Richard Van Camp is an internationally renowned storyteller and best-selling author. He has written and published 25 books in 25 years of writing, from baby board books to young adult fiction, to novellas and novels. Born in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, he is a member of the Tłı̨chǫ Dene Nation. A graduate of the En’owkin School of Writing in Penticton, he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing at the University of Victoria and completed his Master’s of Creative Writing at
the University of British Columbia.
Van Camp is passionate about Indigenous reclamation, language and oral history, and was a cultural consultant for CBC Television’s North of 60. He has received several awards for his various works, including Storyteller of the Year for both Canada and the USA by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. This year, Van Camp’s book of short stories Moccasin Square Gardens won in the English Language Category. This collection of stories functions as a meeting place for an assortment of characters, all seeking some form of connection. SAY Magazine had the honour of interviewing Van Camp to find out more about his life’s work and his thoughts on receiving the CODE Burt Award.
SAY: What inspired you to write Moccasin Square Gardens?
Van Camp: Moccasin Square Gardens is my fifth short story collection and the funniest, in my opinion. It was my 25th book in 25 years and my most recent labour of love, Gather, will be my 26th book in 26 years. Moccasin Square Gardens is really a triumph of the craft of writing and my storytelling braided together. I worked with the same editor, Barbara Pulling, who I worked with on the Lesser Blessed, which was my first book, published in 1996. I’m proud of all of my books, but there’s something really special about Moccasin. I wanted to have fun and poke fun at ourselves as Indigenous People, at all lazy leaders, at man babies—the men who never left home—and I wanted to poke fun at us northerners. I also wanted to go toe-to-toe with some big issues. I think people really appreciate that I’ve never shied away from what it means to be a second-generation residential school survivor. This was my first collection as a father where I really went at it with a good heart, exposing a lot of the poison in our communities.
SAY: Why is the Burt Award program important for Indigenous writers, readers and publishers?
Van Camp: You’ve asked the million-dollar question! CODE is committed to global literacy for all people. They’ve given
away hundreds of thousands of copies of books for free. To be acknowledged as an Indigenous writer for the Burt Award means the world to me because we’re judged by an Indigenous panel of readers, most of whom are writers or activists themselves. To be honoured and acknowledged by your own community means so much to me as an Indigenous person who has spent my life reclaiming all I can for my community.
SAY: What advice do you have for young people who are inspired by your work and want to be writers as well?
Van Camp: I always say that if you have a hero, whether it’s Charie Dimaline, Eaton Robinson or Herald Johnson, this is the time to reach out to them. Chances are these mentors will take you under their wings and give you advice. Some
will be happy to read your work and send it back with pointers. They may put you in touch with contests or calls for writing anthologies, and if you have a manuscript they can put you in touch with publishers and agents. As mentors, we love to see
people’s dreams come true, because for us mid-career writers, so many of our own dreams have come true. When you have abundance in your life, you want abundance for everybody. Every Indigenous author I know is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It takes 30 seconds to write an email and say, “Hey I’m a big fan! I’m working on something. Is there any way that I can mail it to you to have a look at it?” I can’t think of too many authors out there who would turn a young person away.
SAY: What do you love most about what you do?
Van Camp: I love collaborating with my friends and heroes. It’s working with incredible artists who are just as hungry and just as inspired as you are to create something epic and to create something that readers will be astonished by. I work with 13 different publishers, and every book we’ve created is beyond anything I ever could have imagined. I’m so grateful. That’s the dance of trust that happens with collaborating, and I really love collaborating with great exquisite artists.
SAY: How does your life and sense of humour play into your work? What do you hope your legacy will be?
Van Camp: When you’re odd looking like me you got to be funny! My writing will live forever. I’m grateful for that. My greatest success in life is of course being a father, a husband and a friend to everybody. I also want to be remembered as somebody who went beyond the call of duty and reclaimed so many stories, so many videos and so many photos, not just for himself but for other families and for future generations. I’m equally proud of all the archival work I’ve been doing. I’ve uploaded interviews I did back in 1991 and 1992 from elders who are no longer with us, but their words are forever. We’re really reclaiming our star and moon knowledge in Fort Smith. I’m really proud of that.
Interview by Danielle Vienneau.
The award program was made possible by the generous support of the Consecon Foundation and the legacy of William “Bill” Burt. To see all of the CODE Burt Award winning titles visit: code.ngo/approach/literary-awards.