Lawrence Hill: 11 books that shaped my life

Lawrence Hill is making a second run at the Canada Reads crown with his novel The Illegal, defended by Olympian Clara Hughes. The Illegal tells the story of Keita Ali, an elite marathoner fleeing persecution at home and deportation in the country he's escaped to.

As we gear up for Canada Reads 2016, Hill reflects on the 11 books that have shaped his life - from childhood favourites to the book he read while adapting The Book of Negroes for the screen.

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The childhood series he fell in love with

The Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary. Her books were famous when I was a child. I hadn't been intoxicated by reading before, but once I got a hold of one of those books, I lusted for more. I raced back to the library. I was so excited about the process of reading more about this boy, his dog and his problems. I was about eight years old at the time. I wish I could say I was reading Tolstoy then, but I wasn't.

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The book that shook him as a teenager

On my parents' bookshelves were hundreds of books about the black American experience. I woke up one day and a light switch came on in my brain. I saw all these books and started to devour them. One was The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. It reminds me very much of my teenage years, not because his experience bears any resemblance to my own - it doesn't - but it really shook me up. He argues in lucid language that white people are the devil incarnate. Of course I knew better - my mother was white and she was no devil - but it was a very powerful book about this towering mind. I remember debating with the book as I read it and feeling engulfed, upset, entranced and repulsed all at once.

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The books his mother warned him about

My mother, Donna Hill, warned me about reading the American Richard Wright's Native Son, a disturbing book in which a young impoverished black man murders a white girl in the house he has come to work in, and stuffs her body in a furnace. The other book was Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, an essay about a white journalist from Texas who turns his skin black through a series of medical treatments to experience what it means to be black in the deep south. These two books grab you by the belt, pull you in and shake you up. From the first words, there's no wasted language, no circuitous path. The emotional immediacy of both books gripped me and made me want to read more, and to write.

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The book that most influenced The Book of Negroes

There are many slave narratives, but Frederick Douglass' autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was the most powerful one I've read. It also forms the structural foundation of my novel: 'Here is my life, Dear Reader. I'm going to tell you when I was born, who my parents were, how I came to be enslaved, and how I came to be freed, and who I am now. In so doing, Dear Reader, I will assert that my humanity is equal to yours.' Frederick Douglass introduced me to the slave autobiography, which was the first form of literature published widely by African-Americans and African-Canadians.

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The book he read while adapting The Book of Negroes for the screen

I read Q&A by Vikas Swarup, which later became the film Slumdog Millionaire. I was interested in how the novel changed in becoming a film. In Q&A there are various characters who surround the main character, who come in and out of his life as the story evolves. But in the transition to the movie, the minor characters tend to hang on longer. They have a longer co-habitation with the protagonist. I came to understand the film adaptation of my novel would also have to offer some of the minor characters the chance to live longer with the protagonist. They'd stick around longer to make the series more emotionally satisfying.

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The funniest book he has ever read

My dear friend and fellow novelist Paul Quarrington died a few years ago. I knew him since childhood, as we grew up in the same neighbourhood. Paul was older but we became great friends when I was a teenager. Paul is better known for some of his other books, but I think his funniest book is Home Game. It's a screamingly funny story about a group of circus freaks. They come into a town where there's a religious cult. The people in the cult hate the circus freaks, and vice versa. They decide to have a baseball game to decide who should leave town. Comic novels don't get the respect they deserve in Canada. We think they have less gravitas. Big mistake.

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The book he gives his friends with a money-back guarantee

Usually, if there is a book that I absolutely love I start giving it away. I've given at least six friends copies of All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews because I feel it's a work of genius. I feel it's as close to a perfect novel as you can find. Sometimes I have this game where I don't give the book but tell a friend that I guarantee the book: If you buy it and can honestly tell me that you didn't love it to pieces, then I will reimburse you for the cost of that book.

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The short stories he rereads every few years

I've reread the Hemingway stories - some of them - many times over the years, in particular "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." I have conflicted feelings about Hemingway. Sometimes he's a racist and misogynist, but other times the writing is just pitch perfect. And sometimes the writing is just plain bad. But it makes me want to write. The clarity of the prose, the honesty of the language, the transparency of the story. The immediacy of the writing. It all makes me want to go up to my study, put my fingers on the keyboard and start pounding away.

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The book he could not put down

The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It wove a tale of violence and barbaric incest and hatred of women, yet these women have the capacity to forgive and move on. The book came out in 1982 and I read it shortly thereafter. It was about a woman's refusal to die emotionally or physically in the face of such monstrous hatred and abuse that she experiences at the hands of her family. It was a mesmerizing and powerful novel.

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The book that got him through a hard time

When I was 17, I had an awful summer job washing the blood off the floors of the Sunnybrook Hospital. Floor washers were not allowed to look like they weren't busy, but it took only 45 minutes to wash the floors I'd be assigned for a full eight-hour shift. How do you look like you're busy when there's often nothing to do? I carried around a few books that summer and one of them was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I just loved it. I would hide in a bathroom and read in there, or I would hide in a patient's room in the veterans' ward where the old people who no longer had their faculties would sit and sadly vegetate - waiting to die in their rooms. Catch-22 is such a rambunctious, irreverent, funny novel! It got me through that awful summer job.

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