Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Tomson Highway on Austen envy and dashing leading men

The author of A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Tomson Highway is a celebrated Cree author, playwright and musician. (Facebook)

"Fasten your chastity belts, ladies and gentlemen, it's gonna be a bumpy ride." If this is how Tomson Highway begins his lecture series for the Canadian Literature Centre (published as A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance), you can pretty much guess how much fun he'd have with the irreverent questions of fellow Canadian writers. 

Below, Highway answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Heather O'Neill asks, "If there were to be a biopic made about your life, which actor would you want to play you? Which director would you choose to direct?" 

Joaquin Phoenix (actor), Stephen Frears (director).

2. Linden MacIntyre asks, "Is there value in what I'd call 'literary collegiality'? How useful are the workshops and writers' retreats?" 

Yes, there is, value — and usefulness — in both.

3. Frances Itani asks, "When you have presented your work to an audience in the past, what was the question you were not expecting? The one you thought about for a long time afterward, the one you wish you'd answered differently? How would you reply to it now?" 

I come from a caribou-hunting culture in the Manitoba-Nunavut border area and I've never shot a caribou in my life so when someone in an audience once asked me, "when was the last time you shot a caribou?" I was taken completely by surprise. But I eventually rallied and said, "Never. I've never shot a caribou." And I honestly have no idea how I could have answered it differently. OR how I would answer it today. I STILL haven't shot a caribou. I don't even know how to shoot a gun. Play a piano? Now, that's another story. So now that I think of it, THAT'S how I would answer that question today: "Never. I've never shot a caribou. But I can play the piano like a bat out of hell. I can play the piano like Itzhak Perlman plays, ahem, Mrs. Perlman."

4. Anthony Bidulka asks, "What book do you wish you'd written?" 

Pride and Prejudice.

5. Alison Pick asks, "What is your middle name?" 

My middle name is "kanagee mootha neetha n'pagitinaawuk n'chawsimisuk taganawp'michik meeg'wach lap-wachin eepagasimak." That's Cree for... well... you'll have to figure it out! [Editor's note: We've spoken with our friends at CBC North and are told this could have something to do with making home brew. We think Tomson may be having us on.]

6. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What non-literary inspirations inform your work?" 

Music. Music, music, music. Most especially the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach.

7. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you want to change anything with your writing? Or do you simply want to entertain and stimulate as many people as possible?" 

So far, I write in Cree (my mother tongue), French (my life partner of 30 years-and-counting is Franco-Ontarian) and English, which has recently been replaced by French as my third language. I travel the world. Born a nomad (some 40 minutes short of being born in a travelling dogsled), always a nomad. I am writing this from my current home in Rome. So, at the moment, I would like to be able to write in Italian. And will eventually. As I will in Spanish. And Brazilian Portuguese (I spend more and more time in fabulous Rio de Janeiro, born a nomad...). As Confucius once famously said (or was it Barbra Streisand?): "Uni-lingualism can be cured." And I would add, "ESPECIALLY for writers."

8. Shani Mootoo asks, "How do your closest family members treat you, the published and famous author?

They treat me well; they love me. And I love them in a way few people have ever been loved.