Telling stories in different voices

Joseph Boyden talks about borders, the bush and his fear that reading is a thing of the past

2008 Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden performs at the Sleepless Goat Friday.
2008 Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden performs at the Sleepless Goat Friday.

Giller Prize-winning author Joseph Boyden kicked off his visit to Kingston Friday afternoon by plugging his nose, pinching his throat and bellowing like a moose.

“Told you it was sexy,” he said as an audience of English professors, students and fans followed suit in what was surely the first moose-calling lesson seen in Dunning Hall Auditorium.

Boyden was in town to read from his 2008 Giller Prize-winning novel Through Black Spruce, the sequel to 2005’s Three Day Road. The English department’s Giller lecture began last year with 2007’s winner, Elizabeth Hay. For this year’s event, an anonymous alumnus donated $10,000, much of which went toward providing fourth-year English students with copies of Boyden’s celebrated second novel.

Friday’s event also included a panel discussion about Canadian Indigenous writing featuring Boyden, Anishnabe writer Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Delaware poet and playwright Daniel David Moses.

Sitting down with Boyden after another reading Friday night at the Sleepless Goat, I asked where he learned the art of the moose call. As it turns out, Boyden, like his character Will Bird, is no stranger to hunting.

“I wasn’t born a hunter by any means. I go out and I’m more a watcher. I bring my son up and my brothers are all hunters, but I’m more the guy who kind of just goes along to watch and see,” he told me as he sipped wine from a beer mug.

Boyden, who’s of Irish, Scottish and Ojibwa descent, said the First Nations voice that predominates his writing is natural for him.

“The stories that really, I felt, were the right ones were the ones where there was a First Nations voice speaking, so I just kept writing those,” he said.

But although most of his fiction writing comes from that perspective, he said, he’s not limited to the First Nations voice.

“There’s obviously so much of this world to explore. There’s too much to explore for a writer,” he said, adding that he’s constantly pushing himself to try new ideas.

“Three Day Road is very historical; Through Black Spruce is very contemporary. And so I want to continually kind of push myself and hopefully never become a label or a brand that way, you know?

“I think my writing, my good writing, comes from that clichéd place you call the heart.”

Boyden, who grew up in a family of 11 children, said he turned to books as a way to find his own voice and space in the household.

“I read the Encyclopedia Britannica by the time I was 10, from A to Z,” he said, admitting he skipped some of the X’s, because they were “really boring.”

“I was a voracious reader and I found kind of this escapism—this world in writing that grabbed me from the outside and that kind of naturally transformed for me into wanting to do what I admired so much.”

Early on, the author known today for his fiction put most of his energy into poetry and nonfiction. It was in his mid-20s—when Boyden decided to explore fiction writing—that he joined the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of New Orleans.

Today he teaches a graduate fiction workshop there, which he said can be a challenge to him as a writer.

“If I’m telling students a certain thing, it better be something that I live by, too, as a writer, so I’m constantly kind of testing myself and challenging my own writing by teaching,” Boyden said, adding that he invites students along on hunting and fishing trips.

“I’m really excited about introducing not just Canadians, but other people to James Bay.” “It really is kind of the last approachable frontier in Canada, where you can drive up or get up on the train and end up in an environment that is so rural, so ‘bush,’ you know?”

Boyden splits his time between Northern Ontario and Louisiana, and Through Black Spruce does something similar, moving between various Canadian settings and New York City.

“I was trying to … break a few little boundaries with what you can do as a writer of First Nations. And part of that is breaking actually the physical boundaries of going to Canada and the States and that kind of interesting trade that happens along the border,” he said.

As the awards and accolades have streamed in over the past couple of years, public perception of Boyden’s work has changed in Canada. But he said living part-time in New Orleans helps give him perspective.

“Not that many years ago I was an unknown writer like the majority of writers are, or virtually unknown,” he said. “But you know what the neat thing is? Living in the States kind of keeps me grounded because the States is a gigantic pool, you know? There’s lots of big fishes in the States, and I’m a relatively unknown there.”

But regardless of where he is or how the public receives his work, it’s never easy. Boyden said there’s nothing immediately gratifying about writing, except the fulfillment that comes from getting something off his chest.

“If you want to go in it for the long run, it’s a day job; it’s a tough long haul. It’s hours and hours and hours of work for often no pay off. So you have to really love the act of it, and love the expression—and be willing to listen to people who criticize in a constructive way.”

Because writing is such a solitary art, it can be difficult to take a step back from the page.

That’s why it’s also important for aspiring writers to find a good reader, he said—someone they can trust to provide honest feedback. For Boyden, that someone is his wife and fellow author, Amanda Boyden.

“We’re each other’s best editors,” he said, adding that the two wrote their most recent novels while sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. Amanda Boyden’s New Orleans-centred novel Babylon Rolling was released in the summer of 2008 and Through Black Spruce was released the following month.

“It was kind of magical,” he said of the close-quartered writing process.

Although there are already whispers about the third book in the trilogy, it will probably be a while before he works on it, he said.

“I think I’m going to do something else to give it a break and to go in a new direction, and that’s exciting to me.”

Still, after living with the central characters in both novels for so many years, Boyden will undoubtedly find it difficult to let them go. He said he has had ideas for the third book—which will be centred on a back-and-forth dialogue between two characters—running through his mind for a while.

“I don’t want it to become too recognizable and I’m pretty sure that I’ve found a place where this novel will go … in a direction that hopefully will surprise people but be gratifying to readers,” he said.

Boyden spent four and a half years working on Three Day Road. He said when the novel was finally ready for publication in 2005, he encountered a bit of separation anxiety.

“What I realized was I’d spent four and a half years in that novel with characters every day in my head that I lived with, that became as real as real people are. And suddenly they were gone. … But then I realized you know what? This family has so much more to say.”

Communication is the foundation of Boyden’s work: both of his novels are about people telling stories. The key, he said, is giving the characters a purpose for their storytelling.

“Just having them tell the story out into the ether didn’t anchor the story. And they had things to say but it was like they were talking to an empty room,” he said, adding that if the characters have reasons for their storytelling, the novel as a whole has a better footing. “I’ve always put my characters into positions and into places where they are very uncomfortably … forced in a situation where they realize that they’re going to have to talk themselves out of it.”

Boyden, who said he sees himself as a storyteller rather than an author, said he’s fascinated by the changes technology is bringing to the way reading is perceived in society. He said his son, Jacob—whose name is tattooed onto his left palm—doesn’t read much anymore.

“The act of reading takes energy and a lot of time. And I feel like the world now, especially for younger people, there’s not enough time in everyone’s life. And reading is going to be one of those things that fall by the wayside,” he said.

But Boyden said there’s nothing comparable to reading a good book.

“You enter into a different place completely and it’s engaging in a way that the new technology isn’t,” he said.

“You create that story, the landscapes in all of the different ways—the emotional, the physical landscapes—in your own head when you read and that’s the beauty of reading.”

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