Interviewed by Francine Cunningham
Lee Maracle is the author of many critically acclaimed literary works including Sojourner’s and Sundogs, Ravensong, Bobbi Lee, Daughters Are Forever, Will’s Garden, Bent Box, and I Am Woman; and the co-editor of anthologies including the award winning My Home As I Remember. She is also co-editor of Telling It: Women and Language across Culture. She was born in North Vancouver and is a member of the Sto: Loh nation.
The mother of four and grandmother of seven, Maracle is currently an instructor at the University of Toronto. She is also the Traditional Teacher for First Nation’s House and instructor with the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and the S.A.G.E. (Support for Aboriginal Graduate Education) as well as the Banff Centre for the Arts writing instructor. In 2009, Maracle received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from St. Thomas University. She recently received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work promoting writing among Aboriginal Youth. Maracle has served as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and the University of Western Washington.
What made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
It’s sort of hard to tell you know. I was a little girl and I remember lying to my granddad and him staring at me for a long time and then telling me it was a good story. After that he started telling me stories and then telling me to tell them back to him, different but the same. We played that game quite a lot. When I was older I came across Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson, about Capilano and his wife Mary Agnes both telling stories to E. Pauline. I really liked how they told the double headed serpent story, like it was going on right then, and I remember talking to my granddad about that and he called it myth making. You know, we’re supposed to tell stories that way, we don’t tell stories for no reason. When somebody needs a story you tell it to them, but you tell it to them like it’s happening now so that they’ll get the lesson in it. Also, when it comes to myth making, there is a kept version— somebody is the keeper of the story—and everybody else tells the sort of fictitious version or the “un-kept” version. That’s applicable to today, and I decided those were the kind of stories I wanted to write. It took quite a long time to get to the place where I thought I could write those kinds of stories.
At the same time, I was also part of a youth group and I asked, how do you change how people see you and feel about you. My then husband Raymond Bob answered, you write stories, and I thought, I can write stories. So I did, a couple of them.
No one would publish my first story because there was drinking in it and everybody was terrified of publishing something that even insinuated that we might have drinking problems. It was called “Bertha” and it was another twenty years before it got actually published in Sojourner’s Truth, one of my short story collections. I wrote another story called “Charlie” and again I had trouble getting it published. Then I did the book Bobby Lee: Indian Rebel and I had trouble getting that published until I finally got it published by this group that had a publishing house, but it was difficult to get published in those days because a lot of our folks didn’t read and big publishers didn’t actually want to take a chance on us until after Maria Campbell published Half-Breed.
I didn’t actually want to be a writer in the sense of writing full time and I’m not even sure I want to do that now. I teach and I really love teaching. I teach quite a lot compared to how much time I spend writing. But I do write every day, but not for a long period of time. An hour or two is what I spend on my writing every day.
How did you deal with rejection when you first started writing?
Rejection is horrific for us because we are rejected by society already. Fortunately some of my rejection letters were and still are completely ludicrous. One of them was a rejection letter that said, I Am Woman was too beautiful to be political and they wouldn’t know how to market it, so that was actually heartening in a way because they said it was beautiful even if their reason was ludicrous. Another one was for “Bertha” they said, we really liked the story but you have to take the drinking out, and I said, well she dies of it. Then I said, thank you very much, goodbye. My little girl was five or six at the time and she turned to me and said, well she didn’t say it was bad writing. I said, that’s right she didn’t. So in a way my kids helped me stay afloat.
I do think rejection is terrible but in any career you apply for a job and you sometimes don’t get it. That’s the way it works. If you are rejected, doing what I do is probably a good way to go. I relook at my work with a discerning eye, I’m not saying critical—I don’t like even critiquing my own work—but I always ask myself, what am I trying to show here? What am I trying to say? And I make sure that it’s the best that I can do. I’ll rewrite something that’s rejected because there’s nothing else a writer can do. I’ve found that if I rewrite a story that’s been rejected I start to see the warts, which is probably what they are seeing, and a lot of times publishers can’t name the problems they see. I got a rejection recently that said my story was too ethnic and I went to another publisher and it turns out it wasn’t ethnic enough for him. I looked at my story again and I realized that it was standing between Salish writing and European writing. It was neither/nor and if it had been wholly steeped in the Longhouse tradition, I would have probably got accepted right away. It would have been more interesting. I rewrote it and the publisher is looking at it now to see what we’re going to do with it and hopefully it will pass; I really started to like the story when I rewrote it.
I was reading the essay “From discomfort to enlightenment: an interview with Lee Maracle” by Margery Fee and Sneja Gunew. In it you talked a little bit about oral story telling and how you as a Salish woman have transformed the English language and the written form to fit Salish sensibilities. It has always fascinated me how Indigenous cultures around the world tell their stories versus the western way telling stories. And how in Indigenous storytelling the stories seems to be more circular and more about engagement with whoever is listening and how western storytelling can be very linear and almost cold. I really noticed in your book Daughters are Forever that the beginning of that book, where it’s the point of view of the wind. That to me feels like an oral story and something my grandmother would have told me. A story that means more than the words that are written on the page. I was wondering if you could expand on your ideas from that essay and if you could talk about how you use oral story telling in your work.
Yeah, I love that first part, those first twenty-four pages of manuscript. I spent a very long time on that section. I wanted to get the layered quality, the voice of the wind, I wanted people to be inside the first beginnings of earth, to see from a blank scape to the development of the plant life to the flowers and the bees, but at the same time not lose the spoken quality. And then to see the connection to Eddie, the man who runs in front of a truck, not as someone who is killing himself but as someone who is trying to get away from the sound of the wind. It changes the way we view suicide in our communities, not so much as a depressed move to escape tragedy, but because people don’t know their traditional responsibilities and keep hearing and being reminded of them from a place where they can’t interoperate them. It becomes an oppressive sound; wind becomes an oppressive sound in that book. I think of young people who aren’t connected to their culture necessarily and who weren’t raised with traditional responsibilities. They know things are wrong but they don’t know what to do. I was in that space as a sixteen year old where I knew a lot about what was wrong but not a lot about how to respond to it. I tried to capture that with the first two parts of Daughters are Forever.
Do you have a preference for which genre (fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction) you write in?
The one I don’t like is non-fiction because it takes me so long, I just finished another non-fiction book called Memory Serves and Other Words and it took me a long time to get it to a place where I was satisfied. It makes me want to write poetry or something else. I like poetry, but again, I think I write novels because I don’t have time to write a poem.
My favourite would be short stories. They have the same demands as a novel but they’re really really distilled, like champagne.
A novel starts itself. I thought Sun Dogs would be a short story and it just grew into this other thing, this novel and it kept wanting to be bigger, it got this momentum going. Daughters are Forever started as a short piece on breath and then I realized what I was writing was something that belonged at the end of a novel. You know where she says breath hides, from that moment, when she says breath hides, I wrote the novel from the beginning up to that point, and that became Daughters are Forever. So you never know when you start something what’s going to happen.
Do you have a process when you sit down to write a novel?
I always say this to people and it works for other writers who are Indigenous: we don’t have to do this alone. Go get your tobacco, open your computer and give it a name, Betsy in the case of my computer, and ask your ancestors to help you work on something today. I’m not a prayerful person necessarily but I think that our ancestors listen and I think they have a vested interest in the kind of stories you create.
I talked to Cherie Dimaline, who just came out with a new novel Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, about this process. The first time she wrote this novel I read it and then asked her where she was when she wrote her earlier short story collection Red Rooms. She said, I was with my grandmother all the time because she was sick and dying, and I said, well call her back and rewrite it and ask her to help you to rewrite it. And she rewrote the whole thing in a couple of weeks, it worked out tremendously. I really believe that we can get ancestral help when we do stories or poems.
In your opinion what makes a writer succeed?
I think that somebody said, there are no good writers, there are only good rewriters. It’s true. You need to know what a rewrite is. Some people call it “edits” and it’s not. A rewrite is a whole rework of something. You first write a draft and it’s floating out there in the universe with no anchor—well at least for me it is—and so then I think after the first draft, what am I trying to do here? And then I figure out what I’m trying to do structurally, narratively, and in terms of developing the character. There are a lot of questions I ask myself, and I do lots and lots of reworking. And sometimes, like in my last novel, I reworked this one section, over and over again until I realized it doesn’t even belong in the novel. You don’t see that kind of stuff until you rework it. Those are what I call an outtake, and in this instance that section actually belongs in a non-fiction work, so that’s what I’m going to do with it eventually, turn it into a non-fiction piece. But that happens, you just rewrite and rewrite.
Were there any sacrifices you had to make when you were first starting out in your career?
I still make them. You always have to sacrifice for art. I have no life. I’m either writing or working. I think every writer makes a sacrifice. You have a deadline to meet and you meet it. You give up things for art and I gave up a couple of husbands for it, not that I’m sorry about that or anything, but its just one of those things. Whatever needs to be done for the art you do it because you love it. I think it’s always been my first love.
What inspires you to continue writing?
I don’t know anymore. I get up in the morning, I shower and I have breakfast and then I write. It’s just what I do. I don’t know if it’s inspiration anymore as much as just something I do. It’s just a normal part of my life now.
This woman from India said she believes stories find writers and that writers don’t actually make up stories, and I think there must be some truth to that because it’s hard to say what inspires me.
I hope that makes sense.
It does. I believe stories find us too because sometimes I’ll be writing and I’ll be like where is this coming from? The words are not consciously in my mind but the story just comes out.
I know that feeling. When I read parts of Raven Song I often think I don’t know who was there with me but thanks because I would never have thought about that.
What writers would you recommend to our readers right now?
I think everyone should read, Francine Prose, Reading like a Writer. I was always told to read but then I started to read like a mercenary, as I call it, very critically. I go line by line and rework a story, I think, Okay, he wrote this about that, that’s not what I would write and then I think about what I would create. She writes about that kind of reading, about not understanding stories from a literary perspective like you do in English literature, and she has a lot of exercises in her book. A lot of writers read critically instead of reading for the metaphor, symbolism and all those kinds of English literary questions, they read to say what did they do here? How did they structure this story? How can I structure a story? What would I write about? They ask totally different questions when they are reading something than people who just read for pleasure or for English literature class.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
You know, I don’t think there’s an emerging writer; I think there are unpublished writers and published writers. As an unpublished writer you’re a writer who wants to be published, so you have to ask what do I need to do to get there?
Well, you need to engage your reader. Engaging the reader is a lot about presentation, you need to present this story in a way that people want to fall into it. There’s a song from the 70s about that called I wish I had a good book to fall into. I remember hearing that and thinking that’s exactly what a good book is for, falling into. You need to create the wordscape that’s going to make readers want to fall into your story. That’s a lot of playing around with tone and quality, music, paint, colour, action; there’s every art form in writing. If you don’t listen to music you’re not going to get there. If you don’t hear tone or quality you’re not going to get there. If you’re wrapped up in grammar, you’re not going to get there. Because you want the reader to fall into your story as opposed to saying wow, this is a really correct story. A good story is amazing because a person fell into it. Sometimes when someone says to me well I had a hard time getting into such and such story I re-look at it and realize it is a bit stilted in the beginning, there were steps instead of a clear floating pathway. You have to look at the movement of the language as well, how language moves the person reading it; it has to be a smooth sail to the story.
And then you publish. And once you publish you are expected to do something better than what you did the last time. That’s always a pressure but you need to let that go because pressure from outside doesn’t help the story.
So I guess my advice is, don’t let the pressure get to you and make your reader fall into your story.
Francine Cunningham is an Aboriginal writer and artist originally from Calgary, Alberta who currently resides in Vancouver, BC. She is a Masters of Fine Arts student in the Creative Writing program at The University of British Columbia where she also received her Bachelors of Arts degree in Theatre. She also has a Visual and Performing Arts diploma with a focus in acting from Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Her writing and artwork has appeared in Ecletica, Kimiwan and the Ubyssey.