Award-winning author Joseph Boyden headlines this year's Whistler Writers Festival, which runs from Oct. 17 to 19. He will be in conversation with writer and broadcaster Bill Richardson and is reading from his most recent novel The Orenda on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available at www.whistlerwritersfest.com.
Boyden's novels concentrate on First Nations heritage and culture; his own heritage is Irish, Scottish and Anishinaabe. He divides his time between Northern Ontario and Louisiana.
Part two of the interview will appear in the Sept. 18 issue of Pique Newsmagazine.
Pique: How is it going to feel to be back in Whistler?
Joseph Boyden: It's going to be great to be back. It's been a long time, a few years. It was for the writers' festival. I did an event with (author) Steven Galloway... (Whistler Writers' Festival organizer) Stella (Harvey) is an amazing woman.
Pique: You've won two very different awards: Canada's top literary award the Giller Prize for Through Black Spruce in 2008 and "Canada Reads" on the CBC for The Orenda in 2014. What is the impact of both?
JB: One's a more populist vote and the other is more a blessing from the literary community. With the Giller, that was just phenomenal. (First novel) Three Day Road had done really well, too, in terms of being nominated for awards, winning the Amazon First Novel Award. I feel really lucky and blessed that my books have been recognized over the years.
A lot of people say, and I wonder if it's not true, that you need that kind of coverage in order to sell your books. There are so many great writers out there... the prizes do so much of the heavy lifting for you. Three Day Road came out and it was short listed for the GG (Governor General's Award), and that kind of coverage a writer can only dream of because it does what a great marketing department with a lot of money behind it can't do, that's get the word out to people and say this is a book worth reading.
Word-of-mouth is the other important thing. People talking about it. But with the Giller it was such a huge deal. I (was) swept up by it...
Pique: An amazing achievement for a second novel, too...
JB: I was amazed. Suddenly it was the talk of the town. Book sales skyrocketed, obviously. It had already been doing well but then it took off. There's a certain sense of gravitas attached to the Giller.
And Canada Reads is phenomenal. The Orenda was long-listed for the Giller... and I was a little bummed actually, when everyone tells you that your book is going to make the shortlist and it doesn't.
But what was great with Canada Reads was with (First Nations musician and broadcaster) Wab Kinew, and the aboriginal community, giving it their blessing as well — (that) was really important to me personally. It put the book out there in a way that made me feel so lucky. People hear about it, the 'A book that can change a nation.' I don't think there is a book that can do that.
Pique: And who wants the burden, anyway...
JB: Yeah (laughs). That kind of coverage is a writer's dream, I think.
Pique: Canada Reads goes on over a period of time, people start arguing.
JB: And it's smart debate, too. I was so impressed. I didn't want to watch it, because it's kind of nerve rattling. I forgot my book was in it, listening to the debate when it wasn't about The Orenda. It was done in such a thoughtful manner, and where else can that happen? In Canada.
In the States, they're like, 'Really? What a brilliant idea.' But I couldn't see that working in the States, though... I think for Canada it's tailor-made for the size of our population and our national interests.
Pique: Now that you've had a year since The Orenda came out and you've been going to festivals and reading it to people, how have your feelings about the book and the story evolved?
JB: I knew this was a really important book to me, personally. I wanted it to be my first book, but I wasn't good enough to write it. That kind of awareness back then... and that people have responded to it in the way that I hoped they would. 'Oh my God, there's a history.' Canada wasn't born in 1867 when John A. Macdonald declared a country, there's a long history to us that a lot of people don't know. A lot of people are responding to that. An alternative perspective of our history. History belongs to the victor, but those who lost too much should get to speak as well.
Pique: So many people don't know much about geopolitics of that time. We are taught more about what was happening in Europe at the time.
JB: Absolutely. Or the U.S. Anyone who says that Canadian history is boring doesn't know our history.
Pique: How did you find the response to the way that the First Nations were depicted? I've seen some criticisms, as well as the positive. Did any of that impact you?
JB: I've been blessed because I've always been accepted by aboriginal communities in Canada. Maybe that's because social media has become so intense, but a few people did speak out against The Orenda. If you're going to compare the negative critiques of The Orenda to the positive, it's a thousand to one kind of thing. There's only been a couple, one of them being (Ojibwe and Pottawotami academic) Hayden King (on CBC online).
He does have a point, in that Haudenosaunee people are too easily painted as the bad guys, and I recognized that going in and tried to fight that in the writing of (the Haudenosaunee character) Snow Falls. But I strongly disagreed with him... there were points made that were valid for sure, but there were others that weren't. Yeah, it stung a little bit.
I went out to meet Taiaiake Alfred, who is a really powerful (Kahnawake Mohawk political science) professor at the U of Vic(toria). He had some issues with me and the book at first, so I went out and met him, and we had really good conversation and managed to see eye-to-eye on things. Smoothed some ruffled feathers, I think. That's what you've got to do.