How Jesse Thistle went from being homeless to a bestselling author
Jesse Thistle's bestselling memoir From the Ashes describes how he transformed his life — from being homeless and struggling with addiction to winning awards in academia.
From the Ashes was championed by George Canyon on Canada Reads 2020.
Thistle spoke with CBC Books about revisiting his personal trauma and his search for his Indigenous identity.
What was your writing process like for From the Ashes?
"I was renting a place in Toronto's west end with my wife. The landlord gave us cheap rent while I was attending school. When I got this opportunity to write a book through Simon & Schuster, I had a tiny office which was a 10-by-10 room.
"I would get up to write at 4:30 in the morning. My cat would sit on the desk and watch me as I wrote. I would write until 9 a.m. or until I found myself editing my work. I would walk away at that point because that meant I was no longer in the natural flow."
Writing a book and telling their story is something a lot of people claim to want to do — but never actually get around to it. What gave you the willpower and mental fortitude to actually write this book?
"Money! No, not money. Writers don't make a lot of money! It's because of something that I learned while I was in rehab: break things down into like the smallest achievable and measurable factor. I told myself that I should write two pages a day minimum, five pages if I was doing well. Even if I got one page that day, it was still better than no pages.
I continued to write. I broke it down into writing just a page or sometimes even a paragraph. But I was consistent at it.- Jesse Thistle
"I continued to write. I broke it down into writing just a page or sometimes even a paragraph. But I was consistent at it. It was a fast process when you break it down that way."
How were you able to revisit life events that might have been painful, emotional or traumatic to go back to?
"It was brutal. There were times that I didn't think I'd be able to get through it or I was afraid to talk about certain things. But through talking with my wife, family and friends that were around me while I was in the process, I started to see that I had a responsibility to share even the stuff that was hurting me. I saw a trauma therapist so I could make sense of lot of the things that just didn't make sense of why I did what I did.
"When you're in the throes of addiction and you're dealing with trauma you act really strangely. I was also dealing with complex PTSD from what I went through. I look back and it makes no sense but my therapist she walked me through all of that."
What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
"The challenge was to pick up stories that were expressive enough to detail and reflect the tone of what I was actually going through — without writing about 10 years of craziness. That would be a volume of books of all the things that I actually went through.
I only chose the events that would make it understandable, relatable and interesting to the reader. Because if you just read one horrific thing after another, then it's just a series of unfortunate stories.- Jesse Thistle
"I only chose the events that would make it understandable, relatable and interesting to the reader. Because if you read one horrific thing after another, then it's just a series of unfortunate stories. There's no arc to it. My publisher and editor helped me choose the stories that I needed to include — and then let the dead space in between those stories speak for themselves."
Jesse Thistle overcame homelessness, addiction and trauma — and wrote a book to inspire others to do the same
The book speaks to reclaiming identity and a sense of self. How important is your identity today?
"It's everything. It's the first thing that I tell people, that I'm Métis Cree. I am from the Algonquin of Timiskaming. I am part-Cape Bretoner. I have Scottish roots. So identity is everything. I'm all that was stripped away from me through the way that my family fell apart. I was disconnected from my mom's people just growing up in my home in Brampton, Ont., where my grandmother never talked about her Algonquin identity.
I fit in in my own unique way because I understand where I fit into the mosaic of the country.- Jesse Thistle
"We knew we were Canadian for generations for generations but we didn't know where we were from. My whole quest to get better is about my search for my own identity — what that means and why that's important — and how I should be proud and share that identity. Because there's other people that went through similar things like me and don't know who they are. I fit in in my own unique way because I understand where I fit into the mosaic of the country."
Jesse Thistle's comments have been edited for length and clarity.