Richard Van Camp has written twenty-six books in twenty-six years. The Tlicho Dene writer’s oeuvre includes novels, short-story collections, graphic novels and children’s books. A storyteller in many forms, his work has been adapted to film, and he was also a cultural consultant on CBC TV’s North of 60.
Van Camp, who now lives in Edmonton with his wife and son, is originally from Fort Smith, a town on the Slave River in the southern region of the Northwest Territories known in the Dene language as Denendeh — “the land of the people.” He is one of the founders of the NorthWords Writers Festival, a four-day literary event that takes place in Yellowknife every June. Van Camp has taught university courses, mentored hordes of creators, and is currently working on four books at once. He often wakes at four o’clock in the morning to get stories out of his head and onto the page.
“It’s a very sweet way to start my day,” he says.
JUST THE FACTS
Best known for: The Lesser Blessed, a novel set in the Northwest Territories that was made into a film in 2012, and his children’s books, including Little You and We Sang You Home.
Favourite comfort food: Pizza.
Something that always makes you laugh: TikTok videos that my giggle gang send me every day.
When you feel most creative: First thing in the morning.
Best advice you’ve ever received: Writing is rewriting.
Last Google search: Loon bones for stabbing.
Something you never leave home without: My phone.
Favourite book that isn’t one of yours: Indiscretion by Charles Dubow [a modern love story about a wealthy couple]. I think about it all the time.
JUST THE ANSWERS
Feathertale: What compelled you to start writing?
Richard Van Camp: I realized when I was nineteen that, as a lifelong reader, no one was telling our story as Northerners in the way I saw things and felt things. So I decided to write a story [The Lesser Blessed] that I would like to read, and I promised myself not to hold back.
FT: What does that mean to you, to not hold back?
RVC: I wanted to explore what it’s like being a second-generation residential school survivor and what it’s like to be a child of the eighties. I was going to tackle what it’s like when you’re from a small town and a hometown hero takes their own life. I wanted to showcase the beauty of our community and our culture as Fort Smith townies and expose the horror of the uranium mines in the Northwest Territories — the uranium leaking from Port Radium and Rayrock Mine is killing us.
I also wanted to spoil you with Fort Smith charm with stories like “Show Me Yours” [about addiction and reuniting with an old love], “The Power of Secrets” [about secrets we share and ones we don’t] and “Grandpa/Ehtsi” [about language preservation between generations]. I love how modern-day medicine power is still alive in my stories, and I wanted to showcase Northerners going for treatment and coming home stronger, like in “My Fifth Step.” I also wanted to be funny and I wanted to be touching.
FT: On all of your social media accounts, website bios, you say right away you’re Dene from Fort Smith. Why is it important to you that people know that?
RVC: I’m Fort Smith on two legs. The stories I tell are almost always about Fort Smith. It’s my heartland, my best memories. I call there all the time to get my accent and strut back. I am so grateful to have been born and raised in such a beautiful part of the Northwest Territories.
I love the feeling of community. There are folks there who have known me my entire life.
FT: I read in another interview that you were a volunteer shuttle bus driver in Fort Smith. How did that come about?
RVC: When I graduated from high school, I realized that I was one of the very few nineteen-year-olds in town. All my friends had left for college, trade school, university. I realized that I needed to understand what it meant to be a Northerner, a Fort Smither, a Tlicho Dene. I decided to volunteer as the Handi-Bus driver in my community, and it was the best thing I ever could have done because I was welcomed even deeper into my community. I was welcomed into many homes, many feasts, many stories. It really was the smartest anything I could have done, and I urge everyone reading this to volunteer your time with the elderly. We are here to serve, help, protect, mentor, be there for each other. I think I became wise beyond my years from the teachings and stories I learned and listened to during this time.
FT: Twenty-six books in twenty-six years. How are you so prolific?
RVC: I’m always working on something, and I’m lucky to have twelve publishers who want to work with me.
FT: What are you working on at the moment?
RVC: I’m working on book two of The Spirit of Denendeh [a three-part mystery series graphic novel]. It’s called As I Enfold You in Petals and is being illustrated by the great Scott Henderson, published by Highwater Press. It is about a birthday party where, if you can amaze the host, Benny the Bank, you receive twenty thousand dollars. Half the town shows up each year and, so far, no one has amazed Benny, until now. Out next year in full colour.
FT: What has been the biggest influence on your career?
RVC: I’m an avid reader, listener, watcher, note taker, but it would be music. I write to music. I am swooned by music. I become weak and dizzy when I discover that perfect song to write to. Galaxies have been born because of the music I adore.
FT: What kind of music do you listen to while you write?
RVC: I switch it up for each story so as not to cross-blur myself.
FT: What’s the best advice you’ve received as a creator?
RVC: One of the greatest pieces of advice I have ever received was from publisher Harriet Rohmer of Children’s Book Press, who told me that collaborating is a dance of trust, and that you have to get out of the way and trust the artist you are working on to do their best work. It’s their story too now. I’ve never forgotten that.
To work with artists like Julie Flett, Christopher Shy, Scott Henderson, George Littlechild — it’s all so wonderful. Every day is like Christmas for me when I see their concept art, the thumbnails, the design. I was clearly born to work with others.
Now amplify that with a movie — you have lighting, sound, actors, set design. It is magic to see your work adapted for the big screen. It’s inspiring to think that someone was so taken with one of your stories that they’re going to dedicate a year or years of their life to gathering the resources to take a story I imagined to a whole new level. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s created something from my work. I love it all.
FT: Your most famous and also your first novel, The Lesser Blessed, was written in 1996 and continues to sell copies. It’s a coming-of-age story and also about friendship and abuse and love living in a small town. What was it like to see The Lesser Blessed become a film sixteen years later?
RVC: To see Anita Doron’s adaptation with First Generation Films with my family and producers and the actors in the audience at TIFF was one of the most exciting anythings of my life, and I am in awe of what Anita did with the film, grateful. I love collaborating with visionaries. I love cheerleading, adding insights, but mostly I just love seeing how things happen and why they happen.
FT: You are also a teacher and a mentor. What’s something you wish all your students knew?
RVC: I wish they knew how much they inspired me. They’re hungry and that energy is contagious. I want to be as hungry as they are, and that they inspire me more than they will ever know.
FT: What do you hope your students and mentees learn from you?
RVC: When you have abundance, you want abundance in others. I love cheerleading and mentoring and answering questions and getting superb writers that much closer to agents and/or publishers. I hope writers and storytellers can look back and say, “RVC was a mentor and only wanted the best for me and my work and my family.” That is the ultimate compliment because I’ve been mentored by so many superb writers and storytellers. I think my list grows daily of those who’ve influenced me.
FT: How did you come to work on North of 60?
RVC: I was hired as a writer trainee and realized that I was the only Northerner on set who was born and raised in the North. It was such a huge opportunity for me to see how a TV series is made. The series was shot in Bragg Creek, Alberta, and every episode is on YouTube.
I became one of the cultural consultants for a few seasons. It was really one of the first times that Canadians, and international viewers, were able to see Indigenous actors at their very finest, dealing with real issues. It was a golden time for so many and it influenced how I crafted The Lesser Blessed, my first novel.
In North of 60, the producers invented a fake community, Lynx River. This was a get-out-of-jail-free card, because this way Northern viewers could let their guards down and enjoy the show. This was not about their community or their leadership or their families. It was a show representing life in the North.
I realized that if I invented a fake community, I could explore tough issues like suicide, mental health, addictions, betrayal, and readers could let their guards down and sense that the community was an amalgamation of many Northern communities all stuffed into one.
FT: A lot of creative people struggle to share their stories with an audience. Is that ever challenging for you?
RVC: I think great writing is about being vulnerable and honouring that the story is the boss. When I look back at my books, I can see what I was going through at the time in my life, and that these were the arrows of light that lit my way through.
FT: In “Gather” [Van Camp’s most recent book, about the power of storytelling], you tell your mom’s story of being taken away to residential school. What was it like to interview your mom about this experience?
RVC: I didn’t think I could ever love her more than I already did. You know she beat cancer, and for me to hear what her childhood was like and her teen years were like, my heart actually bloomed with pride for her, and it still does every day.
FT: Why was it important for you to tell her story?
RVC: My mother and my uncles were all taken. Think of the hundred thousand kids that were taken. And now think of the kids that didn’t make it home. Think about how quiet the communities were without the laughter of children. I can’t imagine it — I can’t.
And so, I wanted to illuminate why Canada is the way it is. I’ve always said that residential schools will always be the soul in Canada’s bones, and I mean that we are still in the shadow of those residential schools, and the world needs to understand, Canadians need to understand, other Indigenous communities need to understand, that what our parents went through is really unforgivable. But we’re here and we’re people of incredible dignity, people of incredible forgiveness.
I’m in awe of my mother’s courage, my uncles’ courage, because they all went, and that was really important to me. So go out there and you get those stories that you’ve always wanted. If there’s a story that you’re worried the world is going to forget, go out there and get it. If there’s a recipe that you’re worried the world is going to forget — or a song or a name or a teaching or a children’s story. Use this time. Don’t you dare hold back your love, and you go out there and you get it with permission and you honour the storytellers — because you owe them. Really honour them for their knowledge and their teachings, because the world needs it. The world needs their good medicine.
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