Joseph Boyden talks writing process with Peter Mansbridge
Author discusses his celebrated book The Orenda in exclusive interview
Sometimes, unconfirmed sources are a good thing.
Over the summer, I got a book recommendation. “You’re really going to love The Orenda,” said someone who didn’t know me at all.
But boy, was he right.
From the moment I read the preface of Joseph Boyden’s novel, I was addicted.
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It’s a gripping, fast-paced novel set in the area of Georgian Bay, Ont., 400 years ago. It features a Haudenosaunee (Iroqouis) girl, a Wendat (Huron) warrior who kills the girl’s family and takes her as his own daughter, and a French Jesuit who’s there to convert them.
The Orenda has become one of the country’s most celebrated books this season, despite the fact that its setting is not well known to most readers (myself included), whether through fiction or history.
Appreciating that this is a work of historical prose – not a documentation of actual events – I did learn a lot. Boyden’s details of the highly complex society in which the Wendat characters lived, how they lived and built homes, how they honoured their dead when they moved villages, their tradition of adoption of children from other clans into their own – much of this was an education.
And so for this Mansbridge One on One interview with Joseph Boyden, we wanted a setting that would be different than our regular location. The folks at the Maslak McLeod Gallery (which specializes in Woodland, Inuit, Plains and Maritime aboriginal art) opened their Toronto space to us. They were at the tail end of an exhibit of one of Canada’s most important artists, Ojibwe painter Norval Morrisseau. Short of being on Georgian Bay itself, it was the perfect setting for a conversation with Boyden.
CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge framed the interview around the historical misunderstandings between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, both in the past and present.
Indeed, Peter was intrigued by our guest’s life story. Boyden, who is of Anishnaabe, Scottish and Irish descent, and is still connected to many First Nations communities in Ontario where he lived or worked as a teacher – spends much of his time in New Orleans. Peter asked Boyden, “We think Americans don’t understand us, and yet when I read this book, I think, maybe I don’t know us … maybe I’m no different than the Americans are?”
Boyden revealed a lot in the interview, including that he started the opening scene in the middle seat of a flight between Vancouver and Toronto. (If that’s the formula for success, I predict we’re going to see a run on middle seats by ambitious authors.)
Thoughtful and generous with his answers, Boyden’s enthusiasm is infectious. He spoke extensively about his writing process, and about what he’s working on now – something that may surprise his readers.
We couldn’t include all of it in the Mansbridge One on One program, but we thought that the new cbc.ca/aboriginal site was the perfect place to share the rest of the interview.
At the end of the taping, the author explored the gallery and saw a print that spoke to him. A giant bear, seemingly in thought. Boyden explains his ancestors were from the bear tribe (Attignawantan) of the Wendat population. And so, perching index finger to chin, Boyden couldn’t resist a little familial portrait.
Leslie Stojsic is part of a team that interviewed Joseph Boyden for CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge’s program Mansbridge One on One. Follow Leslie on Twitter at @LeslieCBC.