Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Canada Reads longlisted author Ivan Coyote on 'writing from the guts'

The author of Tomboy Survival Guide answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Ivan Coyote is the author of Tomboy Survival Guide. (Robin Toma Photography)

Ivan Coyote's Tomboy Survival Guide is an emotional collection of poignant stories and coming-of-age memories in Yukon and B.C. The book was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction and is currently on the longlist for Canada Reads 2018.

Below, Ivan Coyote answers eight questions submitted by eight of their fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "Why do you write what you write and the way you write it?"

I write different kinds of stuff, for different reasons, so I will have to include a couple of different answers, I guess. I write personal narrative, nonfiction, because I feel moved every day to do this. To document, to comment, to explain, to question. To impel myself and the reader to feel real emotions about so-called real life that includes my versions of nearly true stories. 

Then, I write fiction about imagined "regular people" so I can tell the actual truth of life as I see it without getting any flesh-and-blood humans too angry with me in my personal life. I write straight from the guts of it all because it is the only thing that makes sense to my pen, or my fingers, or my heart.

2. Helen Humphreys asks, "If you weren't a writer, what would you be, and why?"

I have always wanted to study architecture. The art of it, for sure, and the mechanics, the design, the machinations of a building, but also the bigger picture. How do you build a building that people can really live in? Make art in? Raise kids in safely? Build community in and around? How does the layout of a particular neighbourhood and its parks and shops and facilities contribute to or hinder the construction and living and movement through and celebration of the community it houses? So I guess maybe a city planner, with a background in architecture? That is my dream. The reality was, before I made a living as a writer, I worked as an electrician, and then in the film industry. Both fine occupations, as well. If the atmosphere of your average construction site was just a little more friendly to people like me, who knows? Maybe I would still be happily pulling wire somewhere. I always did like the actual work.

3. Alexi Zentner asks, "Do you ever bribe yourself to write? What with?"

Yes. I bribe myself with fresh air. Parties. Band practice. Playing the saxophone. Sex. Weed. Bourbon. The good stuff. The beach. A paycheque. Feeding myself. Paying the mortgage. You know. All the usual motivators we all bribe ourselves with to get to work each day. 

4. Charlotte Gill asks, "What is your Kryptonite?"


5. Donna Morrissey asks, "Who has been your favourite character to write so far, and why?"

I like Joey (from Bow Grip) for my fictional characters. He is so real and flawed and sweet and human. The character Del I am writing for my new novel I am falling in love with right now, too, as you must do. Or, as I must do, anyway. As for my favourite non-fictional character, well, I guess I better say all of them, right?

6. Sharon Butala asks, "What do you think of the age-old notion that the best writing comes out of a life led outside the bourgeoisie, where so-called 'rules' of normal middle-class life are deliberately broken and impulse is your guide, rather than duty or convention?"

I would say it is definitely working for me, so far.

7. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"

I grew up in Yukon, and my family and the landscape, the light, the dark, that place, all factor deeply in much of my work. My writing hours are still to this day affected by growing up in the north; in the summer I write very early and need less sleep and can get a lot more done, and in the darker, longer nights of winter, I shift schedules and most often write at night, and I sleep more, ponder more, read more. I think this is directly related to growing up under the midnight sun, and/or the Northern Lights.

As for a happy childhood, well, I had a childhood. I loved my family, which like most families, brought me joy and love and fun and frustration and sorrow and pain and and and. My family is huge, and complicated, and there is some tough history there, right there in my blood, hurt and hard memories sitting down with us all for turkey dinner. A happy childhood? In some ways, very much. In other ways, well, I grew up in a small northern town in a big Catholic family, a little gender non-conforming queer kid, in an empty vacuum when it came to role models or other people I could imagine growing up to be like. This was, at times, unbearably lonely, surrounded by all those people, all like me and yet none at all like me. Was I happy? As happy as a kid could be while being forced by society and the world into a gender box I could not and would not ever fit into. I loved fishing and sports and camping and playing the saxophone, and I was provided with ample opportunities to do all of these things. I never wanted for a roof over my head or food on our table. I was loved and cared about, and I am thankful for that. I had it much better than either of my parents did. I am also the oldest daughter of an alcoholic father, I have thirty first cousins and a family history speckled with violence and drinking and the usual skeletons in a variety of closets. I don't know anyone whose childhood could be summed up in one word, and as a writer I am grateful that my own childhood was complicated and messy and hard and beautiful and that they let me have my own jackknife way younger than they probably should have.

8. Heather O'Neill asks, "If there were to be a biopic made about your life, which actor would you want to play you? Which director would you chose to direct?"

This one is easy. Ellen Page. She would have to put on a little weight and cut her hair. Maybe lift some weights, not to brag, but she's pretty slight. But a great actor. Either Ellen Page or maybe Hulk Hogan? And Lana Wachowski, working with Tom Waits though, not her brother. Yeah. That'd be good. 


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