A novel that takes places across two time periods and a book of poetry inspired by the Chernobyl disaster are the latest releases by Nanaimo writer Robert Hilles.
Hilles, a VIU creative writing professor, will be unveiling his new books, Don’t Hang Your Soul on That and From God’s Angle: Poems of the Atomic Age, at an online reading held through the Vancouver Island Regional Library on Oct. 3.
Don’t Hang You Soul on That tells two stories taking place in Thailand. The first, which happens in the 1970s, follows a woman working in a wealthy family’s home to pay off a debt, while the other story takes place in the present day and concerns a Canadian expat who witnesses a murder.
“What you witness or participate in is much more complex than you realize at the time, and he slowly learns that,” Hilles said. “And he learns he has a certain obligation and eventually the two stories come together.”
Hilles has been visiting Thailand regularly for the past 11 years and his wife Rain is Thai. Hilles consulted with her while working on the book.
“She’s helped confirm that I am writing things in a way that’s respectful of the traditions there and also authentic,” he said. “That was really important to me, that this not be an outsider’s view, but that it be written as an insider within that culture.”
Hilles said he was always aware of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986 but his interest in the incident was rekindled “accidentally” after learning more about it from books and videos. He gives the disaster a poetic treatment in From God’s Angle.
“I was more interested in what had happened in the subsequent years,” Hilles said. “So there is some writing about what happened the day of the accident, but I was most interested, for example, learning that people still live in the radiation zone.”
Hilles was also fascinated to find out that animal and plant life has returned to the area, which was contrary to his assumption that “it was a total wasteland there and it would be a wasteland for thousands of years.” The irrevocable nature of the disaster also appealed to Hilles.
“Radiation is so powerful that it will kill you in minutes, so I was interested in that part, too,” he said. “The fact that it’s like when the genie’s out of the bottle, it’s too late. You can’t undo it.”
Don’t Hang Your Soul on That and From God’s Angle: Poems of the Atomic Age are available at Windowseat Books, 309C Wesley St.
WHAT’S ON … Robert Hilles books launch takes place over Zoom on Oct. 3 at 2 p.m. To register, click here.