Singer/songwriter Dan Hill got in touch with father’s life by writing book
A man who’s made a career of writing about love, Dan Hill’s not afraid to say he learned a thing or two about it during the writing of his latest book.
“I Am My Father’s Son: A Memoir of Love and Forgiveness” was originally meant to be a way for the Grammy and Juno winner to work out his grief after his father’s death in 2003.
“I didn’t think I was going to show it to anybody,” Hill told The Telegram.
Although it is a essentially a story of love, the book tells of Hill’s volatile relationship with his father, Daniel Grafton Hill III.
Hill Sr. was a doctor of sociology, a government adviser and an Ontario ombudsman. He was the founding director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, co-founded the Ontario Black History Society and wrote “The Freedom Seekers,” a book about African-Americans in Canada.
For all his progressive thinking, Hill Sr. was also often a verbally and emotionally abusive father with extremely high standards, according to his son’s book.
Hill says he was always a writer — it was the natural thing to do in his family — but had a passion for music from a young age. He started studying classical guitar at the age of 10 and began writing songs at 14, eventually going on to release 14 albums and penning songs for artists such as Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Rod Stewart. His biggest hit was 1977’s “Sometimes When We Touch.”
Music became his biggest creative outlet until his father passed away, and he found himself unable to write a song.
Stricken with grief
“I was so paralyzed with grief and I couldn’t go to music as I had all my life, that it hit me out of the blue that I should write a book about my dad and me, and how our early lives affected our personalities; how his early life, growing up as a black man in America in the Depression, affected him as a husband and father; and how my growing up under his reign affected me as a human being and an artist,” Hill told The Telegram.
Hill wrote the book in parallel chapters, his life and his dad’s, based on memories and thousands of letters Hill Sr. had donated to Ontario’s public archives. The more Hill read, the more he uncovered — and the more he started to understand where his dad was coming from. Among the things he learned was that his great-great-grandmother had been raped as a 15-year-old girl, working in the White House.
“That explained a lot of his behaviour, because the rape had been covered up and there was this sort of generational shame that goes along with rape; even more so if you’re a 15-year-old black girl and you have a baby and that baby became my dad’s grandmother,” Hill explained.
Hill also grew closer to his father as he wrote, and at one point, his brother, award-winning author Lawrence Hill, told him he had to stop.
Hill said he was reluctant to end the book, feeling as if he was keeping his father alive as long as he was writing it.
In the end, it did help him understand his grief, and taught him how to let go, in more ways than one.
“In all families there are miracles and tragedies — I’m quoting (British writer) Martin Amis here — and so how do you transcend the stuff that maybe you aren’t thrilled about happening in your family? If you don’t transcend it and have a deeper understanding of it and let it go, it will be like toxic, like poison. One of the things I learned was the power of unconditional love and forgiveness, through working out my dad’s anger towards me and mine towards my dad.”
The book isn’t harsh or sad or sappy, Hill explained.
“I’m a pretty funny writer,” he said. “My prose style is very different from my songwriting style. A lot of reporters didn’t believe it was written by the same guy who wrote ‘Sometimes When We Touch.’ It’s pretty hard-hitting and frank and not sentimental. I found that the prose writing brought out a different side of me, a little more tough and street-aware. Some people will come up to me and say, ‘I’m not really a big fan of your music, but I really enjoyed your book.’”
Hill will be at Chapters in St. John’s from 12-2 p.m. Saturday, where he will perform from his latest CD, “Intimate,” as well as read from and sign copies of “I Am My Father’s Son.”