It’s not every day I get to see writers I admire. I mostly only know them through their books and I sometimes conjure up personalities for them that are as fictional as the characters who populate their pages. Canadian writer Joseph Boyden, though, was every bit as colorful, raw, and as witty as his work.
For many in the audience, seeing Boyden in person took more patience than usual. His sold-out interview conducted by Samuel Archibald was delayed from 7 p.m. until 8, and I’m pretty sure the whole thing didn’t get started until at least 8:30. Some had left, allowing others who were willing to be patient a chance to see the sold-out interview. Even before his cab arrived, the audience was treated to a reading of several jailed writers by Amnesty International and a recitation of part of Boyden’s book The Orenda by Xavier Roy.
“How do you say in French ‘It was a shit show?”” Boyden quipped to the audience about his flight to Montreal from New Orleans via Toronto when he arrived in the door.
Boyden is well-known for Three Day Road, his first novel which won a First Novel Award from Amazon and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. The novel focuses on two Cree soldiers who serve in the Canadian military during WWI, inspired by Ojibwa Francis Pegahmagabow. “Native people know there were native snipers,” he said during the interview.
During the interview, Boyden covered vast plains of territory. Most exciting was to hear him talk about his craft and he dropped plenty of nuggets of wisdom. He advised the audience that “less is more” when it comes to using historical research in writing the novel. He explained that he is not someone who plots out his novels, but writes from beginning to end. “I throw the deck up in the air and hope it lands as a house of cards,” he said. He is primarily guided by his characters who take on their own personalities and dictate to him what will happen. Of his new novel, The Orenda, he said “The characters kept challenging me. So many characters shrivel up and die. Some start as babies, you put diapers on them, and then they’re teenagers and they’re challenging me. That’s how I know they’re good.” He even converses with them about their bad choices. Finally, he confessed to not being super creative when it comes to naming characters, relying on friends and family names for the characters. The second book of his multi-part-history was unintentional. He named one of the characters using a placeholder name, and then later realized he was creating an ancestor to the characters of Three Day Road.
Boyden was very open about his struggles, both personal ones (his attempted suicide at age 16) and as a professional. He talked about how when he reached a low point of writing Three Day Road in his usual coffee shop and thought he would have to give away the manuscript, Niska’s voice came to him and he felt compelled to use it in the work. “I wrote what she told me. In the work, it is written verbatim, a first draft. Any writer in here would want to slap me,” he said. As for his suicide attempt, he went into some detail about how he jumped in front of a speeding car and no one knew of his pain. “Writing saved my life. I began writing poetry after that,” he said “Bad poetry.” Earlier in the evening he had referenced his early poetry by noting that he used the word black eight times in a ten word poem. He aspired to be in a band, but “[e]ven punk rock wouldn’t take me, I was such a bad singer. But I wrote songs for bands. Writing chose me. I’m a story teller.”
He also spoke fondly of his mentors and friends. In reference to Jim Harrison, who died this March, Boyden talked about how Harrison gave him his first blurb that was “classic Jim Harrison.” “I can call myself a writer now,” he said when he read the blurb. Boyden also mentioned Lousie Erdrich as someone who inspired him to write trilogies. However, as he wrote, he realized that his books would end up covering 500 years of history of one family. “It’s become a quintet now,” he said. Boyden also talks about one of his best friends, Gord Downey of the Tragically Hip, who has inspired him as well by statements such as “Canada is only as good as how we treat our most vulnerable” and how he has acted to help the James Bay region.
The talk ended with some discussion of violence and healing. Boyden noted that a book “would be boring if it was all lovely dovey,” that it “needs narrative tension,” and “violence exists.” However, he stated that is very conscious of the way his books combine native people with violence and he wants very much to write a book that has the requisite narrative tension but has peace in it.
He spoke about Attawapiskat, a community long in crisis, but especially for its string of youth suicides. Boyden recently wrote an article about the crisis for Macleans Magazine. “This is why I speak about my own crises,” he said and further added that it is important not to hide and feel shame related to suffering and pain.
When asked if he thought it was possible to heal, he said, “Sometimes I get stuck in the weeds, but I am optimistic we can heal.”
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