In 2015, Steven Heighton packed a small bag and a notebook and left his home in Kingston, Ont., for the Greek island of Lesvos, where refugees – mostly Syrians fleeing the war – were arriving by the thousands in rafts and dinghies, sometimes swimming to shore from sinking boats. He was between drafts of his fourth novel (and 15th book), The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, a fictional work about refugees in the Mediterranean, and he felt a futility in the writing, which led to a desire to do something, to be the kind of person who acts. During the month he worked as a volunteer – registering refugees by lamplight, offering dry clothing and blankets – he took some notes, though mostly he worked: bus-boarding duty, sandwich-making. In between, he studied the tiers and veils of the Greek landscape – one he was connected to through his mother’s Greek heritage – and he spoke to the people he was helping and to those he was volunteering with. He did what he lived much of his too-short life doing: acting as a witness.
Three years later, those notes became Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos – a book Mr. Heighton said was made necessary by the continuing humanitarian crisis. In 2020, Reaching Mithymna was shortlisted for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, affirming Mr. Heighton’s reputation as one of Canada’s best writers.
A poet, short-story writer, novelist, essayist, memoirist and songwriter, Mr. Heighton was a central figure in the Canadian literary community and in Canadian letters, admired by many for his thoughtfulness, generosity and grace. A polymath, and an exuberant and convivial conversationalist, he shared ideas about the creative process and literary craft widely. He was interested in writing as an art form, as a mode of communication and kinship, as a stake in existence.
Mr. Heighton committed early on to the writing life: a risky vocation at a time when most Canadian writers (especially those publishing poetry and short stories) risked living at, or below, the poverty line if they didn’t take on second jobs or work as educators. He understood these hazards and moved between genres and forms not only because of the themes that called to him, but because, as he once said, “Realistically the novel is the only form that can put bread on the table.” His editor John Metcalf acknowledged that Mr. Heighton “juggled a lot of things to preserve that freedom” and that he “lived in – what he described as – mad-frugality.”
Although he was widely accoladed – short lists or awards, writer-in-residence positions, bestseller lists or plaudits arriving with almost every book – it was only when his 2016 poetry collection The Waking Comes Late won the prestigious Governor-General’s Award that he received the kind of award-based national acclaim many believed he deserved. In the Literary Review of Canada, Donna Bailey Nurse notes: “Heighton’s 2016 Governor General’s Award for poetry was long overdue. It boggles the mind that this brilliant storyteller has never received a major fiction prize.”
There is a scene in Reaching Mithymna that illuminates some of Mr. Heighton’s preoccupations as a writer: He is sitting on Efthalou Beach on morning watch for refugee boats, trying to translate a passage of writing by the Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis. Karyotakis, he notes, had once tried to drown himself in the sea, but, being an excellent swimmer, he’d ended up rescuing himself. This theme of near-drowning, of self-assertion; of going under and surfacing again (literally or psychologically) is present across many of Mr. Heighton’s works.
He was editing a story collection called Instructions for the Drowning up until his premature death at the age of 60 from pancreatic cancer on April 19 in Kingston. In the collection, his interest in the tension between the romantic, hoped-for life and the inevitably starker reality is palpable again. Of the titular story in this last, and forthcoming, collection, Mr. Heighton’s editor, Mr. Metcalf, says, “Instead of a spoiled idyll by the lake [the story] becomes a struggle of life: the world as it is.”
John Steven Heighton was born on Aug. 14, 1961, in Toronto to John McEwen Heighton, a former naval officer and high-school and postsecondary English teacher, and Lambie George Stephanopoulos, who had completed a degree in the social sciences at the University of Ottawa before focusing on her family.
Mr. Heighton and his younger sister, Pelly, were raised in the Toronto area and in Balmertown, near Red Lake in northwestern Ontario, a landscape that made an impression on him. A reader from an early age (his father reciting Anglo-Saxon and Middle English tales to him at bedtime), Mr. Heighton went on to study English language and literature at Queen’s University between 1981 and 1986, earning a BA and an MA. It was during his time as an undergraduate student that he met his future wife, Mary Huggard, and also met the poet Al Purdy, who appeared in one of his English classes to read.
Mr. Purdy would become a mentor to Mr. Heighton, not so much in terms of style – the younger poet was busy absorbing and, to some extent, emulating the work of writers such as Hopkins, Thomas, Yeats, Plath and Dickinson – but in terms of treating him seriously as a writer and introducing him to Canadian literary culture as it was then.
Increasingly interested in language as a “sprawling, living, mutating thing,” Mr. Heighton began, in one of his courses, transcribing passages from obscure Icelandic sagas – an act of translation or “approximation” that would become central to his later poetic work.
After graduation, Mr. Heighton travelled with Ms. Huggard to Tibet, Nepal and other parts of Asia, which influenced his early and later books. The two of them settled in Japan, teaching English for a year before returning to Canada. They married in Caledon, Ont., in 1988 and welcomed a daughter, Elena, in 1996. For many of those years, Mr. Heighton wrote full-time, consciously mastering one form after another – first poems, then stories, then the novel. Later in life, he sometimes worked on manuscripts in three different genres in the same time period, though never on the same day.
Ms. Huggard, his wife of 30 years before their amicable separation, describes him “tucked up there in his study, working,” then adds with a laugh that “Elena called it ‘pushing buttons.’ ”
“I used to sit in his study with him while he worked,” Elena Heighton remembers, “and would ‘work’ on my own poems and stories as a young child. He would read them and give me genuine feedback. He never talked down to me, and ‘edited’ my childish poems with the same thoughtful sincerity as he would his peers’ work. The sincerity meant that every time he told me he was proud of me I felt deeply accomplished.”
Mr. Heighton acknowledged writing as a labour of love in a recent CBC interview, saying: “There’s a sense in which I put my head down and started working really hard. And when I looked up again, 30 years had passed.”
As with any life, there were difficult years in between the successes: the death of his mother from brain cancer on Christmas Day, 2001; bouts of insomnia, including two years where he lived on four hours of sleep a night. In 2010, he suffered a laryngeal fracture in a pickup hockey game, his doctor telling him he might never speak again if he didn’t rehabilitate properly, and that it was likely he’d never be able to sing. He overcame such prognoses and returned to music in the last few years of his life.
In 2021, he released an album, The Devil’s Share, with Wolfe Island Records. Cohen-esque in the best way, the songs feel situated in the river between poetry and song. Mr. Heighton’s partner, Ginger Pharand, notes that his love of music came, in part, from his father’s love of literature’s musicality.
“He told me his father recited poetry with the fervour of an evangelist, striking the dashboard or the table to crash out the meter. The opportunity to experience that mix of passion and rhythm in language helped build his relationship to it. ‘It was like being raised by a minister in that way,’ he said.”
She adds “anybody who ever saw Steve read would have recognized that same passion in him, the way he tapped out the beat with his foot as he read, hearing in his head the score he’d built into the work.”
Widely lauded as one of the finest writers of his generation and, with increasing frequency, as one of the finest writers in the Canadian literary canon, Mr. Heighton had an unflinching gaze. “In any life,” he wrote, “two impulses compete: the aspiration to be more awake – aware, intentional, passionate, engaged – and a longing for anaesthesis.”
In a recent CBC interview, he said “That’s something you want to do, right up until the moment you die – keep your curiosity and enthusiasm.”
In his last days, Mr. Heighton did exactly this, calling Mr. Metcalf, his editor, from his hospital bed to speak about the final edits on the story collection. “His attitude to life was essentially reverential,” Mr. Metcalf says. This reverence was palpable in his work, and in the depth of his love for his family and his partner, Ms. Pharand, in his devotion to his closest friends, and in the breadth of his relationships across the literary community.
The writer Michael Redhill said: “I think Steve might have been especially close to a hundred people. He had a way of paying attention that made you feel important and he had time for everyone.”
In The Hidden Pleasures of Life, the philosopher Theodore Zeldin wrote that “The adventure of our time is to discover who inhabits the earth.” This was how Mr. Heighton lived: He waded deep into the sea for us, but being a good swimmer, he walked back up onto the shore and wrote.
Mr. Heighton was predeceased by his mother, Ms. Stephanopoulos, and leaves his father, John McEwen Heighton, and John’s wife, Christina Heighton; his sister, Pelly Heighton; former wife, Ms. Huggard; daughter, Elena Heighton, and her partner, Liam Fenton; his partner, Ms. Pharand; and his five nieces and nephew.