The Next Chapter

Thomas King's latest novel was inspired by an eventful trip to Europe

The iconic Indigenous writer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the novel Indians on Vacation, which is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Indians on Vacation is a novel by Thomas King. (CBC/Sinisa Jolic, HarperCollins Publishers)

Thomas King is a Canadian-American writer of Cherokee and Greek ancestry. His books include Truth & Bright WaterThe Inconvenient IndianGreen Grass, Running Water and The Back of the Turtle. He also writes the DreadfulWater mystery series.

King's latest is Indians on Vacationa novel about a couple named Bird and Mimi, who decide to travel through Europe after discovering postcards from Mimi's long-lost Uncle Leroy, who sent them while on his own European adventure almost 100 years ago.

Indians on Vacation is on the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

King spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why he wrote Indians on Vacation.

Vacation mode

"I always wondered what I was going to be able to do with all the travel that my wife drags me off on. And so I decided, well, I'll write a book about that. And so I did.  

My wife loves to travel. It's one of her great treats and it's one of my abject horrors.

"We were in Prague and then we went down to Budapest to get on a river cruise up to Amsterdam. My wife loves to travel. It's one of her great treats and it's one of my abject horrors."

"Bird doesn't like to travel much — and in that we are alike. But I don't know if it's autobiographical. There are pieces of autobiography that creep in, but that happens with all my books."

Being in Budapest

"When we went from Prague to Budapest, we didn't even know that [Syrian refugees were seeking asylum in Hungary]. It was just breaking in the news. 

"We couldn't understand Prague television. We could see pictures. We had no idea where they were. But the Budapest train station was filled with refugees — kids and their families. Everyone was sitting around on blankets, tarps and sleeping bags.

That is the kind of travel that makes you question who you are, what you've done as a human being.

"These were people who had left their homes and had very little other than what they were carrying. To have to walk through that — those hundreds of people who had been displaced and didn't know where they were going to go or how they were going to get there — with your little suitcases and your little happy shirts and khaki pants was pretty awful. 

"You want to stop and help if you can. That's the first impulse. That is the kind of travel that makes you question who you are, what you've done as a human being."

Doing enough

"I think for anybody who works within society and politics, there's always that problem of not having done enough — or not having made the kind of impact that you'd like to make. 

"As a writer, I don't think I've done very much at all to change the world that I see in front of me. It's very frustrating because I try hard to do that. I just don't think I've had much success.

As a writer, I don't think I've done very much at all to change the world that I see in front of me. It's very frustrating because I try hard to do that.

"Bird is in that category. He's done a fair amount, but he doesn't think that he's done much at all. And there is another character in the book that reminds him of that."

Love of a certain vintage

"Mimi and Bird have come to a middle ground, if you will. That's the critical thing in a relationship. Once passion wanes a little bit — as it does, there's no doubt about it — you begin to see the edges and the cracks of a person. You decide that these are comfortable things rather than annoying things or ugly things. 

Once passion wanes a little bit — as it does, there's no doubt about it — you begin to see the edges and the cracks of a person.

"When you get to that point, then you've had a real relationship going — something that can weather the smaller problems that come along. I don't know what the formula actually is for it. 

"I'd be a fool if I said I knew. I would can it and sell it if I did." 

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

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