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Join The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, Sept. 23, for a livestream conversation between Margaret Atwood and Thomas King.

Margaret Atwood is returning to host the next Globe and Mail Book Club and has selected as her author-guest Thomas King, whose work she has championed since the early days of his career. Atwood first reviewed King long before he was named to the Order of Canada, won the Governor-General’s Award and the RBC Taylor Prize, delivered the Massey Lectures or had one of his books make the CBC Canada Reads finals.

“We are old, old friends,” Atwood says.

“He’s a very good writer,” she says. “He’s very clear. He’s very succinct. And in the fiction, he’s very funny in a dour kind of way.”

King caught Atwood’s attention after he published two short stories – Joe the Painter and the Deer Island Massacre and One Good Story, That One – in small literary magazines. In her review, titled “A Double-Bladed Knife,” Atwood called them outstanding – exquisitely timed, beautifully written, with nothing that needed to be changed or edited out. “They ambush the reader. They get the knife in, not by whacking you over the head with their own moral righteousness, but by being funny,” she wrote.

“He was already pretty fully formed by the time I came across him,” Atwood recalled in an interview this week. She said with that early review, she aimed to “point out the delights of reading this person, and that was apparent with his very first story.”

Thomas King, the author of The Inconvenient Indian, won the RBC Taylor prize for non-fiction literature in Toronto on March 10, 2014.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

King says Atwood’s attention was a game-changer for him.

“Actually it was a major point in my career, to be honest with you, because I was unknown,” King says. “It couldn’t have been a better start for my writing career. She really did sort of put the gas in the tank, as it were.”

A friendship developed and has continued over the years.

“We enjoy each other’s company; we certainly enjoy the verbal repartee,” says King, who lives in Guelph, Ont. “We have a great deal of mutual respect for each other and that’s a great basis for a friendship. She is quick-witted and I love that in man, or woman – or beast, as a matter of fact. And it’s hard to find in the world.”

Atwood’s plan is to discuss an overview of King’s career, rather than focus on a specific book. Participants are encouraged to read three books: the novel Indians on Vacation, which is being published this month; his Taylor Prize-winning The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America; and Obsidian, the latest in his Thumps DreadfulWater mystery series.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is photographed during an interview at the University of Toronto's Hart House, on Dec 3 2019.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“Peggy and I have done this dog-and-pony show a couple of times and it’s always fun. I always enjoy it when I get to play with someone who really tests me in terms of keeping up my verbal acuity and Atwood does that for sure. And she doesn’t take any prisoners,” says King, who has been spending a lot of time during the pandemic on wildlife photography. It’s safe to say that will come up in the conversation, too. Both are nature lovers and passionate birders. And sublime conversationalists.

“She won’t say particularly the thing that you expect her to say,” King says. “And that’s the joy of talking with Atwood. I can’t wait to see what she asks me.”

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Books that influenced Thomas King

With The Inconvenient Indian, I really didn’t have many influences. Most of the books on various aspects of Indian/white history are generally serious, research-heavy volumes with lots of information and not much fire. But there is one book that I’ve always admired that touches on this area. It’s Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. Connell is one of the few writers I know who takes on history with a wicked sense of humour. I appreciate his critical and sardonic voice.

As far as literary fiction goes, a writer who stands out for me is William Eastlake, who wrote a series of novels in and around Native people: Dancers in the Scalp House, Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-Six Horses, Go in Beauty, and The Bronc People. He’s a writer who is able to combine the serious and the comic into a powerful narrative style.

In terms of the mystery genre, one of my favourite writers is Martin Cruz Smith. His Arkady Renko series is delightful—dry, sad, full of wit. He’s a mature writer at the top of his game. Carol O’Connell and her Kathy Mallory series is another favourite. Both of these writers create memorable characters and terrific dialogue.

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