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Books The best advice Richard Wagamese ever received: ‘Work for the story’s sake’

Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway from northwestern Ontario, was a columnist before he was a novelist. Medicine Walk is his seventh novel, the story of a son and father reunited and learning to figure each other out in the latter's twilight days.

Why did you write your new book?

I wrote Medicine Walk because of the prevalence of absent or displaced fathers in Native communities across the country. I am also a displaced dad and I wanted to offer my sons a glimpse into why they grew up without me. I wanted to write a story that offered the question: Does the reclamation of a history become a triumph or a sorrow or both?

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Cormac McCarthy's sentences are fabulous. They evoke Faulkner at the same time that they lay out their own particular landscape. They're hugely evocative, intelligent, compassionate and insightful and lead me as a reader deeper into the story I'm reading.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Norval Morrisseau once told me to "work for the story's sake" and that is the best advice I've ever received. When I work for the story's sake I leave my ego at the door and the energy of the story emerges without my interference. It's why Indian Horse and Medicine Walk ring so resonant with people – because me and my ego are not in the way of the story pouring outward.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

I wish I'd lived in traditional Native times so that I could have learned from the wise people who constructed our ceremonial life and rituals. It would have been a powerful experience to sit with such people and learn directly.

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

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I'm willing to accept any recognition at any time.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I never despise a book even if its roundly panned. Every classic has merit, some degree of excellence that marks it as special, and just because it doesn't suit me doesn't mean I come to despise it. Rather, I lay it down and pick up another.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Huckleberry Finn.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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I don't wish I were ever a fictional character. Instead, I admire the life the author has drawn for them and seek to know them the best I can, seal them in my memory and my heart as benchmarks for my own fleshing out of people on a page.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

People never ask me where I get the inspiration for my work and I really wish they would. The answer is long and complicated but shows my motivation to write and create stories. Simply and briefly put, I get my inspiration from the knowledge that there is someone out there in the world who is just like me – curious and desiring more and more knowledge of the world and her people. I write so that when they pick up one of my books there is an instantaneous connection, like we're collaborating on the story.

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