An Interview with Richard Van Camp (December 2008)
by Jordan Wilson
Richard Van Camp is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Canada. A graduate of the En'owkin International School of Writing, the University of Victoria's Creative Writing BFA Program, and the Master's Degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Richard currently teaches Creative Writing with an Aboriginal Focus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He is also an online instructor with the Emily Carr Institute teaching Creative Writing and Storytelling. As well, Richard works with Musqueam First Nations youth with the Musqueaum Youth Project.
Jordan Wilson is a third year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Arts and a member of the Musqueam Indian Band. He plans to double-major in First Nations Studies and English Literature.
Richard Van Camp (RVC ): Hey everybody my name is Richard Van Camp and I am a member of the Dogrib First Nations from Fort Smith, NWT, and I teach at the University of British Columbia. I also work with Musqueam First Nations Youth, and I am an author and a storyteller.
Jordan Wilson (JW): When did you first start writing?
RVC: I started writing when I was 19 years old. And do you want to know why? Very simple. The reason I started writing was because when I grew up in Fort Smith I loved to read and I loved to tell stories and I loved to gossip and I loved to listen, and one of the things I noticed when I was growing up was that, I loved reading Stephen King and Pat Lane and I loved reading Pat Conroy and I loved reading Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton. When I was 19 I realized that nobody was telling my story. Nobody was writing about the beauty and the challenges of growing up in the NWT. Nobody was telling my story. So when I was 19 I remember it was a very conscious decision I said I am going to tell the world about how beautiful it is up here in the NWT. I'm going to tell my truth, I'm going to tell my stories, I'm going to tell the stories of my family, my cousins, my friends. I'm going to tell my story and I'm going to write something that I would like to read. And that's how I became a writer. It took me five years to write The Lesser Blessed so I'm a slow-poke. Very very slow.
JW: Did you ever see yourself being a published author?
RVC: When I was growing up I wanted to be a ninja, so anything more than that, anything other than tribal warfare or espionage I think isn't necessarily a step-up but I didn't have time to get nervous because it took me 5 years to write The Lesser Blessed and I had an agent for this project, her name is Carolyn Swayze, she sold it in two weeks. So before I knew it we were working on our re-writes. And it was out within a year of signing so ... Very very proud of it. Wouldn't change a word. It's been out for over ten years now and I wouldn't change a word. It's going to be turned into a movie. We start shooting this year in Manitoba and in the NWT.
JW: Did you expect to see your writing turned into a movie?
RVC: I think I'm a cinematic writer. I always see the scenes I write so cinematically, so largely, I'm not surprised. It's a beautiful story.
JW: Did you work on the adaptation of The Lesser Blessed from the novel to script?
RVC: Good question. Anita Doron who is the director is writing the adaptation so she's in charge of the screenplay. Which is great because I am so busy right now working on my new collection of short stories, I have a new novel coming out this year, I have two comic books coming out this year, I'm so busy that I don't think I could do the project justice, and in a way when you write a novel, here's the good news, when you write a novel it doesn't matter what happens because nobody wants to make a bad movie. But if anything happens to the movie good, bad or ugly, you can say you know what, read the book. You've got to read the book. And I think what will happen is a lot of people will watch the movie and go oh my God I better read the novel.
JW: The Lesser Blessed deals with a lot of darker subject matter, like substance abuse, and sexual abuse. What's it like working with that kind of material?
RVC: Well, it seems to me because I work in all genres, I have a baby book out and two children's books with George Littlechild and a collection of short stories and a novel and the new novel Blessing Wendy is out at the end of this year. And I was saying to friends a little while ago that it seems that I put my love and my celebration and my hope and my joy for humanity in my baby book and my children's stories and in my storytelling and it seems that I put my pain, it seems that I put my worry for humanity, but it also seems that I put my hope as well, all my adult stuff is laced with divinity, with hope, with medicine, with healing. The Lesser Blessed, as dark as it is, the message is hope at the end. With Blessing Wendy the message will be forgiveness, and peace, peace within oneself. So yes, I do deal with dark subject matter, not to the blood and meat and hair that Eden Robinson does, or Robert Arthur Alexie or sometimes even Sherman Alexie, or even Thomas King's new collection of short stories is very very dark, many of them, a very un-Thomas King thing to do, do you know what I mean? So yes, I'm guilty of writing dark, brutal stuff, but it's worth it, because you need conflict for drama, and conflict reveals characters and why not? We live in a very interesting world where anything can happen. Very interesting.
JW: Do you ever find it difficult to make the transition from writing the darker subject matter and writing the children's books?
RVC: Well I think one of the, one of my skills, being the oldest of four boys, being a champion babysitter when I was growing up, was I multi-task. And so everyday when I get up, so yesterday for example I worked exclusively on Blessing Wendy, a very very dark scene the novel has taken a turn to the darkest in a way that I wasn't expecting. One of the characters surprised me very very much, and I won't get into it, I won't spill the beans. However today, we have a deadline with this comic book I'm working on, on gang violence and physical fitness. So today was all about the comic book. So I have to be really careful not to carry a children's literature charm and light and joy into a manuscript that is for adults. It doesn't work that way. So I just take each day as it comes and I focus on the story that needs to be told today. So tomorrow I leave on a plane for Saskatoon to do a keynote there at the University of Saskatchewan. There won't be any time so how I do what I do is I just take it very very simple. If I thought about it all at once my spine would snap and my kidneys would shut down. So as it stands right now, get up, put the coffee on and say "what do I feel like today? Okay here we go, let's dive into Blessing Wendy, the novel."
JW: You introduced yourself as an author and a storyteller. Is there a difference between these two types of storytelling (the written word versus the spoken)?
RVC: I believe there is. I think all great storytelling is really just good visiting. And I find that the world is hungry for storytellers now more than ever because when you think about it, we are truly an over-stimulated society, I mean, I'll give you an example. This past Thanksgiving I was on Vancouver Island with my family and one of our dear friends and we lost power. For two hours there were 20,000 people without power. Luckily, we had just pulled the turkey out of the oven, we had one cheap little candle with one little match left in the house. We had mashed potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, we had veggies, we had you name it, we had it and we ate by candle light and it was two hours of peace. No internet, oh I gotta update my Facebook, the phone wasn't ringing, we couldn't run away and play the X-box, we were forced to sit down and enjoy a great meal by candlelight, and to this day our whole family says "wasn't that the best Thanksgiving ever?" They're like "yeah it was the best thanksgiving ever" because there was nothing else to do but visit and catch up and gossip and tell stories about our family. Whereas the written word, when it comes to me I am just the slowest of the slow, right, The Lesser Blessed has taken me 5 years, I have a novel I've been 12 years now working on. I take my sweet time, so there is a difference because you're working with a different kind of medicine power, you're working with a different spirit. With storytelling, when I take the stage or I go in front of an audience, it's a dance of trust. I'm trusting the stories that I am telling and I am trusting that there are people in the room who welcome those stories and who need those stories and who need those stories. Whereas with writing, I write for myself first. I'm writing a story that I would like to read. And I'm trusting that when the book is published, the book will find the right people who need it, that story in that particular time of their life.
JW: Do the stories that you tell end up in your printed work?
RVC: A lot of those stories, Jordan, started off as anecdotes that I would tell people as I was either doing stand-up comedy or some storytelling, and it would be, I would hear people saying "can you tell me that story again, one more time about the guys who used to go streaking at midnight in Fort Smith" and I went "hey, we're really on to something here," that resonates, because as soon as I started to tell that story about a young man in our community who used to go streaking every time he drank, it would get a chuckle, and it seems that there's a secret society of streakers everywhere in the world and that was how my short story "Dogrib Midnight Runners" was born because the gentleman who used to run naked every time we drank ended up taking his own life. And so I wanted to write about something that not a lot of people know about and that is in the North there are a lot of cultures living together. So there's, where I'm from in Fort Smith, we have Chipewyan, Cree, French and English. Traditionally, the Cree, Chipewyan and Dogrib were enemies. And yet now, we need each other more than ever, politically, socially, and now there's intermarriage, thank goodness there's intermarriage. And what not a lot of people know is in a small town like Fort Smith if somebody from a rich family or somebody from a family that isn't Aboriginal or a family, something that happens to a family that is Aboriginal, the whole town grieves, the whole family pulls together and we've seen that out in Musqueam, I saw that when I lived up at Bella Bella or in Kamloops. Humans are good at crisis. And what interests me is how each group and individual grieves. Where do they put their grief? That's what really interests me. What do people do with their grief today? When grief isn't really welcomed in the work place, or grief, even in certain circles of friends, it's a sign of weakness to express grief. So that's what the short story collection is dealing with, its exploring the healing and the grieving and its also what Blessing Wendy is about, its about where does a young man put his grief after he learns that the principal molested his cousin. And his cousin is developmentally delayed and deaf. So where does he put that spirit of revenge. That's what I'm working with.
JW: You mentioned that you work with Musqueam youth. What is it like working with a new generation of young Aboriginal authors?
RVC: I've been working with the Musqueam Youth Project now for over 5 years and it's the jewel of my life. I really, really love it. It's because I love the kids, I care very much for the kids. We have a core of about 10 students, aged 14 to 21 who show up every Wednesday out at the band office at Musqueam and its actually inspiring because you see all this life and love waiting for these students and my job, with the help of many other instructors as well, is, our job, is to give them as much support as we can in a safe environment for whatever it is that they want to do. We bring in role models, we bring in artists, we bring in filmmakers, we bring in writers, we brought in Dr. Evan Adams once. The key is to start planting seeds of light within all the students; the key is also to help them become better writers. We were very proud of our students when many of them were published in Redwire Magazine and I mean they were published for the very first time, their artwork and their writing. We have pen pals now with, between our group and the Queen Charlotte Islands, the NWT, my old high school, and we have pen pal letters set up with Van Tech secondary, we have pen pal letters set up with a group in Victoria. So it's wonderful to see these students some of whom are reluctant readers sitting down and asking for more time as they begin write and complete their pen pal letters. So that's what we're doing tonight when we get there, we have pen pal letters from the Queen Charlotte Islands and they're excited, everyone is excited to get to work and write back their responses. We also read a novel a term. Twilight is the one we read last year, and it was great. We finished it the week before we went to see the movie. We have also read Deadly Loyalties by Jennifer Storm, and we read The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor, and we have also read a beautiful book called Inside Out which deals with schizophrenia, so it will be interesting to see what books our students want to read next, because we're taking a break for two months, because it's the time of the smokehouse, the bighouse, and then we'll get back together at the end of February when all the ceremony is done, and we'll pick up again for 2009. I love it, its inspiring to see these students, not only just students, but they become like dear friends to me. And I'm lucky to have the support that I do with Vivian Campbell as well, and I co-teach it with Vivian and Ryann James and we are supervised and supported by Leona Sparrow. I'm grateful. The writing project is something I wished I had when I was growing up because ultimately as you know, the most important thing you can give anyone in the world, no matter what age, is a support system and a cheerleader. If you've got an army of people who believe in you how can you not succeed? That's what I love about the Musqueam Youth Project.
JW: Would you consider yourself a "Native Literary Nationalist"?
RVC: My answer to that is ‘no'. What is interesting is that I wanted to be a land claims negotiator for the Dogrib, I went to Aurora College in Yellowknife, at that time it was called Arctic College and I took a course called Native Management Studies. And I had an instructor there named Ron Klassen and he really believed in my writing and he literally just stopped me one day and said "don't give your life to politics, don't do it! You're a writer, you need to be with other writers. Go to the En'owkin Writing Centre in Penticton. Go. Go, go go. Don't ever look back, just go, trust me on this." And I did. And I'm not into ... I think writers can be more effective sometimes than politicians because again, what you are doing is planting seeds of light and I don't just write for the Dogrib Indians I write for everybody. I write for the world. Like that's what I love about getting published in The Walrus or The Vancouver Review or Prairie Fire or Grain or Descant, all these literary magazines, because your audience is the world. And you're a fool to think these days otherwise. Why wouldn't you want to write for the world, it also including your own nation, do you know what I mean? Yes, so that's a very good question. I don't think I'm a literary nationalist. I just want to write beautiful stories.
JW: It has been noted that you were the first published Dogrib author. Have there been any others published since then?
RVC: If there are I certainly haven't heard of them. I'm hoping that I'm still not the only one.
JW: Is there more writing out now that speaks to the experience of being young and Aboriginal in the Northwest Territories?
RVC: There really still isn't. Not that I can think of. I can't think of any other teen novels that deal with hard hitting issues from an aboriginal perspective. I can't think of any. I look forward to seeing those. I know in my lifetime I will see many many Northern authors coming out. I know in my lifetime I will see many Dogrib authors going off to get published, and Chipewyan and Cree and Dehcho Dene and Gwich'in and Mountain and Hare. I have no doubt in my lifetime I will see many many changes in that way.
JW: What's it like going into different communities as an author?
RVC: Oh it's wonderful. It's wonderful because, it's wonderful to know that your work has reached places that you haven't gone yet physically and it's wonderful when you go in front of a crowd or you go in front of a classroom or when you go in front of a conference and people have read your work and they're so eager to learn more about your process or they worry about the characters you've created. It's a magic carpet ride each and every time. What's beautiful is even if somebody doesn't know who you are or what you've written that's okay because I can recommend ten great novels or children's books that are right off the bat Aboriginal literature that I just know you're going to love. I'm happy either way. It's always an honour to be invited anywhere and I do a lot of travelling, and I do it because I love it. It's actually one of the best parts of the job of being an author is being able to travel, work with youth or work with adults, get them going with their own writing, their own stories, again planting those seeds of light and getting them to realise their goals in the craft of writing. That's what makes me very happy. Or helping somebody get a book deal. I'll give you an example. I just got an email on Facebook yesterday. There was a young lady who came up to me out at Xa:ytem in Mission at the traditional pit houses out there. I did some storytelling out there twice last year and this young lady came up to me and she had so much energy and she goes "yeah, I'm working on a series of novels right now" and I was looking at her and I went "good for you, you look 15" and she goes "yeah, so what do I do? How do I get an agent, how do I..." I said "well actually, Orca Book Publishers, my publisher, is looking right now, they read everything that comes across their desk, you don't need an agent" she goes "great well how do I do it?" I said "well, here's there website, just go on there they'll tell you exactly how to submit" and she e-mailed me last night, so within two months she's sold her first book deal. This is what I like. Let's help people.
JW: Did you have any mentors when you were an aspiring young author?
RVC: I remember, I remember one day Michael Kusugak was in town in Yellowknife, and I called him up, I think I called every hotel until he answered. And he was like "Hello?" And I was like "Michael Kuzegak! Its Richard Van Camp." And he was like "Who?" And I said "Richard Van Camp." And he said "Oh yes, yes, Richard Van Camp," he had no idea who I was, a very grateful gentleman. And I will be seeing him tomorrow in Saskatoon, this is the funny part. He and I are keynotes at this conference, so I'll tell this story. And I ended up going into, he was like "Oh yeah, I'm out here." I think it was at the Motel 66 or something. Or no, it was at the Yellowknife Inn, when the Yellowknife Inn was still up. He goes "Yeah I'm at the Yellowknife Inn. Come on by, we'll have coffee. I want to hear about your writing." Because I said, "I want to be a writer." And so he listened to me, he gave me plenty of time, and we had coffee in his hotel room, and for him, what shocked me was he wasn't trying to talk me out of it. He said "Well of course, you should probably find an agent, and you should you know, yeah I work with great editors" and he was like the most natural, and he was like "yeah, this is a job, why wouldn't you want to do this?" And I just couldn't believe it, there were no roadblocks so I'm very grateful that he was the first Aboriginal author that I'd ever met, he was working in his field, he was on tour, he was making a great living doing what he was doing, and he was like "get on in here with me, let's do it." So what an honour to spend time with Michael. My mentors were my authors, whether it was Judy Blume, or S.C. Hinton or Stephen King and especially Pat Conroy because Pat Conroy does huge honkin' novels which are timeless. Those were my mentors, were the authors that I was reading. And also the comic book artists and illustrators and writers as well. I grew up loving comic books.
JW: You've been involved with some comic books yourself. Would you like to talk about that project?
RVC: Sure, I work with the Healthy Aboriginal Network, so far I've been a copy editor, and an editor for our series of comics so far. So we have comics that deal with suicide prevention, diabetes prevention, gambling addiction and staying in school. We've sold over 100,000 copies of our comic books, we're thrilled. Publisher's name is Sean Muir, he lives just up the street, Oak and 32nd, and Steve Sanderson is our main artist, and he is a true auteur, he writes storyboards and illustrates his comic books. We have four comic books out with Steve. We're just over the moon that we keep getting these big contracts to deal with tough issues. So the two comic books that I'm working on, the first one is about gang violence and physical fitness, because we want to steer our youth away from gangs and the other one is dealing with sexually transmitted infection. Where I'm from in the NWT there's been a horrible outbreak of syphilis. Not only in the NWT but in northern Alberta, and also gonorrhea and Chlamydia are through the roof throughout the NWT. So we are in negotiations now to finalize a contract to do an STI, sexually transmitted infection comic book, and what I love about working on comic books, is it's, you're holding a movie in your hands. And as you know, in our communities, we have reluctant readers. Comic books seem to be the way we can reach all ages very very quickly. And we just, I like what Sean said, we just write great stories that have an issue in the background. So you get the message loud and clear but at the same time, you're seeing culturally relevant material being presented to you in a good way. And Steve Sanderson is a great artist. Great artist. So this is what I'm working on. My deadline is actually today for my comic book.
JW: You've published storybooks for children, short stories, and a novel which is also being turned into a movie. Are there any other mediums you would like to work with?
RVC: Good question. I think I've published in just about every genre so far, whether its poetry ... There's a new genre called the one-page novel. I've yet to tackle the one-page novel. Maybe that will be next on my list. But right now my focus is doing the best I can because Blessing Wendy is my baby right now and I want it to be dark, I want it to be, I was saying to a friend yesterday, when you publish with Orca, and when you publish with any big company, they send you an author's questionnaire first, so I just filled mine out this morning. And they ask you some pretty key questions because they send them out to sales reps and media before your book is published. And what it does is really sets the tone for how your author interviews are going to go, whether you're on television, radio or in print. And so, one of the questions that they ask you, which is a really good question, is "How is this novel different from any other novel that's out there?" Wow, what a great question. And there are some novels that really dare you to think, and re-think society, especially young society. So Lord of the Flies for example. There's a reason we're still talking about it. Really? Would they really do that? Absolutely they would really do that. It's a strong possibility that people can regress to that kind of terror and horror and animalistic ferocity. There's another book by Jim Shepherd called Project X and it's about two best friends who start to plan another Columbine. And I remember I was down at the, way down in the United States to the Northern Arizona Book Festival and Jim Sheppard got up and he did a reading out of Project X and I remember sitting up in chair going "You've got to be kidding me. You're actually writing this? Why would you do that?" But I tell you, the line-up for this book, I've never seen anything like it. I mean, it was just, there were about 100 people in line to ... I think who in their own way were trying to understand what went on behind the Columbine massacre. I think Eden Robinson does a really good job of tapping into the darkness of humanity, especially with her last novel Bloodsports. And Blessing Wendy, I said I wanted to be a marvel in forgiveness, terror, and peace. And so that's what I'm working with right now, is that this is a very Conan story. This about a young boy who starts to train as a ninja for revenge with the principal in the fictional town of Fort Simmer. There's a reason I've created Fort Simmer. It's a fictional community where anything can happen. If I had done this story in Fort Smith it might trigger people from Fort Smith with things that have happened in our history that people still don't want to talk about. I think when you create a fictional community in a way you're creating a safe place for people to read and not be triggered, in a way you're being a ninja yourself as the author by giving a community that doesn't exist on paper but can really be anywhere. It can be Fort Smith, it can be Hay River, it can be the ghost of Pine Point, it can be a little bit of Inuvik, it can be a suburb of Yellowknife. We know this place. That's what interests me. So the town is taking on more of a characteristic this time around, more than The Lesser Blessed. That's very surprising to me this time.
JW: Anything else you would like to talk about?
RVC: Nothing else, bud. I'm good Jordan. Thank you. I feel good, I feel like this was a good interview! Thank you. Mahsi Cho!