Author and athlete Neale McDevitt is seated in an Iranian café on Montreal's Sherbrooke Street. As I inquire about the link between sports and fiction writing, he braces himself with a smile. "Sports are surrounded by storytellers. The downtime on the bench, waiting for your turn, is where you learn to keep people's attention, make them laugh, tell a story. The important thing is to find your voice."
A Montreal native from the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) neighbourhood, McDevitt combines his success in big-muscle sports with an award-winning capacity for writing short stories. A weightlifter, rugby player and coach, his athletic performances in the eighties led him to win the Pan-American Championships in 1985 and to compete on the Canadian national team in the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986.
In 2001, he made his entrance into the city's literary firmament when he won the Quebec Short Story Prize for the beautiful tale called "Honey-Tongued Hooker." One of the contest's jurors, Kenneth J. Harvey, then referred him to Barry Callaghan of Exile Editions in Toronto, leading to the publication of his story collection One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble (2002), which won the 2003 McAuslan First Book Prize. Since then he has contributed to the Quebec Writers-in-CEGEPs program, hosted fiction-writing workshops for the Quebec Writers' Federation and won a grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quèbec.
"The earliest books that hooked me into reading were the Dr. Seuss series," McDevitt says. "A later influence was Charles Bukowski, in particular a story called 'The Most Beautiful Woman In Town.'"
How did McDevitt turn a love of reading into a strong pen hand?
"Well, once I had my voice, I began writing stories to impress a girl. But then there is also the challenge that most writers seem to experience: a nagging suspicion, even after winning literary awards, that you aren't really a writer. This comes with the fear about what happens when you change your voice. Winning awards certainly helps you feel legitimized as a writer and provides the stepping-stone for the next level along your creative path. And now that my girlfriend and I have Charlotte, our two-year-old daughter, my narrative voice is in flux. Whereas I used to highlight the impermanence of beauty and love, I now narrate as the jock dealing with being a father."
Asked whether he defines himself more as a sports jock or as a writer, his answer shoots out without reflection. "Sports have taught me discipline, competition and rejection, but my most defining influence is my NDG neighbourhood."
The strolls McDevitt takes along Sherbrooke Street and into the parks with his baby daughter reveal an abundance of fringe personalities, many of whom inspire McDevitt's fictional characters. "I had an excellent childhood in NDG at a time when kids could stay out playing in the streets until suppertime. The once all-Anglo neighbourhood has become more colourful over the years and a lot more multicultural. Since halfway houses in the area suffered funding cutbacks, many of the marginally sane are back in the community."
It makes sense that a guy so loyal to NDG would be able to transform and reinvent himself, in the same way the neighbourhood that he loves consistently changes and adapts. Reminiscent of one of his characters, McDevitt is the one that keeps the light going-the beacon he casts into the wider world marks a home port for strays in the chaos of elsewhere. His voice has been picked up in such faraway places as New Zealand, where his story "The Lighthouse Keeper" will appear in Bravado this fall.
For a full taste of McDevitt's craft, you can pick up his collection in your local bookshop. And those competition-minded are also in luck. Entries to the QWF 2005 Quebec Short Story Contest will be accepted until 31 August. Neale McDevitt will be occupying the bench with this year's lineup of jurors.