Michelle Good pursued an MFA at the University of British Columbia – while continuing to practise law and manage her own firm – with the specific intent to write what became Five Little Indians. She had been developing the idea for years and believed it was an important story to tell, however it might be received.
Since its release in April 2020, the novel about five residential school survivors navigating post-traumatic stress in different ways has won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction, the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for literary fiction, and was on more lists besides – far exceeding Good’s expectations for her debut. It has been optioned for a television adaptation and has been sitting firmly on bestsellers lists for weeks.
Good spoke to Q&Q about experiencing such success with a first novel at age 64 and why Five Little Indians is an important read for all.
What prompted you to write Five Little Indians?
It was written to respond to a question that you will see in comments [online], and that’s people saying, “Why can’t they just get over it?” It’s reflective of a real lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge, about the true impact of [residential] schools. When people are saying, “Why can’t they just get over it,” it’s tantamount to saying you should forget about all of this and move forward. What are they asking us to forget? They’re asking us to forget 150 years of taking our children away. It’s 150 years of children between the ages of six and 16 being taken from their families, taken from their communities, and raised by institutions, under great threat of psychological and physical harm. How could anybody forget that?
After working on the book for so long, how does it feel to see it on all these award lists?
It’s astonishing. I have to say there was a moment after I won the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction and when I was going through the editing process with my wonderful editor [Janice Zawerbny], I started getting afraid. I started thinking, Do I really want to put this out into the world?
I really had some doubts about going ahead with it, but obviously I did, and it couldn’t have been a better outcome. I really thought this would be a niche book, that it would have a respectable performance but largely with a niche audience that is interested in these kinds of things. This kind of broad-based response to it was not even in my consciousness.
What is it like to have such success with writing after an established career in law?
It’s almost an oxymoron, right, “debut novelist at 64.” My attitude about living is that it’s not a dress rehearsal. This is it. If you have things that are important to you, things that you feel driven to do, then you must do them. Age shouldn’t be a factor. In fact, it probably brings a maturity to the writing that I wouldn’t have had if I had written this book at 30 or 25 or even 40.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Reader response just means the world to me. People reach out to me through my webpage, and I get emails from readers who just have the most incredible things to say. One that really grabbed me was “I just didn’t know, but after reading your book, I’ll never forget.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Top 10: Canadian fiction
August 29 – September 4 Data based on reports from 233 independent Canadian bookstores, as collected by Bookmanager
1. The Madness of Crowds, by Louise Penny (St. Martin’s Publishing)
2. Fight Night, by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada/Penguin Random House Canada)
3. Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good (Harper Perennial)
4. Operation Angus, by Terry Fallis (McClelland & Stewart)
5. Indians on Vacation, by Thomas King (HarperCollins Canada)
6. Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese (Douglas & McIntyre)
7. The Spectacular, by Zoe Whittall (HarperAvenue)
8. The Winter Wives, by Linden MacIntyre (Random House Canada)
9. Jonny Appleseed, by Joshua Whitehead (Arsenal Pulp Press)
10. The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins Canada)
This story has been updated from the October print issue to reflect current chart stats.