Joel Thomas Hynes: A Manifesto

Questions and Answers (Warning: uncut language)

Author Joel Thomas Hynes isn’t much for small talk, and doesn’t like to waste time getting at nothing. Enough said…

Why do you swear so much?
I don’t think I cuss any more than most Newfoundlanders. I’m just working in the public eye a bit more than most folks and I don’t have to put a face on to keep up appearances. Mostly cause I don’t give a fuck.

Where do you live when you’re not here in town?
I split my time. When the weather warms up, and summer comes in — it’s motorcycle season and everything — I got a place out in Trinity South where I also live and work. Keep to myself a lot out there.

My little fella is 9, he’s finishing grade 4 at the end of June so I pretty much hang on for the school year for him. This is my permanent address.

How does city Joel compare to outport Joel?
I’m way better outside of the city. I’m way easier; way less deviant; I’m much more productive; I have a lot less anxiety; I stretch and flex better. I love this town, I’ve been here now fourteen years, but I can imagine when my son is old enough I’ll probably hightail it somewhere and be a little more secluded.

What’s on your plate right now?
Jeez b’y, I got a new book coming out in August. A book of creative non-fiction it’s being called. It’s called Straight Razor Days. It’s kind of a collection of poetic narratives. I’d be really hesitant to call it poetry because it’s not my field, not my expertise at all. It’s just storytelling.

It’s all father and son stuff — vintage motorcycles and abandoned houses, stories about my grandfather, my father, myself, my son… Just men stuff from a lot of angles I guess it could be. They don’t necessarily exist in any set time. The present day is removed from it.

I got a new novel in the works that I’m midway through; it’s called One of the Good Guys. That’s for my full-time publisher, Harper-Collins. So I’m working on that and picking at it and picking at it. And Straight Razor Days is just something I wrote kind of on the side over the past three or four years. They’re all brief little stint-writings and after a while they started to look like a manuscript. So I pitched it around the country and Pedlar Press wanted it. So I’m with an intimate mid-sized press right now and I’m enjoying it.

How long have you been writing for a living?
I can’t very well say the only thing I do is write for a living. The thing is, I don’t work for money or work for a living — I like to make money and I like to make a living but for my first novel, it’s only now I’m seeing royalty cheques for that novel, you know. Because it’s only now that those advances are paid off. But I tend to approach the work from a more stable place these days in the sense that I do it because that’s who I am.

Do you manage your projects according to money at all?
The thing is man, I’m wiling to go broke. I don’t give a fuck if I’ve got money in the bank or if anybody likes what I do and it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m sitting down writing novels all the time. If I’m in some sort of mood I’ll write a little piece of this or that or I’ll turn it into a little film script or I’ll write a play or short story. It doesn’t matter. It’s the frame of mind I’m in. The novel thing is a really big commitment, it’s a real heavy weight and you’ve gotta really clear your plate and be able to afford to go off and write for about six weeks or so. I can’t write in St. John’s. I can’t write a novel in St. John’s, there’s just too much on the go — I have too many obligations and too many distractions here in town.

How do you prepare yourself to write a novel?
For my previous books I did full-on retreats, where I got up whenever the fuck I wanted to and lay down whenever I wanted to. Ate whatever I wanted, for myself. Had no emotional obligations to anybody. I check in with my little fella and I just write for as long as I wanted. I guess when I am working like that, it’s such a great place to be, when you’re in the groove and I almost feel guilty about it. It’s like an indulgence, like I’m getting away with something, you know. That can be a pretty powerful feeling around your work, so I set myself up to go off somewhere and just do that and give myself all those kind of little pep talks that ‘this is what you have to do, this is why you’re here’.

I’ve got to let everyone around know this is where I’m going and this is what I’m doing. ‘Sorry, bye’.

If you want to get somewhere with your work you’ve got to be willing to go to really dark places sometimes. And that’s fairly difficult if you’ve got an hour here or there and you’ve got to go meet someone or pick someone up.

Are dark places where you feel at home?
I don’t come from sugar and spice and a bed of roses. I don’t come from that kinda background. I come from a real rough and tumble background and I connect with people on a real ground level. And I’m forever distracted with the necessity of the anti-hero.

Do you have a bad reputation?
I got a real good reputation as a dad and as a colleague. People like working with me. So there’s a few different versions of me out there I guess. I kind of meet myself halfway.

How do you juggle your own writing and contract work?
I kinda got it sussed out that if you do one for them and one for yourself — like I did this one-man show called Incinerator Road over the past year, and was contracted by the Department of Health to write something about addictions for high school kids. There was red tape and there was a bit of censorship and I couldn’t speak in my own tongue all the time. I still maintained my own style and integrity.

So I got it worked out that the one for them you do, if you can maintain your own artistic objectives and then go off and do your own thing, then you got a pretty good balance.

Did the high school tour have any impact on you?
Nope… no, it did. I went up around Northern Labrador, and I had never been to Labrador before. I got to see little towns in Newfoundland that I probably never would have went to. So, I got to have a good look at the island from the perspective of the future generations. And a lot of the same problems exist everywhere, every school will tell ya this is going on or this is a problem or that’s a problem. There’s something very generic about high schools but they also have their own unique personality. It was good for me, spent a lot of time alone, which kinda got to me after a while.

A one-man show is very solitary, very lonely. I must have met 5,000 people over the course of the winter and you meet so many people that you would think you’d be exhausted with the social aspect of it but you meet them on a professional level. You meet very few people on a personal level.

How many one-man shows have you done?
Just a couple. Had somebody say jokingly, “it’s always a one-man show with Hynes,” which it’s not. In a general sense, I’m moving out of acting now. Not to say that I don’t respect it or love it or that I’m never going to do it again. But I’m just ceasing the pursuit of it. It’s just too fickle and the industry, a lot of the TV in particular, grinds against my nature.

So we shouldn’t look for your cameo on Republic of Doyle?
(No response.)

What’s this film project you’re working on?
I directed a short there in March and just really loved it. Jesus Christ, I felt like my brain was more alive and awake than it’s been in years. So I’m going to explore that a little bit.

It’s called Clipper Gold. It features Des Walsh and Ruth Lawrence. It’s a very quiet film, full of a lot of silent tensions and it leans towards the more literary conventions of magic realism. It was a part of the Picture Start program with NIFCO which is just a fuckin’ amazing program.

Do you cater to your readers at all?
I want to get the book that’s in me. I want to get that right, whether or not it abides by modern trends and conventions in literature is nothing to do with me. If I’ve got a story in my head I want to see it out, more so because I want to challenge myself to tell that story in a certain way — not to spoon-feed it to somebody who might hopefully drop $20 on it. I couldn’t give a fuck about that. I don’t have any grand designs for wealth and success or anything like that; I just need to do that because if I don’t do that I’ll end up doing something else. And God knows what that might fuckin’ be.

I can see the whole fuckin’ thing in my head and it’s just flashes of scenes, snippets of conversation, smells and everything. I can’t get to it by being me and being hung up on what readers are going to think, whether or not the publisher is going to like it or whether or not it even be published. That’s an approach I’ve grown into.

How do you compare the impact of Down to the Dirt to that of Right Away Monday?
My first book was such a fuckin’ splash. One day I wasn’t published and the next day I was everywhere and there was plays and movies and reviews and interviews and Jesus Christ it was on all over the place. And by the time that book hit my mainland publisher, Harper Collins, I already had another book underway. They took me in and they said ‘Okay, here’s this young up and coming fucking badass guy and he’s also an actor’, and there was a TV show I was on at the time. And so they bought me as this kind of little package to throw out onto the country.

My second novel is ten times the novel my first one is. It’s darker; it’s a lot more in-depth. It’s a real reader’s novel. And the book — it’s a very typical story — I put so much into it I almost went down suicide when I was writing it and drove everybody mad around me. And then the book came out and it wasn’t the big splash. Here was a better book, more mature and a chunkier book to read — you get more time with it — and it just didn’t have the same effect the first one had. I got a couple of really negative reviews that were more personal than to do with the work. And it really took the wind out of my sails man. It’s not like I stopped working, I did plays and movies and stuff since, and this other book, but in terms of the novel I really had to find a way to coach myself into a different attitude in order to sustain what I am, over the years.

Were there downsides to the success of Down to the Dirt?
I ended up getting a lot of people attacking me for my success. Attacking me on any sort of level – personal professional, anything, just because I had gone and done something. And, you know, the truth is I’m a fairly sensitive fellow on the best of days, and I had to find some other attitude and stop the external validation. I don’t need anybody else out there to tell me that what I do is worthwhile or relevant.

Do you feel like you’re a lucky man just to do doing what you’re doing?
I’m really, really grateful to explore the creative part of my brain, because I think a lot of people are very creative out there. There’s theories out there, that we’re all born artists. Some of us cultivate our creativity and some of us don’t. The majority of us don’t. And like I said, I’m willing to go broke. I’m willing to be outcast, I’m willing to be rejected, I’m willing to be alone, to be able to do this.

When you get into your creative idea and it’s clipping along and you’re in that zone, there’s no drug, there’s no sex, there’s no rush out there that compares to that. And if it wasn’t a risky place I wouldn’t go there anyways.

Do you consider yourself lucky to be alive?
Yes. I’ve been struck by cars, I’ve woken up with my hair frozen to the ground, I’ve come home with black eyes and don’t know where I got them. I’ve put my health at risk in numerous ways. I’ve overdosed three or four times, I’ve almost bled to death a couple times.

Do you still drink?
I’m in recovery. I went through rehab last year up in Toronto and been in recovery ever since.

For a while I was feeding into my own stupid-ass mythology you know. But I couldn’t put out a movie like Down to the Dirt or a book like Right Away Monday and then go downtown and throw up on cars and try every woman I saw and get in fights. I literally set myself up to be a cliché or a caricature of myself and it’s just fuckin’ retarded. So I had to make some changes, right. So I flipped my whole lifestyle.

Things are better now. My friendships are more solid, I got better relationships, I’ve got a better thing with my son. I guess I’m more reliable work-wise. I went to a pretty dark place in the year before I went through rehab. I used to go for a year, 8 months, 6 months of clean and sober but not living well. Not reacting well.

I ain’t saying that I’ve arrived anywhere or that I’m better or that I’m cured, that’s just bullshit. But I can say that I’m a lot better off than I was. I’m clearer and easier to get along with. Even if I did fuck up tonight or next year, I’ll never go back to where I was. I’ve invested too much into this. I just don’t want it anymore.

Is there somebody you rely on?
There’s nobody I rely on. I’ve got really good people in my life, but for years you lean towards somebody out there to pull you through or to help you out or to hear ya or whatever the fuck… and I guess finding that in yourself is what’s fucking most important for everybody.

I’m actually quite grateful to be an addict and an alcoholic because it’s put me in this chair today.

It’s a painful realization when you accept that you’ve hurt a lot of people and you dig underneath that and there’s a fear of not getting hurt yourself, you know. I got kicked around in my younger years and couldn’t see through it, and had to work through it and just give myself a little hug at some point and just let myself be. I guess I rely on a lot of people and am lucky to have them but I subscribe to the old adage that you come into this word alone and you go out alone.

Tell me a bit about the new book of yours just published, God Help Thee: A Manifesto.
That was originally written in 2006 as a performance piece. I spent some time in Manhattan and I saw this T-shirt that said ‘Fuck the Empire State Building, fuck Lady Liberty and fuck the famous hot dogs’. I looked for a size small but there was none. I immediately got what it was doing. It had this double standard to it — this mutinous means of expanding upon the mythologies of Manhattan and New York. And at the same time it looked anti-New York. If anything, it reminded me of how cool Manhattan was.

And I said, ‘I’d love to have one of those for Newfoundland, because my mind immediately started going, ‘yeah, fuck Cabot Tower, fuck the narrows, fuck the battery, fuck Fogo Island, fuck ’em all’.

I meant to write a T-shirt and I went to Living Planet and they were like, ‘I don’t think so b’y’. So I said ‘Fuck Living Planet’.

I just kept writing and one thing would spin off another, so at one point I’m in the middle of saying fuck all of the TV shows that were on the go at the time. It actually stretches across the country and across Newfoundland. It takes little stabs at everything.

You look at the current tourism commercials and Jesus it’s enough to blind ya. Is the grass that green in Newfoundland? Are the houses that bright?

The versions of my art and my creativity is not bumpty-do-fuckery. It’s darker, it’s comedic, but it’s not what typifies Newfoundland. I guess a lot people come at their work like that and then they grind up against people like the CBC or the Globe and Mail who say, ‘Na, it’s a bit this or it’s a bit that’. And after a while things break down and people start pitching this different version of themselves to the mainland because they can make a living or because they start buying into it themselves.

This manifesto just says fuck all that.

Can you give me one line from the manifesto that might sum it up?
Fuck How about that?

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