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.