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Why Thomas King wrote his first book of poetry to mark turning 77

The celebrated Indigenous author's 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin looks at life and the dangers of wasted time.
77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin is a poetry collection by Thomas King. (HarperCollins Canada, CBC/Sinisa Jolic)

This interview originally aired on Feb. 1, 2020.

With books such as Truth & Bright WaterThe Inconvenient Indian and The Back of the TurtleThomas King is one of the most respected and honoured writers in North America.

In April 2020, King turned 77 years old. His latest book, 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin, is his first collection of poetry.

It features 77 poems that lament what we have lost, lecture us for what we have allowed and looks at what we might still be able to save if we want to keep society prosperous and healthy.

King spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin.

The right age

"In my career, I've always written poetry alongside writing fiction, nonfiction and kids' books. I just never got to a place where I had a good idea for a collection of poems. I'm going to be 77 in April. The number, for me, was a kind of a twin as it has two prime numbers. Seventy-seven isn't a prime number but seven and seven is. The Iroquoian story of creation deals with twins and I played with the concept of twins in quite a bit of my writing.

I'm going to be 77 this coming April. The number, for me, was a kind of a twin as it has two prime numbers.

"I thought that would be cool to do 77 fragments — rather than 76 or 74 — that show our lives are made up of fragments.

"They're not made up of continuous stories — they're pieces of stories that we've cobbled together to define ourselves, to define others and to order the world in which we live."

Activism in form and intent

"I prefer writing and talking about issues. As an activist, I didn't much enjoy being on the front lines and having guns pointed at me, to be honest with you. I wasn't very good at that. It scared me.

"With writing, I can be much more direct. I can take my time with what I want to say and make sure that I say it in a way that has the most effect. So activism in writing is what I do now. I can control my world in fiction, nonfiction or in poetry. I can do what I want to do and I'm much happier that way."

An excerpt from 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin by Thomas King. (Helen Hoy, HarperCollins)

A familiar ruin

"The 'familiar ruin' that the book title refers to is the life that you live, or the world in which we find ourselves. There's a number of different answers to that question.

"I don't try to answer it. I just let the reader figure it out for themselves. I don't like to be prescriptive in my writing.  And so when people say, 'What's this about?' — that's the last question that I try to answer."

An excerpt from 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin by Thomas King. (Helen Hoy, HarperCollins)

Thomas King's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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