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About a boy: Richard Van Camp and The Lesser Blessed

Richard Van Camp is a household name in the North. Will his new book – and the film adaptation of his novel, The Lesser Blessed – introduce his unique brand of storytelling to audiences south of the 60th parallel? (From the November 2012 issue of Q&Q)

(photo: Laughing Dog Photography)

Sitting crossed-legged on the floor of his home office, Richard Van Camp looks like a teenager. It’s not just that he’s flanked by Star Wars figurines and comic books stacked prominently above his own published works, or his outfit of cargo shorts, blue ankle socks, and a loosely buttoned plaid T-shirt. It’s not his sideburns and youthful face either, though they help.

What makes 41-year-old Van Camp appear 14 is his rollicking, energetic enthusiasm. “Life’s great, man,” he says. It’s hard to disagree.

Ten days before our interview, Van Camp watched the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of The Lesser Blessed, a screen adaptation of his debut book and only novel (originally published by Douglas & McIntyre in 1996). The feeling, he says, is one he could live off for a month.

Back in Edmonton, where he moved in 2010 to be with his partner, Keavy Martin, Van Camp is practically hyperventilating with the knowledge he’s days away from holding finished copies of his newest book, Godless but Loyal to Heaven. Like The Lesser Blessed, many of the 10 short stories in the collection are based in Fort Simmer, a mirror of his hometown of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.

Maurice Mierau, his editor at Enfield & Wizenty (the literary imprint of Great Plains Publications), calls the fictional setting “Van Campland,” a place where the grit of the territories and the traditions of its people are stitched together. “In his version of the North, there [are] a lot of aboriginal teenagers who are living on the edge of things,” says Mierau. “It’s a violent world. A world still soaked with the memory of religious and cultural traditions, and those traditions are filtered through American pop culture.”

Fort Simmer is populated by recurring, interconnected characters, usually pure-hearted males who are one incident from utter devastation. Some of them appeared in his earlier collections, Angel Wing Splash Pattern (Kegedonce Press, 2002) and The Moon of Letting Go (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010). Men like Torchy, Bear, Snowbird, Kevin Garner, and Dean Meadows live comfortably in their creator’s mind, never aging. “I don’t want them to get older,” says Van Camp. “They’re beautiful.”

When he talks about his characters, it’s without regard for linearity: Van Camp just spews what he knows about them like it’s gossip. In Godless but Loyal to Heaven, his characters’ haps are considerably darker than in previous books: a warning about a zombie epidemic caused by the oil sands comes to fruition; a group is held hostage by the flesh-eating demands of their Wendigofriend; and, in the title story (a novella, really), a Tuberculosis-infected brawler must fight to find his brother’s buried remains.

But, Van Camp says, the collection is “really about finding faith today while walking in two worlds, the contemporary and the traditional.” The stories borrow heavily from the author’s childhood and adolescence as a member of the Dogrib First Nation, and from the lives of people in whose shadows he grew up. Even the stories containing elements of magical realism might as well be true. As the grandson of a medicine man who “chanted out the poison,” there’s little Van Camp disbelieves. One of his common utterances is: “I’ve seen it with my own eyes!”

***

Godless but Loyal to Heaven is Van Camp’s fourth book. Sixth if you count his work for children, eighth if you count his educational comic books, eleventh if you count his baby boardbooks of soothing lullabies, including the forthcoming Little You (which he wrote on his iPhone in two minutes at a Pearl Jam concert, and sold to Orca Book Publishers two weeks later).

What ties Van Camp’s bibliography together are his intensely oral narratives, a result of growing up around storytellers. A paperboy and then a HandiBus driver, the young Van Camp ingratiated himself with elders and carried around a recorder to document their stories. Mierau remembers the first time he heard Van Camp read one of his stories out loud. It was in 2009, at Thin Air, Winnipeg’s international writers’ festival. “I liked him immediately,” says Mierau. “Something in his personality that matches what you see in his stories is he’s really upbeat.”

That enthusiasm hasn’t always produced results. The six years between Angel Wing Splash Pattern and The Moon of Letting Go were full of lucrative appearances at conferences on Native studies, creative writing, even early childhood development. But there were also false starts and burned bridges.

“I was touring so much and giving so many keynotes that I made a fantastic living, but my writing was horrible,” Van Camp says. He smartened up when, in 2008, a publisher told him that, until he got some “A.I.C.” (Ass in Chair) time, he wasn’t allowed to submit anything else. Now, he tours more strategically – two weeks on, three weeks off – but he also channels his limited attention into short stories and board books. “As you can see I have a lot of energy,” he says. “I really need a tough editor like Maurice.”

“He’s like the B.B. King of Canadian writing; he is always on the road,” jokes Mierau. “He probably does more than 200 readings in a typical year.”

Mierau estimates that a third of Van Camp’s books are hand-sold by the author. And yet, he’s not a household name south of the 60th parallel. Up North, he’s iconic – a storyteller whom storytellers tell stories about, especially now that The Lesser Blessed has become part of the regional high-school curriculum. Though Van Camp’s never won any of Canada’s top literary prizes, he calls that book and its film adaptation “my Giller.”

“[The film] is going to make a lot of Northerners proud,” says Van Camp, who acted as executive producer, a title the filmmakers offered him for his resilience. “It was an acknowledgement of me never giving up over seven years of funders falling through, promises falling through, film commissioners coming and going. We would have meetings where people would show up, and six months later three out of five would be gone and there would be new faces,” he says. “I felt like a land-claims negotiator.”

His luck turned around once the production company, First Generation Films, signed former Law & Order star Benjamin Bratt, who is of Peruvian-aboriginal descent. Though Bratt’s association with the project attracted backers, the filmmakers had to find someone to play the lead role of Larry Soles, the unbridled Fort Simmer teenager who has been living in Van Camp’s head for 21 years. His “first gladiator.” His “best friend.”

Determined to maintain’s the film’s authenticity, Van Camp decided to scout non-actors from Northern schools. The search took the team through five communities, starting in Yellowknife and ending at Van Camp’s former high school, Paul William Kaeser. But it was fruitless. A disappointed Van Camp had already returned to Edmonton when director Anita Doron and casting agent Jason Knight encountered a young man named Joel Evans: “six-foot-three, skinny as spaghetti, self-deprecating.” It seemed like everyone had auditioned for the role but Evans, who had been busy studying for a math test. Van Camp would have to wait a few months before he could meet his Larry, on set in Sudbury. “Joel looked like a baby, like a boy, it was perfect,” he says. “I gave him the biggest hug, and he said, ‘My great aunty used to tell stories about you.’”

Although it’s been less than two weeks since The Lesser Blessed premiered, Van Camp is already dreaming of future projects. A short film based on his story “Dogrib Midnight Runner” is already in post production,while another story, “The Uranium Leaking from Port Radium and Rayrock Mines is Killing Us,” has just been optioned by award-winning B.C. filmmaker Brianne Nord-Stewart.

***

A couple days after our interview, UPS knocked on Van Camp’s door with a book delivery. The author recalls how he opened the box and handed copies of Godless but Loyal to Heaven to his partner, his brother, and visiting friends. Everyone’s eyes were closed. They counted down to one before opening them together.

“Torchy is reborn,” says Van Camp.

The Lesser Blessed opens in Toronto on May 31, and in Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Edmonton on June 7. On May 31 and June 1 after the early evening screenings, there will be giveaways and a Q&A with writer/director Anita Doron and members of the cast.

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