Judi: Did you always know from the time you were a child that you wanted to write?
Richard: When I was growing up in Fort Smith of the Northwest Territories, I inherited the most wonderful family, the most wonderful community. I had the best childhood growing up in the Northwest Territories. I was also privy to the best storytelling in the world in Fort Smith because northerners love stories. We love stories. Stories for us are the best medicine. Where I'm from, storytelling is how we honour one another. So growing up I was around some of the very best storytellers in the whole world. I didn't know I was going to be an author but one thing that people tell me was that I was always drawing, pen and ink, black and white, always drawing growing up. I have in a trunk in my dad's garage, stacks of notepads filled with drawings. As I was aging, I started to worry more about the titles of my drawings than the actual drawings. As I became 15, 16, 17 my drawings became smaller and my titles got longer, and they started to wrap around the page. In fact, I have a drawing in my dad's log house in Fort Smith where there's the tiniest drawing and yet the title wraps around in a circle five times before I sign it. Finally the drawing stopped. The titles turned into stories. That's how I became a writer.
Why I became an author is very interesting and simple: nobody was writing the stories that I wanted to read. Nobody was writing the stories about my life and my experience, what I saw, what I felt, what I heard, what I sensed. So I sat down and I wrote for five years, a story that turned into a novel. At the time I didn't know it was a novel, I didn't plan it. All I knew was I wanted to write something that ultimately I would want to read. Five years later I came out with my first novel The Lesser Blessed.
Judi: How old were you?
Richard: I can't remember. I've lived so many lives in this one I honestly couldn't tell you. But what I do know is we sold it in two weeks to Douglas & McIntyre. They bought it, it was published, and nothing prepared me for that. It was so incredible, everything that happened to me after The Lesser Blessed came out. About six months after it came out, I got a phone call from a publisher named Harriet Rohmer of Children's Book Press. She was the visionary, publisher, leader, and clan-mother of Children's Book Press. She had been speaking to a gentleman named Clifford Trafzer who was a huge editor in the US, who had come out with a book called Blue Dawn, Red Earth which included by short story "Sky Burial". Clifford and Harriet had been talking. Harriet, as the leader of Children's Book Press, wanted to start a new generation of children's books. For her publishing house, she wanted people who had never tried to write children's stories before. She wanted to approach them and to see what would happen. She knew that she needed to work with people who came from strong backgrounds of oral tradition and were gifted storytellers.
She called me and she said, "I haven't read any of your work but Clifford Trafzer said that you were a joy to work with. As an editor to an author, he said that you were very professional, and ultimately a superb storyteller. Do you have any children's stories that my publishing house would be interested in looking at?" I thought about it and I had had a short story published in a book that Douglas & McIntyre had published. The short story was called Raven and the editor was Joel Maki. The anthology was Steal My Rage.
I spent the next week writing down the children's stories that my mother had told me growing up in the Northwest Territories. I also photocopied the short story called Raven which is a story about cruelty to animals. But that was intended for adults, young adult and up. It was not intended for children. After I sent it, I didn't think I would ever hear from them again, because I thought, "My goodness, I've just come out with The Lesser Blessed," which is a brutal account of growing up in the Northwest Territories. Had they read this, I don't think that they would ever think I could ever write a children's story because The Lesser Blessed is so sexual, so brutal, so gorgeous in its darkness and faith, but I see now that I was putting those labels on myself because a great storyteller should be able to work in every genre, because after all, isn't every genre just great storytelling?
Harriet called me back about two weeks later and she said, "We love the story Raven. love everything you've sent but Raven is what we're interested in. Can you rewrite this for children? Can you do that?" I said, "Yes I can". So I rewrote it for them and they bought it. Then they called back and said, "We love it. How would you like to work with George Littlechild as your illustrator?" I could not believe it, because I had been George Littlechild's biggest fan for five years. What I didn't know was that Children's Book Press had come out with This Land Is My Land-- George's first children's book. I'd seen the book, but I did not put two and two together. So, for them to ask me "How would you like to work with George Littlechild?" was beyond anything I ever could have imagined because it was working with such a huge hero of mine. The honour - there are no words to tell you. It's like hearing you're going to be a father for the first time. I couldn't believe it.
We worked together for a year, but what I'll tell you is a very little known secret. I was not allowed to contact him, as much as I wanted to - I had stories, I had pictures, I had ideas. I wanted to see his artwork, I wanted to see the sketches, but basically I was forbidden. Because in children's literature there have been cases in the past where authors have called the artist and said, "What the hell have you done to my story? You are crucifying my story. This is not how it is. This is not how the people look." So, I was not allowed to speak to George for a year and it was agony. I wanted to know what those drawings were going to look like.
When The Lesser Blessed was published, it was the first book that had ever been written by a member of the Dogrib Nation, so this would be the first published children's book, and I knew that children's literature was going to get into the homes of the Dogrib people, of the Dene people of the North - this was the one that was going to get me into homes. I knew so much was riding on it because so many Dene people hadn't read my novel. I knew the children's literature was going to open so many doors and so many hearts to my stories.
When I received A Man Called Raven, it was a complete surprise because I didn't know what the artwork was going to look like. Because of my constant nagging, they'd sent me the thumbnail sketches, which are a shadow of the book. Nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of this book. It was hardcover. The quality of the Children's Book Press's colour separation, printing, layout was gorgeous. I'm so proud of that book.
It's a teaching story. It was so perfect and I was so happy. I can remember that day clearly, it was the first day of snow in 1997. My friend, Nicole McLeod, drove me to the post office, but at the same time she had just found out that a dog killer had shot her dog, so it was very tragic to have a book ceremony when she'd just heard that. A book of cruelty to animals and a dog killer who loved his job. He went beyond the call of duty to kill dogs, eh? A Man Called Raven came out and it was a celebration, even though Nicole's dog crossed over to the happy hunting grounds, we had to persevere.
Six months after A Man Called Raven came out, Children's Book Press called me again and said "We love working with you. Everything is going great. George loves working with you. We want to do another book with you." And I said, "I want to do a story about a wolverine, the caribou, all the Northern animals." She said, "Oh, wait a minute, Richard. George had to learn about ravens and the Dogrib people. George wants to do a book about horses." And I said "Oh! I've got a million stories about horses."
But, you know, that was a fib. Because where I'm from we don't have any horses. It's too cold. Eight months of the year there's snow; the four months of the summer there's bugs. We've got hair-eaters, mosquitoes, bulldogs, black flies, horseflies, you name it - we've got it in hoards. My God, in Fort Smith in the summer it looks like we're all wearing sweaters that are moving, but those are mosquitoes. And those bugs drive the horses mad. So, growing up I'd never ridden a horse until I was about 27. I was a stranger to horses. But I knew this was an opportunity to work with my hero again, so I told a little lie, eh? I hope the good lord above - I hope the boss upstairs forgives me for that. And I said, "Oh I've got a million horse stories." They said, "Good, you've got five days to show us what you can do, because we're getting ready for our fall line-up. " So in five days I wrote What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? How I wrote it was simple: I asked everybody, "What's the most beautiful thing you know about horses?" Everyone who called my house, every elder I could think of, all my neighbours, all my friends, "What's the most beautiful thing you know about horses?" And that was how I came up with that book.
Judi: How did you think of the question?
Richard: Well, I needed to know. I knew the book had to be beautiful and I knew it had to be about horses, so I just connected the dots. And the rest is history.
Judi: Those are the two books that you've created for children so far that have been published. Could you mention stories that haven't yet been published?
Richard: I have a manuscript called The Magic of Wolverines. I also have two adventure stories based on my grandma and my grandfather, Pierre and Melanie Wah-shee. One is called The Mysterious Case of Grandma and Grandpa and Wolf Teeth in the House, which is about personal hygiene, taking care of your teeth and your gums. It's based on a true story about the day my grandfather got brand new teeth and how my grandmother threw them away, thinking they were wolf teeth in the house. It's a tragicomedy. I also have another story about my grandmother and my grandfather, and this is based on true story as well, and this is about the biggest moccasins in the world. It's a true story of an encounter my grandparents and my uncle Eddy as a little boy had with a Sasquatch. They were out on the barren lands hunting caribou and they had an encounter with a Sasquatch. We call them "nagha" and that means "bushman." This is a true story of everything that happened after that encounter. It's a story about respect.
Judi: Are they all picture books
Richard: Picture books, yes.
Judi: Could you say something about your work with George Littlechild? First of all, what I understand is that the publishers kept you separate. Did you get to meet with him or communicate with him afterwards?
Richard: We did. Vision TV actually has our very first meeting on tape. I had been whining for a year about how I had been unable to meet George. So, after A Man Called Raven came out, the producer, Dorothy Christian, arranged for us to meet for the first time and did a show about it. It was a Cree interpretation of a Dogrib story. So two tribes that were traditional enemies were working together.
Judi: That's very interesting. What was that meeting like?
Richard: It was heaven. It was absolute heaven to meet my hero.
Judi: He is most remarkable in writing and art and in vision.
Richard: His work is so sensual. It's so graceful and sacred. To work with somebody that spiritual and that gentle and that generous with his spirit - it was beyond anything I ever could have imagined. I knew I was in the presence of the sacred when I shook his hand.
Judi: Do you feel he captures the Dogrib society and the life and environment in his art? Do you feel his art works with your stories?
Richard:When you look at A Man Called Raven, the panel of the raven flying over the drummers, that is Dogrib. I'll tell you another story about how powerful George Littlechild is. One thing my publisher let me do when we were working on A Man Called Raven was send books and pictures to George about how the Dogrib dressed, what the Dogrib looked like, how we keep our hair short. You can always tell Dogribs just by their noses, by their chins, by their cheeks, by how dark their eyes are. I sent pictures of my whole family to him. In fact those pictures that I sent to him are the pictures that you see in What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses?
When we did our first reading together in Vancouver at our book launch, I said to the audience, "Now ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, I want to show you the most beautiful picture that George did of my mother." I saw George's eyes kind of bug out, and he quickly hid that, but I saw that. Afterwards when we went for coffee, I said, "George, what happened when I said 'Look at the picture that he did of my mom.'" I said "This is the picture of Chris and Toby's mom that you did. The full portrait of the beautiful Dogrib woman, that's my mom Rosa Washii. My mom loves that picture because that's a picture of her."
He said, "Richard, you sent me pictures of your brothers, your dad, your uncles, your grandma, your grandpa, all of your best friends and all of your buddies. You never sent me a picture of your mother."
I said, "I did so, I remember I sent out a whole stack of pictures."
He said, "I never got them. I went on how you look and how your brothers look, and I imagined the most beautiful Dogrib woman."
I swear to God he drew my mother. Anyhow, when you compare that portrait he did in A Man Called Raven and you put that true picture of my mother, Rosa Wah-shee, from What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? - that's the same woman.
After that book tour, I went back home to the North and I looked around for those pictures? You know where they were? They were on top of my fridge. I forgot to mail them because I didn't have the stamps.
Judi: He had a vision.
Richard: He went on vision. If that doesn't answer your question, I don't know what will.
Judi: His spirit captured your mother's spirit. The visual images are mostly from photos that you sent him of your family and friends?
Richard: I sent him pictures of my dad's truck that we called "The Green Death." I sent him pictures of our dog, Holmes.
Judi: That's wonderful. Let's go back to your stories for a minute. Could you discuss the values and themes in your stories; what the values and themes are, and if you feel they're teaching stories? If you feel they are personal and also reflect your culture? Respect is obviously a theme and a sense of the sacred is part of that. When I read them, that's what I feel.
Richard: Family. Identity, because I'm half: half White, half Dogrib. I was raised away from the Dogribs because my parents were taxidermists in Forth Smith. I was raised in a town that was officially quadrilingual. The Métis capital of the North: French, Chippewayan, Cree and English - is Fort Smith. It's the most beautiful place in the world. I love Fort Smith so much. I'll be buried in Fort Smith. I was born there, and I'll be buried there, because I love it so much.
I was raised away from my people, but raised with Northerners. We were very few Dogribs in the 1970's. There were very few Dogribs there. My parents went there as entrepreneurs to make money. They did very well. In my work: family, identity, culture, and the essential question: "What does it mean to be Dogrib?" Being half, I make the joke that I could be the cowboy or the Indian when we used to play guns, because I was half cowboy and half Indian. So, that's a recurring theme in my adult literature and in my children's literature.
Judi: How about your attraction for animals and your use of animals as important symbols and presences
Richard: My grandfather used to sneak into wolf dens to gather wolf cubs. He raised them, walked with the wolves, and bred them with dogs, so his dog team was half wolf, half dog.
Growing up, we have a lot of creation stories. For example, for the Dogrib people, we come from a woman who gave birth to six pups. So we have creation stories about cat, wolverine and loon. We know many secrets about the animals because we can learn from the animals on how best to live our lives.
Also, what happens in nature happens with us. That's why I like to write about animals; we always talk about them, just as they talk about us. In What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? I said: "I learned that there's an animal on this earth who knows your secret name."
I always tell children when I read that, if there's an animal that you love, you should learn as much as you can about that animal because the most precious things are defenceless. Learn as much as you can about that animal and help them, because they may be trying to learn as much as they can about you. We're wolf clan, my family. We're wolves. I really believe that we have so much to learn from the animals because the animals watch us. They talk about us, of course. We have the greatest influence over their lives. It really is true when they say that the most precious things are defenceless. The animals of this earth are defenceless. We have a responsibility as caretakers of this earth and for the seven generations. So that's why I love to write about animals. I love learning about animals.
Judi: How did you change your adult version of the Raven story to one for children? How did you feel the voice changed? How did you feel the content changed? How is children's writing different from adult?
Richard: I put it as more of a dance. I put more of a rhythm in it. When you grow up, you grow up dancing, you grow up with song, you grow up with spirit. As you age, so many of us we stop singing, so many of us stop dancing. We think: "Oh God, please don't ask me to dance." I went back and I put a dance in there. When I read it, I can't help but sway, I think I really called that spirit of innocence back.
Judi: All of your writing sways. It's like poetry, like song, it makes me want to sing. How much of these two stories and the others that you've written are autobiographical?
Richard: A Man Called Raven is based on the Dogrib stories my mother told me of a man who loved to torture animals, but I braided that with two crazy brothers I grew up with in Calgary, when I did my Grade 3 there - Chris and Toby. They loved to torture animals.
I'm the oldest of four boys but I'm the shortest now, so I have to fight dirty. There were two stories of cruelty that my mom told me growing up. I noticed, as the oldest brother of four, that boys go through stages. Number one: dinosaurs. There's lots of little five- year-old PhD's out there who just know everything there is to know about dinosaurs. Number two: a stage of fire. They play with fire because that's their tribal memory and they're learning about power. Number three: every boy goes through a stage where they experiment with cruelty to animals, because they're learning again about power.
I took my role as the eldest brother, and I knew I wanted to write a story about cruelty to animals. I said, "I wonder what would happen if that man that my mom told me about who turned into a Raven met Chris and Toby, those two psychopaths that I grew up with in Calgary?" That's how I wrote A Man Called Raven. I braided my mother's teachings with real people, two little boys who meant horrible sorry business with the animals. They were always torturing cats or seagulls or something.
Judi: That's part of what made that story so profound in a different way from most myths or legends, because there's a very strong sense of the mythic and the real together. Were you looking for that tone?
Richard: I didn't want this to be something that didn't apply to today. I wanted it to be as relevant today - I wanted it to be culturally relevant today. I wanted kids in the city and kids in the villages and hamlets all over the world to read it. They'll understand, because everybody knows about cruelty to animals. It goes back to the truth that the most precious things are defenceless. So that's what matters to me. I never want to write something that's outdated. I want to write something that any parent anywhere can say, "This is how the Dogribs are doing it and that's how we're going to do it in this home!"
Judi: I found the mix of poetry, warmth and humour in your stories just wonderful. Could you discuss your sense of humour?
Richard: Aboriginal people are very funny. The stereotypes out there are, of course, that we're lazy, and every other stereotype there is. A lot of the humour that's on TV about us makes us look stupid. I think The Rez is atrocious. I don't like the way it makes us look. We all looked mentally delayed.
That's not how we are. We're very witty, we're very fast, we're very smart. I wanted to show how cheeky we can be, but, at the same time, how intelligent and how sincere. We are a very romantic people and we're very sincere in what we know and what we're willing to share. We're willing to welcome you into our homes to share with you our stories and that's what children's literature is all about: "I'm inviting you into our home, my home, the home I grew up in, I'm inviting you to listen to my mother's stories, my grandfather's stories, my grandmother's stories, my brother's story. I'm going to be cheeky, I'm going to tell you off, I'm going to make you laugh, I'm going to honour you, but ultimately I'm going to pass on our teachings."
That's what I like about children's literature. Also, when you write a children's book, you've written your own passport to anywhere in the world. I can walk into any school and say: "Hi, my name is Richard Van Camp, I have two children's books, I have an hour, could I please read to your children - any students, any grades." I'll always have an audience with children's literature. With adult literature it's very different, because children's literature is for everyone. It's not just for kids. There are a lot of adults out there who read nothing but children's literature, because there's a little one in all of us.
Judi: I think so. How is it different from adult literature?
Richard: There isn't always an audience for what you're trying to write because not everyone's interested in realist literature. Not everyone wants to read about Indians. Not everyone wants to read about the North. People will always think "What's in it for me? I don't know these people; I don't want to know them. That's not my reality. I want to read about the city. I don't want to read about Fort Smith, NWT." But in children's literature, the marriage between the art and the text is going to grab anybody if the artwork's gorgeous and the story means a lot.
Judi: Have you had experiences where adults have told you what your children's picture books have meant to them? Or reviews, have you seen any reviews of your books?
Richard: There are clipping services for each publisher that I work with and you get reviews whether you want them or not. Good or bad, you get them. The response has been overwhelming. We haven't received a single negative review.
I see it in the smiles when I walk into a room and can tell who's already read the book. I've been invited to the US and all across Canada to do readings for my children's literature. My adult literature has taken me all over the world now.
Judi: Have you ever given talks to adult groups about your children's books rather than just readings?
Richard: I always tell the story of how I became a writer and how I wrote A Man Called Raven and Horses, but I've never gone in front of a room and just talked specifically about children's literature.
Usually they want to hear about the adult literature. I'm missing my target audience if I say, "I want to talk about children's literature." Adults want to hear the stories; they want you to read to them. It's very hard to read a children's book to a room full of an audience that want adult literature, but I can talk to kids K-12 about children's literature.
Judi: What would you say about your sense of language?
Richard: Somebody said something once that I've never been able to forget about Horses. They said they didn't think of it as a children's book in terms of the linear sense. They thought it was a collection of poetry on every page, about horses. And I had never thought of it that way before. But when I heard that I went back and I looked at it and I could see how they could think that. They weren't interested in how linear the story was and how the causality of pages one through 18. They were so caught up in the imagery.
I knew that I wanted to introduce you to my family. I wanted to call you into my home and show you my community. You met my friend Mike - because my brother was in Costa Rica on vacation and I was over at my friend Mike's house and he was trying to quit smoking, and that's why he said - "I don't like horses." He was just so miserable. So I had to put that in.
Then my friend Heather, a poet, called from Yellowknife to talk. And I asked, "What's the most beautiful thing you know about horses?" She said, "My favourite horse is the Appaloosa because an Appaloosa is the horse with freckles." I just took it from there. Because I come from such a strong background with oral history and tradition and storytelling, I really believe Aboriginal authors can work in any genre because we are such strong storytellers. It's nothing for us to tell a story. That's how I'm able to work in any genre, whether it's a short story, screenplay, novel, or kid's book.
I basically had to take the best answer from my dad, my mom, my brother Johnny, my brother Jamie, my friend Mike, my friend Heather, then the artist George Littlechild. Then I knew I wanted to end it with some other secrets I learned about animals along the way. Like frogs are the keepers of rain. That was one of my dear friends, Morningstar Mercredi told me that. She's Chipewyan (Dene). My friend Lorny Metchooyeah who's Dene Tha' from Assumption, Alberta told me that eagles have three shadows. So I knew that I wanted to put that in but I didn't know how. I had five days and I just started to work and work and work. That was how I wrote it. I didn't strategize, I just did it.
Robert Creeley said, "Form should echo content." My form emerged from the content and the content was what everybody told me. Just because we didn't have horses didn't mean we couldn't talk about them, because we're good at gossip in Fort Smith. Boy we've got PhDs in gossip. So even if we don't know you, we can still talk about you. We don't know the horses, but we know of them. We remember them because there was a time when there were horses - many, many years ago, but the mosquitoes brought a sickness to them. It crippled them.
Judi Because oral storytelling is so much part of you, do you think your written stories differ from oral storytelling or do you have to strive for an oral voice in your written stories?
Richard: I think it's just plain there because I was born with it; I was raised with it. It's inherent. When you read The Lesser Blessed you'll see that my main character is a traditional storyteller and he's only 16. He knows so many beautiful stories, powerful stories, because he knows that stories are medicine.
Judi: Do you want to say something about that for a minute? Stories are healing and stories are strength.
Richard: Well, when you read the Good Book it says, "In the beginning was the Word." Words are powerful. Words can maim. Words can stop a life. You can stop somebody from growing. You can maim, hurt, wound - but you can also heal, you can also help somebody mend. You can give people the answers they've been looking for their whole lives in a chance encounter. When we're wounded, we go to somebody, often to hear the words that are going to give us the strength to carry on. When you've been hurt by somebody it isn't action a lot of times, it's words. You know the saying, "Only the one that hurt you can make you feel better." That's the power of the word. Stories - I'm a traditional storyteller.
When I walk into a room, I often don't know what stories I'm going to tell. After I'm done, maybe an hour later, it's not uncommon for me to have people come up to me and say, "You told my story. That was me you were talking about. How did you know?" But they called the stories from me. We're all storytellers. Every member of this human tribe. We are raised with stories, we are taught by stories, stories are how we pass on culture, law, memory. All of us have an inherent respect for stories. That's why I saw stories are good medicine. Again, you can give someone their wings back.
Judi: Do you think children's picture books can do that too?
Richard: Oh yes, oh yes. Children's literature is such incredible medicine because it speaks to the little one in all of us. You have to honour that little one inside of you. I was told once that I have a little boy inside of me that's so free and so happy and you can see that in What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? You can see the elder in me, the storyteller and the teacher, in A Man Called Raven. The lady who told me this was Debbie Samson. She said, "Richard, keep honouring that little boy, because that's your saving grace. That little guy inside of you that's so cheeky, and so high energy, and has to wear the brightest sweaters so that when you run away from your mom she can just look out the window and see you running down Sesame Street—the street I grew up on in Fort Smith. If you don't have him, if you silence him, you're going to get old fast and you're going to pack for everybody. You keep that little boy. You honour him." That's what children's literature does, it honours a little girl in you and a little boy in me.
Judi: Are there other First Nations authors who have written for children whom you admire?
Richard: Michael Kusugak.
Judi: Have you met Michael?
Richard: Yes, many times. We've done readings in Winnipeg together. I went out of my way in 1990, I think, to meet him. I was studying land claims in Yellowknife at Aurora College, and Michael was on a book tour in Yellowknife. I tracked him down and asked him questions about what it was like being a writer. I knew he wrote children's books and at that time I didn't think I was ever going to write a children's book but I was interested in him as an author in terms of what was his ritual, what was his work schedule, who was his publisher. I was more interested in the mechanics. I didn't know any authors and he was the first, true-blue author I ever met. Somebody who toured, somebody who had a publisher behind him, somebody who was working with a great artist like Vladyana Langer Krykorka. Michael put up with me for an hour in the hotel. He answered every question. Years later, I saw him again; by that time my kids' books were out. He said, "I always knew that you would go on to publish because you had it. It was already there. It was in your eyes. You knew what you wanted, you just didn't know how to get there." That's the story of so many people, especially in the world of indigenous publishing. They know they want to do it, but they don't know how. They don't know how to get the agent. They don't know how to get the publishing house. They don't know the mechanics. One of our students within the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia, Nicola Campbell, just sold her first kid's book to Groundwood.
Judi: Patsy Aldana is wonderful to work with.
Richard: Patsy's already been in touch with her. So that's great news.
Judi: Are there other First Nations writers of picture books that you can think of that you admire?
Richard: I love This Land is My Land by George Littlechild. Pemmican Press has a new book called Li Minoush in Michif, the language of the Métis. It means cat. It's written by a new author, Bonnie Murray. I like W.D. Valgardson.
Judi: Did you study with him at Victoria?
Richard: I did; he was a great mentor.
Judi: He did a good job with Sarah and the People of Sand River. That raises the question of cultural appropriation. He's a good example of someone who spoke about First Nations people.
Richard: He spoke about them, he wasn't speaking for them. And he spoke about them with respect. So I respect that. I don't want to listen to a counterfeit. I want to read right from the source.
You can choose now - you can read W.P. Kinsella, for example, or you can choose to read the real work of Sherman Alexie, Robert Arthur Alexie, Drew Haydon Taylor, Jeannette Armstrong, Lee Maracle, Maurice Kenny - you name it. I don't want to be lied to. I want it right from the source.
Judi: Do you have as much to choose from in children's publishing?
Richard: Well, Jeannette Armstrong has a lot of teaching stories. Beatrice Culleton- Mosionier--she has a new children's book out with Theytus Books. It's growing. There are four Aboriginal publishers in Canada: Kegedonce Press, Theytus Books, Gabriel Dumont Society and Pemmican Press.
Judi: Why don't we take a minute on this. Where is Kegedonce located?
Richard: Cape Croker Reserve, Wiarton, Ontario.
Judi: Pemmican and Theytus publish a lot for children. Do you know if Kegedonce and Dumont are publishing much for children?
Richard: Both of them have a children's line. Another great Aboriginal children's writer is Jordan Wheeler.
Judi: Is he Canadian?
Richard: He's Métis, and he has a two-book series, with the main character Chuck Just a Walk and Chuck in the City. Beautiful books; that's rhythm right there. Tomson Highway wrote The Caribou Song.
Judi: What are your thoughts on the difference between Aboriginal writers getting known through Aboriginal publishing houses, and Aboriginal writers who are big names for their adult writing publishing with mainstream publishing houses? What are your thoughts on the difference, for instance, Thomas King and Tomson Highway?
Richard: The struggle with Aboriginal publishers is that they do not have access to the sales reps the way larger Canadian publishers do. They do not have access to the massive promotion that larger Canadian publishers have access to. Aboriginal publishers do not have access to huge financial backing. Theytus, the oldest Aboriginal publisher in Canada, has only been around for 20 years. A lot of [non-Aboriginal] publishers have been around a lot longer than that. But that's changing. For example, world indigenous literature is growing all over the world right now. The academic community is very attentive to what's going on in the indigenous level. I had an editor at the University of Queensland Press say, "Aboriginal literature is the new literature." Because if you think about it, I'm only the second literate generation of the Dogrib people. So, that's happening all over the world. Aboriginal publishers are harnessing that power and they're promoting that power. A lot of publishers are teaming up with other publishers, for example, Kegedonce Press teamed up with Jukurrpa Books of IAD Press in Australia to produce a world indigenous anthology called Skins. They've just come out with a brand new erotica anthology, world indigenous erotica. They teamed up with a New Zealand publisher, Huia Publishers, for this gorgeous collection.
So, Aboriginal publishers are finding their way with the Literary Press Group, for example, so they have access to editors and sales reps. Theytus Books is now with the Literary Press Group so they have access to editors. The challenge in the past was to have world-class copy editors combing through their work - because it is a science, a religion. Now that Aboriginal publishers are starting to have access to that, the quality of the literature is only increasing tenfold. That is going to attract the audiences and show the literature is professional. It's not good enough just to have an Indian name on an Indian book published by Indians. The integrity of any publisher is in its editing. The second I spot a typo, in any book that I read, the credibility of that publisher drops. That's not the author's fault. That's the publishing house's fault. Mistakes can occur at the publisher's office and at the printers that were not in the original manuscript. I would say then that the main difference is in the quality of the editing.
Judi: Do you feel part of the community of Canadian writers and illustrators for children?
Judi: Do you know them very well?
Judi: Why is that?
Richard: When I read, I read with other Aboriginal people. When I tour, I tour alone or with other Aboriginal authors. I've never shared the stage with another Canadian author reading from children's books at the same time.
Judi: Maybe that's because there are two picture books instead of ten.
Richard: I don't know why that is, but it's a really good question. I've never shared a reading with a Canadian children's author. I mean, I'll read children's books written by Canadian authors, but I've never shared the stage. I've never been compared to another Canadian author.
Judi: What languages did you speak growing up?
Richard: English and horrible high school French, which comes out in my adult literature.
Judi: Did you learn the Dogrib language at a later date?
Richard: I'm trying to learn it as an adult; it's very hard when you don't live in Dogrib territory.
Judi: Did multilingual, bilingual, Aboriginal English heritage shape your stories? The sense of language, the sense of a First Nations language.
Richard: The history of the people and the storytelling shaped me, but not the Dogrib language - unfortunately. I wish I knew it. I'm trying to reclaim it. It's a very slow and arduous journey. I know very little of my language and I've very sad about that. I'm ashamed about it actually.
Judi: Tomson Highway's two picture books are bilingual. What do you think about that?
Richard: I would love to see my books translated into Dogrib and in Cree.
Judi: Have you ever talked to anybody about that?
Richard: Nobody's ever talked to me. I don't quite know who to talk to about where to go with that.
Judi: I wouldn't know either, except maybe the publisher, maybe Tomson Highway's publisher. If they've done it once they can do it again.
Richard: That's where Aboriginal publishers come in, because they have no problem [with different languages] and you'll see that with all four of the publishers I've talked about. Look at what they're publishing. Chances are nine times out of ten it's translated into a different Aboriginal language as well.
Judi: Who do you see as your primary audience for these books? Do you think all children, or do you think First Nations first in stories that reflect something for them.
Richard: I think because I work with George Littlechild, it's for all children. He has such a huge audience of people. He's world-renowned. I've read that book in schools that are completely on-reserve, 100 percent Aboriginal and I've read in schools where there is not one Aboriginal student in the class. Each time it's a hit. I really believe my kids' books are for all ages, for all races.
Judi: Do you feel in your children's books that you have a role in creating cultural identity for First Nations children? Do you think they, in a sense, create part of Canadian culture or Canadian cultural identity?
Richard: Well Canadian cultural identity is based on Aboriginal history. I like to think that Canadian history should really uplift, uphold and respect Aboriginal history and identity. I hope that my literature is being embraced and uplifted by Canadian literature because I'm very proud to be Canadian and I'm very proud to be Dogrib.
When you travel internationally, you learn very quickly how respected Canadians are all over the world. They say "To go up against a Canadian is like slapping a nun." So we're protected. Let's not do anything to mess up that myth!
Judi: So you experience a respect for Canadians and a respect for adult Canadian literature? Do people know anything about Canadian children's literature?
Richard: No. They know a lot about Canadian authors. They know about the immigrants who have come here and have gone on to publish and win prizes. But they don't know about people who were actually born and raised here who are publishing good work.
Judi: Your children's books have been published by quite a large-sized American publisher, not a small Canadian publisher, and not an Aboriginal publisher, but in fact by a publisher that thinks of itself as multicultural. How might it have differed if it had been a Canadian publisher?
Richard: It wouldn't have received the attention it did, because you're not appreciated in your own backyard. Had it gone to a Canadian publisher or an Aboriginal publisher, I'm worried it wouldn't have gotten the publicity that it did. I mean, there's ten times the population in the US and we've done very well with the children's books. The fact that it's hardcover, the quality of the paper - it's a timeless work of art. I'm very, very proud of those books. It almost spoiled me because until I can meet a publisher who can match that, I don't want to work with them. I'm not interested in them, I don't want to dilute the quality of what I'm going to do with a publisher who can't back it up with proper marketing. I don't want my books to sit in the warehouse. I want them in homes. I want them to be read.
Judi: It's really a problem with smaller Canadian publishers with less money and less people to buy them.
Richard: Do you know how long the shelf life is for a Canadian book in any bookstore here in Vancouver? Three weeks. You've got three weeks before they send it back. There are ten thousand books published every year in Canada. That's a lot of books - too many for the country to digest properly. Imagine publishing with a smaller publisher without access to promotional dollars or sales reps. You don't stand much of a chance, do you? That's what it's like for a lot of Canadian authors and this is where the internet and word of mouth come in. Can I just say God bless our librarians, teachers, book lovers, book club leaders, teacher-librarians, Sessional teachers, professors, instructors - everyone who loves to read and has the power to get the word out about quality literature, because without them, the publishing industry within this country would sink pretty quick!
Judi: Children's bookstores aren't the same, but I think of it as books-as-rutabagas syndrome. They think they're going to rot on the shelf. The small Canadian publishers have said that when they try to sell rights into the American market, and that American publishers very often want them to change the place names or a sense of identity to make it generically North American so they can sell better in the States. Horses begins:
Richard: "It's the coldest day of the year."
Judi: " . . . in my hometown of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories of Canada." What I said was, "If this was a Canadian publisher for children trying to survive by selling into the American market, it wouldn't be published with that first sentence."
Richard: I'm happy I bypassed [Canadian publishers] and went straight to the US because we immediately went into a huge market with two books of great quality in terms of story, message and presentation.
Judi: I wonder if Children's Book Press didn't see your story as Canadian. Did they see it simply as Aboriginal and not Canadian? Did you have discussions on what do you think they were looking for?
Richard: When you read on their website, they always say, "In Canada's Northwest Territories." Because if you just say "Northwest Territories" without adding Canada, the reader could think that was Australia, so you have to be careful. They use that to locate. I do know of authors who have been asked to change names. Some have and some haven'--Mostly in adult writing.
Judi: I thought that was more common in children's writing. How important do you think the specificity of regionalism is to making a story real or authentic?
Richard: I'll only ever write about the Northwest Territories, because that's where I'm from. With my adult literature, I have a couple of short stories that are in different cities outside of the North, but I'm going to write about who I am and where I'm from.
Judi: Whether for children or adults?
Richard: Whether for children or for adults. Because I'm from the North and I love the North and I'm proud of it. I want the world to know about the North. I want the world to know where I'm from and I want the world to know how my people and my fellow Northerners are. I want the world to know how friendly, how fun, how majestic, how pristine, how fabulous the Northwest Territories is. I'm very proud of the Northwest Territories.
Judi: Thank you
Richard: Mahsi cho, Judi!