|In the shaded light of Victorias Restaurant, Robert Hilles is the spitting image of actor Robert Duvall. Were here to talk about Hilless novel A Gradual Ruin and the resemblance is a bit distracting. Over a two-hour lunch, well talk about everything from the human spirit to right-wing politics and Hilles will barely get a bite in edgewise.
A Gradual Ruin is the Governor Generals Award-winning poet and novelists sophomore novel. His first, Raising of Voices, won the Writers Guild of Albertas 1994 award for best novel. Hes published 14 books of poetry of which the latest, Wrapped Within Again: Poems New & Selected, has been nominated for another WGA award and the W.O. Mitchell Book Prize at this years Alberta Book Awards.
Spanning two continents and two decades, A Gradual Ruin is a haunting yet inspiring story about desperate choices, shattered lives and redemption. Tommy is a young Canadian soldier traumatized on the battlefields of the Second World War and in the gulags of the Soviet Union. Twenty years later in Winnipeg, he will meet Judith, a runaway who saves him from his emotional scars as he saves her from the streets.
"I wanted to show that each of us faces challenges and that there is a way to persevere," says Hilles.
Still, he says, "I worry that people will see (the book) just as a series of tragedies and it isnt. People focus on the darkness but its not really a dark story. People like Tommy make me rejoice."
Yet even Hilles was taken aback by some of the tragedies that befell his characters.
"A couple of things upset me when they happened," he says. Speaking of the early death of one character, he says, "I couldnt believe it was happening. I know that sounds stupid because I was writing it, but the story went that way of its own volition."
Surprisingly for someone with 16 published books, Hilles has only been writing full time since 2001. Before that, he spent almost 20 years teaching database programming at the DeVry Institute.
It was at DeVry that Hilles met his partner, novelist Pearl Luke (Burning Ground). One morning, according to Hilles, a voice in his head said, "You were meant to meet this person pay attention!" So he did. Hilles and Luke had their first date at Victorias, at the table next to where we sit for this interview. They now split their time between homes in Calgary and Saltspring Island, B.C.
Hilles may have a spare, muscular style of writing, but he is unabashed when it comes to expressing his affection for Luke. His book of poetry Somewhere Between Obstacles and Pleasure, "celebrated my love for Pearl."
"Meeting Pearl changed my life completely," he says, citing her influence as the reason he now writes full time, travels to exotic locales and lives on the balmy West Coast.
"Pearl is a person who makes things happen," he says. "For me, thats thrilling. Sometimes I think Im too much of a stick-in-the-mud for her but we seem to complement each other."
They are not, however, married. "Pearl, who is bisexual, would never get married until everyone in Canada could get married," says Hilles. Now, with recent legislative changes out of Ottawa, he adds, "who knows?"
Looking to recent events in the U.S., Hilles expresses surprise at the 3,700 gay marriages in San Francisco and the associated backlash. Those weddings are "basically civil disobedience at a very significant level and thats the only way change will happen, because these right-wing people just control everything," he says. "The right is so good at manipulating the media."
Hilles is on a conversational roll now, taking only quick breaks for bites of dessert ("Im a sucker for key lime"). He attacks the way liberalism has become a dirty word in American politics. "I find it bizarre that they say someone is a liberal as if thats some kind of insult," he says. "To me, a liberal is tolerant and accepting. Its a compliment."
That leads us to talk of George Bush, John Kerry, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. Kerry, Hilles says, "has to toe the line against a bloody machine thats really corrupt and, in my mind, evil. Four more years of Bush could really put the world in bad shape."
Hilles isnt much more optimistic about Canadian politics. "Since hes been in power, Paul Martin makes Chrétien look like a genius. That worries me for Stephen Harper to become prime minister of Canada would be the worst nightmare I can imagine."
Hilles pauses as his cappuccino arrives. "Im part of the baby boom generation and I dont know why were tolerating this whole trend to the right," he says finally. "In Alberta we have this great wealth. What are we doing, cutting back on education and health care? Theres no justification for it at all. Its bankrupting society."
And with that, coffee arrives and its time to wind up. Not to worry though, youll be hearing plenty more from Hilles in the future. "I have a lot of novels in my head," he says with a grin.