horror fiction. Do you ever see yourself as a horror writer? Was that a genre you grew up reading?
KH: I certainly don’t see myself as a horror writer now, but a long time ago that was what I wanted to be. I did grow up reading a lot of Stephen King, probably far earlier than I should have, and even further back I remember reading a lot of very dark children’s fiction, especially Roald Dahl. I always liked the darkness in there and the seriousness of it all, behind the humour and the fantastical nature of the stories. When I was a kid reading Stephen King, and watching all the horror movies I could get my hands on, that is what I wanted to write.
Turns out that it just sort of slowly lost its hold as far as what I thought was most important in literature and in storytelling. The best horror, sci-fi, or speculative fiction tend to have their supernatural or other-worldly aspects figure in some real terror that is rooted in everyday life. When I started to plumb the depths for material in my literary fiction I found most of that more frightening than anything in horror fiction. When I started reading Cormac McCarthy, I realized I’d never write anything that was strictly genre horror again, because I realized that you could get that atmosphere and the haunting that you find in good horror, especially as it comes from the natural world or the wilderness, without going the whole way with conventional horror tropes.
The older I get the more I find historical fiction and realism more terrifying than anything I ever read that would be considered horror fiction. But I did keep elements of that, and I go back to them a lot in the work. I have a lot of stories that are heavy on atmosphere and suspense and general creepiness, so that is something I owe to that genre and something I’m not likely to stop using.
JF: You also once contributed to an anthology of noir fiction, and “Bandits,” a story that first appeared in The Puritan, features a heist crew in Central Ontario during the winter. What are you doing with a genre when you take it out of its typical setting?
KH: I didn’t have any real deliberate intention there. Much like the horror stuff, I’m just using whatever I think serves the story best, and there are also a lot of ingredients from real life that make the process easier. There are many, many crime or heist stories, and there are very good literary writers like Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson and Donald Ray Pollock that get those criminals into literary work and get real weight out of their stories. This one is the same kind of deal, except that the setting and the geography the story draws from is a necessary element in what makes “Bandits” work.
I think I spoke about this in a little thing for The Puritan, not long after “Bandits” was published, but it is just a straight-up true story in that a bunch of hicks from various towns off Georgian Bay would rob these shitty liquor stores, not much more than a trailer or portable, and they’d get away by driving across the bay on snowmobiles and having their trails lost in other sled trails or in fresh snow, as that area gets smashed with snowfall in the winter. It’s a genius move really, for the practical concerns of the robbery and for the getaway, and it shows true local knowledge of the terrain and the backwoods. I happen to be a big fan of the way those writers I mentioned above treat rural criminals, in that they don’t paint them as stupid or ignorant, and give them their due when it’s called for. I draw a lot from that “country noir” sort of literary-crime sub-genre, and this kind of ridiculous local knowledge that belongs to a rarely written region is something that might set a story like this apart a little bit.
JF: In “To Have to Wait” two characters are driving over to another town to visit a hospital with a psych ward. When they stop for directions, there’s a tense scene, where one of these guys at the gas station is blaming the hospital “for bringing all these sickos” into town. Does that come from a real resentment in places like Midland? What about toward weekenders and cottagers?
KH: There are a few layers of townie resentment and standoffishness in that section of the story. Foremost there’s an inter-townie conflict, in that those rough kids from this other town would know who wasn’t supposed to be there, even if they were other younger folks from another town that are cut from similar cloth. If they don’t recognize you then you are going to have some of that regardless. There’s a kind of feeling-out process that tends to happen.
In places like Midland, there is certainly a very evident disdain for tourists and those that come down from the city for the weekends or the summer, but rarely does that end in violence. For whatever reason, you might get some of the stares and the attitude, but to get the real hate you have to have a dog in the fight. Meaning you have to live there and know the people who have a problem with you before you get to the actual violence. For the most part.
The conflict in “To Have to Wait” is a bit of both, in that you get the animosity toward foreign elements that have been introduced to the town, be it this specific institution or the patients in it (whether that brings jobs or money to the town or not), and you have these two sets of younger men from like towns, both of them circling the other a little. If there is a hatred for tourists and “others,” it’s often because it shines a light on those that really live in those towns, go to the schools and wear those winters and have true friends and enemies there.
And that doesn’t unify the people that live there, because, sure, everyone is annoyed by people who come up and drive their boats and buy up all the good steak in the grocery stores, but it exposes a philosophical divide between townies that might want to get out to wherever the tourists come from and those that want to stay and build a reputation, for good or bad. As we talked about earlier, this doesn’t really ever get unpacked explicitly in the stories. It’s just something the characters accept as part of life.
Where all that energy ends up being spent is usually in little clan wars with the young men and women who actually live there, and, in this case, you just have a few different elements of it all thrown together. The group of locals puff out their chests at these two brothers, who they don’t know, and it starts with the knee-jerk reaction to the hospital, as an outside sort of entity that has been planted in that town. But on that day these young men miscalculate where they are directing that resentment and why, and they get their ticket punched as a result.
JF: How do you feel about your female protagonists? You often write very “masculine” stories, and by that I mean stories about hard-case, heavy drinking types of men. When women take on lead roles in your stories, they are not much different. The protagonist in “Debris” starts prowling the woods with a shotgun, for example, and takes two beers with her to the bath. Do you worry about how that might be received?
KH: This all depends on some kind of limited existing idea of women that the reader or writer might have, and whether they see a certain kind of potent, deliberate, possibly violent action as the territory of men alone. I don’t.
I never set out to write stories with a male or female protagonist with any kind of agenda, but most of the stories have been rather personal, and it just turned out that a fair number of them had a male protagonist, as they were stories that were close to home, and I had to make that decision to get them out a certain way. “Debris” was more of a two-hander to start, with both the wife and husband having equal parts in the story, as the relationship between them is the nucleus of it all. But more and more I saw it as Emily’s story, and I knew at a point that she had to be the one to take measures to protect the family and protect the property. I also knew that in the histories of those characters, she would be the one to know firsthand why the killer, and the bloodline he came from, was a real, genuine threat. It was clearer and clearer as I wrote it.
“Most of the Houses Had Lost Their Lights” was always the wife’s story. It was hers as she carried that little family and was always the backbone. I’ve been told a lot by publishers or editors that come from a lot of money, that if you have two poor people in a marriage and they are having hard times, they will fight and squabble over trivial things all day long. My experience is much the opposite, at least with the poor people I’ve known in a good marriage, where they loved each other very much. In that story, they are fighting for their lives together, and in that they are unified and will take care of each other no matter what happens, until it becomes actually impossible.
From what I’ve seen and what I know, there is nothing untoward or gender-bending about a woman taking up arms to protect herself and her family, or driving a truck and finding a new job and a place to live, putting her husband in the hospital when he needs to be forcibly put in there. I think any notion that these are rude ideas of what women may or may not do, or that these actions are not the property of women, means that some people don’t know enough women. To that end, I’m not at all concerned how these characters are received. I’m probably more concerned about the people who don’t know how to receive them.
JF: If there is one theme in your stories, I would say it’s the struggle to grow into a hard place, whether that’s one’s new town, one’s hometown, or one’s own family. Do you believe people can ever be prepared for their own lives?
KH: Unless they live an awful boring one, they got money and health and moderation and nothing really happens, then I don’t see how a person could be prepared for his or her life. I believe that there are times when you might think you are exactly where you want to be at exactly the right time, but things change, and you change whatever kind of life you live more than a few times before it’s over. The difficulties that a person has during those periods of flux are where most good stories lie. And I figure that there aren’t many stories I’ve written that have any kind of neat resolution at the end. That’s part of the same thing, that your life is never finished fucking with you, and you spend a great deal of it trying to rope it in somehow and make it worthwhile, find some little bit of happiness or contentment wherever you can.
JF: Your prose style has a colloquial, rough quality to it. Does your voice follow the stories you’re interested in telling, or is it the other way around?
KH: I thought I had some kind of voice down a few years ago, but it kept on developing and sort of levelled out where I am now. That development was definitely informed by the stories I’ve been writing, and the characters I’ve been writing about. But it also took some weird turns just based on whatever felt right for the story. I didn’t get as good an education as some writers I know, and you wouldn’t want me teaching you English grammar. I can’t even articulate choices that I’ve made other than to point at a hard example and say I tweaked it a little and liked it best the one way, because I tried it the right way and the way other writers do it and that didn’t work for me.
I guess it’s like someone who can play music but can’t read it. At least that is the easiest way I can describe it. After years and years of practice I’ve figured out the one way I like to write, but I would have a hard time telling you all the whys of it.
Nonetheless, the kind of stories I’m telling are not going to change in aim or form too dramatically, and I think the voice, sentence by sentence, has developed to suit those things I’ve decided are in my wheelhouse. There is a real dog’s breakfast of language in there, some of it from real life and where I’m from, some of it cobbled together from likewise places in other parts of the country, some of it from reading a lot of American writing from the South, and from film and TV that covers the same kinds of stories. None of it is entirely authentic if you were to go for total realism in one place, but it seems to work and lend a little bit of ambiguity to where the stories are and who the characters are therein. Again, you wouldn’t want to try to break it down and try to show somebody else a reason for doing it, but when it works it seems to make a reasonable dent in the reader. If I can keep that up, and enjoy the actual writing, line by line, then I’ll be somewhat happy about it.
JF: What was the editorial process like for you with Debris? What was it like working with John Metcalf at Biblioasis?
KH: The editorial process for Debris wasn’t all that painful. Most of the stories had gone through journals, even by the time we started early book edits, and those that I wrote after ended up going through a journal editor or two before the final, final proofs. I’m also a real son of a bitch to myself during my own revisions and the stories were pretty clean as a result of both of those things. John originally found my work in a journal and he called me up and asked to see more. Most of what I sent him he liked, and the ones he didn’t were mostly those that I thought were the weaker stories anyway. As far as our relationship as writer and editor, we have very similar sensibilities when it comes to my work, and we are also surly enough and know what we want, but without letting it get in the way of common sense.
It helps that John is a hell of a writer as well, and can appreciate where you’ve really bled good writing while also pointing out where you’ve fucked it up.
We have had only a handful of disagreements, and those tend to be John telling me that I got too fancy with a line, maybe spilled the banks of English a little bit (something I’m already doing even in the stuff he likes), or that what I’m saying, or the word I’m using, doesn’t actually make any goddamn sense. I’ve spoken a little on this before, and there are images of John’s actual handwritten edits in a recent TNQ “In Conversation” piece where you can see him dropping the hammer on some of my writing. People seem to think I’d take it really hard and fight when I get definitive criticism like that, but I generally get away with so much, and have a good enough sense of when I’m pushing it, that I mostly get a kick out of it and, somewhere deep-down (or not so deep), I know that John has a point.
I also don’t mind changing a line or a word, for clarity or to avoid preciousness or even nonsense. I’m more protective of the rhythm of the writing and the structure of the lines and the voice. Those things are what they are now and they’re not going to be changed by anyone. But, John is big on craft and knows what I’m aiming for, so that has never been an issue. It’s actually made me more confident in the stylistic choices I’ve made.
JF: Some of your characters seem to straddle middle-working class and poverty. As you said, there are people out in the country who have a bit of property or bit of something, but not much. How much thought do you give to class in your characters? How does a character’s financial status change the stakes of a story?
KH: I give a lot of thought to class in writing the characters. I’ve not ever kept it a secret that I come from a working class family and have seen a lot of very intelligent and very resourceful people struggle through a life with little money, and none of the advantages that come with it. It’s not lost on me that there are hardships and stories worth writing about for the wealthy or upper-middle class. But I’ve only got so much time and so much gumption, and I don’t think there’s a problem with the “write what you know” school of thought. If what you know is what you can put the most heart into, or what you drives you to write in the first place.
On a flat-out story level, there are reasons that you might choose to write about the working class if that’s who you are. Like other underrepresented groups of people in literature, there aren’t that many out there who come from that background and who make it through the gauntlet to write about it and see the work published. If you can battle through that, and keep at the work long enough to turn people on to it, you’ve got stories that simply aren’t available to many other writers on a personal level. At least as far as the specifics go for the ingredients in your stories. There are plenty of stories and characters worth writing about outside of the things I find most interesting, but I can’t help but care less about them. It’s not personal, it just doesn’t move me the same way.
If you have a story where a flood ruins a house, and there’s no clause in the insurance for floods, for a very wealthy family that is a story about a bunch of lost pictures and keepsakes and a shit-ton of inconvenience. If you have that same situation for a very poor family, it’s a story about how you might lose everything material that you have and you will not be able to replace it, even the pictures, even the little keepsakes that you need and hold real value. That flood can destroy your lives. That is a story.
Jason Freure manages The Town Crier and co-edited “Littered T.O.,” a supplement to The Puritan Issue 26. His work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Spacing, The Puritan, Metatron, Echolocation, (parenthetical), Whether, ditch,, and Vallum. He lives in Chinatown East, T.O.