An Interview with Joseph Boyden

On Monday, May 19th, at 7pm, the Elliott Bay Book Co. is pleased to host novelist Joseph Boyden, author of the Governor General Award-nominated The Orenda, downstairs in our Reading Room. Our bookseller Justus Joseph caught up with Mr. Boyden to find out a bit more about his latest novel.


Justus Joseph (JJ): You’ve lived in New Orleans for quite a while now, and I’m curious as to how the community around you, as well as the diverse geographies, have contributed to your work. How do you think New Orleans influences you as a writer?

Joseph Boyden (JB): I’ve mentioned this before but it’s this Banana Republic that doesn’t feel like the States. It gives me the distance I need to write about these other places, including Canada, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a Canadian writer. Canada didn’t exist when the story of The Orenda takes place. It’s the story of the cultures and civilizations that existed before.


JJ: What do you like to read?

JB: I don’t read as often as I would like. Right now I read a lot of student manuscripts and stories. I go through periods of reading where I will focus on a theme or writer, like Hemingway, and I’ll read everything I can. Ondaatje.


JJ: Why do you write? What drives you to write?

JB: I don’t feel fully myself if I don’t write; I’m miserable. I’m driven by obsession, by these ideas and characters in my mind. I guess writing is a miserable job, though. It’s not easy and it’s not immediately rewarding, but I need to write. There’s something in me that needs to write – maybe it’s a calling. I’m less miserable when I write.


JJ: Do you write for an ideal reader or a particular audience?

JB: I cant’ imagine a particular reader. In my first drafts I never think about who would want to read the story. I think if I went into my writing wondering what kind of reader it’s for, it would be shackling. I don’t think about audience until I’ve had a chance to look at my work as an objective reader. I guess my family is always in the back of my head. I want to please my family, please my mom.


JJ: I see your writing evolving in each of your new works. You’re more confident and your stories are even stronger than the previous one. How do you see yourself evolving as a writer?

JB: I feel like a young writer, like a total beginner despite my age. I’m still new. Every novel I start feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. Like I’m completely new and have no idea how to write. Everything ends up in the wrong order with the wrong structure. Even after I go back and edit I catch so much. The Orenda is the first book I’ve written where the way you see it is the way it came. It took me three years to write the first 50 pages, then 13 months to finish the rest. That’s the first time the structure came out right. But the words… My editor Gary Fisketjon is an intensive line-by-line editor. He’s incredible. He has this ability to find the smallest inconsistencies. He knows my voice and when it’s my voice or my words and not the character’s. It’s intense. He’s really amazing at what he does.


JJ: You write stories that stay with readers long after they’ve finished the book. The Orenda is no exception, and for me it’s even more haunting than your previous novels. What do you hope people will do or feel after reading The Orenda?

JB: I hope they realize a bit of history that doesn’t really get a lot of attention. I hope they learn the First Nations people had incredibly complex civilizations and societies long before the Europeans came, that the Europeans did not enlighten or save these people from savagery. I hope they ask questions. I hope they learn this history.


JJ: In each of your books, First Nations and Native language plays a significant part — what is your connection to languages and why is it important in your writing?

JB: Ohhhh. I have an issue [laughter]. I studied for ten years and still can’t speak French. It was in high school, but still, I studied for ten years. I may live vicariously through my characters and their languages now. You need language to understand a culture, though. Culture is interpreted through language. Christophe realizes this in The Orenda. At first he is dismissive of the languages but then he realizes he needs them if he wants to understand the people. Language is the lens we need to understand culture. Without it, there can be no true understanding.


JJ: Which character speaks the loudest, to you? Do any of them clamor to be heard over the others?

JB: Well, Bird has this quiet stoicism. He wants his story to be told, so I didn’t have to push with him. Christophe has this preacher’s drive. This sense of the world and his place in it, so I didn’t have to push with him, either. But Snow Falls… I enjoyed writing Snow Falls the most. She was unpredictable. She would do these things…and I would think, “You’re so bad!” And then she’d do them again and leave me in shock.


JJ: What do you wish people would ask you about The Orenda, or what would you like them to know?

JB: The Orenda is inspired by real life, by true history. It’s the birth story of our continent, and so I hope people go from the story maybe a little more enlightened, curious. I’ve tried to tell a good story – I always try to tell a good story. If you tell a good story, everything else should follow suit. There’s a weight below the surface in this book. I hope people feel it long after they’ve finished reading it. I hope they feel that weight.


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