A knock on the door at a house in Guelph, Ont., brings a tall, thin man. He fills the doorway. “Did you bring the whole tribe?” Thomas King asks in mock horror. “Come on in. I just baked an apple pie. It’s right out of the oven. We’ll let it cool, then have it with some coffee.”
Mr. King has been expecting writer Drew Hayden Taylor, his partner Janine, and myself for the past hour. He almost turned down the interview. He doesn’t like interviews or many interviewers. “I dislike talking about myself. It’s boring. I’ve heard all the stories before.”
On the way to the kitchen, a large, plain white canvas dominates one wall in the living room. “That’s the White Whale,” Mr. King says. “I stretch canvas for Helen.” Helen Hoy is his life partner, muse and, until he retired this year, a fellow professor at the University of Guelph’s department of English literature. “She paints, and the White Whale is my way of reminding her that she’s got work to do.”
In his work space is a poster produced by the House of Anansi Press. The Usual Suspects features a scowling Margaret Atwood wearing a black leather jacket in a mock police lineup. Two burly six-foot-plus figures tower over her. Thomas King is on one side, writer Michael Winter is on the other.
Every room seems to whisper of a life and hints to a future. A Jane Ash Poitras painting in an upstairs hall demands an explanation. “I sent her some pictures of my two children and she did this painting. That’s our son and daughter,” Mr. King points to the two children in the painting.
“I sent her those photographs. She used them. She knew I’d have to buy it,” he says, grinning.
There’s barely a mention or sign of official awards or prizes. His Order of Canada is mentioned only when talk turns to a recent event at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. There is nary a word about shortlists for a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize or nominations (twice) for a Governor-General’s Award. There’s no shrine for his Canadian Authors Award or Queen’s Jubilee Medal. Instead, the talk is about apple pie, the house and writing.
“I have a new book coming out in November,” he says. “It’s called The Inconvenient Indian. Non-fiction. Sort of.” The “sort of” slips by almost unnoticed.
“I decided not to call it a history because it’s not a proper history,” he explains. “I’m calling it a narrative history. I know what a history looks like, with footnotes and all. This is more of a narrative history. I think I say in the book that it’s more of an adult conversation that I’ve been having with myself for most of my life.”
“Doubleday wanted me to come up with a book that was similar to the Massey Lectures because they wanted it at universities and high schools. They wanted to make native history accessible. Normally, you get a chronological history with lots of dates – and I do have lots of dates. I’ve got 470 dates in 266 pages. But it really is a kind of running conversation with myself.”
A poster at the top of the stairs shows an old passenger liner riding a wave to North America. It’s in Italian, a promotion for a shipping company from the mid-1900s.
“We know it’s America because there’s an Indian peering out from behind palm trees looking at the ship. This Indian is wearing a full Plains headdress,” Mr. King chuckles to himself. “This is what they thought of us at the time. This is the image they had of Indians.”
That poster took on added meaning once Mr. King decided to write a history book with a difference. In fact, the poster has been transformed into the cover for The Inconvenient Indian.
Thomas Hunt King came into the world in 1943 in Sacramento, Calif. His father was Cherokee and his mother was Greek. There’s German in there, too. His family history could be a book in itself.