In June, we sent the sweet and loving board book, Little You, to Jambo Books subscribers in the 0-2 age group. Little You is a story about the love of indigenous parents for their precious little baby. In September, we had the opportunity to chat with the author of Little You, Richard Van Camp.
Jambo Books (JB): Where do you live?
Van Camp: Edmonton, Alberta. Treaty 6 Territory.
JB: How long have you been writing?
Van Camp: 22 years. My first novel came out in 1996.
JB: How did you get started as an author?
Van Camp: I worked on a story for five years and showed it to an agent, Carolyn Swayze. She sold it to Douglas&McIntyre and it was out a year later. I am so grateful to Carolyn, to Douglas&McIntyre and to my editor, Barbara Pulling. This story became my first novel, The Lesser Blessed, which is now a movie with First Generation Films. What’s lovely about this is Barbara, my editor then, is my editor now for my 23rd book: Moccasin Square Gardens, my fifth short story collection due out next Spring, 2019. This is the first time we’ve worked together in 22 years. She’s incredible.
JB: I want to get the language that we’ll use correct first. In the United States, we refer to the descendants of the people who were here when the Europeans arrived as Native Americans or indigenous people. I’ve heard that Canada uses the terms First Nation and indigenous. Which is the proper term for the purposes of our conversation?
Van Camp: I am Tlicho Dene from Fort Smith, NWT.
JB: You ended your emails to me with a phrase “Mahso-chi.” What does that phrase mean and what language is it in?
Van Camp: That means, “Thank you so much.”
JB: Why was it important to you to write books featuring indigenous peoples?
Van Camp: I am Indigenous and I am so proud to be Tlicho Dene. I’m also proud to be from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. I’m starving to read books by Indigenous, Metis and Inuit writers and it is a golden time because there are so many new books, new voices that are just astonishing and inspiring me to share our stories our way.
JB: Did you already have the requisite knowledge to write your books or did you have to research certain aspects?
Van Camp: I always do research when I write and I have a lot of helpers. For the Tlicho language, I always go to my Tlicho Elder Rosa Mantla and Dr. Leslie Saxon. My latest book, When We Play Our Drums, They Sing! is my most vulnerable work as I finally worked up the courage to ask my mother to share her residential school story. She went for 12 years to two different residential schools. I did not know she had a number. She was number 12. She was taken away from her community at 5 for 12 years. Her story broke my heart and it helped me understand so much about our families and why we are hurting. As well, I asked my uncle Alexis to share a Tlicho children’s story with me and he did: “Why The Bear Has A Short Tail.” I love my new book so much because it’s braided with so much history, so much sweet family mending medicine and so much hope for our future.
JB: I notice that your children’s books are about indigenous peoples engaging in activities that aren’t primarily about cultural practices that are unique to First Nation peoples. For instance, the book that Jambo Books featured was Little You. Loving your babies is not an activity that is unique to a particular culture. How do you decide on the topics for your books?
Van Camp: My baby books are my wishes, hopes, dreams, love songs, and love letters to the sacred child in all of us. They’re lullabies. I’m so blessed to work with Julie Flett in Little You and We Sang You Home. Orca Books Publishers and McKellar&Martin chose the photos for our five baby books together. See that gorgeous man holding that beautiful boy in Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns? That’s my brother, Roger, who is a lawyer, holding his son, Shaeden. My aunty, Tessa Macintosh took that photo. It’s a gem! It won’t be long before Shaeden is taller than me.
JB: How do you feel about authors and illustrators who are not of indigenous heritage producing books about indigenous people?
Van Camp: I think you have to be careful. If you’re going to do this, I hope you list your cultural advisors who helped you and gave you permission to share this story.
JB: You have created novels, children’s books, graphic novels and comic books. Where does your inspiration come from?
Van Camp: I write every day and I’m always working on several manuscripts. I work on where I’m asked to dive back in. Sometimes a publisher will call me (ie. Pearson Canada called me and asked me to work on a graphic novel with Steve Sanderson on mental health for grades 5 and up so we created The Blue Raven. We had so much fun and were so proud of our book that the publisher called me back and asked me to work on a novella for grades 8 and up on self care and mental health so I wrote Whistle.) I love it when a publisher calls me because a deadline, a word count and a theme and an editor I dearly want to impress are all I need to dig deep and create something we’re all proud of.
JB: Who are some of the artists who have influenced you?
Van Camp: Mike Grell, Kent Williams, Menton3, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Anita Doron, Robert Kirkman, Kate Schatz, Ariel Schrag, Dave McKean, beckylane, Chrystos, Cormac McCarthy, Antonio Fuso, Ashley Wood, Gregory Scofield, Tsutomu Nihei, John Mueller, Dale Eaglesham, Chris Paul, Sonny Assu, Hyung Min-woo, Bill Sienkiewicz, Julie Flett, Steve Sanderson, Chris Auchter, Stephen King, Kelly Kerrigan Hodge, Scott Henderson, Ted May and just about anything coming out of the Mondo Studios–I could go on and on.
JB: Can you share with us some of the artists that you follow on Instagram and/or Facebook?
Van Camp: For daily inspiration:
Ryan Singer, Menton3, Kent Williams, Sabtastic, Sophie Campbell, Sarah Mckendry, Shane Turgeon, Jason Shawn Alexander, Tara McPherson, Tim Doyle