MUSKRAT interviews Ottawa-based CBC journalist and Theytus author Waubgeshig Rice on his first novel, Midnight Sweatlodge
1. When was Midnight Sweatlodge written?
Most of the stories in Midnight Sweatlodge were written over various points of my youth. I wrote the original version of “Aasinabe” for a Grade 12 English class. By the time I was 25 I had quite a few short stories written, and I decided I wanted to explore assembling some of them into a short story collection. I applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to work on revising some of them and laying them out into some kind of common narrative. From there I wrote the sweatlodge theme around the stories. The whole thing was done by the fall of 2005.
2. What was the catalyst to start writing the collection?
I wanted to capture some of the unique experiences of growing up on a reserve. I’m from Wasauksing First Nation, Ontario, and a lot of the characters and scenes in the book are based on what I saw in my home community. The stories touch on a lot of intense themes like identity crisis, depression, isolation, and abuse, and I wanted to show other Native kids in other communities who may read these stories that they weren’t alone in experiencing some of these issues. Our communities and situations are all unique, but there are some universal challenges we face. My intention wasn’t to make this book a general reference point for the young aboriginal experience in this country, but I also want to expose non-native readers to what life can be like in some of our communities.
3. How did you choose your publisher?
I was really pretty clueless when it came to choosing a publisher once the book was done. Fortunately, I still had contact with the Canada Council for the Arts, and they suggested getting in touch with Theytus. I was already very familiar with some of their books so it seemed like a good fit. I pitched it to them, and to my delight they offered me a publishing contract.
4. How has the experience been thus far?
The experience has been overwhelming so far. I didn’t expect the response to be this positive. When I started this journey I expected to have one reading either in Toronto or Ottawa, and that’s it. Since the book came out in June I’ve been invited to read at events in Winnipeg (Thin Air Writers Festival), Montreal (McGill Aboriginal Awareness Week), Toronto (U of T First Nations House), Ottawa, and my home communities of Wasauksing/Parry Sound. I just lined up a reading at the Calgary Public Library later this month. Many people tell me they’re able to relate to a lot of the stories, and that’s exactly why I wanted to have the book published.
5. How has your community reacted? Do you feel any extra responsibility being an Aboriginal writer?
Because so much of the material is loosely based on Wasauksing, I was really unsure how some people there would react to the stories. However, the feedback has been mostly positive and I feel truly blessed to have such unwavering support from the people in my home community. I think a lot of people see some of the universality of these stories and how the greater aboriginal community as a whole can draw from that and share their own stories. That’s the response and reaction I hope to get from the greater Aboriginal community as a whole, anyway.
6. Is the final product very different from what you first visualized?
I originally envisioned a pretty vague end product of a collection of short stories bound together by a sweatlodge thread. I wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to tie them all together, so I tried to keep my expectations low. So generally, it is what I visualized, although looking back there are a few details I would tighten. I wanted a basic, concise collection of short stories that young aboriginal people could enjoy, so generally I think it fits my original vision.
7. Who was your editor and how was that experience?
My editor was Jordan Wheeler. Working with him was a very rewarding learning experience. I first read his Brothers in Arms when I was about 16 on the rez, and it really inspired me to explore creative fiction. Having him as my editor 14 years later was like a dream come true. He really enhanced and bolstered the stories in Midnight Sweatlodge, and I’ll be forever thankful for his guidance and insight. We emailed manuscripts and revisions back and forth a few times until we were both comfortable with it. It was an incredible eye-opening experience that only benefitted my writing.
8. Top 3 pieces of advice for emerging Aboriginal writers.
Believe in yourself and your stories, share them as much as possible, and never stop writing.
by MUSKRAT Magazine