Lawrence Hill: How I wrote The Illegal

Lawrence Hill is making his second appearance in CBC's annual battle of the books. After winning Canada Reads with The Book of Negroes in 2009, his latest novel, The Illegal, will be defended in 2016 by Olympian Clara Hughes.

The Illegal is the story of Keita Ali, an elite marathoner fleeing from persecution in his home country. Hill reveals how the book first appeared to him at a summer job in high school.



I first started thinking about The Illegal back in 1973, when I was 16 years old. I had a summer job at the Toronto airport helping immigrants find their luggage, find a place to stay, look for work - just make their first steps into Canada. That same summer, Ugandan Asians were arriving in great numbers because they had been expelled the year before by Idi Amin. I witnessed refugees arriving in the airport, which is a real shocker for a kid from the suburbs.

I was growing up in a mixed-race family, in an otherwise entirely white community. To see large numbers of Ugandan Asians waiting in the airport, hour after hour, day after day, it was visually striking. It forced me to start thinking more broadly about world politics and exodus. These people showed great dignity and patience and had to wait a long time to be processed.

I used to be a runner and I raced many marathons - 5-kilometre and 10-kilometre races - but I was never very good. I never won any significant national race or anything like that. My knees were a bit shot after 40 years of it, so I wasn't running much when I started writing The Illegal. The writing provoked me to jog a little more actively again, so I could feel Keita's pain as he was racing.


I wrote most of The Illegal at home, in Hamilton, Ontario. I used to have an office above a bookstore in Hamilton, but when my children started moving out, I started to claim their rooms. My wife now has an office too - a reclaimed bedroom. I do like to get away once or twice a year for writing binges at somebody's cottage or house in the country, and write around the clock for a week or two. So I wrote some of The Illegal in Bayfield, Ontario, borrowing a friend's cottage.

I know there's this hilarious stereotype about writers knocking back whiskey and having a grand old time, but I tell you if I was knocking back whiskey I sure wouldn't be writing anything. I need my faculties intact and I can't imagine drinking and writing. I like coffee and tea and I make a killer ginger drink. I just boil up ginger and put some honey and freshly squeezed lemon in it. I make a cup or two of that. I call it Larry's Ginger Kick.


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