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'I'm counting on myself to tell the truth': A discussion with Richard Van Camp

Author Richard Van Camp stopped by the babble book club for a discussion of his latest short story collection Godless But Loyal to Heaven and we had the chance to ask him some questions about the book, his writing and much more.

We found out how Richard views himself within the canon of Canadian and Aboriginal literature, why he employs reoccurring characters and who he identifies with most and learned his propensity for emoticons Smile.

Cobbled together into an easily digestible format from our original babble thread, please enjoy the babble book club's conversation with Richard Van Camp!

While these stories are on the one hand universal in their appeal, I feel like if they target any specific audience, it is to young men or adolescent boys.  Is that fair to say?

This is my third collection of short stories and The Moon of Letting Go was such an exploration of the feminine that I wanted to return to many of my characters from Angel Wing Splash Pattern, The Moon of Letting Go and The Lesser Blessed and see where they were in their lives.

How was Torchy with and without his brother? Who was this new character named Bear?

I wanted to ask a question that I've been wondering about for years: "Who are the warriors of today and how does one show that they are?" and "Who are our protectors?"

Is there a particular character that the author feels empathy with?

I'm currently working on my new collection, Night Moves, and I notice that Torchy, Flinch, Bear and Kevin from my books (so far) are really with me these days. I'm sure the other characters like Grant from "Dogrib Midnight Runners" or "Children of the Sundance" will join in at some point.

Torchy is the best!

Torchy is a complex character: he first appears in "Mermaids" in Angel Wing Splash Pattern and you can listen to it for free on my website.

I always wondered what happened to him after "Mermaids" and decided to visit him again as a father figure.

I think Torchy and Sfen are warriors and are dangerous because "The Contract" is about revenge and having to be very careful with revenge because if you forgive someone but pass that spirit of revenge on to someone else, they could take your deepest wishes and actually carry them through.

Torchy and Sfen are capable of anything.

Wait until you see him and Sfen in "Because of What I Did," a new story coming out with Flinch as the narrator. He gets to see how dangerous Torchy and Sfen are as a hunting team.

They're also in my new graphic novel, A Blanket of Butterflies, and they are ruthless.

Torchy in the last story seems so markedly different than how he was portrayed before.

Torchy is older, wiser, humbled by his new adopted family's trust in him, so he's armed with in a new way with new instincts and this is why he lives to tell the tale of "Godless but Loyal to Heaven." What a story!

Clarence is an incredible character too.

Clarence is interesting: we first see him in "Let's Beat the Shit out of Herman Rosko!" in Angel Wing Splash Pattern, and he's later streaking with Grant and Brutus in "Mohawk Midnight Runners" in The Moon of Letting Go. (I can't wait for you to see the movie: it's "Mohawk Midnight Runners" directed by Zoe Hopkins, produced by Big Soul Productions!) Yet, we get to see him as a child in "Children of the Sundance."

He's a joy to write as he reminds me of my little brothers in so many ways: big hearted, political, concerned for the future generations.

Smile

Did you ever consciously decide that you were going to use reoccurring characters, and that those characters would transcend books and be represented in a nonlinear fashion?

And is this nonlinear representation more a factor of what story you wrote first and then wondered the consequences or the reasons?

A very important question.

No one is more surprised or pleased than me that I have characters who are showing up in new collections. Sometimes they are older; sometimes they are younger.

I'm always so fascinated in what makes a person "twist" or "accept" or "move on."

I'm so in love with Torchy and Snowbird and Flinch and Grant and I, too, can't wait to read about how their lives are turning out or explore chapters where we show up and get to watch them for awhile.

Do you have a preference for writing one genre over the other?

I love working in every genre: each has its own challenges and rules and with it comes various rewards. I don't think I could have pulled off the horror of "On the Wings of This Prayer," for example, as a novella. It's terrifying as a short story. The novella, "Godless but Loyal to Heaven" demanded that it be a novella.

The story is the boss.

Any other genres we can expect to see in the future in a Richard Van Camp story? Torchy in a hardboiled detective story? Also, where can a body pick up your kids book on horses these days? It seems to be out of print!

We are praying that What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? is back in print soon. Lee & Low have just announced A Man Called Raven is back in print so we are so so happy about this!

Torchy is actually in a longer story called "Furnace" where he meets a shape shifter. I can't wait for you to read it. It is a detective story.

As the father of a toddler, I'm wondering if the kids books were/are consciously for your enjoyment/relaxation as the writer -- a refuge from the tar sands, zombies and violence (implied or otherwise).

Then again, maybe it's not relaxing to write children's stories -- are they less effort or strain to produce?

A great question and observation!

I actually enjoy books and magazines and zines of photography for relaxation. I read tonnes of comics and graphic novels. I read all the time. Music soothes me, thank goodness. I also don't watch TV and I think that removes a lot of tension from my life.

I go see a pile of movies and that's fun, but the news is just so depressing and so much of what I see on TV these days is drab and depressing and I'd much rather float about the rooms of our home listening, sharing, crooning, dreaming.

Cool

A question about the horror fiction in your work, notably in the first two stories. It seems the best horror on film and fiction is closely related to historical acts of horrific violence or trauma. For example, race and Night of the Living Dead, or fascism and Spanish horror flicks like The Orphanage and Guillermo Del Toro. The trauma of colonialism and colonialist violence is so present in your stories, even when not explicitly mentioned. Could you talk about what horror as a genre is meant to evoke?

In an interview once when asked about your reading of "the uranium leaking...is killing us," you said you were channeling the voice of a father whose daughter had just died of cancer, a subtext not named in the story itself really. That seems to be analogous to this kind of connection between emotions evoked through some unnamed trauma.

Thank you for your question. I'm horrified and so worried about this time in our history: we really do live in a time of ecocide.

I wrote "On the Wings of this Prayer" in Pangnirtung after seeing how much the world has warmed and by listening to the elders talk. There is a new walrus now who hunts seals; there are hummingbirds in Fort Smith; we have coyotes in Yellowknife. The world is changing and I was so worried after hearing that there was a Wheetago buried near the Tar Sands of Alberta and that if we are not careful, it will return and all the bullets in the world won't stop it as it starts to feed.

 Frown

I'm lucky that I can take my emotions and translate them onto the page so I'm glad that the first two stories start nightmares as I'm a huge fan of great horror. I loved Stephen King growing up and I want to grab readers and pull them down into full blown terror.

Do you ever hesitate to portray the "realness" especially of the North, in your novels?

With the reference to movies, it seems parallel to when directors stick in these perfect versions of woman that aren't real and do a disservice to representing women.

No hesitation: why lie or why hold back? I'm counting on myself to tell the truth.

Can you talk about the juxtaposition of your bright positive personality and the dark writings and themes especially in Godless But Loyal to Heaven? And, within this, your ability to be honest about prevalent issues that plague First Nations communities and the world like addition, sexual assault and suicide, and still create sympathy and empathy within these characters.

Your frankness with scene and character really does a great service for the reality of issues but the realness of your characters.

I love writing all genres: poetry, children's books, comic books, short stories, essays, but when something breaks my heart like elder abuse, child abuse, human suffering, I have this ability to enlist one of my gladiators (it's like selecting knives before a fight: shall we use Torchy, Flinch, Larry) to tackle the dark spirit of what's coming.

I never want to be this writer that people can predict. I love scaring people and turning people on. I love making people laugh. I love breaking hearts. Because these characters are so so real to me: they're my brothers, my uncles, my friends, the strangers I'm afraid of, the ones I worry about.

I am grateful they visit me.

Smile

Given the dark subject matter of this conversation, this may or may not be the right time to mention that, according to the Afterword, "Tony Toenails" is based on a true story...

Yes, Tony Toenails is based on a true story. 

Wasn't it just so yummy that you wanted someone to suck on your toes and just start chewing?

Yell

"Children of the Sundance" is also based on a true story. It's sad that sooner or later we all show up to a party where someone has an agenda and they want to "play a new game."

Those new games often take us from innocence.

(As I write this, I'm putting the finishing touches on a sequel to "A Darling Story" and I realized that the couple I write about there are welcomed into what could be the most delicious night of their lives. SWOON!)

Embarassed

The book has a large, overwhelming visceral component and evokes a lot of physical and emotional response. You would get sucked into feelings and the characters and plot would just carry you along to the end.

Thank you! If I'm crying and/or laughing while I'm writing--that's usually a great sign.

In a series of short stories called Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic the stories are a combination of Inuit folklore and culture and fantasy and there are definitely some parallels with the first stories of Godless but Loyal to Heaven

What traditional or folk stories did you draw on for your short stories, and was it challenging to make those stories relevant in a contemporary story?

One of the many blessings I have is being from a small town where storytelling is treasured. I love setting up my stories where northerners are in contemporary settings. The gift I have is the ability to braid old teachings or Dene laws into today's stories.

For example, we have Ray the storyteller trying to seduce Swee Sim in "Love Song."

We have a warning from the future sent by a Dream Thrower warning us and two of the characters to stop the Tar Sands at all costs.

We have "Devotion" where a woman is pleading with spirits to take and trade her for the release of the love of her life.

All of these stories could not have been written had I not been a great listener growing up.

I get to share my worry, my joy, my heartache and breathe them into the stories I'm working on right now.

If I sense that I may know something that the world is forgetting, I love putting that into my stories.

Innocent 

How do you see yourself in relation to both Aboriginal literature and what we call Canadian literature. As you say, your writing is characterized by how you weave in myths and Native stories with Western conventions. At one point Clarence is eating Hawaiian pizza and another caribou. It is the gastronomical equivalent of your writing!

It seems that on one hand, there's a lot of pressure for an Aboriginal writer to "represent," but your writing seems to work so hard to push the boundaries of what counts as Aboriginal writing. Do you think about how your writing "fits" into the categories we make for it? ("Butterflies aren't meant for cages," etc.)

This is the perfect note to end on.

I love writing about Pop Culture and modern day living laced with the magic that Northerners bring to the world. I love being able to celebrate all that life has to offer while exploring the darkness of our times.

I can't wait for you all to see where these gorgeous characters who've bless my life are going to take us all next.

Mahsi cho!

Check out our National Aboriginal Day interview with Richard Van Camp, Taking Aboriginal Fiction to new heights: A conversation with Richard Van Camp.

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