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Taking Aboriginal Fiction to new heights: A conversation with Richard Van Camp

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Happy Aboriginal Day!

Richard Van Camp is an acclaimed Canadian author, a proud member of Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT and all around pretty charming fellow. We decided to sit down with Richard and ask him, among many things, what he thinks defines the Aboriginal Fiction genre and the contributions he has made to it, if writing degrees are really helpful to aspiring writers and what the Idle No More movement means for Indigenous sovereignty and Canadian identity.

All emoticons were expressly inserted and used with permission.Smile

What is your opinion of what constitutes the Aboriginal Fiction genre? Is it specified by the writers themselves or the techniques and styles with which they write?  

A great question: I think this is a term that's external from the process. All I know is I am Aboriginal and proud to be a part of the genre. I’m also proud to be recognized as a great writer and hilarious storyteller (my opinion). Laughing 

How do you think your books and writing have impacted this genre of Aboriginal Fiction?

I like to think I'm taking the genre to new heights with the sensual, the erotic, the hilarious and the terrifying in ways no other author has before or ever will. Laughing 

You've defined yourself as both an author and a storyteller. Do you differentiate between the two labels? How do these writing personae contribute to your writer style? Do they offer different elements?

I'm often asked to present as a keynote and as an author and as a storyteller. All three have different elements of ritual before I take the stage. It's rare that I take the stage as an author without braiding storytelling during the performance. Who wants to watch someone read for an hour? Not me. I want to see the human behind the author and get to know them in a way I can't with their words.

Do you believe you have crafted a specific style, like, when readers read your books they know instantly it is RVC?

I hope not!

I hope I can surprise readers with the different approaches I take to the style of prose I create. I also work with seven publishers who publish my short stories, baby books, comic books, children's books, etc., so I love it when I can write something as horrifying as On the Wings of This Prayers from Godless but Loyal to Heaven but have something so tender as our new baby book Little You.  

In regards to techniques, during this year's Canada Reads where Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse was a, er "contestant," Charlotte Grey mentioned that its lack of "magical elements" made it pale in comparison to other Indigenous writers' stories. Do you believe these elements of "mysticism" are necessary for the genre or is that a limited view?

I can't speak for Chalotte Grey's comment, but Richard Wagamese is a fantastic writer and clearly at the top of his game. If you get a chance, check out his novel Dream Wheels. That's my all-time favourite.The Next Sure Thing, one of his latest novels, is also a great read.

Hasn't Indian Horse won tonnes of acclaim and awards? I'm sure that speaks volumes to his craftsmanship behind Indian Horse and his incredible body of work.

Let's shift a bit here. You are a graduate of the En'owkin International School of Writing, the University of Victoria's Creative Writing BFA Program and have a Master's Degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. There has been some debate about what merit degrees, especially Master's degrees, in creative writing offer and how they shape and prepare writers. Sort of that "you can't teach writing" versus "it's a great way to hone a skill" debate. What were your experiences during your academic tenure? Would you say you fit in one camp over the other, or somewhere in between?

I think if you are serious as a writer and you have an opportunity to really focus on your craft with other students who are writers and editors and if you are open to being critiqued for as long as you can by readers who are incredibly thorough (I'm talking about both of your fellow students and your instructors) then go for it.

I went for my Master's so I could focus on my writing, but I also wanted to teach, as well. (I really hope there isn't a PhD in Creative Writing as what's the point? Your body of work should be your PhD.) At the same time, if you're a great reader with a critical eye and you have lived hard and true, that should also help forge an incredible voice that deserves reading.  

Your writing has spanned lots of genres -- children's literature, short stories, novels -- and now The Lesser Blessed is a movie! How do you create stories for these different genres -- do you start out with "I want to write a children's book" or do you let the story evolve first and allow it to be what it will be?

The story is the boss. If something comes and it starts to envelop me, there's a slow debate about what form it will take: is this a baby book? A graphic novel? A short story? A poem. Then I surrender and write it and then bring it to my publishers who I adore and they usually decide who gets what for the future.

Each of my publishers specializes, so I've learned that rejection is because of marketing and, often, I'm told that the story is just not ready and I truly appreciate that because publishing is a team effort -- both the publisher and I should be over the moon with the book we create together; this way we promote it wholeheartedly until the end of our days.  

How do you feel the story of The Lesser Blessed compares between your novel and the movie? It is no secret that when the medium changes, certain angles of the original story must too, especially when the medium of movie means lots of more hands in the pot. 

I love the movie so much. It took seven years to make and it was all so worth it. It all had to happened. No one will ever love the novel more than Anita Doron, the director, and no one will ever love the movie more than me. I've seen it nine times now and bawl every time I see it.

We have two small movies out right now based on my short stories: Mohawk Midnight Runners and Fire Bear Called Them Faith Healers and we are working on two short movie adaptations on two other short stories. I love working with filmmakers who want to turn my work into something we can see on the big screen.  

Our book club, the babble book club, is currently reading your latest story collection Godless But Loyal to Heaven. What inspired you to write this?

I think we live in terrifying times: everything's for sale and food and water security and safety is something we should all be concerned about. I've never seen so much horrific greed that is legal and accepted. We live in a time of ecocide.

I'm also interested in what makes a man a warrior today, so I love placing my characters in situations where everything they believe in or stand for is being tested.  

You've mentioned that what you want readers to take away from this book is you "want readers to wonder about these characters and these stories years after they’ve read them." What went in to crafting these characters to ensure the longevity of them?  

Godless But Loyal to Heaven took years to write and two years to perfect.

My editor, Maurice Miereau, raked me over the coals during that time and we earned every word. That sincerity and devotion to these stories are what have created their timeless spirits. We are so proud of this collection! I think about these stories every day and the book's been out for quite some time.

Violence is a dark presence in this book. How do you write these stories without playing into the racist views that some have of Canadian Aboriginal cultures?

I've always loved the adage that "Conflict reveals character," and I've employed my gladiators (Bear, Torchy, Sfen, Torchy, Grant, Clarence) -- or they've employed me -- to get them to enter some incredibly dark situations.

I like to think that all of them rise to the challenges presented to them in the ways they are most capable: Bear is faced with the terror of meeting a Wheetago who's taken hostage and he also wrestles with what to do with the principal who's molested his cousin; The brothers, Torchy and Sfen, are capable of incredible violence and they have the chance to do what Bear can't; Clarence faces racism and the end of innocence.

These are stories that I'd love to read because every narrator has a choice: revenge or surrender? Fight or forgive? Kill or Let Go.

Today is National Aboriginal Day and then ten days later it is Canada Day, which more than ever is both a national holiday and an opportunity for the Harper government to attempt to make its brand of conservatism synonymous with "Canadian" identity. rabble.ca is asking "along with the impact of Idle No More, what does this mean for Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty?"

Every day is Aboriginal Day for me!

I also enjoy Canada Day because I love this country for what it was and what it could be again. I hope the time we live in is just a bad dream and we'll all wake up and go, "Wait. So there were no omnibus bills that sold this country out to the highest bidder? There wasn't yet another wave of extinguishment bills on our Treaty rights and survival?"

I don't think that Harper's government ever considered that these all out attempts to put this gorgeous country of ours up for sale would unite both Canadians and Aboriginal people in the way it has. I think most Canadians are realizing that it is the Treaties that will protect so much of Canada.

What an ugly time for our country. Can we hit the "Undo" button on the past few years please?

I'd like to take this time to thank you, Kaitlin, and the readers here at rabble.ca for reading Godless but Loyal to Heaven. There are thousands of books that come out each year in Canada and I am so honoured and proud you have chosen our new collection.

Mahsi cho! Thank you so very much.

Richard Van Camp is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Canada and select works can be found online for your reading pleasure: A Darling Story from The Moon of Letting Go, Kiss Me Deadly and Show Me Yours from The Moon of Letting Go.

Richard Van Camp will be joining the babble book club Friday June 28 2 p.m. EST to discuss his latest collection of short stories Godless But Loyal to Heaven. Check out out Bound but not Gagged for more information on the discussion and the babble book club.

Between June 21 and July 1 -- National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day -- we'll be featuring a series of articles examining and critiquing the uses of Canadian identity, the resurgence of Indigenous movements for justice, and the ways in which activists and thinkers across these lands are addressing these fundamental questions. 

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