Thomas King: Canada’s Native Writer Tells His Story

By Natasha Davies

If you can live your life without writing then do so — it will be a lot easier that way. But if you’re desperate to write because it is so much a part of you, forget about having any sort of personal life.

This advice comes straight from someone who knows all about writing, its challenges and rewards – Thomas King, Canada’s celebrated native author.

“When people ask me what they have to do to become a writer I say, ‘Don’t get involved with anyone, don’t get married, don’t have any children, learn to live on as little as possible, and then see if you could afford to try to be a writer.’ But of course no one takes that advice,” King explains, in his deep and calm voice.

King hasn’t exactly followed his own advice either. He began writing “seriously” at the age of 40, to impress a very special woman, his wife. Before that he was busy working regular jobs in order to raise his family.

Born in 1943 to a Cherokee father and a mother of Greek and German descent, King grew up in Northern California, received his PhD in English literature at the University of Utah, and worked for a number of years at the University of Minnesota as Chair of their American Indian Studies program. A Canadian citizen, he returned home in 1980 to accept a position as Professor of Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge.

Finding inspiration
As a young reader, King found himself inspired by N. Scott Momaday, author of House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. The book received a lot of attention and brought even more attention to Native writers, both literary and oral. At the time, there were few published native writers. However, it led King to think, “If they bought one book about Indians, maybe they’d buy another one.”

With that thought in the back of his mind, King believed that writing would be a real possibility for him, one day. In the eighties, King’s creative and critical writing were widely published: articles, stories, and poems of his appeared in many journals, including World Literature Written in English, the Hungry Mind Review, and the Journal of American Folklore.

He has also edited a book entitled The Native in Literature (1987) and a special issue of Canadian Fiction Magazine (1988) devoted to short fiction by Canadian Native writers.

His first novel, Medicine River, published in 1990, was turned into a television movie that starred Graham Greene and Tom Jackson.

Other books included Green Grass, Running Water, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award in 1993; One Good Story, That One; and Truth and Bright Water. He also writes books for children, and a popular CBC radio series, The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour. His latest book is DreadfulWater Shows Up.

Cowboys and Indians
One of the biggest obstacles for Native writers is that North Americans have grown up on a particular kind of Indian in literature, according to King.

“You never know how big a market there’s going to be in non-native North America for novels about Indians, especially if you’re trying to do something different than the old cowboy and Indian routine or the historical western stuff,” says King.

“There are many non-natives who have written about Indians, so you have this backdrop against which you have to write. If you move away from that backdrop, as a lot of native writers try to do, than it puts you on the fringe because people aren’t used to seeing Indians in those roles; they’re not used to seeing some of narrative strategies.”

King notes that the stereotypical Indian gets repeated over and over again in different ways and varieties.

“Basically you still see that cliché Indian character pop up in books. You would think by now, non-natives or natives would be able to get around that but those images are pretty well burned into our minds,” says King, citing the stoic, innocent, loner type; or the savage Indian type.

“It’s disheartening in this day and age to have it repeated,” says King. “The fact of the matter is publishing houses are only going to publish so many books a year by native writers that deal with native issues.”

For aspiring writers seeking an audience, King suggests contacting native publishing houses that “look kindly” at their work. Another option is to solicit literary journals, native and non-native.

“Of course the other thing that may happen are native writers doing non-native material, and that’s legitimate. Just because a person is native doesn’t mean they have to write about native issues,” says King.

“It’s a slow process. Don’t wait until 40 like I did,” advises King, with a soft chuckle.

Native style
There’s a difference of narrative strategies between native and non-native writers, observes King. Non-natives who write about Indians usually write about the historical Indian; their books are set in the past.

“But when Natives write about native material, for the most part we write about the present. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems to be the case,” says King.

A good example is a new book entitled Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Alexie. A terrific book, King says, that deals with present day concerns. “Its narrative strategy is one that North American readers aren’t going to be used to – they may even find a little bit on the laboured side. But for native readers, what they’ll hear is some of the overtones of oral literature and oral story telling.”

New book, new direction
King’s latest book takes him from his usual “serious, adult writing” to a more fun style of writing. Thumps DreadfulWater, is a Cherokee photographer living in Chinook. An ex-cop, he gets to play detective when a computer programmer is found dead in the band’s new resort and casino just before its grand opening. Writing under the pseudonymous Hartley GoodWeather, Thomas King plans on making DreadfulWater a series of detective books.

“This book will get to more get more native readers than included Green Grass, Running Water, which is more complex,” compares King. Green Grass, is currently scheduled to go into filming next spring.

How does King find motivation and ideas for his writing today?

“To be able to hear a good story well told is a wonderful thing,” says King.

“At this point in my career, I guess I have to look to myself for inspiration. I have friends who are writers who are kind to me and say nice things to me when they read my work, which is encouraging. I also hang out with all sorts of weird native people. They tell their stories, and sometimes bits of those stories become bits of my prose. I keep my ears open.”

Currently, King is a professor at the University of Guelph where he teaches Native literature and Creative Writing. He will appear at the Vancouver International Writers Festival at Doing Canada Proud, an event that takes place on Wednesday, October 23 at 8:30 pm at Performance Works on Granville Island. For more information, visit the Festival’s web site.