The Conscious Interview with Douglas Smith (part the first)

I first came across Douglas Smith‘s work when I reviewed his short fiction collection Chimerascope for Quill & Quire (review here). I was astonished at what I discovered, both from Smith and from his publisher ChiZine. Long story short, I will now read anything published by either.

Doug was happy enough to answer a few questions, but I’m dividing the interview in twain, as his answers are voluminous. Luckily, they’re also compelling.

Today, we discuss his latest novel and the mythologies that form much of its content.

The official bio:

Douglas Smith is an award-winning Canadian author of fantasy, SF, and horror, with over a hundred story sales in thirty countries and twenty-five languages around the world. He has won Canada’s Aurora Award for speculative fiction three times, and has been a finalist for the international John W. Campbell Award, the Sunburst Award, the CBC Bookies award, and France’s juried Prix Masterton and Prix Bob Morane. Smith has been an Aurora finalist nineteen times and has several honourable mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. His book-length works include ChimerascopeThe Wolf at the End of the World, and Impossibilia.

Describe your most recent book The Wolf at the End of the World in a tweet.

A shapeshifter hero battles ancient spirits, government agents, and his own dark past in a race to solve a murder that could mean the end of the world.

Now as a movie pitch.

The Heroka walk among us. Unseen, unknown. Shapeshifters. Human in appearance but with power over their animal totems.

Gwyn Blaidd is a Heroka of the wolf totem. Once he led his people in a deadly war against the Tainchel, the shadowy agency that hunts his kind. Now he lives alone in his wilderness home, wolves his only companions. But when an Ojibwe girl is brutally killed in Gwyn’s old hometown, suspicion falls on his former lover. To save her, Gwyn must return, to battle the Tainchel, and even darker forces: ancient spirits fighting to enter our world…

And rule it.

You’re well known as a short story writer. What made you want to take the leap to longform?

Spirit DanceI’d always planned to turn to novels. My short fiction kept getting longer and longer, so I think my subconscious was trying to tell me something. I kept coming up with story ideas, or more accurately (as is the case with most writers) story ideas kept arriving in my head, that needed a bigger canvas. I’d written three stories in the universe of my shapeshifting Heroka when I first started, and I always knew that my first novel would pick up Gwyn’s story again after the events in “Spirit Dance.”

Memories of the Dead ManI’ve used short stories to explore worlds that I plan to revisit in novels, such as my novelette “Memories of the Dead Man.” I purposely wrote the story from a POV of another character in order to get a different perspective on the Dead Man character who will be the main character in a planned SF novel.

I also used short fiction to hone my craft, essentially to learn how to be a writer, in preparation for a longer form. The short form lets you experiment with so many types of stories and ways of storytelling. You can add new tools to your toolbox as a writer, and also learn which story telling forms work better for a particular type of tale or situation. I guess I just figured I was ready to try a novel.

Much of First Nations’ traditions and myths form the backbone of Wolf. How did you come about to be working with such real-world mythologies in your fiction?

Werewolf? THERE wolf!

It started with my shapeshifter species, the Heroka. I wanted to create something different from a standard werewolf. Writers have been there, done that too many times. For one thing, I wanted the Heroka to include all animals, not just wolves. And I wanted them to be more than just another type of shapeshifters. As absurd as it may sound, I wanted my Heroka to be believable—as believable as shapeshifters can be. I wanted to downplay the shapeshifter element. I wanted the primary characteristic of the Heroka to be the bond they hold with their totem species, and to have that bond be complete—physical, mental, and spiritual. I wanted the very vitality of a Heroka to be tied to the vitality of their totem.

Because the bigger message here, the theme of the book if you like, is a warning call about what we’re doing to our environment, to our natural resources, to the wilderness that once defined this land—the wilderness the animal species that call this country home depend upon for survival.

So if this story was going to be about environmental exploitation and animal habitat destruction by modern Western society, I needed a contrasting cultural view, one founded on a deep and abiding respect for the relationship that exists and has always existed between humans and nature, humans and animals—a relationship that our modern society has forgotten and forsaken. I wanted a belief system that was diametrically opposed to the European view that places humans at the top of the pyramid of life on Earth.

And I found it in the stories of our First Nations, specifically in those of the Cree and Ojibwe. The Cree spirit Wisakejack is the voice for those stories in this book, and if I could choose just one of his tales to demonstrate the dichotomy between the traditional beliefs of native people and modern society, and why the beliefs of the Cree and Anishinabe fit so perfectly with the Heroka and the theme of the book, it would be his story of the creation of the world that he relates to the boy Zach in Chapter 10, which I’ll summarize here.

First, Kitche Manitou created the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—and from them made the world—the Sun, stars, Moon, and Earth. Then he created the orders of life. First plants, which needed the sun, air, water, and earth. Then the plant eaters, which need the plants. Then the meat eaters, which need the plant eaters. And finally, he created humans. We came last, because we need everything that Kitche Manitou created before us. Air, water, earth, sun, plants, animals. We are the most dependent of all of creation, making us the weakest of all orders of life, not the strongest. My Heroka understand that—as Wisakejack told Zach—everything’s connected. Western society has forgotten that. We’ve forgotten that we are dependent on the land. Forgetting our connection, we’ve lost it, too.

Now, I’m not saying these stories encompass all of aboriginal culture. First Nations people are diverse and express their beliefs in varied ways, plus a large number today are also urban dwellers. But many First Nations stories speak of the close connection between humans and animals and the land, and I believe those stories continue to have relevance, especially in a healthier relationship with our environment.

How was it to use such mythologies in a narrative? Were they any pitfalls to avoid?

One of the delights of doing the research for this book came from reading as many Cree and Anishinabe stories as I could find, and learning of the culture and traditions. However, I had a major fear, almost a paranoia, about writing Wolf, related to this same point.

I’m a white male of European descent (English, Welsh, Irish) who is writing about Cree and Ojibwe culture, traditions, and beliefs. Any author who writes about a current culture other than their own risks being accused of cultural appropriation. That risk is even greater if the writer belongs to the majority that has traditionally held power in their society and is writing about a minority group in that society. It becomes greater still when that majority has oppressed that minority for nearly a quarter of a millennium, as the First Nations people have been since the Europeans first arrived in this land. My ancestors stole their land, broke treaty after treaty, and introduced programs and policies consciously designed to destroy their rich and unique culture and way of life.

Perhaps the most egregious wrong perpetrated against our First Nations was the residential school system mentioned by my Ojibwe character, Ed Two Rivers, in this book, in which the Canadian government and various churches engaged in a premeditated program and formal policy of cultural genocide. The publicly stated goal was to assimilate the “Indian” into Canadian society (meaning white European culture), but the program was designed (in a federal minister’s own words) “to kill the Indian in the child.”

The residential school system involved the forced removal of First Nations children as young as six years old from their parents and homes, and their mandatory and permanent residence at boarding schools funded by the federal government and run by various Christian churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian. The abuses perpetrated on First Nations children in residential schools have been documented by the survivors of the system—thousands of cases of horrific physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The system began in 1892 and didn’t end until over a century later when the last school run by the federal government closed in 1996.

Amazingly and thankfully, despite the sad history of residential schools and continued government and cultural oppression, our indigenous people have persevered in finding ways to carry on their traditions and to bring their rich heritage to new generations, refusing to have their culture relegated to the past. Additional atrocities continue to be revealed, including the recent exposure of federal research experiments in various communities and residential schools where our government subjected First Nations people to forced malnutrition to study the effects.

So, yes, I’m a tad paranoid that I, as a white man of British descent writing a story that draws from the storytelling traditions and culture of the Cree and Ojibwe, might be accused of cultural appropriation.

Is this Stephen King?

I could respond by simply saying that if a writer must only write about characters who are the same as themselves and solely of their own culture, then literature would be a dull and anemic creature. Shakespeare was not a Danish prince, nor Robert Louis Stevenson a peg-legged pirate. Bram Stoker was not a vampire, nor Isaac Asimov a robot. J. K. Rowling is not an adolescent boy wizard, and Stephen King is not a homicidal car or teenage girl with telekinetic powers. But I’d be dodging a serious issue.

I explained above about why I was drawn to Cree and Ojibwe traditions and stories for this book, why I chose to draw on the rich and wonderful stories and traditions of the Cree and Ojibwe to tell my story. But I still had to deal with my concern, and any concerns that a reader might, have about cultural appropriation.

So I researched. A lot. I read as much as I could about the ceremonies, beliefs, traditions, and histories of the Cree and Ojibwe. And I read the stories. Ever so many stories. Because, as Wisakejack also tells Jack, that’s how the People taught their children. At first, I found those stories very strange, but eventually I came to understand them, appreciate how they both entertained and educated, taught children about the dangerous harsh environment that they lived in, where starvation was only one bad hunt or one greedy hunter away.

I did more research. I stayed at an Ojibwe First Nations Reserve. I interviewed the chief and her mother. I visited three different reserve communities and talked to as many First Nations people as I could. I read more. In short, I tried to do my homework as best as I could.

Finally, I’ve treated the Cree and Ojibwe culture with reverence and respect wherever I’ve used it in this book. That wasn’t hard to do. The more I learned of the culture, the more I held it in reverence and respect.

Read part two of my interview with Douglas Smith here.