Books·How I Wrote It

Thomas King: How I wrote The Inconvenient Indian

Thomas King talks to CBC Books about how he wrote 2015 Canada Reads contender The Inconvenient Indian.
Thomas King won the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize for The Inconvenient Indian. (Hartley Goodweather/Doubleday Canada)

You would be hard pressed to find someone more qualified than Thomas King to write an authoritative account of Indigenous history in North America. But it wasn't an easy task to undertake. Writing The Inconvenient Indian opened up some old wounds and took seven long years to complete. The book was a contender on Canada Reads 2015, where it was championed by Craig Kielburger.

Below, Thomas King talks to CBC Books about writing for the next generation and how we all see the past a little differently.

An inconvenient book to write

"I wasn't keen on doing it because it was going to be a hard book and a long book. And because I had lived through part of that history, I figured it would open up old wounds. Certainly the activism in the '60s and '70s that I was a part of and where I lost a number of friends to all sorts of calamities — I didn't want to go back to that, but I had to for the book. Even though it may not read as a difficult book to write, it was; partly because if you just did it straight I think most people would get overwhelmed by the sadness of the whole thing and turn away. Also, it's a very difficult history to make clear to an audience that doesn't know much about Native history, and that's who I was writing for. Any number of times I was ready to give back the advance and return to fiction."

His first reader

"My wife is a reader for me, and she also knows much of the same history I do. She didn't start off like that but I guess living with me she got interested in it and certainly schooled herself on Native history and Native issues, and so she was great. I would go off on one of my tangents, whether I was getting angry or whether I was getting off track and becoming a bit more strident than I wanted to be. She would always rein me in and say you need to rethink that. So she was a good buffer for my enthusiasms and a good foil for checking my information." 

Starting a book with its cover

"The one thing that I had when I started this book was the cover art. I had bought a poster years ago from an Italian steam ship company that advertised trips to North America. This was the image that Europeans had of North America back in the '20s and '30s — an Indian in full headdress peeking out from behind palm fronds looking at this ocean liner cutting through the waves. It's sort of a latter-day Christopher Columbus moment. I had always wanted to use this art on a book that I wrote, so when I started The Inconvenient Indian this was the cover I had in mind. It's a superb metaphor for the image of North America. It still makes me smile when I go upstairs and I see the original poster on my wall."

Comparing memories

"I did some travelling — partly to talk about the history of the '60s and '70s with some activist friends of mine. These were trips to get impressions from other people to see if they matched the impressions I had of a particular event or period of time. In some cases they did, in some cases they didn't. There was an event in Salt Lake City where we marched up to the Mormon Tabernacle inside the church square. We walked up to give some roses to the church because they had been very good about providing shelter and food for the Caravan of Broken Treaties that had come through that year. We figured rather than raise a protest we were going to say thank you. But nobody believed we were going to do that. So the cops were out in force with dogs and sharpshooters up on the roof, and as we walked up — I had my son on my back, my oldest boy, not even two years old at the time — I noticed the station wagons with the dogs that were circling the blocks, keeping an eye on us. I noticed people up on the roofs and plain-clothed people in the crowd with their earbuds. But the one guy that I went to talk with didn't see any of that. He was concentrating on other things. You always think your version is the version that everybody knows."

An uncertain future

"I've got grandchildren now. I don't know what's going to happen with native history. I don't know what's going to happen with Native activism, with treaty rights, with land rights, and in a sense this is the book I am writing for the next generations. Now my grand-kids and the kids who come after that can at least go some place and read a book that gives them a good overview of what's happened in the past and what promises to happen in the future."

Thomas King's comments have been edited and condensed.

(CBC/Doubleday Canada)