How I started writing prose as a child
At a very young age I realized I’d been blessed with two gifts. My first gift was musical: I had an unusually advanced ear for music and, more importantly, I had the soul for it. I’d also been gifted with a very, very good singing voice. My second gift was literary: I had a way with words. I wrote well. Ironically, I struggled with what school teachers coined at the time “reading comprehension.” But when it came to writing stories, essays, articles—“how my family spent our summer vacation” type of stuff—my pieces were always singled out as the most well written, and the most interesting. Since I was pretty mediocre at everything else, placed in the “slow learners” section of the class, barely squeaking through grade school, I decided by the age of seven, to ignore whatever I struggled with and to concentrate instead on my twin gifts, music and writing.
How my prose writing developed through my adolesence
Okay, fast-forward ahead to my teenage years: I was already immersed in writing songs, performing everywhere and anywhere I could, making pocket money teaching classical guitar (which I’d started studying at age 11). I was also writing essays, short stories, poetry, and articles. I even had a bi-weekly column called “As I See It” in my high school newspaper. Some of my articles were published in the Toronto Telegram, one of the city’s daily newspapers at the time. I was paid $25 per article. As well, I won an essay contest sponsored by Toronto’s Black newspaper Contrast. (Contestants had to write about what it meant to grow up “Black” in Toronto.) First prize was $15 and a free meal for me and my family at what was then Toronto’s only soul food restaurant, The Underground Railroad.
Despite my literary progress, as a teenager I continued to do poorly in school, barely making it through each grade. But make it through I did—in part, I suspect, because my teachers liked me and were fascinated by my over-the-top drive to be a successful singer-songwriter. (Where I grew up, in the ultra-conservative Don Mills of the 60s and early 70s, it was all but unheard of for a kid to say he wanted to make it as a pop singer.) By age 17, I believed I had to make a choice: attempt to become a successful writer (journalist, novelist, essayist, etc.) or chase down my dream of fame and fortune as a singer-songwriter. In the end, there really was no choice. Music was such a driving force in my life, such an indelible part of my heart and soul, that as soon as I completed Grade 12 , I stopped writing prose and put every ounce of energy and talent into music.
At twenty years of age, music became my permanent ‘day job’.
By 1975, four years after leaving high school, I managed to establish a career as an internationally successful pop recording artist. I chalk up the results to a number of factors:
1) a natural talent for singing and songwriting
2) unwavering discipline: that is, thousands of hours spent songwriting and performing in every coffeehouse, church, fashion show, old folks home, etc., that would accept me
3) exceptional good luck
From singing star, to behind-the-scenes songwriting for other, bigger stars.
After 20 years of singing and recording my own music, I moved into songwriting for pop stars who were far more successful than I was—people like Celine Dion, George Benson, Backstreet Boys, Alan Jackson and Britney Spears, for example. In this role, as songwriter, I enjoyed even more success than I’d had as a recording artist. But I’d always wondered, what about my prose-writing talent? Could I regain the gift I once had for writing in other forms?
I should mention here that in the early 1980s I authored a novel. Comeback was published in Canada by Seal Books (McClelland & Stewart-Bantam) in 1983. At this point, I’m tempted to lie and say that my novel was a) well written, and b) sold well. In both cases, the opposite was true. But I learned a lot from writing that mediocre novel, in the same way that I’d learned from writing mediocre songs as a teenager. (Please, dear readers, do not try to buy my novel. Not only is it poorly done, but it also came from a place of anger and hurt, and does not represent me at my best, as either a human being or as a creative artist.) I learned about the power of rewriting, editing, and feedback. I learned to read more. To study the great authors. I also read unedited drafts of books by my brother, Lawrence Hill—helping him, in a very minor way, by giving him small editorial comments. (Not that Brother Larry really needed my help, but it thrilled me that he asked so I did my very best.) I watched how Larry worked and reworked his books, (with the help of his incredible editors, like say, Iris Tupholme, from Harper Collins) the way the great songwriters I’ve collaborated with rewrote their songs ad nauseum, until they became #1 hits. Naturally, I was greatly inspired by Brother Larry.
One day I hoped to have the courage, wisdom, and skill to write something great of my own. However, I stuck to my “day job”—songwriting. I continued to be good at it. In fact, without the pressure of being a so-called star, my songwriting improved. I had built up an amazing network of international contacts (drawn from my two decades of touring and recording), and my songs, miraculously, continued to get covered.
But prose writing came back into my life in 1989. I was approached by Peter Goddard, a highly regarded pop music critic and author, to contribute a chapter to a book he was publishing about pop music. Many esteemed singer-songwriters contributed to the book. My chapter was called “Massaged by the Media.” In it, I wrote about the prickly relationship between pop-music critics and pop stars. (Trust me, I had a lot of first-hand experience in this field.) My prose writing had improved exponentially since my novel in 1983. But was my particular chapter great? No. But it was good. Perhaps even better than good. Though my contribution was imperfect, many pop and rock critics who’d never warmed to my songwriting style admitted to me that they were astonished by the quality of my writing in that chapter. Still, I knew I had a long way to go.
In February 2008, Maclean’s magazine published a cover story I wrote called “Every Parent’s Nightmare.” I described the world my teenage son, David, had naively wandered into as a young teenager, and the resulting trouble he and our family had been faced with. (Click here to read this article.) I worked closely with Miranda Hill, and later with Maclean’s writer Brian Bethune, both of whom did an excellent job editing my article, urging me to go deeper, explain more. I’m as proud of that article as I am of any song I’ve ever written.
I think one of the reasons the article was so well crafted was because I’d been writing a book for four hours a day, six days a week, since late 2003. I’d put in thousands of hours writing prose, finding my voice, developing my style. And now, as I sit here writing this Web piece, my new book, I Am My Father’s Son: A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness, is in bookstores across Canada. I am proud to say that my publisher is HarperCollins. Although the official publication date is February 14, 2009, the book will begin to land on store shelves on February 8th. (Click here to read an excerpt from the book)
This book is about my father and me, and it explores our lives in parallel, each chapter shifting between our worlds, starting from my beginnings (in Toronto in 1954) and my dad’s beginnings (in Independence Missouri, in 1923). The book chronicles our separate struggles to succeed as a Black people in North America. It also traces our father–son squabbles, our all-out fights, our obsessive need to control and outsmart each other, and our absolute, undying love and affection for each other. Is this a great book? Well, that’s not for me to judge. It certainly is an ambitious book. A raw, sometimes raunchy, frequently funny, and often heartbreakingly sad book. Strangely, it’s also, unintentionally, a minor history book—a dual history of Blacks in mid-20th century America, and later in Canada, through the lens of my father’s family, and a history of pop music in North America in the 70s, 80s and 90’s, through the lens of my rollercoaster career. But most of all, I Am My Father’s Son is a story of families. Of ambition and betrayal, and ultimately, the power and importance of loyalty. It’s a story of love and pride, vanity and healing, and above all, forgiveness.
By the second week of February 2009, a recording of my song “I Am My Father’s Son” will be available for purchase, along with my book, online. This is one of the best songs I have ever composed. How could it not be? It’s about my dad and me. The record was produced by Matthew McCauley and Fred Mollin. My first and foremost producers from the seventies, when we banged out four gold and multi platinum albums. This is the first time the three of us have worked together in thirty-one years. Our working together again was a profoundly emotional and moving experience for me. Matt and Fred are brilliant musicians, composers and producers. The three of us have a certain, hard to define magic.
I will try to keep you posted on various readings and interviews intercut with me singing songs that appear in my book. Thanks for visiting my site.