“You want to be continually energized by your students. And that's really the dance of mentorship. And that's the gift of mentorship, is that when you finally get an afternoon to return to your own work, you're going with that hunger that they showed you all the time.”
Claire Tacon: You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom. This week we are taking a break from our usual format to give you a longer interview with writer and storyteller Richard Van Camp. Richard is a Dogrib Tłı̨chǫ writer of the Dene nation from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories and is the author of 26 books in 26 years.
Richard Van Camp: Let me tell you a good story. Okay. So my birthday is September 8th. So my, my birthday was always the first day of school. And I loved going to school because, I mean, the first day you get to see all your buddies that took off down south for two months. They're back and they’ve got new little city haircuts. But at the end of the day, you've got a new lunchbox, new little sneakers, maybe some new jeans. And then that night after school, after everybody goes home and you get to watch Degrassi Junior High, everybody comes over and then you have a pizza party and then you get gifts. And it was just like the best. It was the end of summer but it was the beginning of fall, your friends are going to carry you through the next 10 months together with giggles and laughter and all the good stuff, right?
But I remember being in kindergarten very specifically. So I must've been six. And I remember sitting in Mrs. Swanson's class kindergarten, and I remember being introduced into, into French. So Je m’appelle [Richard]and having to go around the class. And I remember very specifically that moment, because I realized in that moment that something was wrong. That, yeah, it was my birthday. Yeah, it was the first day of school, but I was in French and I didn't want to learn French. And I didn't belong there, but there were no other, there were no other [language] class rooms to go to. And I just remember, as I got older, I knew that there was a theft happening. And don't forget, it was the time of the, it was the Trudeau government and the Trudeau government wanted all Canadians to be bilingual. Right. I get it. But in the Northwest territories where the Dene and the Métis and Northerners were the majority, it really should have been that we had the chance to learn, you know, either it was Bush Cree or Dene Sųłıné or Tłı̨chǫ Dene or Gwich'in.
And I would have learned, I would have gladly learned anything than French. Because I knew: a) I would never use it, b) I would never need it, c) it was not mine at all. This was not part of my inheritance that I wanted. So that crystallization at a cellular, spiritual, cultural level never left. And I just started to, I think that's how heroes are born. That's how anarchists are born. That's how agent provocateurs are born because you start to also question, what, why are we learning about cattle? The curriculum was designed in Alberta. Why do we have to learn all 52 states when we don't even know our Dene laws? We don't even know about Yamoria or Yamozha. We don't even know how to check nets. We don't even know how to hunt or trap or fish. We don't know what we're supposed to do as northerners under every full moon.
Right? So, so I actually give thanks to that, that slap in the face, because if it wasn't for that, then I never would have worked as hard as I have all these years to interview Elders. And so, I don't know if you've seen the Moonshot comic books, but in them I've interviewed a different Elder and turned their teaching—so I interviewed Rosa Mantla about the teaching of water. I interviewed Rosa Mantla about a ceremony that I didn't even know about, uh, that takes place on, on the evening of Halloween. And, and we've turned that into a comic book [Tlicho Naowo: The Return of the Spirit in Moonshot Volume 1]. And so for, for my little boy, and for all future generations, these teachings are now illustrated and so welcoming and so warm and so loving because that's really what I was craving back then.
Richard Van Camp: I took a year off after I graduated from high school and I became the Handibus driver in our community, which was the smartest thing I ever could have done because that's when I started recording and taking portraits of our Elders in Fort Smith, because I started to realize that nobody was recording our Elders, nobody. And the reason, I really do feel, is we just, the idea of them not being there is, is beyond our capacity. They’re our go-tos, they're our matriarchs, they're the observers of protocol where we're from. So when I was done doing the driving around with the Handibus, I took Native Management Studies in Yellowknife with my uncle James Wah-shee, who started the Indian Brotherhood with George Erasmus and Roy Erasmus in the Northwest Territories and Bella T'Seleie and, and a lot of people, James Marlowe, a lot of wonderful people who are running the show in Denendeh to this day.
And I wanted to take this course because I really wanted to understand who we were as Dene people. And I wanted to understand section 25, 35 and 37, of the Canadian Constitution. I wanted to understand, you know, the Horseman case, the Calder case, the Paulette case. I really wanted to understand what we weren’t taught in high school and what I certainly wasn't taught in our home. And it was just this wonderful immersion into Denendeh because we had these leaders that were students again, and letting us into what it was like trying to run a hamlet or a village or a really small settlement or a small town in the Northwest Territories. And I had this instructor there named Ron Klassen, and he was our communications instructor. And I was starting to write for the Press Independent. I was doing music reviews, CD reviews, and I was starting to work on some poetry and some short stories, and he would read them on his own time.
And he would, he would give me this critical feedback. And that was just as important to me as what we were learning in the classroom. And I remember just as we were getting ready to graduate, he pulled me aside one day in the hallway at Arctic College. And he said, “Richard, don't give your life to politics. I know you keep saying, you want to negotiate land claims and you want to—Richard, I get it. But Richard, you're a writer and you need to be with other writers just like you. And there's a place called the En'owkin International School of Writing in Penticton. And they, they do this publication called Gatherings. It comes out once a year and Richard, I've got a couple of them. I want you to take these home and read them. And if you like, what you see here, I'll write you a letter or I'll help you fill out an application.
That's where you need to go.” And so I said, “Okay,” I really respected Ron. And will always be grateful to him. And I, I took home Gatherings, I think one through four. And I inhaled it and I said, Oh my God, this is us. This is our humor. This is, this is, this is me. This is, I feel like, I feel like my cousins wrote all these, these great writings and, and, and I just needed to be a part of it. So we filled out the application I got in and I went to the En'owkin International School for two years and I got to learn from Lee Maracle, the late and great Maurice Kenny, the great Mohawk writer from the Adirondack mountains. I got to learn from Jeannette Armstrong. And we did have guest speakers. I mean, for Thompson Highway to come in or Drew Taylor to come in, Alootook Ipellie to come in, Beth Brant and, and, uh, that was where we met so many people who are still moving and shaking to this day because they knew that this was a really important place.
This was an academy of, of learning. So it was at the En'owkin Centre that, I mean, we had to write a children's story a week. We had to write a poem a week. We had to write an essay a week. We had to write a short story a week. We were, uh, experimenting with dance, multimedia. It really pushed us out of our comfort zones. And I remember two years after coming out of that, I remember one day I was telling my, my brother a story as we were cutting wood at the log file. And I remember Roger looked at me and he said, “Jesus Christ, what did they teach you there? Look at you. You're talking with your hands now.” Like, look at you. Man, you're, you're on your way. And I just, I felt like that was my graduation.
So when I was at, um, and Yellowknife and Arctic College taking Native Management Studies, George Blondin, the great Sahtu Dene Elder walked in and his first book was out, Yamoria. And he was only supposed to be there I think for 45 minutes. He was on this big book tour in Yellowknife and a) it was one of the first times I ever met an Elder and or a Northerner holding a published book. And he told us a story. And he said, when he was a little boy, he was walking with his grandparents and he could never figure out how to properly tie his mukluks. And so they kept falling down around his ankles and his poor grandmother had to get down on her knees and say, “Okay, George watch, you got to pull them up and pull these moose hide lacings really tight. And the rabbit ears here.
And the rabbit ears here, then the Wolf chases.” And he would, he would look off and look at a cloud or a squirrel. And the grandpa was walking ahead with the big walking stick. And the grandpa at some point realized that his family was, was far behind. And so he stopped and probably let out at dad's sigh, like what is taking on? Continents move faster than this. Where is everyone? I'm hungry? Right? Who knows what he was thinking? Probably wiser words were spoken and uttered. Anyways, as he turned to look and see where his wife and his grandbabies were, a silver tip grizzly was charging from behind and his wife didn't see it. George didn't see it. George's little sister who was there didn't see it. And the grandfather let out a shout so powerful, George said they were all slapped by this shout. And when he woke up, his ears were ringing. And as he looked, his grandmother, the back of her hand was on the belly of a dead grizzly.
The grandfather had killed that bear with his voice. And he said, “That's the power that we have as, as Dene people. That's the medicine power that, that used to be here and is still here.” And, you know, I got to be George's editor for the last book he ever published when he was alive. It's called Trail of the Spirit: Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed. And that was years, that was decades after I met him in 1991. And I remember that was also confirmation that I didn't want to spend my life in Ottawa, you know, screaming my head off about section 25, 35 and 37, of the Canadian constitution and comprehensive land claims. And you know, existing, you know, Indigenous rights.
Richard Van Camp: It was Maureen Medved who wrote The Tracey Fragments, of course, one my favorite novels. And I asked her, “How do you do it?
How do you write and teach?” And she said, “Richard, your students will always keep you on your toes. They'll help you bring out your best work.” And I really want to thank Maureen Medved for sharing that with me, because no truer words have ever been spoken about the gift of being a mentor. So when, when you're—now I work with Audible and we've got a six-month mentorship program where myself and Tanya Talaga, and several other established writers like Norma Dunning and several other writers. What we do is for six months, we are paired with three or four writers. And our whole job is to get to them to the stage of either approaching an agent and/or a publisher, to help get their work out to contests and calls for submission. So basically they've let in, I think, over 20 students for the entire program.
And this is, this is the first year we're doing this. And I love it because the people, the writers that I'm working with, are so talented and they send me their work directly. I get to sit down in a sunbeam and go through it. Uh, we call each other once a month and then we have weekly check-ins through email. So that reminds me just how hungry they are. They're hungry to be where we are as mid-career or established writers. And that's that energy is so contagious. That passion is what you want to tap into because you never want to get stale and, and run on fumes. You want to be continually energized by your students. And that's really the dance of mentorship. And that's the gift of mentorship is that when you finally get an afternoon to return to your own work, you're going with that hunger that they showed you all the time. You've got to earn it the same way that they're earning it, right? You can't, uh, can't get soft, baby. Life ain't no daycare, you know what I mean?
Well, the one thing that I tell students that nobody else will is write for revenge. And Lee Maracle told us that in 1991 at the En'owkin Centre, the beauty of fiction is you can find in your life what has been stolen and you can mend in your life what has been broken. You can resurrect the dead with your writing. And she's right. She's always been right. It’s Lee Maracle. She’s Lee Tapwe (Cree for “The Truth”) Maracle, the truth, the matriarch, the door kicker, Sto:lo auntie to us all. But, um, I really wish someone would have told me a long time ago that the gift of literature is you can use it as a weapon for truth and peace. Write for revenge. So when you go back through your life, you can end things the way you wish they, they would have. So, you know, growing up in Smith, we had a trusted community member, molest several family members.
And I wrote four linked, short stories. I wrote a little, it should have been a novella, called Blessing Wendy and it's four teenagers trying to understand why and how. And sculpting those four stories was me learning that it was okay to take that confusion and pain of something that you couldn't even fathom. And leave that confusion and rage and outrage and hurt and that sense of betrayal in your characters, to move on with your life. You can leave a lot of pain behind in your, in your writing and writing as the greatest therapy there is. I can read baby books now because I wrote The Lesser Blessed. I can write beautiful stories because of Blessing Wendy. You know, you shed a lot of skin behind when you write for yourself. You can find your wings again through your writing and through your art.
Richard Van Camp: So a long time ago, I was hired to record Elders from Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan and do a beautiful book with Mr. George Littlechild. George's name in Cree is Nanekawasis for swift child. And so I went up and, uh, my job was to interview as many elders as possible and create a book. And the whole idea was it was going to be organic. And then in two weeks, we're going to fly an artist up and they can mentor the kids of the communities and the kids can illustrate the story that has been organically grown from the Elders. And some of these kids are going to be descendants. So they're going to be illustrating their mushom’s or their kôhkom’s story, or possibly both.
I was born to do this. This is the whole reason I'm on the planet is to interview, to record, to transcribe, to promote, to celebrate, to honor, and to get it down. And my one message to everyone today, listening is don't wait, don't wait to record your Elders. Don't wait to record your knowledge keepers; really honour them. Let them know that what they mean to you and what they mean to this beautiful world of ours.
So I got to interview a whole pile of Elders and I got to meet a brother and sister, Flora Grandjambe and her brother James. And they were the eldest of everyone we interviewed in Fort McKay and Fort Chip. And when I went to go see Flora's brother James, he was in a wheelchair. He had a little dog named Princess and, uh, beautiful photos all over his, his living room and kitchen. And it's like that in [McKay]or a lot of Northern homes where it's all family, there's a couple of dog teams in there, there's ancestors. And there's a Bush radio on top of the fridge squawking away. So I'm interviewing James and he can speak a little English, I believe. And I bet you, he could speak Chipewyan. I bet you could speak Bush Cree. I bet you could speak a little bit of French.
And so I interviewed him [with] a translator. His daughter was there and then she had to leave, something happened. This is one of those trips where all the translators leave you to your own devices. And luckily I'd gotten more information from him. And then it was just James and I, and I ended up saying, because I remember my dear friend, Marty Ballentyne had a really bad cold. And I remember my mom was a little bit worried about flu season and we were all out of rat root. And for those of you listening, who don't know, rat root is, it’s one of our medicines. It's one of our five bosses in the Northwest Territories. You can chew it. Um, you can lay it on fire and smudge with it if you need to. A very powerful, very powerful—it's the root that the muskrats love. And so just on a whim, I said, James, I said, uh, I thank you, Marsi Cho, Mashi Cho,
I said, I can't thank you enough for spending time with me. I took a really beautiful picture of him. And I said, James, do you have any rat root? I said, I am happy to trade you. I said, I've taken your photo. Then I showed him the back of my camera. And it was a beautiful portrait. I said, I'm going into Fort McMurray tonight. We're going to hit the photo lab. I'll get 12 copies of your portrait made. I'm going to get it blown up really big, and I'm going to get it framed. And I'm going to give it to you. And you can give all these away for Christmas. And I said, your words are going to help me write a book. And then we're going to give you, I think we gave him one huge box filled with all these books when they were published.
Do you have one little stick of rat root? [I asked him] I could probably break it up into three pieces and give one to my mom and keep one for me. And then give one to my friend, Marty. And he looked at me for a long time and he nodded and got on his little wheelchair and kind of squeaked his way down the hall, his linoleum floor. And his little dog, I can still hear Princess going, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, little claws going after her dad. And then he left me alone for about 15 minutes in that, in that kitchen. And I was looking around and I thought, well, I wonder, I bet you I'm not the first fair skinned person to come into his house and ask him for something and maybe never be seen again. I bet you. And so after about 15 minutes, of course, where's the translator gone?
Where's Delree Dumont gone, right? It's just me. And after three minutes, the door to his, what I'm assuming was his bedroom opened. And I heard squeak, squeak, squeak, and I heard tappity tap, tap, tap, tap, tap Princess came around the corner, gave me the side-eye some more. And then James came and on his lap was the biggest freezer bag you've ever seen. A Ziploc bag, yellow and blue makes green. And it was whole sticks of rat root. I'd never, I'd never seen this much rat root in my life. So it's almost like if you're from the west coast and somebody gave you a pail of Oolican grease, or if somebody gave you a tarp full, a clean tarp, full of fresh, dry meat or dry fish or a pouch full of pemmican. It just, I'd never seen this kind of wealth before. I'd never seen this bounty before of rat root.
And he looked at me and, uh, gave me a look because I think he could see that I was shocked. My jaw was all the way down. And he reached in, he opened it up and cracked it wide open. And he reached in and grabbed about maybe seven or eight sticks. And, and I said, oh, no, James James that's too much. I, you know, I don't, I don't need a whole heck of a lot. So he took the seven or eight sticks and he kept them for himself. And he handed me the rest of the bag. There must've been about 30, maybe 34 sticks of rat root. I mean, as, as, as thick as your thumb. And, and I remember when he handed it to me, he said in perfect, clear English, he said, “You're young. You keep it.” And I just thought that was such a, such a beautiful teaching for me.
And it's a reminder that our, our Elders want to see us succeed. Our Elders are always so grateful when they, so when they see somebody show up with a good heart, who's there to honour and uplift and, and return the favor of, of being gifted with either a teaching or, or maybe a new name or a language, a new, a new pearl.
I'll be forever grateful to the Elders and the communities and all the houses that welcomed me in. And the books went so fast. People are starving to see themselves in literature and on the big screen and on the radio. And on CBC Gem, people are starving [to see themselves], in comic books, video games, you name it. And that's why I think Indigenous literature and Indigenous movies and Indigenous video games and everything else. I think that's why there's, there's such a, a huge celebration happening right now with reclamation and, and all the great work that producers are doing and publishers and directors and artists and authors. I'm really excited about the future of what we're all witnessing together.
The University of Regina press got in touch with me a long time ago, and they said, Hey, we're putting out this new series. It's [a series titled] Writers on Writing. And every time we see you, you never talk about your book. Usually you get up there and stand on stage and start telling us these great stories and we all end up buying your book anyway. Why don't you write a book on storytelling? And I said, well, I'd love to, that'd be great. So at the time Bruce Walsh was the publisher of the University of Regina press. So he was really the leader behind the whole project. And then he left to be with House of Anansi. And the book was on hold for, for, it felt like years. One day I got a call, no, an email saying, Hey, uh, BC ferries has just put in a huge order for your book.
So where are you at? And I said, what do you mean? I'm waiting for you! They’re like, where do you mean we're waiting for you? So it became, you know, the manuscript was obviously in my mind done, but the BC ferries, if you really want to know how publishing works, when BC ferries picks up the phone, the printers started gearing up for, for big print runs. And so, uh, we had probably two months to really hone and get all the permission slips in from all the storytellers. So, Gather: Richard Van Camp on Storytelling is my 26th book in 26 years. Uh, it is a celebration of what it means to be a storyteller. It's really my life's work. And it is, it features the actual interviews and the word for word accounts from different Indigenous storytellers from right across Canada and the United States who have shared with me the greatest miracle stories that they have ever been a part of.
And I give people homework in how to reclaim their own family medicines, whether it's looming, darning, sewing, cooking, baking, recipes. Of course, my greatest joy now is with all these interviews that I've spent the pandemic digitizing, to be able to email a conversation I had with an Elder back in 1992, who's no longer with us, to her grand-niece or to her own daughter that had no idea that I had this interview with their late mom. That really is, I've been saying all along is, is really why I was born. These are the greatest stories that I've ever heard, that I was lucky enough to get down on tape and transcribe. And we have permission from the storytellers and, for those who have passed, we have permission from their spouses and or their families.
Richard Van Camp: What I learned the hard way was that the story is the boss and Robert Creeley said forms should echo content. So when, when inspiration comes now, I, and every other creator out there, every writer, has to decide, is this a, is this a one-page novel? Is this a haiku? Is this a baby book? Is this a children's story? And, and if you listen carefully, the story will usually tell you what it wants to be. The mistake we make is try and keep up with what's hot. And what's what publishers and agents are looking for. Because beauty takes its own time. So we put out 26 books in 26 years, and the big departure for me was When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! And I'll tell you a little bit about that. So I was sitting in my office one day here in Edmonton, Alberta, Treaty Six country, in our home with all my Star Wars toys.
And it was publisher, Tonya Martin of McKellar & Martin called me and said, “Richard, what are you doing?” “Well, I'm just working.” And she goes, “Listen, next year is going to be big for reconciliation.” And I said, “Yeah, I, yeah, it has to be.”
“So here's what we're going to do. I'm going to ask you to write a book, and I'm asking you to write a book, I want you to write about being a second-generation residential school survivor from a 13-year-old point of view. There can't be any drinking, can’t be any drugs. Can't be any violence. This is going to be, we want this for grades eight and nine. I'm going to give you a word count, and I'm going to give you a deadline. Put the rage, put the anger, put the confusion, put it there so that kids who have never heard about residential school before can understand what it's like to be a survivor, a child of someone who went to residential school. Who's, who's really born asking why and how. And by the way, I just got off the phone with Monique Gray Smith.
She's going to do her story, and we're going to make this a flip book.” So I think she gave us a couple months and Monique and I were racing. And I wrote When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! And I think I may have even handed it in, I was really close to handing it in. And then, and then one day I was in somebody's office and they had a mug that's said “World's Greatest Dad.” And it hit me that I had already told this story before. In The Lesser Blessed you have Mr. Harris, and he's a bad teacher. I've done the bad teacher thing. There is an earlier draft, of When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! we just had a bad evil principal. And so what the challenge now is to undo that instinct, to write to those tropes that I've created and to back off and say, I've already done that.
How can I do this in a new way? And so that's why, and I think what I did was I called Tonya and I said, I need more time. I need to rework the ending. In fact, I might just have to do a cold rewrite, rewrite it [from scratch]. She said, “Take all the time you need, I can tell you're onto something.” And I said, “I got to go where I've never been before.” So, so the, I think the most powerful point of the journey forward, the pivot for everybody, especially the reader is when Dene Cho breaks down in the principal's office. And just for those of you who haven't read it, it's really Dene Cho is really me, uh, growing up and being furious that we're wasting time in the classroom, in the Northwest Territories by not having a curriculum that's local, that honours what we need in this life as Northerners.
The beautiful thing for me as a student of the craft was having a character so angry and so furious and so, so outraged, actually reduced to tears because Dene Cho lost his father early in his life. And to have your nemesis, your principal sipping from a cup that says “World's Greatest Dad.” For [Dene Cho] to cry and say, “It must be nice, you know, to be loved by your kids when I don't even have a dad.” And that was a turning point for the principal. That's really when the principal took over with the story, where he sees a student leader. And it's usually the class clown, when you look back, that becomes a leader because they're bored, they're disengaged. They're not seeing themselves in this curriculum, right? There's nothing here for them. For me, when I look at When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! the beauty is when the principal says, “Dene Cho, you know, I'm so sorry for everything you've gone through.
Why don't you just take three days off excused absence. You're not, you're not being marked with anything other than this. You go and you get the Elders and the knowledge keepers and whoever you want. And then on Friday at our staff meeting at four o'clock, you make a presentation with whoever you want and you tell us what you want, let them talk, and they can tell us what they want the kids in this community to learn.” And, and that to me was the magic. And when I was able to deliver that manuscript, I think that I think Tonya Martin and Meghan Hague, the publishers of McKellar & Martin, I think they knew that this was really my most vulnerable work.
Richard Van Camp: Every time I take the stage, I just pretend that's my last night on earth. And I give, I give all I got, I always try to end in the splits. I'm really grateful to all the storytellers and knowledge keepers who have taken me under their wings, all these blessed years to help me be the father that I love being, and the husband, and the friend, and the brother, and the writer, and the storyteller. Because at the end of the day, you want to be able to hit the stage and share good things and share them honestly. And I always tell students, be prepared to be challenged. Sooner or later, someone's going to stand and say, “Who gave you the right to interview and share that story?” And, and you're only stronger when you know that day is coming and it's the Elders that you've gone to and you've paid and you've gifted.
And you've helped over the decades and years for them to stand beside you and say, “We did. We gave him permission because he came in a good way, with a gentle heart, and this was somebody starving for culture, starving for teaching. This is somebody who showed up and drove us where we needed to go when it was 30, below or 30 above, and we were tired. This is somebody who has always done his best. And, uh, you know, looking at him, he's homely, he's pitiful, right? What else could he do in this life but write books? You know, they say you’ve got a face for radio--look at this, he's got a face for writing! God help him!”
That's a good way to be: humble, pitiful and grateful.
Claire Tacon: You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Richard’s work, including his most recent book Gather: Richard Van Camp on Storytelling. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
Richard’s website is www.richardvancamp.com.
In this episode, Richard Van Camp discusses his life’s work as a storyteller and writer to pass on teachings for the next generation, and his excitement about the future of Indigenous literature.
0:29 | Realizing as a child that the school curriculum he was learning was cultural theft and how it inspired him to interview Elders and write down their knowledge for future generations
4:27 | Becoming the Handibus driver in his community and recording community matriarchs
5:00 | Studying Native Management Studies at Arctic College and making the choice to pursue writing over politics
8:39 | Getting to meet author and Sahtu Dene Elder George Blondin
11: 23 | How he’s carried Maureen Medved’s advice on teaching into his work with the Audible mentorship program
13:26 | Why he encourages his students to “write for revenge”
15:25 | Recording Elders in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan and the teaching he learned from James Grandjambe
22:55 | Developing Gather: Richard Van Camp on Storytelling and sharing interviews from Elders who have passed with their living descendants
25:25 | How seeing a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug completely changed the storyline in his book When We Play Our Drums, They Sing!
30:46 | Ending in the splits
PhD in Creative Writing
I was so grateful to UVic. And then as time went on and I graduated, I think I took a couple of years off—memory fades—but then, I had heard that the greatest program in Canada was UBC. So I applied and then I got in and I was so grateful because I received the UGF. So I think they gave us, it was $17,000 a year to go.
So to be paid in a way to go and do your masters was, was the saving grace of everything. And that was such a, you know, those two years when you do your master's and when you do your undergrad in creative writing, what you're really doing is letting the world know that this is who you are, that you mean business, and this is really time to focus and hone your manuscripts and find your voice.
So yep, to go En’owkin, to go to UVic, to go to UBC, I wouldn't be the writer I am today, or the human being had not been closed, wonderful opportunities. And if I could just say, you know, I'm always a little worried that there's going to be a PhD in creative writing. And I just think that that is going to be a cash grab. I don't think there should be a PhD in creative writing because I think your PhD is your body of work. That, you know, and I'm really hoping that UBC keeps their promise. They said, if you've got a, if you have an MFA in creative writing from UBC that's, that's PhD recognized all over the world. So if I ever hear of any little institution doing a PhD in creative writing, I’m gonna slash some tires, Claire, I'm going to put some sugar in some gas tanks. You know what I mean? I think that's pretty cheap because you're exploiting something that doesn't need to happen.
Story that sparked a romance
So, a long time ago, I wrote a little story called “My Fifth Step,” and that's in Angel Wing Splash Pattern. It's a, tear-jerker, it's, it's one of those ones where I, I have to be strong to read it on stage. And it's the one that, that usually brings tears. I've had people get up and walk out halfway through it's it's it's, it was really was a gift to receive that story and to write it out. So it's about a man who goes for treatment and has the gift of time and sobriety to write a letter to somebody who used to love and still loves only to wish her the best.
And I was told years ago, after the book came out, that there was a young woman in the community who was seeing a not nice guy. And she had always had a best friend, a male best friend. And for whatever reason, she never saw that it was her best friend that had the biggest crush on her. And when she got out of the hospital and was going back to school, her dad found a, uh, yellow-and-blue-makes-green Ziploc bag underneath her windshield with something folded up. And the dad brought it in and, and opened it up and realized it was a love letter from his daughter's best male friend. And what this gentlemen had—and I hope to meet him one day. I helped him meet them one day—what he'd done is he'd taken white out and he he'd, he'd whited out my name and put his name on every page. And they ended up going out together.
He'd used my short story as, as the ultimate love letter. That was the closer. And, uh, I I'm really in awe. I think about that often, you know, when life kicks you in the nuts, you gotta dig deep sometimes and say, “Come on, what's the one thing that, that gives you the oomph to get up there and get back in the game, Van Camp?” It's like, remember that time, that guy? That's usually the one that, that gets me back in the hot seat here.