1. You lived and worked among family clans of Ojibway First Nations for 4 summers, during high school and college, and now you've spent much of the past 10 years writing stories of and about Ojibway. What's the fascination?
I guess there is a fascination with a live lived authentically. These stories also come from my high regard that their authentic lives were lived so deep into our modern times. And my writing has a sense of obligation, one I cherish. But mostly, I hope, I am writing The River of Lakes trilogy because of the grand adventure in the extraordinary stories from those frontier times. And it really began before the years I worked as a fishing guide in Ontario, the four summers you refer to. My mom gave me a gift, when I was a little boy, when she led me to believe that I was part Choctaw, the people of the Mississippi Delta once upon a time. I never thought to examine that understanding until I was nine or ten when I realized immediately it wasn't so. But her loving deceit defined the first two or three years I walked alone in the woods, exploring and discovering, when I was seven and eight and nine, I spent a whole lot of days in the woods as a Choctaw boy, or so I convinced myself. And even before that, when I was five and six and played the popular 1950's game, Cowboys and Indians, I always volunteered to be an Indian. So when I saw a chance to get a job working with off-the-reserve Ojibway, I made that my priority.
2. You were just 15 that first summer.
It was the summer of '67, so I was 16 by the end of the summer. And now imagine how embarrassed I was to have gotten air sick on the very first bush plane ride, bringing me from Kenora to Delaney Lake, the fishing camp I worked the first summer. In fact that first flight to camp was doubly rough because along with me and a load of supplies for the camp was the camp's cook, in his 30's, returning from a trip to Kenora, and the first thing he did when I told him I was from the States and was there to become a fishing guide was to vehemently condemn the Vietnam War and damn by association all Americans.
A few minutes later the air sickness made its demands, and I threw up.
So I don't know if the Ojibway boy I was introduced to as Little Stevie could tell that when I arrived I was on my back foot, but he stepped right up to welcome me and stayed close by to help me get settled, and by the end of the day we were close friends.
Little Stevie is what I called him the four years we worked together, first at Delaney Lake, then at Barney's Ball Lake Lodge. He called me N'Gosh.
Little Stevie is Steve Fobister, and it's his life that I feel obligated to serve. In the 70's he became the youngest chief of the First Nations Ojibway at Grassy Narrows, out of the respect he earned fighting for his people when the mercury poisoning was realized. He later did some work for the United Nations, advising in situations where aboriginal people were threatened by unthinking corporate practices.
And while he suffers terribly from mercury poisoning, he continues to fight for his people.
3. And it's Steve who told you the Anung story––a story you've turned into a short novel to be published in the fall of 2014?
That's right. When Ball Lake Lodge re-opened a few years ago Steve and I spent a couple of days fishing the English River together, and when we finished talking about the trilogy he told me the story and, as he put it then, he wanted me "to popularize it." We agreed that Grassy Narrows Reserve would financially benefit from any commercial success that book might have.
4. What have been other major influences on you being a writer?
While it's taken so long to become one, I just always assumed that's why I was here, that I was supposed to be a writer. I was born in Greenville, Mississippi and knew that across the street from my great grandmother's house, a house I played at regularly, was the Percy residence, where the best-selling author and poet William Alexander Percy had raised his nephew, the National Book Award winning author Walker Percy.
And somehow very early in my life I discovered that I share a birthday with Ernest Hemmingway, July 21st.
So after I stopped walking in the woods as a Choctaw, I began to walk the woods as a writer.
Then I took all the Creative Writing courses I could at Knox College, my alma mater. My first short stories about my Canadian adventures resonated deeply with my professor, Robin Metz. His respect for my young talent meant a lot to me, and if for nearly 30 years of my adult life fiction writing was only an occasional Saturday morning amusement, I saw myself as a writer because he told me I was one.
5. What did you do for those 30 years?
I was a storyteller. I didn't know that's what I was. I thought I was an entrepreneur. But when Duke asked me to teach entrepreneurship to undergrads 12 years ago and I looked back at my entrepreneurial experiences to see what I might have learned that was worth sharing, I realized my greatest contribution to my successful startups was discovering and creating the most compelling story about what we were setting out to do, the version of the story that would attract investors, motivate and inform the organization, and attract the best customers.
6. So you were in your early 50's when you made your new commitment to writing again. What motivated you to get started?
I had some health problems. It took a couple of years for doctors to figure out what was wrong. The condition left me just disabled enough that I was mostly home bound. So I began to write. And I began to get better. So I kept writing and kept feeling better and am now fully recovered.
And I keep writing.
7. Why the Irish connection to these Ojibway stories?
It all came from that sense of obligation I mentioned. I want the whole world to know what happened to the Grassy Narrows and White Dog Ojibway, what is still happening, and so I am trying to attract the largest audience I can. After living in Ireland with my wife and three daughters I saw that the Irish narratives—the tragedies they have suffered at the hands of the British, the Celtic aboriginal traditions, the beautiful use of language, so neatly paralleled so much of the Indian's narratives that is seemed the stories of each world would benefit the stories of the other world.
And yes, it's their language, the sounds of them speaking, both are so lovely to my ear...my ambition for these stories is that they wind up on either the movie or television screen, and to hear Irish and Indians speaking to each other will be so magical. Any dialogue will sound great spoken by those voices.
8. You are known as a Creative Populist. How has this way of thinking influenced your writing? Do you see a connection?
The idea is that each of us is born creatively entrepreneurial––that these qualities and capacities are core to the human condition. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, have allowed those capacities to lie dormant and Creative Populism brings the wildly optimistic message that all it takes is a bit of intentional practice for those capacities to awaken and grow and become core assets for you and your successful life, both in the marketplace and in your personal life.
While I was born in Mississippi much of my youth was spent in Illinois, in farm country, where Lincoln was revered. The first time I read 'of the people, by the people, and for the people' I understood I was a populist true to that language. I love the basics.
And my constant discovery of new ways to help folks develop their creatively entrepreneurial qualities keeps me fresh.
You can check out Creativepopulist.com if you are interested.
9. What are you working on next?
Well, the second book in the trilogy, Worlds Between is the working title, is completed. I have written over 300 pages of the third book, Grassy Narrows, and have some good rewriting to do there.
But recently I have given myself a break from this writing—the trilogy and Anung have been the total of my fiction writing for 7 years now.
And so I am doing what authors often do first off—I am writing a semi-autobiographical novel based on a character who is famous at birth, celebrated across the nation, whose Destiny is claimed for him.
The working title is Right in the Middle.