The Rumpus Interview with Joseph Boyden

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I never encountered Joseph Boyden’s writing until I moved to Montreal last fall on a Fulbright fellowship. Anytime people here learned that I was at work on a historical novel involving the Native people of Canada, they immediately insisted that I read Boyden, painting him as one of the literary treasures of the country. After I read a few of his books, it wasn’t hard to see why. Of Ojibway and European descent, Boyden is one of the few authors that can spin a heartbreaking yarn at the same time that he pushes his language into lyrical and unfamiliar terrain. In Canada, Boyden is well known for his first novel, Three Day Road, a book about a pair of Cree snipers in the Canadian army during World War I. A few years later, his second novel, Through Black Spruce, tackled contemporary Cree life, following a former bush pilot named Will and his niece, Annie—a story that earned Canada’s version of the Pulitzer, the Giller Prize.

Though Boyden’s most recent novel, The Orenda, only recently hit shelves in the United States, it has been the subject of constant discussion in Canada since it was published here in September. The book dramatizes the story of the Wendat people (also known as the Huron), as they form an uneasy alliance with the French colonists of Quebec against their age-old enemies, the Iroquois, the confederacy of five indigenous nations spanning the area that is now New York state. Lauded by Canadian critics, The Orenda has been nominated for a number of prestigious prizes and taken home CBC’s coveted Canada Reads Award (a charming event where celebrities vigorously argue the merits of five books published that year). Though The Orenda met with overwhelming success, there were also a few critics that raised objections to the book—in particular its depiction of ceremonial torture conducted by Native people.

After reviewing the book for The Rumpus (forthcoming in the books section this month), I was so intrigued by The Orenda and its reception that I contacted Boyden’s publicist to setup an interview as well. In early May, I reached him by phone at his home in New Orleans, a city he lovingly refers to as “a banana republic.”

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The Rumpus: Like your previous books, The Orenda engages with the struggles of Native people. However, your earlier work took place during much more recent time periods. So what brought you to the subject of the 1600s, which many readers may see as quite distant and perhaps not relevant to today’s world?

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Joseph Boyden: Well it certainly is a distant time. It was before there was a Canada or United States. I’m fascinated by North American history, and I grew up where much of the novel plays out—in the Georgian Bay area. Being a mixed-blood person of Ojibway and European ancestry, I always found that I only heard one side of the story—that was the conquerers’ side, the side of the French Jesuit missionaries that came to live in what is now Ontario. I was actually educated at a Jesuit high school called Jean de Brébeuf so I knew all about the Jesuits who were—as the Catholics call it—“martyred” by Native people. But I’d rarely heard my mother’s side of the story, her people’s side of the story. And to me, that is in many ways more fascinating.

There were incredibly complex societies already existing in North America long before Europeans arrived. So many people think that before European contact it was just Natives huddling around a fire, waiting for civilization to come save them. But that was not the case. I really wanted to explore that side of things, and in order to do that I had to go back to the 1600s.

Rumpus: Did you view this book as an extension of your earlier work? Or do you feel it’s more of a departure?

Boyden: Somebody said that it was a “spiritual precursor” of my other novels, and I really liked that. I think that’s a very elegant way to put it, although not necessarily a way I would have thought about it myself. But the book is certainly a precursor. You see where my characters in novels from later time periods come from. These are their great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents in some cases. And so I certainly look at it as related. Eventually it will be part of a five-novel quintet. I originally planned for Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce to be the first two books in a trilogy. And now The Orenda will the be the bookend of that trilogy, and there will be one other bookend—a companion novel to The Orenda, which will complete the five-book cycle that I see developing.

Rumpus: The mechanics of The Orenda are distinct in that the book repeatedly cycles through three points of view. We have Bird, the Huron chief; Christophe, the Jesuit priest; and Snow Falls, the Haudenosaunee girl taken captive by Bird at the beginning of the novel. Could you address how you came to use those three? Was it difficult to balance them?

Boyden: The balancing was interesting. It wasn’t as difficult as one might imagine. It gets a little bit complex, but it’s really fun when you have three characters, when you have a trinity, because there’s going to be constantly the ganging up and the switching of alliances—the two-against-one kind of scenario. The back and forth of that makes for some really fun conflict and good tension for a fiction writer. Also, on a simple level, in the region that I wanted to cover there were three different cultures in conflict: the Huron as represented by Bird, the Europeans as represented by the Jesuit Christophe, and the Haudenosaunee (or the Iroquois) as represented by Snow Falls. So it was an interesting way to look at three different cultures through very personalized and personified ways.

Rumpus: Many of the details in The Orenda are recognizable from The Jesuit Relations, the accounts that the Jesuit missionaries kept of their work in North America. I’m curious to hear about your relationship to doing research for this book. What kinds of sources were useful as you moved through the stages of the project?

Boyden: The Jesuit Relations played one part of it, but really only a very small part compared to my other research. The Orenda is a book that is part of my DNA. It’s a book that I’ve really thought about. I’ve been fascinated by the story all of my young and adult life. So the research has been long and pretty steady.

Elisabeth Tooker was very interesting. Bruce Trigger was very important. Conrad Heidenreich, as well as David Fischer, who wrote Champlain’s Dream. But what really opened my eyes was reading Georges Sioui. He’s a Wendat, a Huron scholar, and poet at the University of Ottawa. I thank him in the back of the book—as well as the others—but he’s somebody who is really amazing and became a personal friend. I realized that I had to go to him because I was writing about a people outside my own direct relations. So I went to him with tobacco. I flew up from New Orleans to Ottawa to nervously ask him, “Can I do this?” So that was a really big and helpful thing. He read many drafts and really walked me through the process. It was a huge gift.

Through Black SpruceAnd then I really became close with a guy named John Steckley. He’s an amazing professor and ethnographer and he’s almost single-handedly brought back the Wendat language. Everyone that I approached was helpful. Emma Anderson is another one at the University of Ottawa. As well as Allan Greer, a historian at McGill. I know Allan took some issues with the published novel in a small review he gave of it. But as a fiction writer, of course, you need to take some leeway with certain aspects of history to make the story work. The history needs to serve the story, not the story the history. But at the same time you can’t stray too far. And I don’t think I did stray too far.

So it was an amazing group of people. I found all the experts and approached them. And to my amazement and gratitude, every one of them read different drafts of the manuscript and gave me wonderful notes and commentary and their best wishes on it working.

Rumpus: Returning to the prose style of the book, I noticed that there’s a running theme of the narrators addressing someone as they relate the story. For example, Bird addresses his lost wife. Snow Falls addresses her lost father. And Christophe addresses his superior or—at times—Christ himself. Why did you choose to write in this mode?

Boyden: From a craft standpoint, telling a story in the first-person present tense over the course of 500 pages is a daunting challenge. I’ve always found that first-person narration can become really internalized and navel-gazing. It’s often overly introspective and refuses to open up. But I found that one wonderful device to address this problem was to give each of the narrators somebody to speak to, somebody that they’ve lost or who they are reaching out to. That gives a sense of purpose, a sense of mission to the first-person narration. In terms of the Jesuit missionary, Christophe, he’s unique, and he fits this technique especially well because he’s an outsider in the world of the novel. He’s feeling very, very isolated, and he must speak out to somebody or something to keep his sanity.

Rumpus: For the most part, The Orenda is very realist. However, there’s key moments when the spiritual world asserts itself, and the supernatural takes center stage. How did you balance those two modes?

Boyden: I’m fascinated by the magic realism used by many writers. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the Indian experience. It’s a very different way of viewing the world. For example, there’s the concept that dreams are as important—if not more important—than reality. The attention that one pays to those things in the shadows is very much a part of the Indian experience. I wanted to explore that, to step away from the Christian worldview that focuses on this guy dying, then coming back to life three days later. The beliefs of Native people are no less powerful or important just because they focus on a different “form of magic.”

Rumpus: Could you speak a little about the italicized interludes between each section of the book, which are told in the voice of an unspecified “we”? What kind of effect did you wish to elicit with those?

Boyden: I’m intrigued by the classic Greek tragedies, as well as by the idea of the Greek chorus. So I thought, Why can’t I do my own Native chorus? I picture those sections as being narrated by nervously departed souls as they watch the events of life from the sidelines, the things that their living counterparts are going through. That’s great drama. I thought it would be such a fun way to introduce things.

I had to fight for it, actually. One of my publishers was resistant, but I knew these sections were important in terms of setting a tone, allowing the reader to enter into a world that isn’t quite what you might expect. I think these voices were a welcoming, open, and honest way to set the scene. With this book, I loved starting it in media res, right in the middle of the action, and not explaining it. I never want to play down to the reader. I think readers are willing to go along if they’re intrigued, and I wanted to intrigue the readers with the italicized sections. But I also wanted to use them to make a statement. These sections have actually gotten me in trouble in some quarters with Native people. There’s a few scholars that object to how the italicized sections suggest that Native people are to take some part in the blame for how colonization occurred. But I say, “Yes they are.” Not nearly as much blame as the colonizers, of course. But we are not just victims. I hate this idea that we are all just victimized and oppressed and etcetera etcetera. It’s dehumanizing in its own way.

Rumpus: So are you thinking of the criticisms of The Orenda published by Hayden King (an Anishinaabe scholar at Ryerson University)?

Boyden: Yes, that was very interesting. I disagreed with ninety percent of what he had to say, however. The idea that Christophe is the main player in the novel simply isn’t true. And then he somehow came up with the idea that I only used The Jesuit Relations for my research. Where did that idea come from? Just because I went to a Jesuit high school? I understand the danger of just using one source, and The Jesuit Relations was just one small, small part of my research.

But otherwise he does make a valid suggestion, that the Haudenosaunee are made out to be the bad guys. And sadly, in some ways, they are in this novel. They’re the enemy. But, also, Snow Falls is a Haudenosaunee, and I think she’s the strongest character in the whole book. So she humanizes the Haudenosaunee people from her perspective. And this was a time of war, we have to remember. This is a novel about war as much as Three Day Road was.

Rumpus: Another item about The Orenda that has been debated at length by Canadian critics has been the scenes depicting torture conducted by Native people. It’s surprising in a way, considering all the violence in contemporary media already. Why do you think this incarnation of violence struck people as controversial?

three-day-roadBoyden: I was shocked! There’s more violence in one episode of Game of Thrones than there is in my whole novel. And yet people are like, “Oh my gosh. The violence is just out of this world.” There’s certainly violence, but if you look at the 500-page novel there’s maybe twenty pages devoted to scenes of torture. It’s a tiny part of the novel. I think people might have reacted the way they did because the threat of violence is always looming in the book. I think that puts people on edge.

But as for the actual violence itself, it’s a small part of the novel. It’s certainly there. It is a threat. But that’s the way it is during war, you know? I’m fascinated by the reaction in Canada, really. Whenever people say, “It’s so violent,” I want to ask, “Have you ever read a Cormac McCarthy novel?” Still, in The Orenda, none of the violence is gratuitous. I could have gone far, far further, but I soon realized that I didn’t need to.

Rumpus: From my experience living in Montreal, it seems there’s an enormous gulf between the USA and Canada—particularly when it comes to the understanding of our shared history. Even though we have much in common culturally, it’s like there’s an invisible wall between us. Do you find that’s true as well?

Boyden: Canada and America are very, very different. It’s true that we share a language and many customs. But Americans have a very different view of the world. I’m interested to see if Americans find this book horribly violent. America seems to celebrate its more violent past, but Canada doesn’t like to recognize those things. The willingness to accept the existence of violence separates our two countries. In Canada, this can be very strange. For example, during World War I the Canadians were the shock troops. In many historical cases, Canadians have been very proficient at killing, and doing what we have to in order to survive. But no one wants to acknowledge that fact. People will say that Canada, unlike America, was not birthed from violence. But I want to say, “What are you talking about?” It’s just not true.

So perhaps that’s why the issue of violence has been such a large part of the discussion of The Orenda among Canadians. It’s interesting. Compared to Americans, Canadians are often more gentle in their approach to things. They’re much more apologetic. There’s less room for conflict.

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Featured image of Joseph Boyden © by Kevin Kelly.


Cam Terwilliger is a Fulbright Scholar at McGill University, working on a project titled Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart, a historical novel set in New York and Québec during the Seven Years War. His fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, such as West Branch, Post Road, and Narrative, where he was selected as one of the magazine's "15 Under 30." He tweets at @CamTerwilliger. More from this author →