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Joseph Boyden on his literary influences: ‘I really dug Robertson Davies’

Author Joseph Boyden

Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail

Joseph Boyden's latest novel, The Orenda, recently won CBC's Canada Reads. Before that, he took home the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his second novel, Through Black Spruce. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

I didn't start writing fiction until I moved down to New Orleans to do my MFA. It was my first stab at fiction. I wanted to write the Great Canadian Road Novel, so Jack Kerouac was a big influence. Believe it or not, I really dug Robertson Davies. I've been afraid to revisit him for fear that I won't like him as much any more. He was huge to me. I'd just started getting into Louise Erdrich. I was into a lot of the Beat writers, including Ken Kesey, if you want to include him in the Beats. I'd grown up from my punk rock days into a more philosophical stage.

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Did you imitate any of them?

I tried to imitate Kerouac, in terms of the whole "road novel," especially On the Road. I wasn't as philosophical as him – he can digress – but certainly in his sense of movement, no plot, what's the next stop, when's the next party. I don't think I consciously tried to imitate Louise Erdrich, though she has struck me as a writer to revere in terms of how to paint a gorgeous scene, and then balance that narrative with gorgeous language. And I love that: the idea that narrative doesn't stop just because language is gorgeous. Narrative should be propelled by the language; language should be propelled by the narrative.

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

I worked on a novel for the first year and a half of my MFA, and just got devastated by every workshop. People would find a few nice things to say, but mostly it was "what are you doing?" And I wouldn't hear them because I thought, "This is a great Canadian novel!" At that age, you just don't understand yet. Amanda [Boyden's wife, whom he met in his MFA program] forced me to write a short story – she said, "try a short story, because it's self-contained, and it'll feel complete … it will end." I started writing short stories and immediately the voices started coming in the short form.

What was that failed novel called?

The Tree of the Lost, and I hate to even admit that.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

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Alice Munro. Say no more. So many writers want to be Alice Munro with those 40-page stories, and the ability to move in and out point of view at will and the ability to use way more exposition than anybody ever should be allowed to use, to seemingly have nothing happen on the page but a whole world develops in front of you. What a great thing to aim for. But you have to be Alice Munro to pull it off. Not that you should not try – I urge my students to try. But many want to recreate Alice Munro and don't really realize that she's a singular entity. All the great writers are singular entities.

How does a sense of place influence your writing?

Canadians think of the wilderness as this idyllic, beautiful, restful, comfortable place. And it is, to some degree. But it will also kill you in a heartbeat. There's a quiet dread that happens when you first go in. Even now, after all these years of being in the bush, I'll be in the city, then go up to the bush and in the first hour of being alone – in true wilderness, where the train drops you off and there's nothing around for a hundred kilometres, there's a quiet dread. What if something goes wrong, what if I break my leg, what if I accidentally shoot my brother while we're moose hunting… All of those fears in that first hour being in true wilderness, that's something I hope comes through in my writing. A respectful fear.

This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.

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