Today I have a special treat: an interview with Douglas Smith, author of The Wolf at the End of the World, one of the books in SFWA’s Fantastic Beasts bundle. Interested in reading this book, or one of the others in the bundle? Check it out in the next 16 days, before the bundle is gone!
Hi, Doug. Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about The Wolf at the End of the World. Your book explores Cree and Ojibwe legends. What was it about this material that attracted you?
It started with my shapeshifter species, the Heroka. I wanted to create something different from a standard werewolf. For one thing, I wanted the Heroka to include all animals, not just wolves. And I wanted my Heroka to be believable.
Well, okay—as believable as shapeshifters can be. For one thing, I wanted to downplay the shapeshifter element. I wanted the primary characteristic of the Heroka to be the bond they hold with their totem species, and to have that bond be complete—physical, mental, and spiritual. I wanted the very vitality of a Heroka to be tied to the vitality of their totem.
Because the bigger message, the theme of the book, is a warning call about what we’re doing to our environment, to our natural resources, to the wilderness that once defined this land—the wilderness the animal species that call this country home depend upon for survival.
So to confront the environmental exploitation and animal habitat destruction by modern Western society, I needed a contrasting cultural view, one founded on an abiding respect for the relationship between humans and nature, humans and animals—a relationship that our modern society has forgotten and forsaken. I wanted a belief system diametrically opposed to the European view that places humans at the top of the pyramid of life on Earth.
I wanted a very different (and better) world view.
And I found it in the stories of our First Nations. The Cree spirit Wisakejack is the voice for those stories in this book, and if I could choose just one of his tales to demonstrate the dichotomy between the traditional beliefs of native people and modern society, and why the beliefs of the Cree and Anishinabe fit so perfectly with the Heroka and the theme of the book, it would be his story of the creation of the world that he relates to the boy Zach in Chapter 10.
First, Kitche Manitou created the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—and from them made the world—the Sun, stars, Moon, and Earth. Then he created the orders of life. First plants, which need the sun, air, water, and earth. Then the plant eaters, which need the plants. Then the meat eaters, which need the plant eaters. And finally, he created humans. We came last, because we need everything that Kitche Manitou created before us. Air, water, earth, sun, plants, animals. We are the most dependent of all of creation—the weakest of all orders of life, not the strongest.
My Heroka understand that relationship. They understand that—as Wisakejack tells Zach—everything’s connected. Western society has forgotten that. We’ve forgotten we’re dependent on the land. Forgetting our connection, we’ve lost it, too.
The stories I chose for the book do not encompass all of aboriginal culture. First Nations people are diverse and express their beliefs in varied ways, plus a large number today are also urban dwellers. But many First Nations stories speak of the connection between humans and animals and the land, and I believe those stories continue to have relevance.
Do you have specific background in Native culture?
In terms of my own heritage, no, I do not. Which leads to the very valid fear I had about writing The Wolf at the End of the World. I’m a white male of European descent (English, Welsh, Irish) who is writing about Cree and Ojibwe culture, traditions, and beliefs. Any author who writes about a current culture other than their own risks being accused of cultural appropriation.
That risk is even greater if the writer belongs to the majority that has traditionally held power in their society and is writing about a minority group in that society. It becomes greater still when that majority has oppressed that minority for nearly a quarter of a millennium, as the Europeans have oppressed the First Nations people since arriving. My ancestors stole their land, broke treaty after treaty, and introduced programs and policies designed to destroy their rich and unique culture and way of life.
Perhaps the most egregious wrong perpetrated against our First Nations was the residential school system mentioned in the book, in which the Canadian government and our churches engaged in a premeditated program of cultural genocide. The publicly stated goal was to assimilate the “Indian” into Canadian society (meaning white European culture), but the program was designed (in a federal minister’s own words in the 1920’s) “to kill the Indian in the child.”
The residential school system involved forced removal of First Nations children as young as six years old from their parents, and their mandatory and permanent residence at boarding schools funded by the federal government and run by various Christian churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian. The abuses perpetrated in residential schools have been documented by the survivors of the system—thousands of cases of horrific physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The system began in 1892 and didn’t end until over a century later when the last school run by the federal government closed in 1996.
Amazingly and thankfully, despite the sad history of residential schools and continued government and cultural oppression, our indigenous people have persevered in finding ways to carry on their traditions and to bring their rich heritage to new generations, refusing to have their culture relegated to the past.
If readers would like to learn more about this shameful chapter in Canada’s history, I’d recommend Basil H. Johnston’s book, Indian School Days, which relates his experiences in a residential school. Johnston is an Ojibwe writer, storyteller, language teacher, and scholar, and has received the Order of Ontario and Honorary Doctorates from the University of Toronto. His other books were also a wonderful research source for this novel. I’d also recommend the “Truth and Reconciliation” website.
What was your research process like?
Because of these concerns, I knew I had to do as much research as possible. I read as much as I could about the ceremonies, beliefs, traditions, and histories of the Cree and Ojibwe. And I read the stories. Ever so many stories. Because, as Wisakejack also tells Jack, that’s how the People taught their children. I came to understand and appreciate how the stories both entertained and educated, taught children about the dangerous harsh environment they lived in, where starvation was only one bad hunt or one greedy hunter away.
I did more research. I stayed at an Ojibwe First Nations Reserve in Chapleau, Ontario. I interviewed the chief and her mother. I visited three different reserve communities and talked to as many First Nations people as I could. I read more.
In short, I tried to do my homework as best as I could. The book and my website include a bibliography of reference sources I used. If you’re interested, I heartily recommend you check them out and read the stories yourself, both to enjoy and to learn more about the culture.
Finally, I’ve treated the Cree and Ojibwe culture with reverence and respect wherever I’ve used it in this book. That wasn’t hard to do. The more I learned of the culture, the more I held it in reverence and respect.
In short, I fell in love with the stories and the culture, and found in them the same core truth that is the theme of the book and the same vitality that drive the Heroka. I did my very best to make sure I got things right and as accurate as possible. And I treated that culture with respect.
First Nations readers have told me how much they enjoyed the book. If you’re Cree or Anishinabe or of any other First Nation, and you read The Wolf at the End of the World, I’d love to hear from you. Tell me what I got right. Tell me what I got wrong. Tell me what you thought.
What was the most engaging or immersive part of writing The Wolf at the End of the World? Do you have a favorite bit?
My favourite parts are the traditional stories the spirit Wisakejack tells the young Cree boy, Zach, to both educate Zach on his heritage and to warn him (cryptically) of coming dangers.
Certainly, one of the delights of researching this book came from these Cree and Anishinabe stories. But the stories also caused me some worry. I’d read one story, say of Wisakejack and the flood and the recreation of the world, and then read another version that differed significantly in events and details. In some versions, his wolf brother lives, in others he dies, while others don’t even mention him.
So back to my fear. I wanted to get the facts and stories right. How could I do that if every version of a story was different? Which version was the “right” one?
Finally, I realized these stories were transcribed from what people remembered being told when they were young or used to tell to their children. Storytelling was always an oral tradition, and each storyteller told their own version of traditional tales. So every version would naturally vary as the storytellers varied. Or as we learn about Ed’s storytelling class:
He never read to the kids from the books. Storytelling was an oral tradition, not a written one. Reading the stories didn’t let him change them, adding something each time around to give a slightly different meaning to the story from the last time he told it.
Besides, he liked his versions better.
In the end, I think it’s as Wisakejack tells Zach, “a story is true if its meaning is true,” and I’ve tried to stay true to the meaning of all the stories.
If readers love The Wolf at the End of the World, where would you direct them to more of your work? Is this novel part of a larger series?
The Wolf is the sequel to my very first short story (written and sold), “Spirit Dance,” which won the Aurora Award. The Wolf picks up events and the lives of characters from “Spirit Dance” five years later. You don’t need to read “Spirit Dance” to fully enjoy The Wolf, but if you want to read more about the shapeshifting Heroka, you might enjoy that story, along with the two others I’ve written, “A Bird in the Hand” and “Dream Flight.” All these stories are available as individual ebooks from your favourite retailer and on my online store.
After The Wolf, I started writing an urban fantasy trilogy (more on that below). A writer friend, the master of urban fantasy, Charles de Lint, strongly recommended that I write all three novels in the trilogy before publishing any of them. That’s proven to be excellent advice, as I’ve been free to make changes to the earlier novels as the series story arc evolves and mutates.
I’m finishing up book 3, but it’s meant I haven’t had any new titles come out for a while. So if readers want to read more of my work, for now, I’ll direct them to my two collections, Impossibilia (an Aurora Award finalist) and Chimerascope (a finalist for the Aurora, Sunburst, and CBC Bookies awards).
You are a member of several important writing organizations (such as SFWA, who curated the Fantastic Beasts bundle), won and been finalist for a number of awards, and had your work translated into multiple languages. What advice to you have for writers starting out in the field of speculative fiction?
I still recommend to new writers to start with short fiction. Short stories let you learn the craft of fiction in more manageable chunks and provide a built-in measure of how your craft is progressing, via when you start to sell your stories. You can try out ever so many genres, story structures, voice styles, and so much more in 100,000 words of short fiction than you can in a single 100,000-word novel. Your craft will advance faster if you start with short stories.
There are a lot of other advantages to starting with short fiction, and I discuss them all (and much more) in my writer’s guide, Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. I wrote that book to try to make it easier for beginning writers to understand the business side of short fiction, and as my way of paying-it-forward.
What do you have upcoming?
Right now, I’m working on book 3 of an urban fantasy trilogy with a working title of THE DREAM RIDER SAGA, which involves astral projection, a comic book superhero who actually exists, dream walking, body swapping, rune magic, lost jungle expeditions, mysterious ancient artifacts, secret societies, the multiverse, and the information paradox of black holes…with the continued existence of all of creation at stake. It’s been a lot of fun to write, and I hope to finish it shortly.