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Digital Subscriptions > Quill & Quire > July/August 2017 > Fiction



Punch drunk

FOR KEVIN HARDCASTLE, being a writer has a lot in common with training as a fighter.

The author, who hails from the town of Midland, in Ontario’s Simcoe County, is an aficionado of mixed martial arts and is himself a boxer and Muay Thai practitioner. It is arguably unsurprising, therefore, to learn that his first novel, In the Cage – due out in September from Biblioasis – has at its centre an MMA cage fighter who lost his chance at greatness to injury and has since retreated to his rural home town, where he becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous world of drugs and crime. What might be more surprising is to hear the author expound on the parallels he sees between the craft of writing and the technique of professional cage fighters.

“It’s so applicable to writing,” Hardcastle says about the proficiency acquired by training as a pugilist. “It’s a very different speed, of course, when you’re getting punched in the face. But it’s the idea of being in a zone where you have trained, you have skills that you have practised hundreds, thousands of times.”

In addition to refining his prose to whipsharp precision, the almost obsessive attention to craft on a line-by-line basis resembles the instinctual ability a fighter develops through months and years of rigorous drills and practice routines. “If you’re in the gym and you drop your hand, they’re going to be, like, ‘Put your hand up or you’ll get kicked in the face, idiot,’” Hard castle says. Similarly, with writing, a strict attention to craft and style teaches an author not to be precious about the words on the page. “It’s the same thing: if you leave that paragraph in, it’s going to hurt the book.”

This dedication and attention – both in the ring and on the page – has paid dividends for the author, whose debut collection of stories, 2015’s Debris, accrued near-universal acclaim and went on to win Ontario’s Trillium Book Award. And Hardcastle’s writing has received the approbation of authors such as John Irving and Donald Ray Pollock, the latter of whom calls In the Cage “a wild, unrelenting ride,” and compares it to the work of Cormac McCarthy.

Pollock’s approval, i n particular, seems appropriate, given that the American author of novels such as The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff writes the same kind of “country noir” that Hardcastle’s fiction comprises. And the McCarthy comparison is one Hardcastle himself has invoked when speaking of his own influences, along with Pollock and, especially, Hemingway. “I was just copying Hemingway to start,” Hardcastle says. “Which is a good place to start, as far as sentences go. And then, when I found Cormac McCarthy, that changed a lot.”

Indeed, Hardcastle’s signature style – a kind of rural poetry that i ncludes stylistic flourishes, neologisms, and evocative use of compound words – is closer in spirit to McCarthy than Hemingway, though all three writers are united in their focus on violence as a driving force in their work. For Hardcastle, who initially dreamed of being a horror writer, a recourse to violence is a natural part of his writer’s toolbox: an early scene in the new novel involves one character having his cheek sliced open with a straight razor. Still, the brutality is not gratuitous, and is filtered through a distinctly artistic sensibility. “I like the idea of trying to write artfully or elegantly about really violent things,” Hardcastle says.

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