Wales-based, Deep Cove native Tyler Keevil was describing his continued return to the Pacific Northwest in his writing at a reading held at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre Bookshop in West Wales when an audience member raised her hand.
"'It sounds like you're talking about 'hiraeth,'" Keevil, 35, recalls her saying.
Unfamiliar with the Welsh term, the author asked the woman to explain.
"Hiraeth," which lacks an English translation, speaks to, "a form of yearning or longing for something that's lost or for the homeland in a way," says Keevil. "I think a lot of my work grows out of that, about the fact that I have left home, but I'm continually looking back towards it."
"Even though I've been living over here for 10 years I find, artistically, I'm always drawn back home. Maybe it's. .. out of a sense of homesickness or nostalgia," he adds.
Vancouver and its surrounding area features prominently in all of Keevil's books to date. His first novel, Fireball, is a coming of age story set on the North Shore. Published in 2013 The Drive is a comedic road trip novel that begins in Vancouver before the action heads south to the American Northwest through California. And his latest release, Burrard Inlet, a collection of short stories published in the spring, features a series of tales set in or around the Lower Mainland.
Keevil was recently awarded for one of the Burrard Inlet works, for which he received the Writers' Trust/McClelland Stewart 2014 Journey Prize for "Sealskin," a short story set in a Vancouver fish processing plant.
Keevil received the Writers' Trust of Canada nod, worth $10,000, at the Writers' Trust Awards held Nov. 4, 2014 at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio.
A total of $139,000 was given to Canadian writers that evening, including Miriam Toews, who received the $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for All My Puny Sorrows. Toews previously won for The Flying Troutmans in 2008. Ken Babstock received the inaugural Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize worth $25,000.
The Writers' Trust is a charitable organization seeking to advance and celebrate Canadian writers and writing through a variety of programs, including literary awards, financial grants, scholarships and a writers' retreat.
According to the organization, the Journey Prize is awarded each year to a developing writer for the best short story published in a Canadian literary publication. It's made possible thanks to the donated Canadian royalties from James A. Michener's 1988 novel, Journey.
"Sealskin" was first published in Nelson, B.C.'s The New Orphic Review and also appears in The Journey Prize Stories 26 in addition to Burrard Inlet.
This year's Journey Prize finalists included Vancouver's Lori McNulty for "Monsoon Season," and Clea Young for "Juvenile." Both received $1,000.
Keevil is no stranger to awards, having received a number in the United Kingdom thanks to the support of the Welsh publishing industry, which has strongly embraced his work. He received the 2011 Media Wales People's Prize for Fireball and The Drive was shortlisted for the 2014 Wales Book of the Year, going on to receive the Wales Book of the Year People's Choice Award.
Being honoured in his native country with the Journey Prize was an important milestone.
"It was so nice to have some recognition in Canada and to be able to go back there for the ceremony, and to meet a lot of people in the Canadian publishing scene was a wonderful opportunity and really gratifying," he says.
Born in Edmonton, Keevil moved to Vancouver at age eight. His family moved to Deep Cove when he was 12, and he attended Seycove secondary.
"That's always been home ever since," he says of North Vancouver, where his parents, and sister and brother-in-law reside.
Currently he lives in Abergavenny, Wales, United Kingdom with his wife, Naomi, and their two-anda-half-year-old son Daniel. The couple met when Keevil, an English student at the University of British Columbia was on exchange at Lancaster University. They are expecting their second child at the end of April.
In his younger days, Keevil worked a wide array of odd jobs, both in Canada and the United Kingdom, including as a tree-planter in northern B.C. and a deckhand on an ice barge. In his early 20s, he worked as a labourer for one summer at the Vancouver Canfisco shipyards fish processing plant at the foot of Gore Avenue. His stint inspired the setting for "Sealskin."
The award-winning short story is described as portraying a terrible act of cruelty that forces the tensions between two workers at a fish processing plant to spill out into the surrounding waters. Journey Prize judges had this to say about the work: "Tyler Keevil's 'Sealskin' is a stunner: straightforward and unadorned, but humming with subsurface power.. .. Keevil has accomplished something rare: a story about rough masculinity that brims with emotion and pathos."
While geography and accuracy of location have always been important to Keevil as a writer, he's quick to issue a disclaimer, "Sealskin" is not a true story.
"A lot of the time for me, writing, you do draw on experiences in that being able to build the set and the feelings of those long days and the arduous labour in the summer heat, next to the smell of that plant," he says. "And all of that percolates over time and then revisiting it years later you start to play what I call, 'The what if game.' And you think, 'Oh what if that had happened and if that had happened then what if this had happened as a result of it?' So you start to build a fictional narrative on to the real memory imprint that you have, if that makes sense," he says.
"And that's the case for a lot of my work. And I think for me it's usually important to be able to draw on experiences, but then fictionalize and fabricate on them so you don't cling to the experience, you don't only write autobiographically, but neither do you totally make things up. It's this blending of experience with imagination that can create an authentic piece of work, but also one that's got a strong story and a strong narrative in it," he says.
In addition to his writing, Keevil teaches creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, England.
He's grateful for the teachers and mentors he's had over the years, starting at Seycove, then at UBC and while working at Theatr Powys, a Mid Wales community theatre education company that also employed his wife. From a young age, he's been encouraged to follow a creative path, and mentors instilled a passion for story, drama and narrative that still guides him today. Now, he works to do the same for his own student charges.
"You remember that when you set foot in the classroom and you think you do have this responsibility as well with young people. You want to inspire them, you want to set the fire going and pass that on," he says.
Something else that continues to drive Keevil is the perspective gained over the years that story is a meaning-making mechanism.
"We use story to make sense of our lives and our place in the world and I think that's so hugely important and that will never fade and we'll always need it. We need fiction, we need stories, we need to make sense of the chaos of our lives and we do that through narrative," he says.
For Keevil's next work, he once again plans to set it in Vancouver, this time crafting a novel telling a sibling story. However only time will tell what comes to fruition.
"I was joking with my students the other day that I tend to have an idea I really pursue that I think is going to be wonderful and it doesn't work. And then, out of the ashes an idea, a new book arises, and that happened with my first novel and that happened with The Drive. It seems to be I write one kind of dead book and then something leaps out of it that I didn't expect, kind of sideways,"