Author turned Student Lawrence Hill, Canadian author, hones talent here

February 07, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

The day hangs blue and clear, and from Lawrence Hill's sixth-floor window, you might be able to see forever if the gray concrete of the Baltimore Museum of Art didn't block the way.

In his North Charles Street apartment, Mr. Hill, writer, husband, father, son, Canadian, sits at the dining table in a bright high-ceilinged room rimmed with a baby crib and blue and yellow baby toys and talks of dreams.

"I feel fortunate to be doing what I want to do the most," he says.

Mr. Hill, 36, and his wife, Joanne Savoie, gave up jobs in Toronto and uprooted their two children, Genevieve, 2, and Caroline, 1, so he could come to Baltimore to further his dream to write fiction. With a full scholarship and teaching fellowship, he is in the middle of nine months as a graduate student in the Writing Seminars program at the Johns Hopkins University.

His first novel, "Some Great Thing," was published late last year by Turnstone Press of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Mr. Hill and his wife live in a tan brick once-landmark apartment building now owned by Johns Hopkins for student housing, one in a group that fills a whole block and dates back to before World War I. It is a five-minute walk from there to his computer on campus, where a novel partially set in Baltimore is building.

The working title is "Any Known Blood."

So here he is, in a strange land but not really a complete stranger. Baltimore, as it turns out, fills out a part of Larry Hill's heritage.

"My paternal grandfather, Daniel Hill, was born in Annapolis," he says. "My great-grandfather, also Daniel Hill, was the first minister at the Bethel A.M.E. Church when it moved to its current location on Druid Hill Avenue.

"My father [another Daniel Hill] met my mother while he was teaching for a year at Morgan State and she was working in Washington. They got married in the early 1950s and moved to Toronto."

Mr. Hill, his older brother, the fourth Daniel Hill, and his younger sister, Karen, were born in Canada.

Mr. Hill excuses himself to go to the kitchen to fix a cup of coffee. He has been fighting a nagging cough.

"The doctor can't find anything wrong with me," Mr. Hill says. "He thinks it might be allergies."

Soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, he stands a slender 5 foot 9 and weighs 150 pounds. He is wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and black jeans.

He seems alert but says he feels a little tired. The clock reads mid-day, and he had worked on his novel until 2 a.m. "I work better late at night or very early in the morning," he says. "I need quiet."

This has been his schedule since arriving in September for the Hopkins writing program.

"I read his application and I encouraged Larry to come here," says Stephen Dixon, author and professor of fiction in the writing program. "He is very smart, personable, gracious. We love having him around."

Writing community

Mr. Hill loves being around.

"The most important thing I've gained artistically is to work in a community of writers," he says.

In his first semester, he worked with Mr. Dixon, John Barth and Jean McGarry. In the second semester, Robert Stone, who has (( just arrived, will be handling Mr. Hill's thesis, which consists of 60 to 100 pages of "Any Known Blood."

"I've gone from a situation where I was in touch with virtually no writers, published or unpublished, to a situation in which . . . there are four people who are very established professionally and really good writers that I can work with and who read my stuff. It's a real privilege. I think it will make my writing better."

Larry Hill got an early start on writing -- at about the age of 7 -- something he credits to his father, who wanted to encourage his children to write.

"He'd ask us if we wanted anything. We'd say something like, 'a cat.' It was a tacit understanding he would say no, then say no again. On the third request, he would say, 'Write a letter.' I had to write why I wanted a cat, why I deserved it, how I would pay for it, . . . convince him I needed that cat. That really motivated me to write. For certain kids, it would turn them off writing for the rest of their lives, but somehow it worked for us. We had fun with it. And, he kept all the letters, which is the funniest thing of all."

Mr. Hill comes from a family of writers. His father, who runs a public relations firm in Toronto, wrote a history of blacks in Canada that still is in print; his mother, Donna Hill, has been published; his brother is a singer-songwriter. His sister, Karen, writes but hasn't been published yet. "I can identify with that after what I've gone through," Mr. Hill says.

After college, he worked part-time for his father and did free-lance writing for a year before taking a job as a general assignment reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press in cold, cold Western Canada. He stayed three years, working full-time and trying to write fiction at nights.

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