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Artist Features

I Am YEG Arts: Richard Van Camp

May 23, 2024

Richard Van Camp, photo by William Au

Internationally renowned storyteller and best-selling author, Richard Van Camp was born and raised in Fort Smith, NWT and is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tłı̨chǫ) Nation. A prolific and masterful storyteller, the songbird of Old Strathcona” is the author of 30 books in 30 years. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts story, Richard tells us about second chances, his latest works exploring the darker side, and how at 52 he’s having the best time yet in his career.

Click here to listen to Richard introduce himself in his own words.

So, last night [May 16], you got to experience a special show?

We were out until 11:30 pm at the Mission UK show at the Starlite Room. 

When I was 17, my parents said, We have to go to Calgary for your Grade 12. You’re leaving your community. We’re going back to university.” I went kicking and screaming. I said, I’m going to live in James Croizier’s basement. We’ll eat out of cans. I’ll shower once a week. You guys go to Calgary. Because everyone I’ve ever known, I’ve known since kindergarten…and there are a few people I want to make out with (yeah right – I wish! ;))” They said, You know what they have in Calgary, Richard? They have McDonald’s.” I said, We better pack our bags now. I’ll help.

So we moved to Calgary for one year. My parents go back to university. It was the greatest year. One of the greatest years of my entire life, because 1989 was when the Mission UK came out with God’s Own Medicine. And Floodland by the Sisters of Mercy; U2’s Rattle and Hum; Depeche Mode, Violator; The Cure, Disintegration; and the Cult was touring with Metallica. 

My first job was at McDonald’s for $4.20 an hour. So I got my learners, got my drivers. I made really good friends with Marco de Hoogh, who lives in Calgary — a great writer. Then I worked at the Stadium Keg for $4.50 an hour plus tips. It was just fantastic. It was cash on the dash every night. 

After that year, we go back to Fort Smith and I stay in touch with Marco de Hoogh and a bunch of other friends. Marco was from the Netherlands and he asked, How would you like to come back to my country?” I saved up all my money and my dad lent me his credit card. I didn’t understand the Euro, and I ended up paying all the time for everybody. I got carried away; I’ll admit it now. Looking back, it was not the most astute decision-making of my time. It was a fabulous two weeks. 

Let me just put it this way; when I woke up and went for a coffee, half the town was thanking me for the night before, like, Brother, the lobster tails; the sirloins; the shawarma. What a night! Canadians rule!

You travel the world and you come back and you’re never the same because you have seen new architecture, new food, and discovered new freedoms. You become a child of the world, a child of the universe. We can’t just work our whole lives. We’ve got to make new friends and experience the beauty of life and new lands. 

When I came back, I was on fire. Everybody knew it. What is going on with Van Camp? He’s doing cartwheels down Main Street and he’s waking up in a handstand every day. He’s unstoppable. He’s undroppable.” So I get the Edmonton Journal, this has got to be 1991/92 and I go, Oh my God, on top of everything I’ve just experienced, the Mission UK is going to Edmonton! Hey, Dad, give me that Visa.” He looked at me and said, You’re not going anywhere. You spent so much money my colon is actually in spasm. You’re going to work and pay me back and save for college.” I just felt my heavenly wings snap, it actually hurt my heart. It was a childhood-ender wing-snapper. He was right, it was thousands of dollars. It took me forever to pay him back. 

But deep down inside, I was like, I can’t believe I didn’t see the Mission UK.” Well, now I’m 52 and a couple of months ago on Facebook it said the Mission UK was coming and my wife bought me tickets. They were supposed to be at a different venue, but they ended up in the Starlite Room and I went with my best friend, Richard Mercredi. 

When the Mission took the stage, they said, You know what, we’ve got colds, but we’re with friends. We’re a long way from home, let’s make this fantastic.” And they had so much fun. They got actually goofy with it. I think it was just goofy with joy, sometimes it’s the crowd that carries you to your highest self — we reached a communion last night together and that’s what I love about Edmonton. 

It was a night I didn’t know I needed. Sometimes you don’t know the medicine that you need until you get there and you’re like, This is my fantasy come true.”

Tell us more about what makes Edmonton special to you. 

I was talking to somebody the other day who was walking her dog. We ended up walking together for 15 minutes and she says This happens all the time. This would not happen in Toronto, Vancouver or Montréal.” If somebody were to come up and start talking to you elsewhere, usually people would reach for their phone and say, Hey, sorry, I’ve got a call. I’m busy.”

I think that Edmonton is a very affordable place to live. It’s a place where you can raise your family. You can buy a home. I think that in other cities people are so stressed financially that everybody has a side hustle. It’s its own quiet hell. Here you can relax. I find Edmonton is a city filled with kindness. Everybody is always up for a good story. Like when I go to Save On every day, I gotta see my friends. I’m an extrovert, I gotta pollinate the flowers. The stories I tell at check out and in the aisles to everybody who works there — it’s a giggle fest. 

Edmonton is rich in kindness. I find people look out for each other here. The bike lanes make it very easy to visit. Anytime that my chain pops, I usually have somebody stop and offer to help me because I’m obviously feeble and pitiful. Like The Creator hasn’t given that guy a whole heck of a lot to work with.” So, I’m just grateful every day that we live in Edmonton. I can do my best work because we live here. 

You’ve written about the joy of storytelling and stories as medicine in Indigenous culture. Did you always want to pursue storytelling? 

I was born in 1971 and I spent the first 18 years of my life in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Except for a couple of years when I had to come down to Calgary because my parents went back to the University of Calgary for their degrees. Those were wonderful years, but nothing beats home. 

Growing up, I was always a pen and ink artist. I had probably 80 sketchbooks filled with drawings. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that my titles were getting longer. I was putting more thought into the titles of my drawings than the actual art, and then after a while, the titles started to go three or four times around the actual drawings. 

In college, I met a professor named Ron Klassen at Aurora College, who started reading my short stories and my poetry. I was in Yellowknife in those days, going to college and I was studying land claims and Ron Klassen realized quite quickly that he had met a writer. He could see the writer in me long before I could. I remember one day when we were getting close to graduating from this Native Management Studies class at Aurora College. He pulled me aside and just said, Don’t give your life to politics. You’re a writer, I can see it.” I’d already started writing music reviews and book reviews. I had a little radio show called Malcolm and Henry’s Hour of Power at the local radio station. And I was just bursting with pop culture and my love for all things music and comic books and graphic novels. And you know, sometimes you need someone to pull you aside and say, Don’t give your life to this.

He told me about the En’owkin International School of Writing for Indigenous students. There was an anthology that the En’owkin Centre put out once a year called Gathering. He had the first three issues of this anthology and he said, Go home, read these and if this speaks to your heart, let’s get you to the college.” I went home and I devoured all three volumes. And I said, This is me. These are my people. This is our town. This is our language. This is our slang. This is our humour. I gotta get to the mothership.” And so, we wrote a letter. 

That was really where I found my voice as a storyteller and writer. And then I went off to the University of Victoria, I got my bachelor’s there. And then I went off to UBC, I got my master’s there. I sold the Lesser Blessed in my third year at the University of Victoria, and it changed my life forever. I’ve been a published author since 1996. I’ve been able to put out basically a book a year, so we have 30 books out these past 30 years and I’m living my wildest dreams. 

Tell us about your approach to working in many different genres. 

I think the biggest mistake English teachers in Canada make is to stand up and say, If you want to be a writer, you got to make a choice: you’re either going to write prose so it’s fiction and nonfiction, or you’re going to write poetry. And if you write poetry, you’re going to have a hard life.” We received that speech in Grade 8. That’s just so sad because great poetry is so beautiful. 

When I went to the En’owkin International School of Writing what I really learned and realized is the story is the boss. When you are chosen for a story, you, as a disciple of the craft of writing, get to decide and really listen. Robert Creeley said, Form should echo content.” I mean this respectfully with absolute humility: What does this story want to be? What does it deserve to be? Does it want to be a children’s book, a lullaby, a poem or a novella? Does it want to be a short story, a novel, a graphic novel? Does it want to be a play? Does it want to be a tweet? How can I serve the story? That’s how I’ve approached my craft. 

And so people say, You write in every genre.” I think I listen in every genre and have honoured every story that has chosen me; that I’ve called and prayed and begged for. I’ve been very lucky to find the 13 publishers that I work with who really understand that there’s no genre that we shouldn’t approach to best serve this story. 

This is a craft and at the end of the day when you look at your books, you have to know in your heart that you have entered a new terrain. You did everything you possibly could to tell this story and honour this story. And I always say, Every time you publish a book, you’re firing an arrow of light into the world.” You never know where it’s going to end up, and sometimes your biggest fans never tell you that maybe one of your short stories saved their life or one of your short stories helped them leave an abusive relationship or move schools for their child, who is being heavily bullied. You don’t know the full impact, you just have to show up every day and trust open-hearted ready to serve. 

Bonus content: Click here to listen to Richard share how he got into writing graphic novels.

You’ve said before that you’re now at a stage in life in which you can comfortably share what you have. Can you tell us about this mentality and how it influences your role as a mentor and educator? 

I love everything that I’m doing and the best part of my life now, professionally, is that I get to mentor and I’m really proud to be able to help other writers who I can see have talent. I’m the Ron Klassen and I’m the one who says, Don’t give your life to this.

When I was teaching at UBC, I had the opportunity to teach with Maureen Medved. She wrote The Tracey Fragments, which is one of my favourite books. It’s an incredible and brutal book. I think about it all the time. And I asked her one day, How do you do it all? How do you write and teach? How do you craft? How do you mentor?” And Maureen said, Richard, your students will always bring out the best in you. Your students will keep you on your toes because they want what you’ve got.”

That’s what mentoring is like in a way, because again, back to the Ron Klassen ability and agility of being able to see and read talent. It inspires me to work with somebody and go, You are so good at what you do. Where did you come from? You’re this Holy Ghost.” And then it kind of gets me going, Well, I better up my game if this is the new voice that’s coming out of left field, I’m going to get back to this big mothership of mine, hone it and make it even more magnificent.”

When a great author passes, I love when the tributes to them include that they pressed other author’s manuscripts into their publishers’ hands, saying, You’ve got to publish this writer; this voice needs nurturing.” I want to be remembered as somebody who helped launch several careers. 

Tell us about your current projects and what’s coming up next for you. 

Well, I’m really excited about October because we have Beast coming out with Douglas and McIntyre. It’s the biggest novel I’ve ever written. It’s a young adult spiritual thriller. It’s about three teenagers who are taking on an ancient darkness, one is Tłı̨cho Denę, one is Cree, and one is Métis, and it’s again set in 1986. I’m so excited about this novel and the other is Wheetago War: ROTH, that’s about a father who’s been bitten by a wheetago. He’s holding rat root, which is one of our most powerful medicines, and he knows if he lets this root go, he will turn full wheetago. And he doesn’t want to do that. So he has to save his family and he has to trust these convicts who have escaped out of jail because of a wheetago attack and they need to trust each other as he starts to heal and grow. 

I have a completely revolting, disgusting boundary-pushing short story called Mouthless that’s in the new horror anthology by Kegedonce. That’ll be out in October as well. For some reason I’ve chosen the path of darkness this year. I’m really excited that I have a story in the anthology Never Whistle at Night called Scariest Story Ever.” I really crossed the line with that one, I’ve actually asked my wife never to read it. 

We just finished a beautiful movie with stop motion puppets with Amanda Strong with the National Film Board, Inkwo For When the Starving Return. Inkwo in our language means medicine. The National Film Board will put that movie online for free. 

I’m just over the moon with everything we’re doing. It’s a great time to be alive despite everything that’s happening. I think pop culture will never let you down. I love Edmonton and I’m living proof that this is the city of kindness and I’m really grateful to live here. I love the arts community, Edmonton’s comic scene, I just love the pop culture scene here. It’s so vibrant and I really can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next, whether it’s comic books, literature or movie making. The best part about being an artist now with everything that’s happening is you never know what’s going to happen next with your career. It could be an email; it could be a tweet. When people see that you’re doing your best and that you’re trying your best to mentor and help, the world can be very gracious and giving. 

I’m having a lot of fun at 52. I can’t remember a time I’ve ever been more grateful to be alive. I’m so grateful to be a father, husband, son, brother, mentor and friend. 

About Richard Van Camp

Richard Van Camp is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tłı̨chǫ) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Canada. 

He is a graduate of the En’owkin International School of Writing, the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing BFA Program, and the Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. 

He is an internationally renowned storyteller and best-selling author. His novel, The Lesser Blessed, is now a movie with First Generation Films and premiered in September of 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival. He is the author of five collections of short stories, six baby books, three children’s books, five comics and much more. His forthcoming novels Wheetago War: ROTH and novel Beast will be available later this year in October.