4 story tips with Thomas King

Thomas King is one of the most respected and well-known authors of our time. His work - whether it's fiction, nonfiction or radio is a master class in storytelling and he is also hilarious.
Thomas King (Trina Koster)

Thomas King is one of the most respected and well-known authors of our time. His work — whether it's fiction, nonfiction or radio — is a master class in storytelling.

As a bonus, he is also hilarious.

King is the author of books including, Green Grass Running Water, an Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, and most recently, The Back of The Turtle.

He is well-known for his satirical work on The Dead Dog Cáfe Comedy Hour on CBC Radio (1997-2000) and in a short video for NFB called, I'm not the Indian you had in mind, that challenged the stereotypes faced by Indigenous people.

Rosanna Deerchild sat down with Thomas King for an in-depth conversation in Montreal, as part of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival where he received the First Peoples Literary Prize.

Here are four questions about story with Thomas King:

Rosanna Deerchild: In The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative you say 'The truth about stories is that is all we are.' Many writers and storytellers say that story found them, where did story find you?

Thomas King: I think, I sort of chase them down. I stay hidden so they have a hard time finding me. I like to listen. I like to go places and just keep my ears open, see what I hear. People talk to me sometimes. Sometimes they shouldn't. It's just listening for the stories to come along. I got a house by the river, if they want to come and visit me they can. I got a little espresso machine, if they like some espresso they can have some of that while they're talking to me.

I'm always looking for the small story. Those are the stories that interest me the most. Not the big ones, not the brutal ones, not the ones with a lot of action in it, just something that catches my imagination, just a little splinter. Those are the stories I wait for to show up.

In his 2003, Massey lecture, award-winning author and scholar Thomas King looks at the breadth and depth of indigenous experience and imagination. (CBC)

RD: Indigenous people love to laugh, joke and tease each other. How much of your humour is based in Indigenous identity?

TK: I think part of it is simply a survival strategy. I think that things have been, in some places for many of our people, so bad for so long that all you can do is joke about it and try to do the best you can. I think humour is a way to keep ourselves from going absolutely crazy. The really great storytellers, oral storytellers or people who are writing have a good sense of humour and it is so critical to hear that.

Humour deepens the tragedy. My idea in a book like, say, The Inconvenient Indian, when I was writing that, was I said, 'Ok, what I have to do is make people laugh and cry at the same time. I have to find ways to do that to where I can present that material in a way that I get both of those reactions almost simultaneously.'

(Doubleday Canada)

RD: You've managed to find that magic place and it seems you go to that magic place fairly easily. In your work you will have the tragedy laced with humour. Is that something that came naturally to you or do you work on?

TK: Of course it just came naturally to me. I didn't have to work on it at all. Thank you for asking.

I really don't know, it's just me. I write in an oral style. Everything that I do in print, I make sure that I hear it. I read it out loud so I can hear how the words sound. A lot of time when I am working with students, writing students, they'll write a story and I'll say, 'Now what I want you to do is stand up at the podium and read that story.' And they say, 'Out loud?' A lot of time they don't consider the oral quality of the story. They don't hear that voice.

So I do that with all of my stories. I read them out loud so I know how they sound as an oral piece. Even though it's written. Even though I know no one else is going to read it out loud, for the most part. Nonetheless I'll do that so I can hear the cadence and the music of the language.

RD: Coyote is everywhere in your work, if not in all of your books. Why this interconnectedness, what is your affinity with Coyote?
Thomas King's novel The Back of the Turtle won the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. (CBC)

TK: Most people when they think of Coyote as a Trickster figure, they think of a figure who does tricks, that tricks people. Actually, Trickster figures aren't that at all. Trickster figures are creatures of appetites. They have these enormous appetites and the appetites gets them in all sorts of trouble. Appetite for power, appetite for money, appetite for sex, appetites for anything you can think of. They always over do it. So in the Coyote stories that's what Coyote does. He's always in trouble because of those appetites. They always get him into trouble and he has to try and extricate himself and they're really cautionary stories.

I'm afraid there's a bit of Coyote in me and I have to figure out some way to control them. So I'm not immune to that. When I was writing The Back of the Turtle I had a character who liked the finer things in life. So I felt it was incumbent on me to do the research. I knew the brands. I knew the prices. I knew what people with more money than good sense would buy. I talked to salespeople about buying habits. It was great. I was awash in appetites.