Land of stories: Noah Richler on how the North changed his life

'It taught me storytelling,' said Richler. The acclaimed author, journalist, critic and broadcaster is back in Yukon this week talking about his craft, and his famous father.

Author, journalist and critic reflects on his - and his famous father's - Northern inspiration

Noah Richler first came to Yukon 40 years ago, as a teenager, to work as a prospector. A 'seminal, fundamental Canadian education,' he said. (Mark Raynes Roberts)

Canadian author, journalist and critic Noah Richler is certainly not the first writer to find inspiration in the North — there was also his father, the acclaimed writer Mordecai Richler.

Noah Richler is in Yukon this week, taking part in the Yukon Writer's Festival.

He spoke to Sandi Coleman on CBC Yukon's A New Day about his father, storytelling, and being a teenage prospector. 

Is this your first time to Yukon?

It's not. It's actually my third, and I'm embarrassed to say I was first here 40 years ago.

I turned 16 in the Cassiar mountains. I worked in a bush camp, prospecting jade and asbestos and getting a seminal, fundamental Canadian education — it changed my life.

It taught me storytelling. I learned very quickly that if I said, 'Oh my God, I almost died today,' I'd have to listen for three hours to folks telling me more outrageous stories.

It was great. It was humbling, and fantastic.

I was also here about 10 years ago for a book I wrote about Canada which is sort of a cultural portrait of the country, through storytellers and writing (This is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada).

Coming back [this year], I was so pleased to be invited, that I suggested that I should talk about my father and his relationship to the North. His sometimes unwieldy, extraordinary novel Solomon Gursky Was Here was hugely inspired by his time in the North and also led to that job in the bush camp for me.

Richler said his father, Mordecai Richler, loved the North and 'was one of the many who spoke of it as a kind of addiction.'

Solomon Gursky — a great tale of bootlegging, and of Inuit, and of rogue domestic Jewish businessmen, and Dickensian England and everything — came out of a visit he made here for an assignment he ended up not doing. 

A non-fiction assignment that became a 400-page novel — that is a testament to his love of the North. 

I re-read it recently and his interest in Inuit creation myths was really interesting for me. It's the closest Canada comes to a kind of magic realism, which is more of a South American idea, but we have equivalents. 

That interest in local stories I found very affecting.

You've obviously continued to have a tie to the North.

I have, yeah.

And you know, my father was one of the many who spoke of it as a kind of addiction. He used the story of the Franklin expedition in that particular book, and he was very attached to the land.

Were I not a Richler, I would be very interested in writing about my father and his attitude to Canada, the territory.

One of the great passages in Gursky has his inebriate writer/narrator driving down the St. Lawrence, and imagining what it might be to have been like on, say, one of Champlain's ships doing the same.

And if you think of that famous phrase from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, "a man without land is nobody," there was always that idea in his work.

'The purpose of stories is often very interesting - why you're telling stories in the first place.' (Anand Maharaj)

I think he was inordinately moved, as a kid who grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Montreal, by that expanse, and by all the stories that are attached to it.

As I say that, I think of something another great writer — Alistair MacLeod's son Alexander MacLeod, who's also a lovely writer — said to me once about place. He said, "a place without stories is just a landscape."

I think for my father, the North was a place filled with stories.

That's also crept into some of your writings, as well.

Yes. If I can say, immodestly, in that first book [This is My Country], for me the most exciting stuff came out of experiences in the Yukon, and in Nunavut as well. 

Again, thinking about how stories are told, how Indigenous peoples used stories, how the colonial intruders used stories, and how stories sometimes battle with each other quite a bit. 

And not just as vessels for content, but the purpose of the stories is often very interesting — why you're telling stories in the first place.

That's really been a lot of what I write about — how we use stories to effect outcomes, to explain situations we're in, to make other situations possible.

That came out of being here, out of listening to stories, out of seeing them applied.

Noah Richler presents "My Father the Raven," a reading and talk about his father, Friday at 7 p.m. at the Old Firehall in Whitehorse. He'll also give a reading at the Haines Junction Library, Saturday at 7 p.m.