By Curtis LeBlanc
Richard Van Camp is the author of twelve books and a proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, North West Territories. He is a graduate of the En’owkin International School of Writing, the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing BFA Program, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
Richard was a major factor in my decision to come to Vancouver and pursue a BFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. After studying his novel The Lesser Blessed in an introductory English Literature class at the University of Alberta, I began researching Richard and found his name coming up often in connection with UBC. That spring, I promptly submitted my application to transfer.
More recently, I connected with him on Twitter (@richardvancamp) and asked if he would be willing to do an interview. As I believe is evident in the following email exchange, Richard Van Camp is as funny, tender, and incredibly generous as his writing suggests.
First: a quick one for you Richard. Top three favourite authors?
My top three favourite answers at this point in time are:
- Gregg Hurwitz for The Punisher’s Girls in White Dresses (Marvel). For anyone doubting the authenticity of graphic novels today, check out this tale of brutal violence and redemption.
- The writing team of Mike Costa and Christos N. Gage for the IDW graphic novel GI Joe: Cobra -The Last Laugh. This series follows “Chuckles”, a GI Joe operative hell bent on infiltrating Cobra. It’s ruthless, terrifying and a story I think should be mandatory for all creative writing students. The research that went into this narrative is mind-blowing and I’ve read the series three times now. I know I’ll go back many, many times as it’s an instant classic: right up there with Elektra Assassin and The Walking Dead.
- Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (Image Comics) is one I’ve followed for years and it just does not let up. The thing about Kirkman’s writing is he makes it very clear that in the zombie apocalypse, it’s not the zombies you have to worry about: it’s the humans.
Can you tell me a little bit about your path to becoming a published writer?
I started writing when I was 19 because, as a voracious reader, I never saw anyone writing about my life as a northerner and I decided to tell the truth. The Lesser Blessed took me five years to write and, 12 books later, I believe that’ s been my approach to this day: tell the truth, don’t hold back, trust, risk, push, reread, rewrite, hone.
Your website says you’ve been publishing since 1992. What was the first piece you published, and where was it published?
I started publishing music and book reviews in the Yellowknife newspaper The Press Independent and later went on to start publishing poetry in the Gatherings series (Theytus Books).
Where were you in your life at that point?
I was in Yellowknife taking Native Management Studies at Arctic College (now Aurora College) and, later, I moved to Penticton to attend the En’owkin International School of Writing.
I think many developing writers worry about how to make ends meet while setting aside time and energy to work on their craft. What was your experience with this when you were first learning and then working as a writer?
Jordan Wheeler gave me the key to making a great living as a writer in 1992 standing outside the En’owkin Centre. He said, “In Canada, you actually make more money from being a writer than from your writing.” I pressed him for details because I knew he had something very important to share. He explained that how writers make their money is from touring, selling books, giving keynotes and workshops or by being a Writer in Residence or teaching a night course at an institution. The key is to not count on your royalties or advances: I consider them bonuses for my work. Please remember that money buys time: if you’ve got it, you don’t have to hustle as hard as when you’re without; when you’ve got it, you can focus on your writing every day. The key is finding that balance. At 41, I’ve finally found the tour/home balance where I’m not abandoning my sweetheart, our home and myself and these great characters who have been so patient with me.
As a creative writing student, I’m a firm believer in my education. There’s an ongoing dialogue between writer-types and literature buffs about whether or not writing, especially in the genres of fiction and poetry, can be taught. You graduated from the En’owkin International School of Writing in Penticton before you completed your BFA at the University of Victoria and your Masters at UBC. You also teach creative writing, so maybe you can weigh in on the discussion?
I’ve met great writers who don’t have a high school education and I’ve met writers who learned all they could about the craft through reading and travel. I can only speak from my experience: I knew I wanted to be the best writer that I could be and I knew I needed and wanted time to really focus with other writers and mentors who shared that wish, so that’s why I decided to go from the En’owkin Centre, to UVIC to UBC. What is that–six years? Holy cow! That was a six year time of focus and workshopping and I don’t regret it at all. It all had to happen to give me that critical eye for detail, the instinct for tone and my ear for dialogue. I’m grateful to all of my teachers and fellow students who are all publishing great works right now. I think the best advice we, as writers, can give anyone interested in become one is 1) write something you would like to read; 2) read!!; 3) tell your truth and don’t hold back and 4) listen to an editor you trust but fight for what you know in your heart needs to stay.
I can’t remember if it’s in Angel Wing Splash Pattern or The Lesser Blessed (my copies are back in Alberta), but I remember reading that you often write while listening to music. If I’m correct, you even thanked the bands that you were especially into while you were writing the book, which isn’t something you see too often. Do you think the music has an effect on your writing?
Certainly! Yes, I cite the songs that help me hone my work each time it’s a song that propels me to write or dream a story. For “Wolf Medicine: a Ceremony of You” in The Moon of Letting Go, I listened to “Spiders” by System of a Down hundreds of times over a period of weeks to hone the story to perfection. That song just hypnotized me in such a sensual way and I wanted to transfer that humming bliss to the reader. I heard “Winter Bones” by Stars and shot up out of bed and got to work on a story I wanted to write about bullying and desire. It just captured the wonder and hunger we feel when we’re on the hunt for someone and wish they were hunting you back. This was the alchemy from my story “born a girl”, which will be in my new collection. I have whole soundtracks for songs that launch me into the world of the story. I need them. I couldn’t have written The Lesser Blessed without the help of The Sisters of Mercy, The Mission UK, The Cocteau Twins, The Ministry, Platinum Blonde, The Smiths, The Terminator 2 Soundtrack, Skinny Puppy, Iron Maiden, Dead Can Dance, Nick Cave, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, Kate Bush, Slowdive and Field of the Nephilim!
Right now I cannot stop listening to Crystal Castles. My my. What a band! The screaming, the dance anthems, the digital elegance—the chaos!!!
The Lesser Blessed is a coming-of-age story, and there are stories in Angel Wing Splash Pattern, The Moon of Letting Go, Three Feathers and Godless but Loyal to Heaven that deal with youth as well. What draws you to young characters and their stories?
I’m at the tender age of 41 now (!) and I think I finally have the abilities to sort through the emotions and tension I felt growing up: tension with friends, crushes, parents, society—you name it. You’ll notice I’m having recurring characters in all of my work like “Flinch,” “Torchy,” “Larry,” “Bear” and “Kevin.” I love going back in time and seeing how they’re doing as kids or as men or as fathers. It’s like this never ending story for me and I look forward to exploring their worlds over and over. We’re like brothers now and we get to watch each other grow up.
I should say that I’m working in all genres and that’s because I’m a storyteller first. All great writing comes down to great storytelling and with each genre, yes, it has its rules but it also has its own rewards if you are willing to research and explore the form and that’s the challenge now: to find new ways to explore genres and braid them with new techniques. This is a craft and a discipline. The key is showing up as a student every day. Let’s take this digital interview, for example. I’m going to show you a clip that I return to time and time again. Don’t tell anyone, okay?
It’s here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=32udqal_lyQ
In this clip, Sid from the brilliant BBC series, “Skins”, has just learned that his father has died. He and his best friend, Tony, are seeing the Crystal Castles perform. See how tender and how hard they hold onto each other when Sid finally breaks? Didn’t it look like Tony was going to kiss Sid at 2:01 and 2:05? It’s like all they have in the world is each other at that very moment and Tony surrenders as the alpha male and they grab, claw and hold onto each other for dear life. I love this scene so much and want to write things so unforgettable like this that people just break down and bawl.
(I adore MissKittyLilly’s comments below on YouTube: “I cry so fuking much every time I see this” and I can’t stop thinking about Cinduurz’s comment: “this scene is so fucking intense it hurts..”).
I love comments like this because I want to write stories that wound my readers: wound their hearts, wound their spirits, wound their regrets. On the flipside, I also want to write stories where readers wonder about my characters years after they’ve put one of our books down.
The Lesser Blessed was turned into a movie. What was that like for you? What kind of role did you play in the creation of the film?
I just wrote a love letter to Anita Doron, the director, which read, “No one will ever love The Lesser Blessed as a novel as much as Anita Doron and no one will ever love her adaptation of the novel as much as me.” I mean that. It took us seven years to raise the funding and find our dream cast to create the movie with First Generation Films. It all had to happen. I actually saw the movie for the first time at 4pm on Sept. 9th, 2012 at TIFF. It was mind-blowing. I knew three minutes in that we were sitting on a gold mine. Anita not only captured the innocence of the novel but she created the story into something new, something all her own, something graceful and tender. I’ve seen it three times now and burst into tears the last time I watched it because I could just relax and lose myself in the movie. I’m proud to say that I’m the Executive Producer because there were so many e-mails, phone calls, conference calls, meetings–and it all had to happen! You can watch the trailer here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=XD0bNnpAA8U
We’re just putting the finishing touches on an adaptation of my short story “Mohawk Midnight Runners” from The Moon of Letting Go. Zoe Hopkins is directing; Big Soul Productions is producing. It will be called “Mohawk Midnight Runners” as Zoe is Mohawk and Heiltsuk, and it was shot in Six Nations, Ontario. I can’t wait for you to see it!
The professor who introduced me to your writing often talked about you as being an author well on your way to becoming part of the Canadian literary canon. Is that a distinction you embrace? Do you feel like it accurately describes your work?
Oh that is so sweet! Mahsi cho! Thank you! With 12 books to my name in another half way done and two others on the backburner and the ability to be T Boned by another story, poem or script at any minute—well, I’m just so grateful for everything.
As a fan, I have to ask if you’re currently working on a new book? If so, are you willing to talk a little bit about it?
We’ve just signed a book deal for my very first graphic novel with an artist named Krystal Matheus titled Three Feathers (Portage and Main Press). It’s about restorative justice and it’s based on something horrible that happened in my home town of Fort Smith, but, in Three Feathers, I’ve turned tragedy into hope and redemption. We also have a brand new baby book coming out in the Spring titled Little You (Orca Book Publishers). It’s a tear jerker and I can’t wait for you to see it.
I’m working on a new short story collection titled Night Moves and it follows so many of my favourite characters and introduces a few new ones. Oh it’s going to be funny, sensual and dark.
Curtis LeBlanc is a writer and musician currently residing in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was born and raised in St. Albert, Alberta. He has released two albums on Dead City Records, based in Edmonton, Alberta, and his writing has previously appeared in Is Greater Than, Squawk Back, and is upcoming in Little Fiction’s Listerature Vol. 2.