Dave Carpenter: How I co-wrote The Education of Augie Merasty
Like many authors, Dave Carpenter had often been approached by people wanting him to write their life story. But when he received a letter from Joseph (Augie) Merasty, an 86-year-old Cree man who had suffered greatly in Canada's residential schools, Carpenter knew this request was different. "I felt I had to answer the call."
Helping Merasty write The Education of Augie Merasty wasn't easy. Carpenter's co-writer was homeless, suffered from alcoholism and was prone to disappearing for long periods. And then there was the bear attack...
In his own words, Dave Carpenter tells us about how we co-wrote his latest book.
You've got mail
"It all started with a letter that was sent to a non-existent position at the University of Saskatchewan, where I used to teach. It was sent to the Dean and bumped finally down to the English department where Nick Thompson picked up the letter and said, 'This is something for Dave Carpenter.' I was no longer working there, but the secretary sent me the letter and it was really interesting. Augie had summarized his terrible experiences at the residential school and said, 'I want somebody from the university with a very good command of the English language to come up to my cabin up at Birch Portage and bring a tape recorder. He can stay in my cabin and we can go fishing. I'll give him the best fishing in all of Saskatchewan.' So the secretary, knowing that I was a fisherman, brought it to me and the rest is history."
"The first few conversations were pretty revealing. I found out that there was no cabin, and that there may not have been any electricity. I didn't think it would be a very good idea to take a tape recorder up there and try and record him without knowing where I was going to sleep or if that tape recorder could take me beyond the length of its batteries... I said to him, 'Augie, you've got to write this down. I know you can write, because I've read your letter… You've got to write these things down and only then can I start to help you.' He said, 'Ok, I'll think about it.' It took quite a long time, possibly a month or two, before the first letter arrived. And it was a doozy. It was a long letter of quite possibly 10,000 words that recounted some of his early experiences up north. A total of nine letters told the rest of the story.
Brat with a BA
"I spent an awful lot of time trying to get him to answer my letters and my phone calls. At times he would disappear, and then, out of nowhere, he would re-appear. It's a bit like writing about a ghost — a mischievous ghost whose life is so turbulent that he'll only drop in on you when you least expect it. And I had to be ready each time to talk with him or to type up the letter he sent me. The idea of putting this together was to take these tatters of stories that sometimes had no ending to them and put them all together in a sequence and try as hard as possible to preserve Augie's voice. Augie has a great storyteller's voice. And I didn't want to correct his English and make him sound like just any old brat with a BA. So I would only change the words on the page if he contradicted himself or if his limited ability with English obscured the meaning of what he was trying to get at."
The bear ate my manuscript
"Sometimes, the chaos of his life seemed to infect the entire manuscript and I had to check him on facts. He would really exaggerate some of his woes. Some of those exaggerations I put into the manuscript, and others I had to correct. It's true that a bear did break into his cabin and it's true that the devastation the bear created was very realistically detailed. I can't tell you whether the bear actually ate the manuscript or whether that became the kind of excuse that you might get from a student… but I kept checking up on the facts from other people who knew Augie and I was reassured by all kinds of people that the core of the story, what happened to him at the school, was absolutely true."
"Once the manuscript had been accepted by University of Regina, they gave me a task, the toughest task of all fourteen years, and that was to find Augie Merasty and get him to sign a contract. So I started a series of trips up to Prince Albert, walking through a lot of areas — where he might have lived, apartments where he used to live, parks where he was supposed to have spent lots of time. And I would come up to various native people trying very hard not to sound like a cop and saying, 'Do you know Augie Merasty?'… I found out he was at detox. It was five in the morning and I headed for Prince Albert in my car. I got there and he was still there. And I said, 'How did you keep him here?' They wouldn't tell me, but Augie himself told me. He said, 'I would've gone down to the street this morning, but they have my clothes in the washing machine.' Augie was too vain to go drinking with his buddies in institutional pyjamas."
Dave Carpenter's comments have been edited and condensed.