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Fall Preview 2017: Kevin Hardcastle’s punch-drunk debut novel

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(Katrina Afonso)

(Katrina Afonso)

For Kevin Hardcastle, being a writer has a lot in common with training as a fighter.

The author, who hails from the town of Midland, in Ontario’s Simcoe County, is an aficionado of mixed martial arts and is himself a boxer and Muay Thai practitioner. It is arguably unsurprising, therefore, to learn that his first novel, In the Cage – due out in September from Biblioasis – has at its centre an MMA cage fighter who lost his chance at greatness to injury and has since retreated to his rural home town, where he becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous world of drugs and crime. What might be more surprising is to hear the author expound on the parallels he sees between the craft of writing and the technique of professional cage fighters.

“It’s so applicable to writing,” Hardcastle says about the proficiency acquired by training as a pugilist. “It’s a very different speed, of course, when you’re getting punched in the face. But it’s the idea of being in a zone where you have trained, you have skills that you have practised hundreds, thousands of times.”

In addition to refining his prose to whip-sharp precision, the almost obsessive attention to craft on a line-by-line basis resembles the instinctual ability a fighter develops through months and years of rigorous drills and practice routines. “If you’re in the gym and you drop your hand, they’re going to be, like, ‘Put your hand up or you’ll get kicked in the face, idiot,’” Hardcastle says. Similarly, with writing, a strict attention to craft and style teaches an author not to be precious about the words on the page. “It’s the same thing: if you leave that paragraph in, it’s going to hurt the book.”

This dedication and attention – both in the ring and on the page – has paid dividends for the author, whose debut collection of stories, 2015’s Debris, accrued near-universal acclaim and went on to win Ontario’s Trillium Book Award. And Hardcastle’s writing has received the approbation of authors such as John Irving and Donald Ray Pollock, the latter of whom calls In the Cage “a wild, unrelenting ride,” and compares it to the work of Cormac McCarthy.

Pollock’s approval, in particular, seems appropriate, given that the American author of novels such as The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff writes the same kind of “country noir” that Hardcastle’s fiction comprises. And the McCarthy comparison is one Hardcastle himself has invoked when speaking of his own influences, along with Pollock and, especially, Hemingway. “I was just copying Hemingway to start,” Hardcastle says. “Which is a good place to start, as far as sentences go. And then, when I found Cormac McCarthy, that changed a lot.”

JulyAugust_FallPreview_Biblioasis_InTheCageIndeed, Hardcastle’s signature style – a kind of rural poetry that includes stylistic flourishes, neologisms, and evocative use of compound words – is closer in spirit to McCarthy than Hemingway, though all three writers are united in their focus on violence as a driving force in their work. For Hardcastle, who initially dreamed of being a horror writer, a recourse to violence is a natural part of his writer’s toolbox: an early scene in the new novel involves one character having his cheek sliced open with a straight razor. Still, the brutality is not gratuitous, and is filtered through a distinctly artistic sensibility. “I like the idea of trying to write artfully or elegantly about really violent things,” Hardcastle says.

Certainly, violence – along with an empathetic focus on rural characters who strive to be better than their circumstances and always end up failing – persists throughout the author’s published output. Readers of Debris will discover another resonance with In the Cage: the story “Montana Border” is a kind of prologue to the novel (Hardcastle calls it an “origin story”), though the manuscript for the novel was actually completed long before the story collection was accepted for publication. “I had the manuscript [of In the Cage], but it was a way crappier version,” Hardcastle says. “I think it was still good, but nobody would buy it. Nobody was willing to get fired over that.”

It was only after Hardcastle began working with John Metcalf, who acquired Debris for Biblioasis, that the novel found renewed life. In addition to pulling out the story that eventually became “Montana Border,” Metcalf helped find the shape and form the novel would eventually take. “He fixed all the pacing and really took it to the book.”

What Metcalf, to his credit, did not do was try to push Hardcastle to write about a different milieu or to tone down his rough material, something the author claims to have no interest in doing, regardless of whether it fits into a stereotypically agreed upon notion of what is acceptable in CanLit. Hardcastle remains hopeful that a new, younger audience will be open and receptive to the kind of writing he is producing, though if they are not, he has no intention of changing to suit them. He will simply continue to hone his sentences, like a fighter practicing on a heavy bag.

“The key is to focus on the quality of it,” Hardcastle says. “There’s nothing else I can control.”