I Am YEG Arts – Wayne Arthurson
November 9, 2023
On November 20, 2023, the EAC and our friends at the Edmonton Community Foundation will celebrate 25 years of Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund (EATF) awards. In recognition of the upcoming anniversary of EATF and our roster of more than 200 EATF recipients since the award’s inception in 1998, we’re highlighting some of the incredible past EATF recipients on the EAC blog. Today we feature Wayne Arthurson, a writer and 2006 EATF recipient…
Wayne Arthurson is an author of Cree and French-Canadian descent best known for his crime-fiction novels. With a diverse artistic practice that also includes nonfiction stories and essays, Wayne brings his experience as an Indigenous person living in an urban setting to his writing. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts story, Wayne Arthurson tells us what has kept him living and working in Edmonton for over 30 years, about his work as a literary agent and what being an EATF recipient means to him.
Tell us about your connection to Edmonton and what keeps you living and working here.
I was born in Edmonton, and I lived here as a kid for a number of years, but my father was in the armed forces, so we moved around a bit. Most of my formative years were in Calgary, and Calgary is where I decided I was going to be a writer. But I moved to Edmonton for work, and I didn’t expect to stay here that long, but I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the arts here. In Edmonton, not a lot of people consider you unusual as an artist. And that’s because we have the Fringe, Folk Fest, the Jazz Fest… all these great artistic events. A lot of them started from the grassroots and people are just used to it now. Also, I fell in love and met the love of my life here and we’ve been married for the past 30 years, so that keeps me here as well.
As with an artistic career where there are ebbs and flows, the city has gone through ebbs and flows of the arts being strong and the arts kind of having troubles. But it always seems to be the arts at the forefront of many Edmontonian’s minds. And it’s not unusual when you say, I’m a writer or an artist, and you explain it that people understand it a lot more than I see in other cities where it’s a struggle to be an artist. Also, there’s more support for artists in Edmonton. A lot of that has come through the EAC and what they do for artists in the city and for arts groups is way above what many other cities, even the big cultural cities of Toronto or Vancouver do for artists.
How did you get your start as a writer? Was it always Plan A for you?
I’m not sure if it is still Plan A at my age. In high school I had some short stories, but I wanted to work in radio and music, so I tried that, but that didn’t work. So, I was working as a security guard and reading one novel a day because there’s nothing to do. It got to a point where I was reading a book and said, “This book is horrible. I can do better than this. I’m going to try to be a writer.” I decided to study journalism so I would have a job on that side as I tried to write and publish my novels. So publishing, writing, and becoming a novelist was plan A when I was about 21 – 22, when I made that decision, and it took time, but it finally paid off in the end.
Even at my age and with my years of experience, it’s still a struggle. But that’s just the way it is and if it wasn’t a struggle, if it was too easy, I wouldn’t be doing it. I mean, I love doing it, but I don’t like getting bored. I need to be challenged.
Tell us a little bit about your work as a literary agent.
I started as an independent agent, maybe about three to four years ago. I now work for a Toronto agency, but I work out of Edmonton, representing a number of local authors as well as national and international authors. I reach out to publishers around the world to get publishing deals for authors.
It’s interesting to work from the business side of things to help writers mitigate that. As a freelancer, I did that for over 30 years, so it’s nice to help other writers do that and then celebrate when they get publishing deals. I like giving back and this is one way of doing that.
As a storyteller, what narrative or inspiration do you find yourself returning to? Are there recurring narratives or themes you explore in your writing?
Over the years I didn’t set out to do it, but there’s always this sense where I try to explore life as an Indigenous person in an urban area, especially as it relates to me where my family was completely assimilated, and I don’t speak any Cree or French, even though my mother has a French accent, and my father had a Cree accent. A lot of my work deals with the generations that dealt with assimilation and how that functions now as an Indigenous person in Canada.
But at the same time, I tell a great story and there’s always some sort of mystery or crime in my novels, even though not all of them are crime novels. So it always comes down to that, some sort of crime, but also from an Indigenous urban perspective that reflects who I am. And as I said, I didn’t really set up to do it, it just became natural to include that in my stories. I think they made the stories more real not to just me but to other people. As someone once told me, “Write about what you care about”. I can’t remember who told me that, but I heard that years ago and that really hit me. And I still remember it now and I pass it on to people.
Tell us about a person or organization doing great work in the Edmonton arts community that you feel that more people should know about.
I would say the Edmonton Arts Council, because it does a lot of work behind the scenes a lot of us are completely unaware of. I was on the board, so I know of a lot more things from the grants the EAC gives out to artists and arts groups whether they’re big or small. And the public art program as well, with the conservation program that they have going on, which is incredible. And the way that the EAC sees that if a grant is not working, they change things. While some arts groups take years to make a change, the EAC can quickly make a change.
One artist who I think is doing great work is Shawna Lemay, who’s a friend of mine. She’s also not only a great poet, essayist and writer of fiction, but she’s also an amazing photographer who gets up early in the morning almost every day and walks around taking pictures of weird stuff in Edmonton, like crumbling buildings or old motels in the west end. She really makes Edmonton come alive in her photographs and her writing. And she takes photos of other artists for their portfolios, so she really helps out that way. Shawna is a great example of an Edmonton artist wearing many hats and being successful at it all. And she’s just one of so many examples I could list.
Do you have any words of advice that you would like to share with other artists?
Read your contract. Seriously, read your contract. Make sure what you are getting paid for is what you know you’re getting paid for. Don’t skimp on knowing the business side of the arts. Know how much your art is worth and ask for that. Art has value, get paid for it.
It’s hard and there are a lot of things in place for artists to be devalued. But it’s worth it in the end because there’s nothing worse than doing something artistically and putting in all that effort and then finding out that you’re not going to get paid for it or someone else is going to get more of your rights to it than you expected. It’s hard for artists to think that way sometimes because art is art and commerce is commerce. But it’s the society we’re in and we have to think about that.
This year we’re celebrating 25 years of the Edmonton Artist Trust Fund. As a recipient in 2006, how did this award impact your career as an artist in Edmonton?
It gave my career value. Sort of like “What you’re doing is worth it.” It gave me validation that what I was doing was important to other people besides myself. And so, it gave me the inspiration to continue on, and financially it was nice. Financially it gave me time to work on things. It showed me that my choice of career was deemed worthy by an outside organization and group of people, which is not something you always look for, but it’s really nice when you get that sort of outside validation that the work you’re doing is good.
About Wayne Arthurson
Wayne Arthurson is an award-winning writer of Cree and French Canadian descent currently serving as the University of Alberta’s 2023 – 24 Writer-in-Residence. He is the author of eight novels, five books of non-fiction and over 200 articles in magazines and newspapers. For the past 30 years, Wayne has worked in journalism, communications, advertising and as a musician and independent literary agent. He spent three and half years as a member of the Edmonton Arts Council Board of Directors and was a founding board member of Edmonton Litfest.