Every novelist wants an audience and, more often than not, the larger the better.
But sometimes the answered prayer can be a source of trepidation, especially if the novel is simultaneously a commercial and critical success and, best (or worst?) of all, a book that's loved by its readers.
Joseph Boyden had this experience three years ago with the publication of his debut novel Three Day Road. Largely the tale of two young Cree warriors from northern Ontario who find themselves fighting in the trenches of First World War Europe, the book became the talk of the 2005 spring literary season. And people have continued to talk about it and buy it, seemingly taking to heart Isabel Allende's now-famous exhortation: "Please, please, don't miss it!" Not only have they not missed it here, where it's sold 100,000 copies to date in hardcover and trade paperback, they've not missed it in France, Italy and Germany, where it was a bestseller.
Other writers might have buckled under the demand for an encore. But while it had taken Boyden almost five years to write Three Day Road, the novel had always been conceived as just the first part of a trilogy about the multigenerational adventures of the Bird family from Moose Factory/Moosonee.
By the time Viking Canada published Three Day Road, Boyden was well into shaping the second instalment, tentatively titled She Takes You Down. "I knew there was going to be two sisters. I knew there would be an old man, knew there would be two families fighting, somewhat like Romeo and Juliet," he explained over lunch in Toronto the other day. "I knew quite a bit actually." In fact, he'd already written what he called "a trial run" for the novel, a nine-page short story published in the August, 2005, fiction issue of Toronto Life.
The story was called Through Black Spruce, which has also become the title of Boyden's just-published second novel, easily one of this season's most-anticipated books and, as of Sept. 15, one of the 15 titles on the long list for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize. If Boyden, 41, was experiencing any symptoms of "the sophomore jinx" or anxiety about the prospect of the 65-day tour his publishers had dreamed up, they weren't apparent during his interview. There's pressure, yes, but, "I can't let that get to me. The good thing, as far as the writing goes, is as soon as the characters start speaking to me, the pressure all just kind of goes away, and I just get lost in the world I'm creating."
Through Black Spruce will feel at once fresh and familiar to Boyden aficionados. Fresh, in that it's a contemporary novel - no cannibalism here! - its settings split between the wilderness (the wilds of the James Bay region) and the city (Toronto, Montreal, New York). Familiar, in that it's full of resonances with Three Day Road and it uses the dual narrative structure of its illustrious predecessor. In this case, one narrator is Will Bird, the elderly son of Three Days' sharp-shooting Xavier, a retired Cree bush pilot who, at the novel's start, is lying comatose in a snow-bound Moose Factory hospital; the other is Will's niece Annie Bird. She's recently returned north after a series of harrowing adventures far to the south, including a quest to locate her younger sister, Suzanne, who seems to have disappeared in the canyons of New York after moving there with her drug-addled boyfriend to pursue a modelling career.
"You don't have to read Three Day Road first to read this one," Boyden asserted. "Absolutely it stands on its own." At the same time, "I think there's a building power, almost like waves, with the trilogy format," he said, alluding to Robertson Davies's famous Deptford Trilogy, published between 1970 and 1975, as a model.
Boyden is already working up the final novel in his trilogy - "one character will be very young, a daughter, the other quite ancient, an old man" - but he's complicating the process by simultaneously starting another book, a history about the Catholic martyr Jean de Brébeuf and the arrival of the Jesuits in Canada's Iroquois and Huron country in the 17th century.
Caucasian and aboriginal, present and past, flesh and spirit, civilization and nature - these are long-standing interests of Boyden's, so bound up with who he is that he likes to say "they're almost genetic." Both his father, an Ottawa-born Irish Catholic who later became a doctor and served with distinction in the Second World War, and his mother, an elementary-school teacher of Scottish origin, had aboriginal blood (Ojibwa, Mi'kmaq). During the summer, they'd take their 11 children - Boyden was the third youngest - camping and canoeing in and around Georgian Bay where the Jesuits once roamed. An uncle, Erl, his father's older brother, was nicknamed "Injun Joe" and, when he wasn't "travelling the world like a bum - he was even in a Jimmy Cagney movie years ago," he lived in a tepee in Algonquin Park.
In the eighties, Boyden was enrolled as a high-school student in Toronto's Brebeuf College School, founded by Jesuits in 1963. While at the school, Boyden at one point cut his thick, black hair into a Mohawk. Yet it was not all sweet rebellion and high spirits back then. "I was suicidal when I was a teenager," he confessed. "I tried to commit suicide in a very serious way.... I wasn't supposed to live. I really messed myself up."
There's virtually none of this angst in Boyden's presentation to the world these days. If there's a touchstone to his stability, it may reside in his embrace of Ojibwa spiritual practices (including sweat-lodge ceremonies) and his regular visits - sometimes as many as five a year - to the James Bay region. (He also lived up there, after attending Toronto's York University, as an itinerant educator with Northern College, travelling along James Bay's west shore and teaching communications and arts and sciences.) "I would feel so incomplete if I didn't do that. I think I'd be a completely different person. Being in the bush grounds me in a way that nothing else can." In fact, as his publishers were drawing up his itinerary for the Through Bla ck Spruce tour, he made sure they booked a five-day hiatus in October to allow him to travel to Moosonee to do some moose-hunting.
These days, Boyden's primary home is New Orleans, this the result of having enrolled in a master of fine arts program in creative writing at the university there in the early 1990s, then being taken on as a professor of creative writing and Canadian literature. His wife, Amanda, also a novelist (her second book, Babylon Rolling, has just been published), teaches there as well.
Looking back, he admitted that writing Three Day Road was a "ridiculously ambitious and nutty thing to do. It took forever and there were many down times. But that's the great thing about being a young writer: nothing to lose. I'd look at what else is being published and I'd say, 'I can do that. Maybe I can even do it better in some instances.' "
He paused. "But thank God I hadn't read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy before Three Day Road. That would have really taken the wind out of my sails."
Joseph Boyden reads in Bayfield, Ont., today; Owen Sound, Ont., Monday; Sharon, Ont., Tuesday; Orangeville, Ont., Oct. 3; Montreal, Oct. 5; and at Calgary Wordfest (Oct. 14-19), the Vancouver International Writers Festival (Oct. 21-26) and Toronto's International Festival of Authors (Oct. 22-Nov. 1).
... I cut some meat off [the moose haunch]for me and then left the rest for the bear out back by my porch. It had come sniffing, the days before, like it was taunting me for not killing it. I recognized by the size and by the droopy, shrivelled teats that she was a female ... And so, bored, I left her a meal. It took two days for her to come around again, but I heard her grunt and watched one night as she took the haunch away in her broken teeth like it was a dog bone ... That made me feel good in a strange way. Me, I've killed lots of bears. Too many.
From Through Black Spruce
by Joseph Boyden, published
by Viking Books