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.


Pack Your Bags: We’re Going to Canada

photo 1 (1)




[pages 132 & 133 in Kus #16: Villages,

available now in our Zines section]

 Oh Canada, exotic neighbor to the north, land of mounties, maple leaves, and strange but delicious potato chips (seriously, what are you magical All-Dressed chips?!).

All joking aside, Canada is more than just poutine (eat it), five-pin bowling (play it), and hockey-fiends (run!); Canada is a country as vast and diverse as the United States and, if the rumors are to be believed, a much friendlier disposition.

One of our favourite authors, Kate Beaton, helps illustrate this point:

While we’re talking about Kate Beaton, you need to read her book. You won’t be able to stop laughing. And she’s Canadian.

Hark! A Vagrant

David Rakoff was Canadian, too.

Fraud: Essays

You can read his books and listen to this This American Life episode about the Canadians among us. Because Canadians are among us. They blend well, but they’re here. One of our favourite booksellers hails from the great white north (it’s Justus, you can tell because she’s the nice one).

With much more pronounced British and French influences than our country has maintained, Canada is not only a fun, fairly easy to access, vacation destination but also the setting to several excellent books. Whether you’re looking for historical fiction, young adult adventure, or puzzling detective mysteries, the big red maple leaf has something you’re sure to read again and again.

And our Canadian bookseller would probably speak sternly to us if we failed to mention her favourite book first:

The Orenda: A novel

The Orenda

by Joseph Boyden

Quite simply, you need to read this book.

You need to read this book.

Set in the mid-1600s, The Orenda tells the story of a time wrought with cultural clashes, conflicting identities, and struggles to determine place in a quickly changing world. Boyden is a rare writer at his peak: his visceral sense of character and place leave you breathless, and his ability to navigate the historical novel’s complicated and rich history is impressive. This could very well be the best book you read, ever.


The Boundless

The Boundless

by Kenneth Oppel

This book is pure adventure. A fantastical train is setting off on its maiden voyage across Canada in the mid-1800s and it must survive sabotage. That is if it survives the perils of the Swamp Witch, the muskeg, and the sasquatch. This book has a hint of The Night Circus but for kids. Trust me when I say that you don’t need to be a kid to enjoy this tale.


Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life

Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life

by Brian Brett

One of the best parts about reading Trauma Farm is knowing how close Saltspring Island is to Seattle — a relatively quick trip compared to other places in our neighbour’s vast northern wilds. This is a stunning narrative told over the course of a day but also over the entire history of agriculture. If you want a work that grounds you in this world, broadens your awareness, and allows your soul to grow, this is it.


Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables series

by L.M. Montgomery

Classics. If you remember the tales of spunky, carrot-haired Anne Shirley (breaking her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head!) and the other inhabitants of Avonlea from your childhood, read them again. If you’ve never delved deeper than the film versions, pick up these books now!

Bones of the Lost: A Temperance Brennan Novel

Temperance Brennan series

by Kathy Reichs

Unlike the television series, Bones, these mysteries set in the southeastern United States and in Quebec. They follow the crime-solving exploits of forensic anthropologist Temperance “Tempe” Brennan. Start of with Déjà Dead.


Other notable suggestions:

Three Day Road

Three Day Road

by Joseph Boyden

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

by Margaret Atwood

Begin with the End in Mind

Begin with the End in Mind

by Emma Healey

Still Life: The First Chief Inspector Gamache Novel

Inspector Gamache series

by Louise Penny

City of Glass: Douglas Coupland's Vancouver

City of Glass

by Douglas Coupland

Except the Dying

Murdoch Mysteries series

by Maureen Jennings

And now you should be ready for the Great White North.

Don’t forget to stop by our Travel Section in the mezzanine for more fantastic recommendations, whether you’re traveling by armchair or truly transporting yourself over that border.


Capital in the Twenty-First Century: A Reading List

Were you hoping to read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, but weren’t able to get a copy before we sold out of our first batch?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Rest assured, we expect more copies to be in stock as soon as they become available from Harvard University Press, probably around mid-May.




We know waiting is hard…especially for a book that riveting, so, in the meantime, our bookseller Jacob has created a list of recommended titles that are on our shelves now to read while we await the next printing of Thomas Piketty’s knockout debut:


Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

 by David Graeber

“Anthropologist David Graeber casts a wide net, and this much longer view of human culture uncovers the moral and philosophical assumptions that are so deeply ingrained in our conceptions of debt that they usually remain invisible. By exploring the enormous variety of human relationships, exchanges, and economies throughout history and across cultures, Graeber clears a path toward crucial new possibilities for our future.”—Casey O.


Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis

Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis

by Benjamin Kunkel

From a founding editor of the magazine n+1, and the author of the novel Indecision, comes this exciting new overview of contemporary Marxist thought. Engaging with some of the left’s most demanding thinkers, and distilling their major arguments into clear, readable prose, Benjamin Kunkel provides the kind of introduction to prominent theories of contemporary Marxism we so badly need in these times of renewed interest in Marxist thought.


The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

 by George Packer

Newly available in paperback, George Packer’s story of a nation in crisis is the 2013 National Book Award winner for nonfiction. Packer searches, in tightly knit detail, and in poignant biographical narratives, through the fraying fibers of post-2008 American society for the story of what, exactly, is happening to us, and what’s bound to follow. An heir to the work of Studs Terkel, or perhaps to David Simon’s celebrated television show The Wire, the Unwinding is as powerful a document of economic and social collapse as any to have come before it.


What Unions No Longer Do

What Unions No Longer Do

by Jake Rosenfeld


Who Stole the American Dream?

Who Stole the American Dream?

by Hedrick Smith

This is a two-for-one, as both Jake Rosenfeld and Hedrick Smith will be speaking at Town Hall Seattle, Monday, April 21, at 6:00 and 7:30 pm, respectively. Jake Rosenfeld, in his book, finds in the declining power and activity of labor unions throughout the second half of the 20th century a primary reason for the growing income inequality others, like Thomas Piketty, have documented. Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith, in his bestselling Who Stole the American Dream? charts the ways in which developments like rising income inequality, and corporate political influence, among others, are self-reinforcing cycles that only serve to exacerbate and deepen the crises we face.


NLR cover image

New Left Review, no. 85

A venerable, longstanding publication of global history, politics, economics, and philosophy, issue 85 features an interview with Thomas Piketty himself, discussing some of the main arguments found in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. If you can’t have the full text, yet, this will surely whet your appetite in the meantime!


– Jacob

Pack Your Bags: We’re Going to France!

I suffer from chronic wanderlust. Unfortunately my passport sports a sad (small) number of stamps. The best balm for unrequited travel love is reading about your preferred destinations! Our Travel section is highlighting France for the month, and in that spirit, I thought I’d start a new series here spotlighting some great reading lists for different foreign locales! Let’s commence with the Cité d’Amour: Paris!

Metronome: A History of Paris from the Underground Up

by Lorant Deutsch

A look at the history of Paris from pre-Roman times through present day oriented by the stops of the French Metro. Did I mention the author is a well-loved French comedian? Yeah this is the best way to suck up Parisian history.

Les Petits Macarons: Colorful French Confections to Make at Home

by Kathryn Gordon and Anne E. McBride

Vacations are half sightseeing and half gorging yourself on er… sampling the local cuisine. I’m still trying to master making these traditional French delicacies at home, and this is the best cookbook I’ve ever found for them!

The French Cat

by Rachael Hale

Even if you’re not a cat person, which I absolutely am, you can’t help but fall in love with the dreamy light, French locales, and hopelessly French swagger of these felines. The story of Hale’s relocation to France is also told alongside these lovely photographs.

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl

by Debra Ollivier

There are countless books focusing on the inherent chicness of French women and the ways we clumsy and brash Americans can emulate their style. I prefer this one because it illuminates the fact that there is not a cookie cutter type of French woman.

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French

by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

Why do we dream about kissing our true love atop the Eiffel Tower or shopping on the Left Bank after spending a morning exploring the Louvre but continue to malign the snotty, spineless Frenchman in our comedy? Read this insightful cultural study and find out!

Stuff Parisians Like: Discovering the Quoi in the Je Ne Sais Quoi

by Olivier Magny

This tongue-in-cheek guide is spot on. Equal parts laugh-out-loud and envy-inducing.

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance

by Marilyn Yalom

I picked this book up earlier this year and couldn’t put it down. Fascinating study on why we associate the ultimate wooing with the French.

A few other notable titles:


This, Still

by Rick Simonson

Rick SimonsonTo this day I haven’t seen anything written that really describes what was in the air then—here and elsewhere. The early 1970s, the Vietnam War winding down, Richard Nixon being both re-elected but also beginning to be undone, so much beginning to be undone. In and through that a certain coming along, as young people will, growing into an adult place, trying to figure what to do in the world. The impetus, in some critical mass way, was not to go the prescribed way.

Not that the former choices were still there. In Seattle Boeing went from over 100,000 to 40,000 in a heartbeat. From that time, from the various impulses—notions of change, community, making something, possibly this, not that—several things would happen. A generation of independent bookstores and small presses, many still with us, would be born.

From that time, too—Microsoft, Starbucks, and Nike were all started, not driven by MBA visions or venture capital. Seattle, politically, was opting for community by saving the Pike Place Market, keeping Pioneer Square and the International District from being razed to provide parking or mall-like development to suit the newly-built Kingdome.

That was some of what was in the air, things I was affected by, taking classes at the University of Washington, working in the kitchen and waiting tables at Das Gasthaus Restaurant on Occidental, when Walter Carr’s intentions to open The Elliott Bay Book Company first became apparent. Architect Dick Dunbar’s blueprint drawings hung on the windows of what had been an art gallery run by Jim Manolides. I’m affected by them, still.

Gary Fisketjon — Working with Jim Lynch, Part II

Concluding his musings on working with Jim Lynch is Alfred A. Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon. Remember: Jim Lynch will be joining us the store on Thursday, April 12, at 7pm, to launch his newest novel, Truth Like the Sun, set within the fascinations and wonder of the Century 21 Exposition, 1962. To learn more about the fair itself, be sure and check out Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein’s book, The Future Remembered.

GARY FISKETJON: It’s clear to me that one of Jim’s chief interests is the potency of change. In The Highest Tide, Miles encounters an historic high tide; in Border Songs, Brandon sees his quiet borderland transformed by the specters of drug smuggling and terrorism.

Library of the Future exhibit
photo courtesy MOHAI

Here, in Truth Like the Sun, Helen’s future is imperiled as her paper is beginning to feel the pinch of the Internet that soon afterward altered reading habits everywhere and made the very profession seem almost provisional.

It isn’t, obviously, but I greatly admire how Jim catches this game-changing phenomenon just as it’s emerging. Hey, this affects all of us, and he makes us realize this as we see Helen maneuver the shifting landscape of her work. Should they play tough in order to rout the competition and boost circulation or be careful to make sure of every last fact before printing a word? Is it a question of a business’ survival or ethics and even truth?

photo courtesy The Seattle Times

All this becomes palpable when Roger hones into Helen’s sights. One of her first assignments is to summarize the World’s Fair on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary—something that bores the hell out of her until Roger, the mastermind behind it, becomes front-page news with his mayoral campaign. Suddenly this is the sort of story that is her heart’s desire, complete with juicy graft, police corruption and murder as well as the chance to prove how those in power are—as she tends to believe—scoundrels whose malfeasance she was put on earth to uncover.

But to Jim’s great credit, Roger Morgan’s far too grand a character to fit into any of the available categories, whether Doddering Old Fool or Shady Power Broker. He’s a man in full, including warts and hopes and compromises, and in my view he’s a fitting counterpoint to Willie Stark (aka Huey Long) in Robert Penn Warren’s classic All the King’s Men.

A third major character, of course, is Seattle itself, as notable denizens have already recognized. According to Ivan Doig: “With the keen eye of the journalist he was and the nimbleness of the novelist he has become, Jim Lynch provides a thought-provoking fictional portrait of a city on the make and its somewhat tarnished tribe of civic strivers.” (I love that “somewhat.”)

Perfume Fountain
photo courtesy WA State Archives

Seattle’s adopted son, Jonathan Raban, says, “Jim Lynch writes of the city where I live with great brio and persuasiveness [and] his only-slightly alternative history is at least as plausible as the official version.”

Anyone who’s read Jim Lynch before can rightly assume he can capture whatever place he’s writing about down to its most minute and telling particulars, but this begs an oft-raised question about regional versus national appeal, which to me is a moot point. All naturalist novels will necessarily be set somewhere or the other, and the more vividly the better. In this case Seattleites will be in for an extra treat while others will learn not only much about it but also about wherever they happen to come from, where those same civic issues are present on a daily basis.

Art Exhibit
photo courtesy MOHAI

This account skips over a great many of the wonders of Truth Like the Sun, from Helen’s relationship with her son (and where’s the father?) to Roger’s with his longtime aide-de-camp, or from how weather influences suicide rates to what the bar scene’s really like, but those are for each of you to discover.

The delights of reading Jim Lynch are manifold, at once highly enjoyable and deeply pertinent. And with this book he shoots for the moon—and has really hung it.

GARY L. FISKETJON is Vice President and Editor-at-Large at Knopf, having joined the company in 1990 after previously working at Random House and Vintage and at the Atlantic Monthly Press.

Fall Booknotes from Our Staff

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane
by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Norton)

Graham-Dixon captures Caravaggio in this way: “Caravaggio lived his life as if there were only Carnival and Lent with nothing in between.” Graham-Dixon brings this dichotomy to life as he deftly captures Caravaggio’s infamous exploits, gleaning truth from contemporary biographies, court records, and perceptive critique of Caravaggio’s oeuvre. Caravaggio provides a thorough examination of one of art’s true geniuses. –Alex

What It Is Like To Go To War
by Karl Marlantes (Atlantic Monthly Press)

The author of the modern classic Vietnam war novel Matterhorn has now written a nonfiction book that he calls his “song.” It is written for civilians, soldiers, and policy makers, and the result is a veteran’s searing philosophical and psychological meditation about being a warrior. He loved war and he hated it. For Marlantes, fighting in battle was the crack cocaine of all highs. Yet, reflecting back on it now he feels sadness. His meditation is an important one that fills the gap between the silence of our warriors and our society. –Carl

The Swerve
by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton)

Swerve tells the tale of how Lucretius’s poem “On The Nature of Things” was returned to the world to the benefit of the burgeoning Renaissance. Greenblatt leads the reader through the life of Poggio Bracciolini, humanist, book-hunter, ex-Papal secretary, and discoverer of an ancient poem that would change the world. Greenblatt stops along the way to explain the history of books, their preservation, and the humanist spirit which spurred on the quest for these ancient tomes. Greenblatt sets out to write an accessible history for the curious, and succeeds. –Alex

Booknotes, the newsletter of The Elliott Bay Book Company, is written entirely by bookstore staff. It represents a sampling of recently published books that we have enjoyed reading. We appreciate every opportunity to assist in finding books to meet your interests.