Thomas King is hopeful that his writing has changed the world — but he's still not sure
Thomas King is a Canadian-American writer of Cherokee and Greek ancestry who is regarded as one of the most influential Indigenous writers and scholars of his generation.
King was the first Indigenous person to deliver a CBC Massey Lecture in 2003. His bestselling books include Truth & Bright Water, The Inconvenient Indian, Green Grass, Running Water, The Back of the Turtle and the DreadfulWater mystery series.
His latest book, Indians on Vacation, is currently on the shortlist for the 2020 Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. It was also longlisted for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
How do you feel about award nominations at this stage in your career?
"It does offer validation, but you never write for those prizes. They're always that extra thing that comes along at the end of a project.
It does offer validation, but you never write for those prizes.
"It certainly helps book sales, there's no question about that!"
Congratulations on the screen adaptation of The Inconvenient Indian. What was that experience like?
"I haven't seen the finished film yet. I saw a rough cut way back when — but I haven't had a chance to just see the film. Partly it's due to my electronic bone headedness — you send me something over the Internet but I can't get it to work.
"The movie itself is not the book. The book was just the inspiration, a springboard for filmmaker Michelle Latimer to launch into. That's the way it should be — I write the book, she makes a movie, and we have two pieces that we can present to the public that are quite different in many ways. It certainly was flattering to be asked to be a part of that whole process."
What keeps you inspired to write at this stage in your career?
"Well, it's the only thing I can do. It's not as though I chose to do this. I enjoy storytelling. I get up in the morning and it's the first thing I think about, after my espresso.
Writing is just something I do. It's who I am. It's not a job. It's not even a vocation.
"I think, 'What am I going to do with the day?' I've got two options: I can write or I can get my canoe and go on the river. I try to do both of those in the day, especially these days.
"Writing is just something I do. It's who I am. It's not a job. It's not even a vocation. It's just what I do."
What inspired Indians on Vacation?
"My partner, Helen Hoy, and I, she and I travel. I used to be a pretty good traveller when I was young — I once jumped on a tramp steamer in San Francisco and went to Australia and New Zealand for about three years.
"But over the years, travel has not held the interest for me that it used to. But Helen, she likes to travel. Whenever I get an offer to go travelling, I always say no. And she says yes. So off we go.
"I've always been interested in why people travel and what they might think the value of travel is. When we go on these trips, I'll ask people, 'Why do you travel? Why do you think it's important to travel?' And I get pretty much the same stock answer all the time: 'Travel is broadening' or 'Travel makes us more kind and generous to other people from other cultures.'
"That's completely untrue. If you look at the social and political climate of the world, people travel more than ever before. We're still just as phobic about everything — from languages to cultures to different peoples and whatnot. I don't think travel has helped that at all.
I use that idea of travel as an occasion to talk about more serious issues.
"One of the reasons for that is when we go to other places, we normally go to tourist places. Those tourist places are set up to emulate North American culture in many ways. It's like going from one McDonalds to another or one Starbucks to another.
"It's sad in a way, because you travel in bubbles. Helen and I were in Prague, and that city was interesting. We then went down to Budapest and Budapest was interesting. I thought maybe I'll write a book about travel. That's how it started.
"Then it got out of hand. I began thinking about other things I could do with a book that, at least on the surface, looked to be about travel, but in the end, is about the world and social and political concerns. All wrapped up in a cute little package so nobody gets too worried about it. I use that idea of travel as an occasion to talk about more serious issues."
Is this a hopeful novel?
"I'm a pessimistic guy. There's no question about. I don't think that humans are going to change any time soon. We're not very smart.
I don't know if it's optimistic. I don't know if it's pessimistic. I think it just is.
"I think there is hope within the novel and the main characters of Mimi and Bird seem to be managing their relationship well enough. I suppose if they can manage their relationship, maybe the world can come to an understanding about how we should treat people in general.
"I don't know if it's optimistic. I don't know if it's pessimistic. I think it just is. I look at a relationship set against the social and political background of the world."
Let's talk about the DreadfulWater series of mystery novels. What do you love about writing those books?
"Well, I love mysteries, although I don't read much anymore. My eyes are not what they used to be and I've got to save them for my own writing. I generally do not read while I'm writing.
"But if I do read during that period of time, it generally is those schlocky mystery books. There are some good ones and some really terrible ones. But you never know when you open a book if it's going to be good or bad. But I keep going back to the well to try to find good mysteries.
But I enjoy writing the mystery and I enjoy those characters. They're friends of mine and I don't have a great many friends in the world.
"I like mysteries to begin with. When you finish writing a literary novel, you're drained, at least for me. I discovered that if I write a mystery in between, and grease the wheels, it gets me up and going. When you do a mystery series, you have the same characters. You don't have to recreate those. It makes it a bit easier. I'm not going to say it's like paint by numbers, but what you have to do is find the plot because you've already got the characters. The plot is the hardest thing I can do.
"I enjoy writing the mystery and I enjoy those characters. They're friends of mine and I don't have a great many friends in the world. Those characters are pretty, pretty dear to me. I enjoy creating their lives."
In The Inconvenient Indian, you write about you and your brothers playing cowboys and Indians when you were kids. If you could go back, what would you say to your younger self about his identity and his culture?
"I don't know if I could have told him anything that would have made any difference. That's the thing about human beings, we always seem to have to reinvent the wheel with every generation. If someone had given me some advice way back, would I have taken it?
"I would have listened to them, but I don't know if any kind of advice would have made a difference in my life. But don't forget, it's not just offering advice to an individual, it's the society that you're in at the time.
That's the thing about human beings: we always seem to have to reinvent the wheel with every generation.
"That 14-year-old boy was in a society very different from the one we're in now. So my advice, standing where I am now, to that boy probably would have been useless.
"I would have done it if I had the chance. But I don't know that it would have made a big difference."
How then has your approach to race and identity changed over the years?
"It is a difficult thing to navigate, especially if you sort of sit in that border zone, as it were. I'm Cherokee and Greek: would it be easier if I was all Cherokee, or all Greek? I don't know. But it feels as though I'm in a border zone most of the time. It's not quite this, not quite that.
"What do you do with that? Do you ignore it? Sometimes I try to ignore it completely. Other times, they go in one direction or another and see how that feels. It's like driving a car without a road map. Other people don't help much because they either help or hinder, as the case may be.
I'm Cherokee and Greek: would it be easier if I was all Cherokee, or all Greek? I don't know.
"I'm surprised that racism has taken such a jump in the last little bit. I would have thought that we would have gotten past the intolerance of racism by now. And we haven't, there's no way around it.
"As a matter of fact, I'm not sure that we're not worse off than we were 15 years ago."
You've been at the forefront in terms of intellectualizing the plight of Indigenous and First Nations people. What would you say to the new generation of Indigenous writers and thinkers?
"I let them have the floor. I had the floor for a while, or at least I had part of the floor for a while, a little corner. And that was fine. I had my say.
"There are a lot of voices out there that need room, that should have room. I'm happy to stand off to one side or even leave the house, for that matter, and let those other voices have a go at it.
I had the floor for a while, or at least I had part of the floor for a while, a little corner. And that was fine. I had my say.
"Did I make any difference in the world? Not sure I did. Maybe they will sway a few more voices out there. There are more of those voices now than there have been in the past. And that's encouraging.
"So it is kind of nice to sit back in a deck chair and watch to see what happens."
Thomas King's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Read more interviews from our In Conversation series here.