Elizabeth Hay gives voice to Late Nights On Air

On Feb. 23, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented award-winning author Elizabeth Hay reading from her Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel Late Nights on Air. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.  

It was the beginning of June, the start of the long, golden summer of 1975 when northern light held that little radio station in the large palm of its hand…

from Late Nights on Air
by Elizabeth Hay

A self-proclaimed “Shy One”, Elizabeth Hay (right) unassumingly took centre stage at the Canadian Writers in Person reading series and began to speak. In soft but precise tones, Hay’s discussion of her work was so eloquent that one barely noticed when she slipped into reading from her novel, like an oar dipped quietly in the water. Before the audience knew it, the evening slid forward on the currents of her voice.

Late Nights on Air, a novel about a small radio station in Yellowknife in the 1970s, is a meditation on shyness and the power of a “living voice” which communes with the hearts and minds of others. One of the main characters, Gwen, finds her voice speaking to an invisible audience in the close-quartered space of a late-night radio booth, “a burka for the shy.” Gwen’s voice, and by extension, her self, gains amplitude as it is projected from the “hothouse of insecurities and rivalries” across the cooler and ever-widening Arctic, the landscape echoing the soundscape.

Though the novel was based partly on her own experiences, Hay did not return to the North until after the novel was already written. “To see the Yellowknife of 2005 would have thrown off the exploration of what the place was like 30 years ago,” she said. Going back was like “reconnecting with a son who has grown a foot taller in your absence.” Hay also makes no apology about using mostly Canadian settings: “I can’t seem to write about anywhere else. It’s perhaps a failure of the imagination, but it’s all right. It’s where I’m from, it’s the air I need to breathe, the seasons without which I’m lost. If you feel Northern in some part of yourself, the more north you go, the closer to home you are. You respond to rock, water, light and space.”

Hay actually began to discover her writing voice while briefly attending school in England. Just a “hick from Mitchell, Ont.,” she had never considered writing to mean anything other than school and exams. This changed when her teacher got the students to read a poem by D. H. Lawrence and then asked them to turn their books over and write whatever came into their heads. When Hay read her piece aloud, everyone was impressed and she became hooked.

Years later, she is still “trying to figure things out. It has a lot to do with tone and getting out of the way.” In the beginning, her biggest problem she said, “was that anything I invented seemed fake and I couldn’t bear it. You do a lot of bad writing before writing something true.” When she’s stuck, Hay reads other writers, such as Elizabeth Bishop and Margaret Avison, to get reinvigorated. She also finds inspiration in Olympic medallists like Kristina Groves, who only focuses on her performance, “drawing everything from around me.” Hay endeavours to do the same, allowing her “twisted little ego to fall away” as her novels come to life.  

Hay finds that writing is “wonderful despite the struggles.” One gets to know the characters, like real people, as they become more and more interesting over time. “I am accompanying myself through life,” she said. “I’m gathering things I can work with, to make something from. With writing, life becomes more interesting and it gives me a way of living.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. On March 23, at 7pm in 206 Accolade West Building, spoken word poet Motion will read from her poetry collection, 40 Dayz.