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Author Podcast: Joseph Boyden

abstract: When Canadian Joseph Boyden came on the literary scene he wowed readers with his powerful historical fiction set during WWI about brotherhood, native identity, and the raw face of war. To meet and speak with Joseph is a pleasure. He's handsome, and has a quick smile and a generous personality. His self-effacing modesty makes him accessible to people despite his success and obvious talent. Please join me in listening to Joseph talk about his life, his writing, and his upcoming new novel, which will follow on the success of Three Day Road.


October 07, 2007

The Interview

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  • PART I: Feeding Frenzy For His Book Rights (MP3 version)
  • PART II: Education & Background, On Becoming A Writer
  • PART III: The Inspiration and Responsibility of His Canadian WWI Classic

Read Along with the Transcript

BB: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for Today I am speaking with Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road (Penguin Canada), who joins us from New Orleans. Joseph divides his time between Canada and Louisiana.

Joseph is Canadian from Irish, Scottish, and Ojibwa descent. His father became the most highly decorated medical officer in the British Empire during WWII and his grandfather served in WWI. His mother was a teacher. Joseph is the third-youngest of 11 siblings. As a young man his wanderlust took him many places, which he financed through a wide variety of itinerant work. He studied creative writing at York University where he earned his BA (1991) and went on to obtain his MFA (1995) at the U of New Orleans, where he also accepted a faculty post teaching Canadian literature and creative writing. He has a son, Jacob, now age 17. After marrying Amanda, who is a writer, trapeze artist, and contortionist, Joseph returned to the James Bay area to teach at North College in the reservation towns on the coast of ďthe great salt lake.Ē His first book is a collection of short stories published in 2001 titled Born With A Tooth. Three Day Road (2005) is his first novel. TDR has earned several important awards and nominations including the Governor General nomination for fiction in 2005.

BB: Joseph, I first saw you speak at the Talking Book Festival [at the University of British Columbia] and I was entranced by your reading, and so I am very pleased to have you speak with us on today.

I wanted to start with a question about Three Day Road, a book that is both critically acclaimed and a popular success. The publishing contract was hotly competed by Knopf Canada, Thomas Allen Publishers, Doubleday Canada, McClelland & Stewart, and Cormorant Books, with US publishers jumping in as well. It sold to Penguin Canada for six figures and has been doing well in the US, UK, French, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish markets. What was that process like for you?

JB: Oh, it was crazy and itís coming on a few years ago now. When I look back on it I think, "Man, those were some crazy months in my life." I worked on that book for many years and I was teaching at the University of New Orleans where I am Writer in Residence now. Back then when I was working on it, I found the person who was right for it, Nicole Winstanley who became my agent and is now my editor at Penguin. I gave her a draft when I felt it was finally ready to go out, and within a month she was getting calls from all the major publishers in Canada, so it was just a madhouse for me.

As soon as that happened a couple of weeks later US publishers started fighting over it as well, and I was thinking, ďWhat is happening in my world?Ē

BB: Yes! Very rewarding, Iím sure!

JB: I was just hoping some Canadians would want to read this book. Then after the US publishers fought over it, I was lucky enough for it to go to the London book fair and International publishers began fighting over it. I wound up checking my email because Nicole had more lovely emails for me every day. It was very overwhelming. My being in New Orleans and removed from all of the hubbub was very grounding for me, and a good thing. Iím just a regular Old Joe down here in New OrleansÖ

BB: [laughs] Oh yeah - Iím sure.

JB: [laughs]

BB: Now your dad is Raymond Wilfred Boyden and he was a medical officer who served in WWII, so you have a history of this war background in your family and I understand he received the highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Order, but he died when you were just eight years old.

JB: Yes.

BB: Now when I read this book, I think of the main characters Elijah and Xavier, who neither of those in Three Day Road, neither one have strong relationships with their father -Ė thereís no father figure there -- and it reminded of John Irving who is another author whose work is haunted by the absence of a natural father, seen most particularly in his last novel,Until I Find You. Can you speak to this aspect in your own life?

JB: Thatís very interesting and itís not an angle I typically think of or was actually pursuing -Ė this lack of a strong father role model. Niska, of course, has a strong father but he is taken away when sheís young, where he ends up dying. Thatís kind of interesting. Perhaps unconsciously that comes out. My father left a very strong impression on me and all of my siblings, although I was only eight years old when he passed away. I remember him very vividly. Unconsciously you may have hit on something, because again, in my new novel that I am working on thereís a real lack of father figures there as well.

BB: Oh, interesting!

JB: Uh huhÖ

BB: Well I know that in your upbringing you spent the school year in Toronto in an urban environment and then your father took you up to the Canadian North of Ontario where you spent your summers in a very different living existence.

JB: Yes, my dad wanted all of us kids to be in good schools. He had a medical practice downtown Toronto, and we lived in Willowdale, which was very suburban at the time.

Just as you said, whenever we were out of school for more than a few days, even on weekends, we were up in the Georgian Bay area and further north.

He had a love -- a very, very strong tie to the land and to animals, and he emphasized this to all of us. There are eleven of us siblings. My three older sisters are half-sisters from his first marriage. Weíre all very close. My mother is also very much a lover of the rural land. She moved many, many years ago up to Georgian Bay. She moved when she was able to retire from her school teaching. Sheís been living there for well over twenty years. So I have a connection that is still very strong. For example, Iím heading up to go moose hunting in a month. Getting up on the land and getting out is really important to me. It is what grounds me.

BB: Absolutely. My husband is also a hunter and when we lived in Los Angeles, I used to catch him close to hunting season, when he was stuck in the city, going to his cupboard of outdoor wear and smelling the camp smoke and the smells of the wilderness on his clothing, so I can understand that.

JB: Oh yes. Itís a very powerful thing that I do several times a year is to get up North and spend time up there. Oddly enough, Iím finding that I am attracted to the most desolate areas I can find. The further away from humans the better. James Bay is really good for that if you want to get away from life and feel on the edge of the natural world.

BB: Would you say it is the desolation and the complete lack of people or the landscape, per se?

JB: Oh, the very simple but powerful landscape, and very dangerous one, you know. The weather can turn very quickly, in a matter of hours, and you have to know what youíre doing. Not being around humans is for me an exciting and intriguing thing.

BB: Right. Your novel, Three Day Road, captures that exquisitely and I wonder whether you can give our listeners a brief synopsis so we can move on to the questions?

JB: Well, the novel actually opens up in the summer of 1919. Niska, who is an old Ojibwa-Cree medicine woman, gets word that her nephew Xavier is returning from the Great War. So she paddles many days from the bush where she lives to go and get him from a rural train station. She picks him up and sees heís devastated from the war, heís lost a leg, but even worse heís addicted to morphine and heís very close to death. And so what she does is paddle him the three days home, and realizes along the journey that he very well might die. Not knowing what else to do, sheís never faced this kind of sickness, she ends up telling him the stories of her life. She feeds him the stories of her life, because he wonít eat any food, in the hopes that this will bring him back.

While she does that, Xavier internally reflects on his last years in the war. He and his best friend Elijah went [to war] and were recognized as being very good hunters and marksmen, and so they are made into snipers. To devastating effect.

BB: Joseph we discussed this book for Whistler Reads and we opened up our discussion with a sage smudge ceremony in which we honored you, the characters you created in this book, the four compass points, and we tried very hardÖ

JB: Migwetch

BB:Ö it was set in The Path Gallery, which is a Native gallery up here in Whistler, and so we were surrounded by beautiful Native carvings and paintings and art, and it was very moving. The people who had attended had all read your book and everyone was very moved by the book to the point where one gentleman participating had brought his great great grandfatherís WWI trench poetry.

JB: Oh wow!

BB: So you realize how everyone had related to the characters and the writing. I wondered now how since writing this book you have immortalized Ojibwa Francis Pegahmagabow. Did I say that name correctly?

JB: Itís Pega-ma-gabo, very close.

BB: Ö and I wondered whether in writing this treatise to Aboriginal soldiers in WWI, was that a relieving process? Did you want to bring attention to this matter, to this issue?

JB: Absolutely; I was always very shocked that no one knew about Native involvement in all of our wars to really any degree. But the first thing I do when I set out to write, is to tell a good story. I think that is so important. I worry that a lot of writers sometimes forget that. The reader wants a good story. Also on a very basic level I wanted to tell an exciting story, a great story. I knew about Pegahmagabow since I was a little child. It always electrified me when I thought about this kind of thing, the Native soldiers in a foreign place doing such a job.

So it wasnít this big lofty ideal that I am going to let every Canadian know about Native involvement in the war, but I certainly knew that no one else was writing about it, and I was really shocked that no one had. So when I started, I wanted my first novel to be a big one, I wanted to use a big canvas, and I certainly chose one and I did it naively.

BB: When I was reading about the history of Canadaís involvement in WWI, I was quite surprised to find that there wasnít much involvement from the French-Canadian side. Most of the soldiers who went over were actually English-speaking Canadians, and I am wondering if you could comment on that, since it was indeed Germany that was invading France.

JB: There were the Van Doos, [an anglicized word from the French "Vingt-Deux" - the 22nd Regiment] which were the very crack Canadian regiment. A lot of French-speaking Canadians, if I understand correctly, felt it was a European war that they had no need or desire to become involved in.

And it was a messy war. It was not like WWII where youíre a great threat and a madman and somebody like Hitler. WWI was a political mess and it was an unnecessary war in many ways. So I think a lot of French Canadians felt this is not our war to fight.

I think about today with the US invading Iraq Ė a lot of people feel this is not our war to fight. Canada has purposely not put any soldiers in. I think that was a French-Canadian stand for many people.

BB: At the time that I read this book it was also the 90th anniversary of Canadaís WWI sacrifices at Vimy Ridge and Canada made a reception over there, and you went over there with your son. What did that feel it like when you visited hill 145?

JB: Oh, just amazing. I have been there a number of times, and every time itís been just as powerful as the last. You can really feel the ghosts of the place emanating from the ground. It really feels like holy ground to me. When you come up on the monuments on the ridge, you donít really see it until youíre upon it. Iíve tried to recreate it in an article that I wrote for Maclean's magazine. That sacrifice of the average Canadian.

[There has been a debate that Vimy has taken on a mythic resonance in Canada and nowhere else Ė- and that by comparison with other WWI battles, (for example 60,000 British soldiers that died in a single day in the Battle of the Somme) eclipses Canadaís sacrifices. ]

BB: Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskyjack show the contrast between a traditional Native lifestyle and the effects of a residential school upbringing. You were raised in Catholic Jesuit grade schools in Toronto, contrasted with summers spent with your family in remote parts of Ontario. It seems that the destiny sculpted for each boy in Three Day Road and the ending of the story most particularly are tied to this conflict, this stain (as Roth would say), this corruption, this duality of worlds. The reader sees a close fraternity battling jealousy and sickness that ultimately leads to an act of sacrifice and of love. I struggle to understand why Xavier would have gone to serve in the war more than I struggle with his actions toward Elijah at the end.

JB: A lot of people tell me that that is one of the strengths of the book. There are these two boys who are best friends. They are as close to brothers as brothers can be without being blood brothers. I wanted to really kind of make a statement Ė- not an overly overt one -- but one about the damage a residential school can do. Xavier makes it through the war because he has that grounding. He has that finger-hold on something that Elijah doesnít.

So people have responded strongly. A lot of Native people especially, too. They often come up to me after readings and say, ďI was at residential school,Ē and they just want to talk about it. So I take that as a positive reaction and response.

BB: Now Niska is a very amazing character; I was entranced by her. She is Xavierís devoted aunt and she comes to collect her nephew at the end of the war, as you mentioned, and her narrative is intertwined between Xavierís narcotic dream-state with the stories that sheís telling him to sort of bring him back with remembrances of her own as sheís paddling.

Thereís a very mystical realm to that and the sweat tent scene. Iím interested in the spiritual practices of people today. Are those things that you have experienced yourself?

JB: Yes, Iíve done plenty of sweat lodges and different ceremonies that Iíve been lucky enough to be involved in Ė- especially on James Bay. There is definitely my reality in that novel in terms of--- a sweat lodge is a difficult thing. Itís not a spa treatment. Itís a very painful and scary thing, especially the first few times you do one. I wanted to capture that but at the same time I wanted to respect Ojibway and Cree culture, and not paint the wrong picture. So I spoke to elders about it, I participated a number of times before that in sweats, and I wanted to get it across in a proper way. In a respectful way, I think was the most important [thing to me.]

BB: The other evocative aspect to the story is the fact that these characters are snipers, and you have the characters creeping up into no manís land in the middle zone, and hiding amongst the carcasses and [hunting men] which you describe so realistically.

Now I know you consulted with Canadian historian James Steel, The Men Who Marched Away (1989), for specific detail accuracy, but did you handle the types of rifles used by the soldiers in WWI? What goes into your research to ensure you get accuracy in these things?

JB: Iíve fired a lot of rifles and all of that before. Iíve handled a Mauser from WWI, Iíve handled a Ross rifle to understand. Jim was really helpful in helping with that actual physical kind of research.

I wanted to get the history right. Sometimes it requires specifics, like what size of round goes into a Ross rifle? Why did a Ross rifle, the Canadian rifle, always jam up at the worst possible times? Jim was amazingly helpful in those very specific things.

BB: When you were writing this book did you immerse yourself in other WWI literature?

JB: Actually I avoided the literature, and I am happy to have done so because there is so much of it that is just fantastic. I saved Pat Barker until after I finished my novel, and I am really happy I did because after I read a couple of her books, my God, I donít know whether I would have been able to go out on this journey myself.

I did read a ton of nonfiction about WWI at the time and I still do. You know, ďPut down that book, youíre done with WWI. Get on with it.Ē But I really am fascinated by the nonfiction of that era.

And then I began with a reading the classics, All Quiet on the Western Front, and then in Canada the wonderful The Wars by Timothy Findley and a number of others. But I pushed away the literature because I didnít want it to take me off away from my own journey.

BB: Now youíre living and teaching in New Orleans and teaching at the university. How do you inspire young writers?

JB: I use myself as an example, I think because when I was teaching while writing this novel, I was often teaching five or six classes a semester, which is a brutal course load for a university instructor. So I found I had to write early in the mornings [which] was the only time I felt fresh enough and alive enough.

I would get home from school and grade for hours; youíre not ready to write at night time. So I created a whole system for myself where I would get up early in the morning and write every day. And I translate that.

My teaching load right now is a lot lighter, which is wonderful. It has really freed me up to focus on my own work a lot more. Iíve got a lot of new students up here this year at the University. Iím the writer in residence. Iíve got a lot of new MFA students, and theyíve got a long way to go but theyíre really hungry to learn.

I have the classic workshop structure where they present a story and everyone reads it the week before and marks it up and discusses it. You know, we discuss it in class and the student basically takes notes about what we are saying and doesnít really get involved in the conversation.

It seems to be a proven practice. Itís the same system that I was taught creative writing.

BB: Whatís it like living in New Orleans? What do you like about living down there and the contrast between coming back up to Canada?

JB: Well, Amanda and I still love the city very much but my number one fear now is the violence that has raised its ugly head again in the city. You constantly have to be careful. It wears on you, too. Makes you scared and paranoid. So that is our number one concern.

But a chance to get up into Canada is something that I take advantage of numerous times a year. My family is still up there and my son and heís seventeen already.

BB: Yes, thatís right; I was looking at that -Ė seventeen.

JB: [laughs] Yeah, time flies. So just getting up there to see family is incredibly invigorating. But to write, I find being here is so important to me because there is this distance that I am given -Ė geographical obviously, but also the psychic distance too is really important. To write about Canada. Iíll always write about Canada, I know that. Iím not an ex-patriot. Canada is still very much my home and my country in so many ways.

BB: Yes, that feeling intensifies when youíre away.

JB: Yes it does. When I am surrounded by it, itís very difficult. Too much noise all around, you know?

BB: Now youíve written a series of short stories, Born with a Tooth and I understand youíve been working on an adaptation of your novel, Three Day Road into a screenplay. How is that going?

JB: Good. Weíve gotten a draft done and the person who has optioned it is really happy with it so far. Itís an ongoing progress, he says. But heís very excited about it. So we are keeping our fingers crossed and weíll see what happens. Amanda is the screenwriter in the family. Sheís really got it down, so she is the one I leaned on, and wrote the screenplay with my help. She hated the war scenes of course, right -- writing them anyway, so I gave her some help with that. But she has been the one to drive this project, which made me very happy because she knows what sheís doing.

BB: Well, Joseph, is there anything else that Iíve missed that youíd like to add? I mean, thereís so much to your novel that I wanted to discuss and weíve only touched on a few things, butÖ

JB: Really thorough research, Iím impressed.

[Beware Spoiler] BB: Ohhhhh, there was just so much to this book. In fact my question would be Ö about the identity switch at the end. You know when Xavier takes Elijahís ID tags and his life is saved after the amputation because the white men probably wouldnít have otherwise bothered to save an undecorated soldier of his rank. And I began to think who is who here?

JB: Yes and I bet that often did happen. But I have to say that is a big part of my new novel Ė- identity and the loss thereof and the re-finding of identity. With this new novel I am working on is grandchildren of the characters in Three Day Road. Itís a novel in a contemporary setting.

Iíve got the bush of Northern Ontario which I actually love and then Iíve got big city Canada and America right now. One of my characters is in New York City for the first time. Sheís a girl from Moosany and Moose Factory who's never been off the reserve before. And so I am really exploring the sense of identity again through the same family line.

BB: But in a modern setting. Iíll look forward to that.

JB: Yes, in a very contemporary setting. I am almost finished the first draft, so I am very excited.

BB: How long did it take you to write this draft as opposed to your first novel?

JB: Well, this oneís not done, and I think with all the traveling Ė- Iíve been so lucky in so many ways. Just traveling around the world and really being treated so wonderfully. Itís been a lot different type of struggle. I work here and there and then I finally said enough with the travel, itís time to write the new book and Iíve been really focused on it for well over a year, but altogether two years. Sometimes in fits and starts, but this last couple of months in particular it's all I do: eat, breathe, and dream my novel, kind of thing.

BB: Well you know it's funny because when I was interviewing Margaret Atwood she mentioned your name, and when we had John Vaillant up here, he mentioned your name.

JB: Ha ha, thatís nice. Nice of Margaret, Iíd have to say.

BB: Well, with great writing there is a community there, and so I have to ask: who you would recommend to us?

JB: Who I would recommend? Michael Winter. Michael Winter is just a brilliant writer and heís one of the kindest, most lovely people I know, and heís a brilliant writer with a new book just out called The Architects Are Here.

BB: Yes, yes itís getting wonderful reviews. Excellent. Thank you, I really appreciate that.

JB: Well, tell him I sent you.

BB: Yes, Iíll tell him you sent us Ė- he may not thank you!! [laughs]

JB: [laughs] Heís just had a new baby with his wife, who is another Canadian writer. They're new parents.

BB: Well, Joseph, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to take this interview.

JB: No, thanks, I was happy to do it; sorry it took so long.

BB: We loved the book, it was very well received and weíll look forward to the next one and the movie too when it comes out. So take care.

JB: You too, Paula.

BB/JB: Bye.

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