The Next Chapter

The Marrow Thieves author Cherie Dimaline is back with a novel for adults inspired by a Métis legend

Empire of Wild adapts the Indigenous tale of the werewolf-like Rougarou using themes of sex, identity and religion.
Cherie Dimaline is the author of Empire of Wild. (CBC, Random House Canada)

This interview originally aired on Sept. 14, 2019.

To say that Cherie Dimaline's last book, The Marrow Thieves, was a hit is an understatement.

Featured on Canada Reads 2018, the YA novel was #1 bestselling Canadian book in independent booksellers across Canada in 2018, won a host of awards, including the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text.

Dimaline's latest book is a novel for adults titled Empire of Wild. Inspired by the Métis legend of the werewolf-like Rougarou, the book follows Joan, a broken-hearted woman whose husband disappeared a year ago — only to return with a new name and with no memory of his past. The novel was selected as Indigo's best book of the year in 2019.

The Vancouver-based writer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Empire of Wild.

The pressure of success

"I honestly have never been more terrified in my life to write a book after The Marrow Thieves — and I've given birth three times! I visited a lot of schools while touring for that book and one of the first questions the students would have for me is, 'When is the sequel coming?'

"I would say, 'I don't have a sequel. I'm working on a different story.' They would literally boo me! The kids were so invested in The Marrow Thieves. And after the amazing success of that book, suddenly people wanted to know what was next. So I felt a lot of pressure.

Empire of Wild was the book that comes after The Marrow Thieves because it is based on a traditional story that my grandmother used to tell me all the time.

"But this great thing happened — I remembered that I am here to tell stories. The stories I tell are from the community, my heart and from my family. Empire of Wild was the book that comes after The Marrow Thieves because it is based on a traditional story that my grandmother used to tell me all the time. Writing the book really allowed me to fall in love with the art of story — and forget about the business of story."

The legend of the Rougarou

"My community is across the bay from an Ontario town called Penetanguishene. There was one road that would lead from the town to the community and back. When I was a little girl, one of the stories that we used to hear from my grandmother and her sisters — to keep girls like me in line — was of the Rougarou. 

"I know the Rougarou is different in every Métis community. In mine, he's a big black dog who also kind of looks like a man. He is a snappy dresser — he wore suits, a fedora and moccasins — and he is an amazing fiddler. He had a seductive quality to him, he would lure women and would cause great harm to those girls who stayed out too late, strayed off the main road and were in places they weren't supposed to be.

"For the people who identified as male in our the community, the Rougarou was the story of what you could turn into if you broke the rules of the community. It was like a curse."

Writing female characters

"I had so much fun writing Joan in Empire of Wild. One of my earliest experiences with how women and sex are perceived in publishing was when I had just written the first part of my 2013 novel The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy. I initially wrote a female character in that book who was very sex positive. She made her own decisions and she wasn't victimized.

"She was an Indigenous woman character who enjoyed sex — within consent lines — but didn't make any apologies. But no one in the publishing industry knew what to do with it. Literally the response was, 'We don't really know what to do with this character.' It confused some people and that stayed in my head.

I decided that I was going to write a real woman. The women that I know, the women that I love, the women who raised me, the woman I hope I am.

"When I was writing Joan, I decided that I was going to write a real woman. The women that I know, the women that I love, the women who raised me, the woman I hope I am. Women who have the great gift of having autonomy, of having power and being full of passion." 

Culture never dies

"I spend a lot of time talking to Indigenous story keepers and elders. I am lucky to be surrounded by such brilliant minds, including Lee Maracle and Maria Campbell. There were times where I would be concerned about our community in a very earnest way. I'd worry that we were forgetting our roots and we have lost our culture.

"Lee would always laugh at me and say, 'Did you put it in a shoe box and leave it under the bed? How can you lose your culture. It's a living thing. It exists outside of you!'

"We absolutely need to move things in our culture forward but those women reminded me it always lives. When I think about my own community — and the changes that have happened over the years — it continues to change and evolve.

"But the land will always remember; it's not going to change. It will find ways to crack its fingers through and it will always be there." 

Cherie Dimaline's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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