How David A. Robertson manages to write as much as he does
'What I wanted to accomplish as a writer, and what I wanted to write, has changed over time'
To say that David A. Robertson is a prolific author would be an understatement. The Cree author from Winnipeg writes books for readers of all ages. He has published 25 books across a variety of genres, including the graphic novels Will I See? and Sugar Falls, a Governor General's Literary Award-winning picture book called When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett, and the YA book Strangers.
On top of that, he is the 2020 judge for the CBC First Page student writing challenge, which asks students in Grades 7 to 12 from across Canada to write the first page of a speculative novel set 150 years in the future. The challenge is open until Nov. 26, 2020.
How has the feedback been for your memoir Black Water so far?
"It's reaching people in a way that I hoped it would. I've gotten some nice messages from people who have read it and have appreciated the story. It has inspired them to think about their own relationships with fathers and parents — and also to think about their own identities and write their own stories.
"It's about writing stories to reach people and to connect with people. Black Water, even though it's an intimate story about my life, there are elements of that journey that speak to people. It has been rewarding for me to see that played out as I see people who have either talked about it on social media or have reached out directly and told me how the book is spoken to them.
It's about writing stories to reach people and to connect with people.
"On a personal level, it's about hearing from family and friends of my father who have read it and to see how they feel. It's a really fitting way to honour his legacy. That means a lot to me, too."
How are you coping with the psychological and emotional impact of writing about your life and the story of your father — and having people react to it?
"It's hard. I'm not going to lie. It's been emotionally and physically draining to talk about my father so much. There are elements of it that are cathartic, but I am finding, more and more, that it's become quite difficult.
"His passing is still very fresh. Because of the pandemic, it feels even more fresh, in a way, as we haven't had the right amount of time or the right environment to grieve. I'm grieving very publicly right now.
I appreciate all these opportunities to talk about the book and about my dad. But it has cost a lot emotionally. I have a lot of work to do to heal from those things.
"I think grief is a private thing. As much as I'm honest about a lot of things in my life and I'm public about a lot of things in my life, I think sometimes you do need to do things privately with your family.
"I appreciate all these opportunities to talk about the book and about my dad. But it has cost a lot emotionally. I have a lot of work to do to heal from those things."
What was the defining moment for you that made you decide to be a writer?
"It was back when I was eight years old. I was in Grade 3. My teacher had assigned a poetry writing assignment. I went in the back closet of our classroom, shut the door, and wrote in the dark. I fell in love with it. I loved everything about it.
"I love creating stories. I love just the whole process of creating art. I wrote about 10 or so poems that day. My teacher made that into a booklet for me. I brought it home to my mom and told her that I wanted to be a writer.
I love creating stories. I love just the whole process of creating art.
"Ever since that day, that's all I ever wanted to be. What I wanted to accomplish as a writer, and what I wanted to write, has changed over time. Obviously you think differently as an eight-year-old than you do as a 32-year-old, which is when I started writing professionally. But that's where the passion started."
You write graphic novels and have a lot of love for comic books. When did that start?
"As a kid, comic books were what I read most. It's not just the connection that I had with my brother in reading comics together, it was the art of the form itself.
"I understand more now why they spoke to me than I did when I was a kid. Back then, it was just about the superheroes and cool stories and art.
"But I recognize how we learn visually and how visual stories connect with us because it's how we used to communicate before we had words. It's ingrained in us to love this form of storytelling.
"I certainly loved it when I was a kid, but I recognized as I've gotten older, as much as comics had great value in my life, they also did a lot of damage. How comics have historically represented Indigenous people shaped my own self-perception as an Indigenous person. Certainly as an extension of that, they shaped the perception that non-Indigenous readers had about Indigenous people.
How comics have historically represented Indigenous people shaped my own self-perception as an Indigenous person.
"I still love comics but what I have tried to do in my work in writing comics is trying to use the very tool that broke me down, to build people up.
"It's like using the same weapon against the people who used it in the past. I write comics to more accurately represent Indigenous peoples, histories and cultures — and to educate people in a form that has done damage in the past.
"There's a beauty in that — being able to use this tool for good."
What was the inspiration for the middle-grade novel The Barren Grounds?
"There are a lot of things that converged to help create this book. It was very much a culmination of inspiration and ideas. I was reading a lot of the Cree stories and legends of the sky and stars. They were really speaking to me.
"The Barren Grounds is adapted from a Cree legend about the creation of the Big Dipper called the Fisher Constellation. That story involved an endless winter and a journey to bring back warmth to the Northern hemisphere.
"I wanted to adapt that story, but I saw a lot of parallels to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the Chronicles of Narnia. I really like the idea of repurposing a portal fantasy story like Narnia and telling it through an Indigenous lens rather than a Christian one.
It was very much a culmination of inspiration and ideas. I was reading a lot of the Cree stories and legends of the sky and stars.
"I also wanted to talk about the foster care system and how it affects Indigenous kids who are apprehended and put into care. I wanted to talk about cultural disconnection and reconnection. I also want to talk about the environment and land protection and land stewardship
"The value of cultural reclamation, I think is something that kids can really understand and empathize with and get."
You are a prolific writer. In 2020 alone you have published three books. What's the secret?
"Having deadlines help! Deadlines help me focus. It's really about writing when I have time. I often work when my kids are in bed. It's usually at night or if I feel up to it in a day, I'll get up earlier in the morning before the kids are awake. And I work quickly.
"I'm able to get a lot done and in a shorter period of time because I've been doing it for so long. I can write 1,500 words in an hour or edit two chapters in an hour and then I can be done for the day. I make sure to make it habitual, where I'm doing it every day. I'm not giving myself excuses to take time off because I am very busy.
"I do have three or four projects on the go at any given time, so I have to be disciplined. But I also have to find the right times to do my work so that I'm not taking time away from my day job or my children or the other responsibilities that I have in my life."
You are judging the 2020 CBC First Page student writing challenge. Any advice for children that are submitting?
"Kids often get the advice of 'Write what you know.' I would say that kids should write from a place of passion.
"When we're telling stories, we should be telling stories to try and better understand the world that we live in. Tell stories that satisfy your own curiosity about the world that we're living in.
"To quote my dad, 'Think about not only where we are and where we have been, but consider the type of world that we want to be living in in the future.'"
When we're telling stories, we should be telling stories to try and better understand the world that we live in.
"I want to see writing from that place of passion. I want to see stories that are curious. I want to see stories that are passionate. Also take the time to refine, improvise and get the stories to the place where you want to be. I want to see stories that try to envision the world that we want to be living in — or the world that we think that we're going to be living in.
"Those are the kinds of stories that I really want to see and that I'm excited to read."
What does literary success look like for you?
"I want these books to do well because it's my job. But more importantly, I want to see that these books are helping to make some kind of a difference in this country. That's something that I feel is a big focus in my work.
"That also comes from my dad. One day he said, 'I could have taken better jobs that would have paid better, that would have enabled me to support my kids a little better financially. But I've always wanted to do work that I feel has enabled me to help the most people.'
"For me, success in the area of literature is how my stories can help and educate the most people.
"It's about reaching kids and adults — and doing the work to help make some kind of a difference as we move forward together as a community."
David A. Robertson's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the In Conversation series here.