Cherie Dimaline has a lucrative four-book deal from Penguin Random House, and a pet python. The former is the reason for my visit to the glistening new home she is renting in suburban Vancouver. The latter is a surprise that, with my ophidiophobia, has me wanting to flee. But two minutes into my conversation with Dimaline, who is as engaging and entertaining in person as she is on the page, and I’ve almost forgotten about Hermes (named for the god, not the luxury brand), asleep and securely locked up, Dimaline reassures me.
She also has some news to distract me: After consistently and adamantly saying she will not write a sequel to her Governor General’s Award-winning young adult novel The Marrow Thieves – which is being adapted for television – she is now “open to the fact that there will probably be a sequel.” This is a huge development, considering she has been booed at onstage events by devoted readers when dismissing the idea.
But The Marrow Thieves is not the book we have met to discuss. We are here to talk about her first release with PRH, the novel Empire of Wild.
Readers of The Marrow Thieves will remember the Rogarou – a traditional werewolf-like Métis character. In Empire of Wild, the Rogarou plays a prominent role. The book is part horror story, part suspenseful thriller and part love story. It is poetic, often very funny and a page-turner, and it is most definitely for adults.
Joan and Victor are married, madly in love and living in the Georgian Bay Métis community where Joan was raised. When Victor suggests selling the land Joan has inherited from her father, Joan balks, they fight and he leaves the house. And disappears. Nearly a year later, Joan – heartbroken, but hopeful – hasn’t stopped searching for him. Then she encounters a travelling church in a tent in a Walmart parking lot – and that’s when things really get weird.
The story was inspired in part by an article Dimaline read in The Walrus in 2017 about a controversial evangelical Christian movement targeting Indigenous people – and fronted by Indigenous leaders. "Who in the hell are these [awful people] leading these missionaries?” Dimaline wondered. “Who are these Indigenous people that are leading their people to this vulnerable state? And I immediately thought: That’s something the Rogarou would do.”
At the heart of the novel, like everything Dimaline writes, are the stories she grew up with. Her mother is Métis and Dimaline spent summers in the community hanging around while her grandmother and the other women played euchre, sipped beer and told stories – in English and Michif (“the language”), stories young Cherie would repeat back to them.
The stories are crucial to the culture, Dimaline explains, in part because her people were moved from their land – often under threat and with little notice. “People like my grandmother and her sisters had a sense of that constantly; that at any point in time you would have to leave somewhere, it was important to carry the stories. Because if you have to run, and especially if you’re an oppressed people, you don’t have time to pack things up. … That’s why I think stories are so important, because they’re never going to be homeless because they’ll always have a home because we have home in the stories.”
And that is why these stories need to be told in a particular way, she explains. For Dimaline, it is a matter of survival.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I hear about the appropriation issues, a huge part of it to me is because I come from a community that has lost so much external territory that what we do have left needs to be held very carefully. Because if you change a story, you tell it in a different way, you leave something out or you change a fact, you’re making my children homeless.”
Dimaline, 44, has not taken a traditional route to the top of the Canadian bestsellers lists. She does not have an MFA or even a high-school diploma. Born in Orillia, Ont., to a white father and a Métis mother with Anishinaabe and Menominee ancestry, Dimaline moved around a lot with her family because of her father’s job; he was a chef (and part-time magician).
She has wanted to write since she was five, when she read her first book – Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. “That’s when I realized that a book is just a place to hold a story. Because I’d grown up hearing stories. And then I was like, wait, this is just a cage for a story and I can go to it anytime I want? This is what I will do. I will make these.”
She had big dreams. Passing the road sign announcing Orillia as the “Home of Gordon Lightfoot” always had an impact. “I’d be like, one day that’s going to say ‘Home of Cherie Dimaline.’ I have nothing against Gordon Lightfoot. I’m sure he’s a lovely person, but for some reason I’m like I’m coming for you, Gordon.”
The family settled in Toronto’s Scarborough region just before Dimaline started Grade 9. She attended Catholic school and was a model student.
But at 15, she hopped in a car with a group of friends, one of whom wanted to track down her father in Mexico. Leaving family and school behind, Dimaline thought the escape would make great story fodder.
By the time they were found, she had missed a lot of school. She caught up, but then, at 16, she got a boyfriend and got pregnant. She was 17 when she had her son. “And that was it for me. I have a Grade 10 education,” she says. “Which is strange because now I teach in a Master’s program.”
Back in Orillia with her family, Dimaline put her son in daycare and got a job working at the brand new Ontario Provincial Police Museum, even curating the museum at one point. She was 18.
She’s had an eclectic range of jobs over the years, everything from editorial intern at Chatelaine to chief operating officer for the Tribal Council Investment Group of Manitoba. She obtained her own education along the way from mentors, often smart, powerful, generous women.
She always wrote. Early on, the only writing job she could get, she says, was pornography. It paid well – $2/word (which far exceeds what most freelance writing pays).
“I’d be sitting up while my kid slept, writing these dirty stories to sell just because I wanted to write and I wanted to be independent,” she says. “And now I live here,” she adds, incredulous, gesturing to her contemporary stone fireplace and granite-topped kitchen island. “It doesn’t seem real.”
She tells me about sharing a room with her grandmother, whom she called Mere and who has been a repeated model for Dimaline’s characters, including Joan’s grandmother in Empire of Wild. In their bedroom, while Dimaline wrote stories in bed, Mere would whisper-read Harlequin romances while listening to tinny fiddle music on the clock radio.
When Mere was ready to go to sleep, she would ask Dimaline to turn the light off and stop writing. “And I was like, ‘listen, I promise you if you just give me an hour, one day I will be a great writer. You’re going to see it. And this will have all been worth it.’ ”
In 2005, Dimaline received the e-mail that would begin to change her life. Theytus Books was going to publish her first book. Dimaline, in Toronto, opened the message late at night and called her parents, now retired in Newfoundland, where it was even later. Her grandmother was in hospital and Dimaline asked her mother to go there with a message. “You have to tell her I did it. You have to tell her because she’s been waiting; I promised her.” Her mother did as she was asked. “She was like, ‘listen, I don’t know what’s going on, but Cherie just called and she said to tell you she did it.’ And she was like ah, her book.”
Mere died that night. “I got to tell her, literally the last day that she was alive, that all of those years were worth it.” The dedication to the book, Red Rooms, reads: “I did it, Grandma!” Dimaline published another novel and a short story collection before The Marrow Thieves.
She wasn’t planning on writing an apocalyptic novel, but she had been asked to contribute a story to an anthology of sci-fi and speculative fiction. That was outside her literary wheelhouse, she felt. But then she thought: “I can write an apocalypse story. We survived an apocalypse, when you think about it. A whole other race or group comes to an area, wipes out life as you know it, you’re on the run, people are literally hunting you, how do you survive? How do you get past it? Indigenous people in Canada survived an apocalypse.”
She wrote the short story – what would become the first chapter of The Marrow Thieves – but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. So she kept writing. She finished the first draft in about six weeks.
The book was published in March, 2017, with a good response. On November 1, it won the Governor General’s Literary Award for young people’s literature, and on November 2, the U.S. Kirkus Prize for young readers’ literature. “And November third, every agent in North America called me,” she says. In 2018, the novel was a Canada Reads finalist. That spring, after a bidding war, she signed the four-book deal, which was a long way from the largest advance she had previously received: $6,000 for The Marrow Thieves.
She chose Penguin Random House because she wanted Anne Collins, publisher of the Knopf Random Canada Group, to edit her book – but also for a more sentimental reason. A teenage mother, she and her baby were on the bus in Toronto going home when they passed by what was then Penguin’s offices. She saw the sign and said to herself: “One day I’m going to walk into that building and someone’s going to let me in.”
Empire of Wild is the first book of that publishing deal. She has already delivered the second and is writing the third. And she has let her agents know about the possibility of a Marrow Thieves sequel.
She has been able to quit all of her day jobs and buy her parents a waterfront home in remote Newfoundland for their retirement. With two of her three children grown and out of the house, Dimaline and her husband decided to leave Toronto for Vancouver (with the snake – and two dogs), where she is working on the TV series.
A move across the country is a lot of work, but it has been a joy. And she has come so far in every other way. “It’s been a beautiful struggle,” she says.
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