Alix Hawley credits celebrated English biographer Hermione Lee for thickening her skin against the ego-bruising judgments an aspiring writer must learn to withstand. Prior to turning to fiction with the lauded 2008 story collection The Old Familiar, the Kelowna, B.C., author had written her doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf at Oxford University. Lee, who had literally written the book on Woolf, was her adviser.
“One of Hermione’s comments on a chapter draft of mine was ‘Ugh,’” Hawley recalls. “That was actually great for me because it got me used to taking brutal criticism, accepting it for what it is, and not running home crying. I realized there isn’t time to sit around talking about everything that’s fantastic about what you’ve written. Just focus on what’s wrong and fix it.”
That experience came in handy in 2010 when Hawley presented her agent, Denise Bukowski, with the first draft of her debut novel, All True Not a Lie in It, a fictional account of the life of American frontiersman Daniel Boone. Initially, Hawley approached her subject from the metafictional perspective of an academic researching the life of the fabled 19th-century icon. Bukowski was not impressed.
“Denise’s response was pretty much, ‘I hate your book. Get rid of all this framing and I’ll have another look.’”
After sulking for a day, Hawley decided the criticism was just, and made a fresh start – at first tackling the Boone tale from a more straightforward, third-person point of view, before settling on an even more direct, first-person narration.
“I’ve always struggled with first-person,” Hawley says. “My question was always, ‘Who is this person talking to? It feels phony.’ But I gritted my teeth and gave it a try. When the voice came to me, I realized, ‘Yeah, this is how it needs to be.’”
The result was purchased by Penguin Random House Canada imprint Knopf Canada, which is releasing All True Not a Lie in It in February under the New Face of Fiction program, an annual series that previously launched debut novels by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels. In terms of profile, it’s a major step up from The Old Familiar, which was published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press.
Hawley, 39, has been fascinated by Boone since reading a National Geographic article about him as a child. Her novel charts his life from his boyhood as a Pennsylvania Quaker to his capture by Shawnee warriors to his establishment in 1775 of Boonesborough, Kentucky, then one of the first American settlements west of the Appalachians.
“I’m interested in charisma, and the cult of personality that grows around a person,” Hawley says. “I know extremely charismatic people, and I’m always interested in what makes people charismatic and how they deal with it.”
Working with veteran editor and Knopf Random House Canada publisher Anne Collins, Hawley took some liberties with Boone’s life, occasionally altering and embellishing the historical record to suit her literary needs. She cites historical fiction by acclaimed authors Peter Carey, who has written a fictional take on Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, and Hilary Mantel, who is two-thirds of the way through her trilogy re-inventing the life of Henry VIII adviser Thomas Cromwell.
“Peter Carey establishes the historical atmosphere without it feeling explain-y or coy. You feel like you’re sunk right into the smoke and dirt of whatever he’s describing,” Hawley says. “Hilary Mantel manages to put you inside the head of her character, and in his world.”
All True Not a Lie in It ends on the eve of the 1778 siege of Boonesborough during the American Revolutionary War, leaving plenty of material for a sequel about Boone, who died in 1820 at the age of 85. Hawley, on sabbatical from her teaching position at Okanagan College in Kelowna and the mother of two children under the age of seven, is already carving out the necessary time to pick up where she left off.
“We’ll see how the first one does.” she says. “But I’m really excited to get back into what happens next, with the siege of Boonesborough, and a lot of other incredibly dramatic things.”