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How Lawrence Hill shepherded his late sister Karen’s unpublished novel to press

Karen Hill Jan/Feb 2016

Karen Hill died in 2014, at the age of 56

When Lawrence Hill started readying his sister Karen’s posthumous novel for publication, one thing the celebrated Canadian author didn’t worry about was whether his younger sibling would have wanted her prose to see the light of day. Karen Hill, who died following an accident in 2014 at the age of 56, had struggled off and on for more than 20 years to finish the book, and had spent the months prior to her death trying unsuccessfully to find a publisher. Café Babanussa, a fictionalized account of Karen’s longstanding affliction with bipolar disorder, tells the unvarnished story of a young black Canadian woman dealing with mental illness after immigrating to Berlin in the 1980s. “I knew without equivocation that Karen wanted the book to be published,” says Lawrence. “She was extremely frustrated that she hadn’t found a home for it. So I had no hesitation in that respect.”

HarperCollins bought Café Babanussa after Karen’s death. The novel was pitched by Margaret Hart, a literary agent with the Humber School for Writers, a creative-writing program that had helped Karen with the development of the novel. “I genuinely believed in the novel, and to honour Karen’s memory and her work I continued to present the manuscript,” recalls Hart, now retired.

HarperCollins has a long relationship with the Hill family. It published several of Lawrence’s books, most notably the 2007 bestseller The Book of Negroes as well as last year’s novel, The Illegal, as well as brother Dan Hill’s 2009 memoir, I Am My Father’s Son. Once the contract for Karen’s book was signed, the challenge became how to properly edit it without the author’s input, particularly considering the raw, emotional nature of the subject matter. It was agreed that Lawrence, who had read numerous versions of the book over the years, as it morphed from a memoir to a collection of linked stories before finally finding its place as a novel, would polish the text in collaboration with Jennifer Lambert, editorial director at HarperCollins, who had worked on Dan’s memoir.

Cafe Babanussa Karen Hill January/February 2016“My thinking is that when somebody dies and leaves behind a completed manuscript, the game changes,” says Lawrence. “It is no longer just a novel. It is an archival document. So we decided to leave it entirely as it was, with the exception of one approach, which was to cut and trim wherever necessary to avoid repetition or redundancy.”

This suited Lambert, who wasn’t entirely new to the process of posthumous publication. She had been working with author Dennis Richard Murphy when he died of cancer in 2008 during the editing of his mystery Darkness at the Stroke of Noon. “Based on the direct conversations I’d had with [Murphy] about what he wanted to achieve with the book, I had a little bit more leeway to enact some edits that I knew conformed to the way he was already thinking. So in that way I was able to finish what we’d already started together,” Lambert says. “This time, if I had a question about how a certain line or a certain scene was developing, I could query Lawrence on that. It was about shaping things to get the best representation of the material that’s already on the page.”

The HarperCollins edition of Café Babanussa begins with a foreword by Lawrence about his sister’s life. It ends with a previously unpublished essay by Karen, “On Being Crazy,” documenting her struggles with bipolar disorder, a disease that also afflicted her mother, her mother’s twin sister, and a paternal aunt. All royalties will go to Karen’s daughter, Malaika.

“It’s a rough, very punchy, honest first novel,” says Lawrence. “It has flaws. But every novel has flaws. I just hope that people respond to it. Of course, I wish Karen was alive to see the publication of her own book. Given that that’s not possible, I’m really delighted her book will be published.”