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Ivan Coyote on letter writing, the Vancouver Writers Fest, and their new book deal with M&S

Ivan Coyote

Ivan Coyote (Emily Cooper)

For more than a decade, Ivan Coyote has been performing more than 220 live gigs a year at schools, festivals, and other venues. But when the COVID-19 lockdowns hit early this year, the indefatigable author and storyteller suddenly found themselves with a clear travel calendar and an unexpected home base.

Coyote was visiting London, Ontario, where their partner, Sarah, lives and where they’ve also taken a two-year position as the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity at Western University. A perfect time, they thought, for a breather to continue working on their next book: a mystery novel based on the true-life disappearance of a 19-year-old boy in Coyote’s hometown of Whitehorse, and its affect on the teens growing up under that dark shadow. 

Structurally, the story flips between the disappearance in 1985 and present-day 2020 after the boy’s remains were found, which posed an unprecedented writing problem for Coyote. “I didn’t know how to talk about a murder investigation at the beginning of the pandemic,” says Coyote. “All of a sudden, the present day had turned into this great unknown thing. How do I write about the present day when the present day is completely a mystery?”

Like so many other writers during the pandemic, Coyote began looking for other tasks to occupy their time. Since 2009 when they started touring heavily, Coyote has kept hard copy and digital files called “special letters.” Unless it’s a creepy correspondence or a piece of hate mail, Coyote answers every note with a thank you. “But every once in a while, I would get a letter where I’d wish I had the time to write this person back the answer that their beautiful letter truly deserves.”

Coyote recalls one handwritten note left under their windshield wiper after a gig. The note had two colours of blue ink – as if a first pen had run out while writing – that bled together in the rain. Coyote took it back to the hotel and dried it out in the sink, later transferring it to the special file. 

And so Coyote finally began answering those letters in March. “They’re like really slow conversations. They wrote to me because they either saw me perform or read my book, or saw me on YouTube,” says Coyote. “So it was about the connection that they felt via stories to my work. And in the middle of the lockdown, the only thing that made sense to me was to continue the conversation somehow in the only way that was available to any of us at that time.”

Coyote reads me one of the letters, from a woman who presented feminine for the first time at one of Coyote’s library speaking engagements. Both the letter and response are beautiful, written with the kind of intimate heartfelt emotion that is usually reserved for loved ones, not strangers. 

Those conversations also became the formation of Coyote’s online keynote speech, “Care Of,” happening tonight (8 p.m. PST) at the Vancouver Writers Fest. In addition to the keynote, Coyote also programmed several events for the festival, including “A Recipe for Anything,” a discussion on Oct. 20 with Jillian Christmas, Cicely Belle Blain, andrea bennett, and Lorna Crozier on navigating through uncertain times. Both events are free or Pay What You Can.

“I tried to focus my curation on themes or topics around drawing together individuals that would really evoke human connection,” says Coyote. “I want to give the authors a loose enough framework so that they can find their own narrative way into the topic.”

Those letters will also have new life as a collection to be published in June with McClelland & Stewart, in a two-book deal that also includes Coyote’s forthcoming mystery novel. It’s Coyote’s first time being published by the multinational, after 11 titles with Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press. 

“I love my time with Arsenal and I would love to work with them on other projects, for sure,” says Coyote. “But it’s been a great experience working with [M&S publisher] Jared Bland. I feel like he really gets it.” 

Working on the collection also provided Coyote an opportunity to have phone and FaceTime conversations with each of the letter writers (all of whom will receive payment for use of their original correspondences in the book). 

“They’re not all trans people who wrote me, though there are a lot of trans issues. But underneath that is family and connection and loss. And all the grand topics, like addictions and longing. And missing, remembering, and honouring eldership,” says Coyote. “Some of them have written me back letters that were even more beautiful than the ones that they originally wrote me.”