“Dreaming the Wolf” – An Interview with Author Douglas Smith

In this blog post Excalibur Books interviews one of the authors with a story in the forthcoming Excalibur 2020 anthology, Douglas Smith. He’s a multi-award-winning Canadian author described by Library Journal as “one of Canada’s most original writers of speculative fiction.” His fiction has been published in twenty-six languages and thirty-five countries, including Amazing Stories, InterZone, Weird Tales, Baen’s Universe, On Spec, and Cicada. His books include the novel The Wolf at the End of the World, the collections Chimerascope and Impossibilia, and the writer’s guide Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction.

Doug is a three-time winner of Canada’s Aurora Award and has been a finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bookies Award, Canada’s juried Sunburst Award, and France’s juried Prix Masterton and Prix Bob Morane.

His website is www.smithwriter.com and he tweets at twitter.com/smithwritr

 If you had to define genres for your books and stories, what would they be?

My short stories have covered a broad spectrum in speculative fiction, SF (both hard an soft), fantasy (a lot of urban but also high fantasy and sword & sorcery), some horror, some humour.

My novels—published, written, and in-progress—are all been urban fantasy, although I do have an SF novel planned.

What draws you to these genres?

I enjoy the freedom that speculative fiction allows me as a writer. I think it was Damon Knight who talked of how spec fic allows us to hold up a distorted mirror to reality to highlight aspects of our society that need our attention. Mimetic fiction doesn’t allow that kind of power.

The Wolf at the End of the World explores Cree and Ojibwe legends. What was it about this material that attracted you?

It started with my shapeshifter species, the Heroka. I wanted to create something different from a standard werewolf. For one thing, I wanted the Heroka to include all animals, not just wolves.  And I wanted my Heroka to be believable.

Well, okay—as believable as shapeshifters can be. For one thing, I wanted to downplay the shapeshifter element. I wanted the primary characteristic of the Heroka to be the bond they hold with their totem species, and to have that bond be complete—physical, mental, and spiritual. I wanted the very vitality of a Heroka to be tied to the vitality of their totem.

Because the bigger message, the theme of the book, is a warning call about what we’re doing to our environment, to our natural resources, to the wilderness that once defined this land—the wilderness the animal species that call this country home depend upon for survival.

So to confront the environmental exploitation and animal habitat destruction by modern Western society, I needed a contrasting cultural view, one founded on an abiding respect for the relationship between humans and nature, humans and animals—a relationship that our modern society has forgotten and forsaken. I wanted a belief system diametrically opposed to the European view that places humans at the top of the pyramid of life on Earth. I wanted a very different (and better) world view.

And I found it in the stories of our First Nations. The Cree spirit Wisakejack is the voice for those stories in this book, and if I could choose just one of his tales to demonstrate the dichotomy between the traditional beliefs of native people and modern society, and why the beliefs of the Cree and Anishinabe fit so perfectly with the Heroka and the theme of the book, it would be his story of the creation of the world that he relates to the boy Zach in Chapter 10.

First, Kitche Manitou created the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—and from them made the world—the Sun, stars, Moon, and Earth. Then he created the orders of life. First plants, which need the sun, air, water, and earth. Then the plant eaters, which need the plants. Then the meat eaters, which need the plant eaters. And finally, he created humans. We came last, because we need everything that Kitche Manitou created before us. Air, water, earth, sun, plants, animals. We are the most dependent of all of creation—the weakest of all orders of life, not the strongest.

My Heroka understand that relationship. They understand that—as Wisakejack tells Zach—everything’s connected. Western society has forgotten that. We’ve forgotten we’re dependent on the land. Forgetting our connection, we’ve lost it, too.

The stories I chose for the book do not encompass all of aboriginal culture. First Nations people are diverse and express their beliefs in varied ways, plus a large number today are also urban dwellers. But many First Nations stories speak of the connection between humans and animals and the land, and I believe those stories continue to have relevance.

Do you have specific background in Native culture?

In terms of my own heritage, no, I do not. Which leads to the very valid fear I had about writing The Wolf at the End of the World. I’m a white male of European descent (English, Welsh, Irish) who is writing about Cree and Ojibwe culture, traditions, and beliefs. Any author who writes about a current culture other than their own risks being accused of cultural appropriation.

That risk is even greater if the writer belongs to the majority that has traditionally held power in their society and is writing about a minority group in that society. It becomes greater still when that majority has oppressed that minority for nearly a quarter of a millennium, as the Europeans have oppressed the First Nations people since arriving. My ancestors stole their land, broke treaty after treaty, and introduced programs and policies designed to destroy their rich and unique culture and way of life.

Perhaps the most egregious wrong perpetrated against our First Nations was the residential school system mentioned in the book, in which the Canadian government and our churches engaged in a premeditated program of cultural genocide. The publicly stated goal was to assimilate the “Indian” into Canadian society (meaning white European culture), but the program was designed (in a federal minister’s own words in the 1920’s) “to kill the Indian in the child.”

The residential school system involved forced removal of First Nations children as young as six years old from their parents, and their mandatory and permanent residence at boarding schools funded by the federal government and run by various Christian churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian. The abuses perpetrated in residential schools have been documented by the survivors of the system—thousands of cases of horrific physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The system began in 1892 and didn’t end until over a century later when the last school run by the federal government closed in 1996.

Amazingly and thankfully, despite the sad history of residential schools and continued government and cultural oppression, our indigenous people have persevered in finding ways to carry on their traditions and to bring their rich heritage to new generations, refusing to have their culture relegated to the past.

If readers would like to learn more about this shameful chapter in Canada’s history, I’d recommend Basil H. Johnston’s book, Indian School Days, which relates his experiences in a residential school. Johnston is an Ojibwe writer, storyteller, language teacher, and scholar, and has received the Order of Ontario and Honorary Doctorates from the University of Toronto. His other books were also a wonderful research source for this novel. I’d also recommend the “Truth and Reconciliation” website.

What was your research process like?

Because of these concerns, I knew I had to do as much research as possible. I read as much as I could about the ceremonies, beliefs, traditions, and histories of the Cree and Ojibwe. And I read the stories. Ever so many stories. Because, as Wisakejack also tells Jack, that’s how the People taught their children. I came to understand and appreciate how the stories both entertained and educated, taught children about the dangerous harsh environment they lived in, where starvation was only one bad hunt or one greedy hunter away.

I did more research. I stayed at an Ojibwe First Nations Reserve in Chapleau, Ontario. I interviewed the chief and her mother. I visited three different reserve communities and talked to as many First Nations people as I could. I read more.

In short, I tried to do my homework as best as I could. The book and my website include a bibliography of reference sources I used. If you’re interested, I heartily recommend you check them out and read the stories yourself, both to enjoy and to learn more about the culture.

Finally, I’ve treated the Cree and Ojibwe culture with reverence and respect wherever I’ve used it in this book. That wasn’t hard to do. The more I learned of the culture, the more I held it in reverence and respect.

In short, I fell in love with the stories and the culture, and found in them the same core truth that is the theme of the book and the same vitality that drive the Heroka. I did my very best to make sure I got things right and as accurate as possible. And I treated that culture with respect.

First Nations readers have told me how much they enjoyed the book. If you’re Cree or Anishinabe or of any other First Nation, and you read The Wolf at the End of the World, I’d love to hear from you. Tell me what I got right. Tell me what I got wrong. Tell me what you thought.

What was the most engaging or immersive part of writing The Wolf at the End of the World? Do you have a favorite bit?

My favourite parts are the traditional stories the spirit Wisakejack tells the young Cree boy, Zach, to both educate Zach on his heritage and to warn him (cryptically) of coming dangers.

Certainly, one of the delights of researching this book came from these Cree and Anishinabe stories. But the stories also caused me some worry. I’d read one story, say of Wisakejack and the flood and the recreation of the world, and then read another version that differed significantly in events and details. In some versions, his wolf brother lives, in others he dies, while others don’t even mention him.

So back to my fear. I wanted to get the facts and stories right. How could I do that if every version of a story was different? Which version was the “right” one?

Finally, I realized these stories were transcribed from what people remembered being told when they were young or used to tell to their children. Storytelling was always an oral tradition, and each storyteller told their own version of traditional tales. So every version would naturally vary as the storytellers varied.

Or as we learn about Ed’s storytelling class:

He never read to the kids from the books. Storytelling was an oral tradition, not a written one. Reading the stories didn’t let him change them, adding something each time around to give a slightly different meaning to the story from the last time he told it.

Besides, he liked his versions better.

In the end, I think it’s as Wisakejack tells Zach, “a story is true if its meaning is true,” and I’ve tried to stay true to the meaning of all the stories.

Are the Heroka going to return in the future?

Absolutely. But first, I need to finish up the urban fantasy trilogy I’ve been working on. A writer friend, the master of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint, strongly recommended that I write all three novels in the trilogy before publishing any of them. That’s proven to be excellent advice, as I’ve been free to make changes to the earlier novels as the series story arc evolves and mutates.

I’m finishing up book 3, but the commitment to the trilogy has meant I haven’t had any new titles come out for a while. In the meantime, if readers want more of the Heroka, The Wolf is the sequel to my very first short story (written and sold), “Spirit Dance,” which won the Aurora Award. The Wolf picks up events and the lives of characters from “Spirit Dance” five years later. You don’t need to read “Spirit Dance” to fully enjoy The Wolf, but if you want to read more about the shapeshifting Heroka, you might enjoy that story, along with the two others I’ve written, “A Bird in the Hand” and “Dream Flight.”

Readers can also check out my two collections, Impossibilia (an Aurora Award finalist) and Chimerascope (a finalist for the Aurora, Sunburst, and CBC Bookies awards). All these titles are available as individual ebooks from your favourite retailer and on my online store.

What are your other plans for the future?

Short term plans are to finish the urban fantasy trilogy I mentioned (working title: THE DREAM RIDER SAGA), which involves astral projection, a comic book superhero who actually exists, dream walking, body swapping, rune magic, lost jungle expeditions, mysterious ancient artifacts, secret societies, the multiverse, and the information paradox of black holes…with the continued existence of all of creation at stake. It’s been a lot of fun to write, and I hope to finish it shortly.

After that’s done, I’ll write the next book in the Heroka series. I’m also planning a stand-alone SF novel based on my novelette, “Memories of the Dead Man.”

Do you have a special time to write? How is your day structured?

Not really. I generally try to do 4-5 hours somewhere from late morning to late afternoon. I don’t have a real structure to my writing day, especially during the pandemic. When I do sit down to write, I try to use Pomodoro sessions: write for 25-minute sprints, then take a 5-minute break and walk around or stretch.

Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

I’m a “headlights on the highway” writer. I take that term from the writer, E. L. Doctorow, who (I believe) once compared writing a novel to driving across the desert at night. He said you can only see as much of the road as your headlights illuminate, but you can drive across the entire desert that way.

That describes my approach. I think of it as a compromise between outlining and pantsing.

I’m a character-based writer, so I can’t / don’t start until I know my main characters. I know where I want a book to end up at the climax—the city at the end of the desert road. And I generally know the main signposts in the book—the big turns, events, or surprises that happen, generally end of Act 1, 2, and before the climax.

Then I just start writing, usually with the next 2-4 chapters outlined roughly either in the ms or in my head. If I’m happy with where those chapters go, I move on to the next batch. If I’m not, I fix / change / redo that batch.

I know my highway will get me to my destination, even if I’ve never driven it before. I don’t know what twists, turns, crossroads, etc. I’ll encounter. But I can see enough of the highway ahead to keep driving.

It’s an approach that lets me make discoveries along the way, but still keep control of the overall direction of the book. Most of the cool things that show up in my stories come from this approach. I know I’d never have discovered them using an outline. The story is discovered in its writing, as someone said.

Do you let the book stew – leave it for a month and then come back to it to edit?

Always. And with short stories, too, though I tend to just set them aside for a week. A writer needs that space to forget the story, so that they can read the words again as if for the first time, as a reader will.

For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?

I’ve moved exclusively to ebooks. Part of it was a desire to declutter, but I enjoy my ereader (a Kobo) and the ability to carry multiple books with me, browse and buy, directly check out library books, and also the ability to search in the book when I forget who a minor character was.

What book/s are you reading at present?

 I recently finished The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel’s Station Eleven remains one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, so I grabbed her new one as soon as it came out and wasn’t disappointed. And Mandel’s cover blurb drew me to The Dreamers. I’d recommend both books. I’m not sure what it says, but both Station Eleven and The Dreamers involve a global pandemic. I’ve just started CJ Archer’s Ministry of Curiosities series and am enjoying it so far.

How do you relax?

Cycling is my favourite activity. Toronto has an excellent network of long bicycle routes, most of which follow the four river valleys that run down to Lake Ontario, plus an even longer system of paths and trails that follow the shoreline of the lake.

And reading, of course. I also enjoy duplicate bridge with my wife, plus we’re a big movie watching and board games family, although all of those have moved online.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

The easiest way is to check out my website at smithwriter.com. It contains a complete catalog of all my publications, along with reviews and buying links on all major retailers and my own online store.

Readers can also subscribe to my mailing list via my site, and follow me on Amazon, BookBub, Goodreads, or Twitter. And readers can email me. I always love to hear from readers!

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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