25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Richard Wagamese

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Richard Wagamese

Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese was recently awarded the 2013 Canada Council Molson Prize in the Arts, which carries a $50,000 award and honours "outstanding lifetime achievements and ongoing contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada." Richard is the author of 13 books including Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre), which was a contender for the 2013 CBC Canada Reads competition. His new novel, Medicine Walk, will be published in 2014 with McClelland & Stewart.

In this special edition of our On Writing interview, Richard tells us what this award means for young Aboriginals and describes how his spontaneous writing process fuses oral and written storytelling techniques.

Open Book:

Congratulations on being awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize. What does this award mean to you as an Ojibway writer?

Richard Wagamese:

This award means that young Aboriginal people can see one of their own honored for a lifetime's work and know that anything is possible for them. It means that success is not a non-Aboriginal thing and that they can find a career in the arts. It means that they can allow themselves to dream as big as they choose and that those dreams are not fruitless, pointless and doomed to failure.


Your writing has received some well-deserved recognition lately. In addition to the Molson Prize, you were awarded the 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award in Media & Communications, and your novel Indian Horse won People's Choice for the 2013 CBC Canada Reads. Have these successes changed the way you approach your work?


My idea of success is still producing one great sentence. Luckily, I get to do that a handful of times a day, so I'm successful a lot. I will always approach my work this way because as a self-taught person I view each day as an honour and a privilege to work as a storyteller. It's a huge gift and an honour. When accolades are accorded I appreciate the honour for the work, the story, the book. I take little for myself. In this way I am always amazed and astounded when accolades happen. So no, all the attention does not change the way I approach my work.


Writers who labour through numerous drafts before they find their way into their story may find your writing process is unusual. Tell us about how you write, and why it works for you.


I write spontaneously. I find the channel within me where the story lives and let it flow out of me and through me. When I start to struggle I stop and go do something else until the feeling of struggle goes away and them come back to my desk and work again. I don't struggle because if writing isn't a joy and I'm not doing cartwheels around my desk when I'm working I don't want to do it. I don't have an education beyond Grade 9 so I haven't been sullied by the academic view of how we're supposed to write. So I do it naturally. It works for me because I never learned the rules that restrict other writers.


Do you approach both oral storytelling and writing in a similar way? How does your work in the one style inform your work in the other?


I fuse orality and the written word. Before I write I tell myself the story first, out loud, until I hear myself tell it front to back and then I sit down and write. I assemble the whole narrative arc in my head and tell it to myself and in this way, I come to know the whole story and the writing is easy. I generally write and sell the one draft.


What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel, Medicine Walk?


Medicine Walk is the best work I have ever done. it's about displaced fathers and displaced sons, territory I know well because I have been both. It's about the absence of a personal history and how that affects you and how reclaiming that history changes the way you live. It's also a lot about love, forgiveness and learning to see ourselves in the history of others.

Richard Wagamese is the author of 13 books in the genres of fiction, memoir and poetry. He is Ojibway from the Wabseemoong First Nation in Northwestern Ontario and the 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in Media & Communications. He has been a professional writer for 34 years as an award-winning journalist, radio/television broadcaster, and author. He is the first Native Canadian to win a National Newspaper Award for column writing among other honours such as the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature, the Canadian Author?s Association Award for Fiction. The Alberta Writers Guild Best Novel Award and an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from Thompson Rivers University. He is an educator and renowned public speaker and lives in the mountains outside of Kamloops, BC with his wife Debra Powell and Molly the Story Dog. His new novel, Medicine Walk, arrives in 2014 from McClelland & Stewart. Visit his website at www.richardwagamese.com.

For more information about Indian Horse please visit the Douglas & McIntyre website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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