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Herbert Hopkins: Tackling sensitive topics


Herbert F. Hopkins, retired after 30 years as an intermediate teacher, lives in St. John’s, where he has, in his words, "found a comfortable place in the world of art, be it writing, carving or music."

Burton K. Janes

As a writer, with the release of "Temperance Street," he has published his second work of fiction.

When I say "published," I mean he literally publishes his own books.

"Sometimes," he says, "self-publishing gets a bad rap." I should know, as I self-published my first book in 1981 and "lost my shirt" in the process.

"I would like to think," Hopkins adds, "that my work is as good as any publisher’s – and in some ways better. My work is all about quality."

Writing helps him to understand and, at the same time, "is a place to exercise imagination."

His fertile imagination is evident on every page in his latest novel.

The book opens in 1992, when both the Newfoundland cod fishery and the Roman Catholic Church are imploding under the weight of unimaginable abuse.

Fourteen-year-old Luke Delaney and his best friend, Mikey Ryan, set out from the Outer Battery to climb the Salt Mountains to bear witness to the end of a way of life.

When he wants to, Hopkins can turn a decidedly humourous phrase. As he says, "Humour is critical to making a story real – and readable. We laugh in our day-to-day; it’s often how we get by."

While this is patently true, he admits, "in this story, though, humour had to be curbed – the issues were too delicate."

"Temperance Street" is a prequel to an earlier work, but the two stories are separate. In "The Book of Luke," the protagonist, Luke Delaney, is 27 years of age; in "Temperance Street," Hopkins, imagining Luke as a 14-year-old, sets his mind to telling the teenager’s story.

Writing means different things to different people. Even the actual craft of constructing a full-length novel varies from writer to writer.

"Usually," Hopkins explains, "there is an overall theme and then it’s sentence by sentence. Surprisingly, when I sit down, I have no idea where a story is going – solid characters push the story forward and create their own plot. Without solid characters, stories are doomed for failure."

"Temperance Street" is definitely not doomed to fail. To his credit, as stated earlier, the author tackles head on the cod moratorium of 1992 and the Roman Catholic Church owning up to the tragedy of Mount Cashel. Sensitive topics both.

As he told another reviewer, "Those were two topics that I didn’t really want to write a novel about but they were thrown in my lap."

In response to this writer’s question, "What is your hope for the readers of your works?," Hopkins states, "I write ‘stories’ and I don’t want to profess anything, however, if issues are involved, I hope my characters spell out all sides and, from that, maybe the reader will become more informed." In essence, "Temperance Street" revolves around the idea of coping and coming to grips with the reality of loss.

Thus, Mikey’s father decries for all and sundry to hear, "If the fish don’t come back, God knows what’s in store for me and my son."

And, later, the archbishop moans, "The diocese is crippled ... Allegation after allegation of abuse. Every other week someone is beating at my door. It’s a feeding frenzy. If every allegation went to court, the legal costs alone would sink us. We need to weather the storm, keep the walls up until this blows over. Start rebuilding with new leadership."

Writing is only one of Hopkins’ hobbies. One suspects that, at times, especially after writing a book like "Temperance Street," he has to turn to another of his artistic endeavours, perhaps carving.

"My carvings come from a lifetime of work using the medium of wood," he explains. His training is as an Industrial Arts teacher. "Carving is a nice diversion to writing a novel," he says, "and allows me to continue on with some old skills." He may be immersed in writing a novel like "Temperance Street" for four years, while a finished carving may take only four months.

Hopkins is most at peace when he is writing and carving. He has already started on the final book -- Luke and the City of Dreams -- in his trilogy. As he puts it, "Another four years of head to the grindstone. Maybe a carving or two between it all."

Is he frustrated by the time required to complete the tasks he sets for himself?

"Happy to be at it," is his response.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net.

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