Wakefield Writers Festival: Joel Thomas Hynes seeks sympathy for his literary devils

Joel Thomas Hynes.

The world of Newfoundland author-actor-musician Joel Thomas Hynes is filled with bad boys we learn to love despite their petty crimes, barroom brawls, substance abuse and doomed romances.

“My challenge is always to make those characters sympathetic somehow,” Hynes said in a recent ARTSFILE interview.

One of those bad boys, scrappy Johnny Keough, is the central character in We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, the “breakneck novel,” in the words of The Globe and Mail, that earned Hynes the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction last year. That same book also earned Hynes a spot in the line-up for this year’s Wakefield Writers Festival May 24-27, where he will join such other writers as fellow Newfoundlander Mary Walsh, Ottawa authors Frances Itani and Daniel Poliquin and the Toronto literary couple of Carol Off and Linden MacIntyre.

In We’ll All Be Burnt, low-life Johnny barely manages to escape jail time and decides to hitchhike from Newfoundland to the British Columbia coast so he can place his girlfriend’s ashes on her favourite beach. What could go wrong? Plenty, we discover, including one of the most memorable, hilarious and messy sex scenes in Canadian literature involving Johnny, a female executive and a motel hot tub.

Television audiences also know Hynes as an actor. He has done guest spots on shows like Republic of Doyle, Orphan Black and other Canadian series, but is now best known as the star and co-writer of the seven-episode Little Dog that ran on CBC TV this spring. The plot of the dark comedy centres on Tommy “Little Dog” Ross, a down-on-his heels Newfoundland boxer seeking redemption.

The series returns next year, although Hynes, to be frank, thought Little Dog should have ended this year so he could write something completely different. Hynes is not your conventional writer-actor: He would rather star in a low-budget indie film than a more heavily financed movie or television series. But he stuck with the series, in part, to ensure all his co-stars and crew did not lose their jobs. TV shows, he says, generally, are “not the way I like to tell stories.”

Hynes is also a musician. His recently released album, Dead Man’s Melody, is described on the website cdbaby.com as “a full-throttle, gritty and groovy rock album of nine interrelated songs that weave a perverse, sometimes jovial story of desperation and disastrous love, drugs and murder that culminates in a SWAT team standoff, a hail of bullets and a chopper in the air.” Sounds like Johnny Keough, Tommy “Little Dog” Ross, or any number of Hynes’s creations could be crooning what he calls those “character-driven” songs filled with “swagger and bravado.”

The stories Hynes tells as a writer, actor and musician are all rooted in what he calls his own “backyard” – the locale of poor, uneducated people living on the fringes of society and springing from small Newfoundland settlements like his own hometown of Calvert. His first novel, Down to the Dirt, published in 2004, is about a smalltown boy battling numerous demons. The book – Hynes says it is his most autobiographical — turned a lot of heads and was longlisted for the IMPAC literary award in Ireland, one of the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary prizes.

Hynes figured he had to write about these characters from his “backyard” because no one else was, with a few exceptions, including fellow Newfoundland actor and author, Mary Walsh, who appears on Little Dog as a mean, tough boxing promoter of indeterminate gender. Walsh will be in Wakefield to promote her new novel Crying for the Moon, which is about the challenges of being young, female and poor in 1960s Newfoundland.

“What I was seeing were a lot of academics and urbanized and come-from-aways who were writing the Newfoundland character, writing in a kind of overheard phonetic dialect that was really aggravating to me,” Hynes said. “No one was capturing the type of character I was interested in. Nobody was writing my part of the world. My version of Newfoundland has a much darker hue than a lot of writers out there.”

It is easy to dismiss Hynes’s characters as losers, Trailer Park Boys speaking in heavy Newfoundland accents. But there is so much more to these bad boys and the women who love them. There’s a basic decency to them. They have goals but often lack the know-how to achieve them. They are daring and courageous, never subtle, often just plain goofy and dangerously attracted to the dark side. But we forgive them their flaws. They have heart and we can’t help but love them.

Joel Thomas Hynes reads from We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night May 26 at 7 p.m. at Centre Wakefield, 38 chemin de la Vallée de Wakefield. Tickets and information about the festival at writersfete.com.

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