Quill and Quire

Richard Wagamese

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A long journey

With the release of his seventh novel, Richard Wagamese is poised for wider acclaim

Richard Wagamese was 22 years old when his Ojibway elders declared that he had “stories in the curls of his fingers.” After publishing six novels, five non-fiction titles, and one poetry collection, and working for three decades as a journalist, it’s clear the author, now 58, has fully embraced those prophetic words. He’s always been a prolific writer, but with the release of his seventh novel, Medicine Walk (McClelland & Stewart), he feels more in control of his craft than ever before.

Wagamese became well-known to Canadian readers when Olympic wrestler Carol Huynh defended his previous novel, Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre), during the 2013 CBC Canada Reads competition. Lisa Moore’s February won the annual radio showdown, but Wagamese topped the People’s Choice poll, and book sales skyrocketed. According to his longtime agent, John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists, the fictional tale of residential school survivor Saul Indian Horse has sold more than 25,000 copies in Canada since its 2012 release.

Wagamese says he wrote Indian Horse with a journalist’s lean, straightforward language to ensure the harrowing subject matter was “cut down to the bones.” With Medicine Walk, he uses a more expressive style to tell the story of a difficult journey into the mountains undertaken by a dying man and his son.

Wagamese says he wrote the novel to explore why many First Nations children grow up without their fathers’ influence. Although the book is not autobiographical, Wagamese says he spent many years estranged from his own two sons, now ages 34 and 17, and wanted to provide an explanation to help his boys reclaim a lost history. “It’s about me and my sons taking a long walk through the backcountry, where I feel more comfortable than anywhere, and telling them that story,” says Wagamese, speaking to Q&Q from his home outside Kamloops, B.C.

Born in Northwestern Ontario to Ojibway parents whose own horrific residential school experiences left them unable to care for their son, Wagamese grew up in foster homes before being adopted into an abusive household. He left at 16 and spent many years homeless, consumed by drugs and alcohol. Language and libraries provided his only escape. He carried a notebook and diligently wrote out passages by Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, studying how those masters constructed each sentence.

By the late 1970s, Wagamese had found his footing as a reporter for several native newspapers, later becoming a radio and television broadcaster and Calgary Herald columnist. In 1991, he was the first native Canadian to win a National Newspaper Award for column writing. His first novel, Keeper ’n Me (Doubleday Canada), won the 1995 Writers’ Guild of Alberta award for best novel, and Wagamese has since received an array of prizes, including two Native American Press Association Awards, the 2011 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature, and the Canada Council for the Arts’ 2013 Molson Prize.

When he began Keeper ’n Me, which tells the story of a former foster child rediscovering his Ojibway identity after being released from prison, Wagamese says he aimed to craft a novel that would “meet the bar” set by Canadian authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, David Helwig, and Jack Hodgins. He wanted his heritage to be irrelevant to publishers and candidly expressed his distaste for labels – even well-intentioned ones, such as “foremost native author.”

“I’m not a native writer,” says Wagamese. “I’m a fucking writer.… I don’t want to be compared, I don’t want to be ghettoized, I don’t want to be marginalized.… I just want [people] to read my work and go, ‘Wow.’”

Pearce agrees: “There’s a pervasive humanity to his work that absolutely transcends any labels that some people might want to put on him as a native writer. He’s always been larger than that.”

According to both Pearce and Wagamese, Medicine Walk could eliminate that “native” adjective for good. After Douglas & McIntyre exercised its right of first refusal on the manuscript, four publishers bid on Canadian rights. Once M&S attached editor Ellen Seligman to the project, Wagamese was sold. Together, they made the novel leaner and tighter. “Every once in a while you get a dream that comes true,” says Wagamese. “The dream that came true for me was Ellen Seligman, and what she did with that book was amazing.”

The advance for Medicine Walk was “very healthy and very appropriate,” says Pearce, who is focused on selling international rights, especially south of the border. (Wagamese’s 2006 novel, Dream Wheels, underperformed in the U.S., where it was published by St. Martin’s Press.) Another target? Wagamese has yet to receive any top-level prize recognition, says Pearce, who is eager to see his client’s name on the Giller and Governor General’s lists.

Inevitably, Medicine Walk will also highlight Wagamese’s lifelong battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, both of which figure prominently in the book. In March 2010, Wagamese was arrested and charged with three counts of driving under the influence of alcohol. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in Kamloops provincial court on Nov. 21, 2011, to six months of house arrest, 50 hours of community service, and a 10-year driving ban.

Wagamese says he was ready to tackle alcoholism in Medicine Walk because he’s moved past it: “I’ve been sober for multiple years and I’ve been beyond PTSD issues for multiple years, so now I have clarity.” If a work of fiction puts his personal story under the microscope, so be it. “I can actually offer my sons and offer my friends and offer anybody clarity,” says Wagamese. “I couldn’t do that before.”