A WRITER WITHOUT RESERVATIONS
Native author Thomas King will write anything
he can get his hands on
BY MARY DICKIESON
Thomas King says he became a writer to impress a woman. He was a new faculty member teaching native American studies at the University of Lethbridge in the early 1980s, and she was a professor in the English department. When King's favourite recipe for macaroni and cheese casserole with sausage failed to impress her, he took desperate measures. He showed her a 10-year-old attempt at poetry.
King thought she was encouraging. "Not bad," she said. So he wrote a short story. "Not bad," again. So he wrote another story. By the time he had enough stories to fill a book, they were a couple.
Today, King and Prof. Helen Hoy have offices across the hall from each other in U of G's School of Literatures and Performance Studies in English. He admits he's still trying to impress her. She is his first reader and best editor, although his repertoire has expanded a lot since his casserole days. Since the publication of his first book, Medicine River, in 1990, King has written two more novels, a few children's books, numerous short stories, and scripts for television, film and a weekly CBC radio program. He can't quit.
King says Hoy gave him a reason to start writing and he knows he will never stop, but he can't really explain why he writes, especially why he writes novels. It's not for the fame - although Medicine River was runner-up for the 1991 Commonwealth Prize and was made into a TV movie; Green Grass, Running Water was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award in 1993 and won the Canadian Authors' Award for fiction; and his newly published Truth and Bright Water has received rave reviews across the country.
And it's not for the money. Compare two weeks of work on a one-hour television script that could earn $23,000 in Canada to the years spent writing a novel that might bring a $35,000 to $40,000 advance. "What drives a writer to write novels is not money," says King. "It's something else. I suppose it's an addiction; maybe it's a desire to re-create the world."
You sense a little of that desire as he talks about Truth and Bright Water. Like his earlier works, this is a story of native people, set in the prairies in what one reviewer has called "the land of broken dreams." The reviewer is close to King's assessment of himself: "I'm a pessimistic writer. I hope I'm wrong about the view I have of the world. I don't believe I'm wrong, but I hope I am."
This book is the story of young cousins Tecumseh and Lum, who live in Truth, a small American town across the border and the river from the Bright Water Reserve. Like all of King's characters, Tec and Lum are products of the sometimes tragic lives of native people, and they are completely vulnerable to his words and the reader's sensibilities.
King tells us up front that the book ends without answering the final question. It's not his job to give you all the answers. In fact, Thomas King the creator of this story doesn't have the answers. Although he maintains that a writer must have total control over his characters, he says he never knows how a novel will end when he begins writing it. His portrayal of native people often presents social, economic and political issues that may lie beneath the surface of our consciousness. His purpose is to remind us, ask the questions and leave us to answer how we affect and are affected by the burdens that native people carry.
What King does know about his novels is their rhythm. "I look at my novels as musical pieces, symphonies." He hears tonal changes within a sentence, hears the story speed up, slow down or shift from a major to a minor key and back again. He'll spend hours looking for a word that has the right vowel sound and crafting words into sentences and paragraphs with just the right rhythm.
Some readers might see the fluidity in King's work as less a symphony and more a painting. His careful word search produces a descriptive narrative where wasted words would block the view like a misplaced tree in a painting of prairie landscape.
Born in Sacramento, Calif., King had travelled the world as a photojournalist, but had never seen the prairies before moving to Lethbridge. He left them a decade ago, first for the pastoral scenery that claims the University of Minnesota and, since 1995, for U of G, but says he still feels connected to the endless and waving prairie. "Ugly as sin and magical," he says, "there is nothing like the light on the prairies. You feel as if you're in a vast expanse of land with no one else around you, even though there are people all around you. The landscape is etched on the creative part of my mind."
So it was the prairies that gave King the inspiration for his writing, as Hoy gave him the reason, and the Blackfoot Indians of Alberta gave him the subject.
King himself is of Cherokee and Greek descent and has built relationships with many groups of native people in North America, from California to Utah, where he completed his PhD in native studies. In Alberta, he played native baseball with the Blackfoot, listened to their stories and saw the way their culture governs the way they treat people. He was impressed by their society, and the homeland of Alberta's Blackfoot and Cree Indians became the setting for King's stories.
Friendliness is a native virtue that King admires and is probably the first thing CBC radio listeners think about when they hear Jasper the Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand in King's Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour. Now in its second season, the show airs Thursday mornings at 10:30 a.m. and Saturdays around 11:30 a.m. It's obviously a project that King enjoys because he puts aside his fear of flying to travel to Edmonton for taping sessions.
Another project that may get him back on a plane to Edmonton is a photo exhibition planned at the Edmonton Art Gallery this fall. King is one of five artists who will take part, his installation inspired by recommendations from Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal People that bring to his mind a reference to the Ten Commandments. He will spend the summer photographing native children for a series of murals that he refers to now as the Ten Little Indians. Photo satire is part of the goal. King wants his photos to tell a story and make a statement. He has been pursuing two major photography projects since the early 1990s. One is a series of portraits of Indians across North America. Many of his subjects donned a Lone Ranger mask to give an Indian answer to the real identity of the western hero on a white horse. He's also trying to find a publisher for a collection of photos titled "Indians on Vacation" that show native people posing in front of familiar U.S. tourist destinations like Custer's monument in Wyoming and the baseball stadium in Cleveland.
Like his writing, King's photography can be very witty. Think about it a little more, and you may see something else.
That's the same message King delivers to students in his U of G literature classes. He cares little about the amount of information students pick up in his class; he just doesn't want them to throw the assigned books into the garbage when they leave.
King would like his students to use literature as another window on the world - just like politics, sociology, history, art and other disciplines. He likens academic studies to looking at the MacKinnon courtyard through different windows of the building. The view is the same, but the perspective makes all the difference, and those who know how to think will see and understand the differences.
Which window is King looking out now? The music has begun, and two chapters of his next novel are already written.