This is part of a series of conversations between authors to mark the 2021 edition of The Globe 100, our annual guide to the most noteworthy books of the year.
In the context of Canada’s oft-referred-to Indigenous Renaissance, Tomson Highway and Thomas King qualify as elder statesmen, yet neither seems willing to make any concessions to age (King is 78, Highway almost 70). Indeed, both are as busy, if not busier than ever, with multiple genre-straddling projects, from country albums to graphic novels to musicals to children’s books. The pair were interviewed via Zoom, King from his home in Guelph, Ont., and Highway from his in Gatineau.
Emily Donaldson: It seems you’ve both made the most of a very weird year. Tomson, your memoir Permanent Astonishment won the Hilary Weston Prize, and Kiss of the Fur Queen was republished as a Penguin Classic …
Thomas King: … now you’re a classic! [laughs]
Tomson Highway: Yeah, it’s right up there with Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice and Mickey Mouse and the Seven Dwarves …
ED: … and Thomas your novel Sufferance came out. Can you talk about where you’re at – creatively and otherwise – in this ongoing, semi-postpandemic space we’re in?
TK: I’m not a very social person, so the pandemic gave me the perfect excuse to say no to everything. But then they discovered Zoom – I’d like to shoot the person who developed it. But aside from the Zoom stuff I’ve just been home writing the way I normally write. I don’t miss being around other people, to be honest with you.
TH: I know a lot of people in the theatre community and I felt terrible for them. The performing artists had it bad. But for creative artists it’s been fantastic. Composers thrive on silence and solitude. I’ve never been so creative in my life. Because the pandemic delayed things, at one point I was juggling five projects at the same time. The only thing I missed was being able to hug my grandchildren – I’m a hugger. We’re hands-on grandfathers, me and my partner. I have two CDs coming out. That’s how creative I was. One coming out this month is my first country album – 12 songs with Cree lyrics. I wrote those and the music myself.
ED: Where on the country music spectrum do you fall between, say, Hank Williams or Hank Williams Jr.?
TH: I don’t like new country. I grew up effectively in the Arctic, right on the Nunavut-Manitoba border. There was no electricity. We lived in canvas tents, even in winter. We’re talking about the true north, strong and free. And that’s one of the reasons I wrote this book, because Canadians don’t know the North. They’ve never seen our land. Babies born in snowbanks – back in the fifties and forties it was just par for the course. I’m the last of a breed. We did have transistor radios, but the only way to get reception was to hang them on trees, the higher the better. We got stations from Nashville, and so we grew up with all the great country stars: Kitty Wells, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline. That music entered our hearts and our bodies and we loved it. I play country music to this very day on my beautiful Yamaha concert grand. I took to it like a fish to water.
ED: Tom, you’re also a triple or quadruple threat as well. What are you working on?
TK: I’ve got a children’s book forthcoming and just had a graphic novel come out. And I’m trying to mark the box of the one thing that I haven’t done yet: a musical. My mother was a big musical aficionado. Growing up, every Sunday she’d put old 78s of all the major musicals on the phonograph: South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Annie Get Your Gun. My brother and I hated it, so we used to wander around the house singing different lyrics to her favourite songs just to annoy her. But they stuck in my head, and as I’ve gotten older I find I really do like that stuff. I’ve got the music all done, but I have to go back and redo the libretto because it just wasn’t working very well. It’s just storytelling. You don’t pick what form it’s going to take. Sometimes it’s a poem, sometimes a short story, sometimes a novel, sometimes a song.
ED: What’s it about?
TK: It’s based on the old radio show I did years ago with Floyd Favel Starr and Edna Rain, The Dead Dog Café. I figure I’ve got the characters and should have a good time with it. We’ll see what happens. It’s about reconciliation.
ED: Do you ever revisit your past work? Tomson, with you I imagine that’s inevitable because your theatrical work gets remounted.
TH: One of the great moments of my life happened this past summer. A play I wrote 36 years ago, The Rez Sisters, was produced by the Stratford Festival. My husband and I went down and saw it on the very last night – it was questionable if we could with the pandemic; at one point we couldn’t even cross from Quebec into Ontario. But it was fantastic, a brilliant production.
TK: The only time I read my work is if there’s interest in making it into a film, which so far has proved elusive. Normally, once I finish something, I just keep moving ahead. But I did have to do that last year, because one of my early short stories, Borders, was turned into a graphic novel. I like to see what other artists do with stuff and I’m not real good at collaboration. I don’t play well with other children, unfortunately.
ED: Do you ever get writer’s block?
TK: I’ll get to a point in a project where I’m sick of it, but I don’t think that’s writer’s block so much as just exhaustion, especially in the long projects. What I’ll do is go to my workshop and do some woodworking. Or I take my camera out on the river and put some videos together. You can’t just sit around and watch TV – that’ll rot your brain
ED: Not liking TV is almost old-fashioned these days. Surely there’s some guilty pleasure?
TK: Canadian Netflix is a dead zone as far as I’m concerned. Some of the movies they put on are older than me and not nearly as good. I’m not a great fan of network TV either, I just don’t think the scripts are very well done. I don’t think people are looking for this homogenized version of the world.
TH: I don’t watch television. What I watch obsessively is concerts on YouTube. Every great musician you’ve ever wanted to see is right there in your living room: progressive jazz, Keith Jarrett, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B – oh my god R&B is incredible – and Motown, country. I caught some Inuit Siberian punk. It’s extraordinary. I’ve always written songs in Cree, my native tongue, so stuff like that inspires me because if they can do it, I can do it. Country music is very tricky. The best songs have three or four notes. Same with popular music. You think of something like Going to the Chapel, and there’s five notes. A song I wrote was inspired by the one-note samba. It’s trickery, oral trickery, and learning how master musicians do that is a big hobby of mine.
I just entered the digital age with CDs. I’m still confused, but I’ve got great handlers and co-workers who made it very, very special, and I’m infinitely grateful to them. This [album] is going to be on Spotify, I think?
TK: I’m with Tomson, I’ve no idea what streaming or Spotify and all that stuff is. People were after me to do podcasts about a year and a half ago, and I just ran for the hills as soon as I heard the term. That you had to do it with a computer. I like to use my typewriter, or a pen and paper. I use a computer for a lot of my final writing, but if I have to depend on a computer my eyes glaze over and I go take a nap.
ED: You still use a typewriter?
TK: Yeah, it’s right over there [gestures]. A manual. When I was in high school my mother decided that maybe I could be the secretary to some rich guy. While the rest of the kids were playing sports she enrolled me in typing school. For two summers I learned how to how to touch type, and I’m pretty good: I can crank out about a hundred words a minute. I love my mother, and she didn’t have any money to buy me football helmets and whatnot. This was a free class, and I got to meet a whole bunch of young women who thought I was pretty cool for taking typing. I just had to keep it a secret from the rest of the guys that I ran around with. They would’ve torn me to pieces if they knew I was typing, and writing poetry, which I was also doing at the time.
ED: Where do you gravitate as a reader – older stuff? Newer?
TK: I’ll read almost anything that I think will be good, and if I see that it’s not when I get to the third or fourth chapter, then I put it aside. I don’t waste my time on mediocre literature. I like mysteries, I will say that.
ED: Who are your current go-tos?
TK: I like Donna Leon. I like Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series. I like Craig Johnson’s Longmire mysteries. Walter Mosley is a great favourite of mine. They’re just fun to read—you’re sitting around, you’ve got nothing better to do, so you eat a bunch of potato chips. They’re not good for you but they’re enjoyable. Sometimes it’s more serious stuff. For years I’d reread Moby Dick. There’s just something about that book that caught my fancy. It’s some guy chasing a white whale trying to stick a spear into it. What’s not to love?
ED: What about you, Tomson – do you read your neighbours on the Penguin Classics shelf?
TH: My relationship to reading is a bit bizarre, because I spend my entire day dealing with words. The last thing I want to do is read and absorb more words. But of course I do read because it’s good for you. I read a mixture of recent novels and old classics in French and English. I study narrative techniques, and stuff I missed growing up, because in Northern Manitoba we didn’t have libraries, or bookstores. I recently read Wuthering Heights for the first time. I’m catching up, in a sense. It took me 15 years to learn and master English; it almost killed me. The last book I read was by a French writer, Philippe Bresson, called Lie with Me. It was a novella – beautifully written and structured, and I just fell in love with it. I like to read things to the end; I don’t care how awful it is, I don’t like not finishing books, especially when I’m on juries. No matter how dreadful the literature is, you have to soldier on. There are things to be learned in bad writing, too.
ED: Who among the younger crop of Indigenous artists do you admire?
TK: I was teaching Native studies in the sixties and seventies in the States, and I had just a couple of books I could use: Navarre Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, James Welch’s Winter in the Blood. I taught those over and over again because there wasn’t much else on the horizon. And then all of a sudden a whole new crop of Native artists came forward. Writers, playwrights, poets. That was amazing to watch, and very gratifying to see this very energetic generation coming in behind me. And it’s huge. I used to know every Native writer in Canada and the U.S., and now there are a whole bunch of them that I’ve never met and some that I’ve not even read, which is just my getting old and running out of gas. I like Tanya Talaga. I’ve been working with a young woman named Carleigh Baker on a short-story collection that I think is going to be very interesting. And of course people like Eden Robinson and Marilyn Dumont and some of the old timers. Drew Hayden Taylor, a good friend of mine. It’s a lovely landscape now. Before it was kind of desolate, and there wasn’t much to populate it, but now it’s so great that I can get out of the way and make room for the new voices. I’ve had my time. I’ve had my fun. It’s time for other people to get in there and do what they’re going to do.
TH: When I was 23 I did social work in the Native community for seven years. I was based in Toronto, but I criss-crossed Ontario. I noticed there was a spiritual blank in the life of communities that needed to be filled, to be expressed. When I was 30 and started writing for the first time, I stepped into a void. There was a theatre company in Toronto that had basically died. The first thing that they needed was scripts. So I started a new script development program and the playwrights started to multiply and the movement became bigger and bigger. All this I saw happening in front of me. I encouraged a number of those writers; I showed them tricks. And I produced a lot of them. And that’s how this wave came forward all of a sudden. I can almost say precisely: it was in 1980, right around that time, that the first spark was lit. And now it’s a raging fire. It’s very exciting and I’m proud of having been able to contribute to the movement. Of course I’m getting old like everybody else, and I could step aside if I wanted, but there’s just too much to be said, you know? There’s so much more celebrating to do, so many more stories to be written. I’m proud to be contributing and inspiring people in whatever way I can, while I’m still here.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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