Award-winning short story writer Douglas Smith has been called “one of Canada’s most original writers of speculative fiction” (Library Journal), and this fall he brings readers a deeper story in his novel The Wolf at the End of the World.
Building on the world he created in previous short stories, Smith explores the Heroka — shapeshifting beings who can also control their totem animals — and their role in a world in which people’s relationship to nature is out of balance. He also confronts the clash of cultures between the dominant Canadian (read: white) interests and the rights of First Nations peoples such as the Cree and Ojibwe — and how this plays out in environmental policy and control over resources.
Aside from that, it’s also a gripping urban fantasy in which a voracious monster is targeting the inhabitants of Thunder Lake, a small town in Ontario, and even the combined power of the Heroka and ancient spiritual powers may not be enough to solve the mystery of the killings — and avert the end of the world.
Doug was kind enough to answer my questions about his work, his new novel, and research he did to bring the story to life.
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David Jón Fuller: Readers first met Gwyn Blaidd in “Spirit Dance,” a short story first published in 1997. You’ve revisited the world of the Heroka in “A Bird in the Hand.” What is it about this character and the world he inhabits that you most enjoy exploring as you write? What draws you back to continue the story?
Douglas Smith: Well, “Spirit Dance” was the first story I wrote when I decided to chase my writing dream, and it became the first story that I sold. It appeared in the anthology Tesseracts 6 in 1997, was a finalist for the Aurora Award in 1998, and won me my first Aurora Award in 2001 when it was translated into French. It’s been republished seven times in English and translated another sixteen times (yes, the story totally rocks, and you should check it out 🙂 ).
So, for all of the above reasons, it’s always had a special place in my heart. In it, we first meet not only the Heroka, but also many of the characters who appear in The Wolf, which picks up their stories five years later. I always planned to revisit that world and those characters when I wrote my first novel.
And I’ve always been fascinated with animals since I was a kid, and shapeshifters are a natural extension of that fascination. I’m also concerned about what we’re doing to our environment, especially the continuing destruction of animal habitat across the land to feed our hunger for energy and natural resources, and the Heroka give me a way to show the impact on a people whose vitality is inextricably tied to the vitality of their totem animal species.
DJF: One theme that is echoed throughout The Wolf at the End of the World is that what seems a person’s greatest strength may actually be a weakness. For the fervent Tainchel agent Jonas, his faith in the righteousness of his holy mission against the Heroka proves his undoing. For Gwyn, the Heroka, his self-confidence and self-sufficiency is something he must shed to prevail against his enemies. And in the story, the hydroelectric dam that has transformed the community with power and jobs may actually seal its doom. Do you think people’s faith in what they think sustains them is misplaced, these days?
DS: I’m always pleasantly surprised when a reader points out a theme in one of my stories that I didn’t realize was there. I wasn’t consciously including that theme. But, in general, I try to ensure that my characters have weaknesses to offset their strengths. A character with no flaws is boring and by definition can’t grow or have their own arc in a tale beyond being a plot device. In a way, this is analogous to having magic systems in fantasy stories — a price much be paid for using any magic, and similarly, characters must have weaknesses to balance their strengths and to give them depth.
We tend to rely on our strengths to hide our known flaws, or sometimes as a shield to protect ourselves from being hurt. But as readers, we care about characters as much for their flaws or weaknesses as their powers. For example, the Heroka are superhuman in many ways — greater sensory perception, longer lives, and with the ability to communicate and control their totem species — but they pay for that by being feared and hunted as freaks.
I’m not sure if I could extrapolate that to saying that people’s faith in what sustains them (or whatever they view as their source strength) is being misplaced these days. I would say danger lies in forgetting that our “beliefs” have grown from questions about our shared existence for which we don’t yet have answers — and these are always questions for which we desperately want answers, starting with “Is there life after death?” There is the world of the known, which we can prove by science, and there is the world of the unknown, where we fill in our best-guess answers and call it faith. The danger lies in forgetting that these are guesses not proven truths. I find the term “a person of strong faith” to be an oxymoron. (What? You think that you have a really, really good guess?)
My response to any religious belief held by another is that they have the right to hold that belief so long as it does not affect the rights of anyone else (including their right not to have your beliefs thrust upon them). In terms of my belief in their belief, my communicated response is generally “You may be right,” because they may be. My uncommunicated response is generally “but I doubt it” — which is also my own cynical response to my own beliefs. Faith without doubt — without remembering that faith is something we believe but can’t prove — is one of the greatest dangers the world faces today.
Okay, this answer has grown beyond my initial expectation, but it’s important. To try to summarize my response in the context of The Wolf, I think that many of the characters — Gwyn, Jonas, Kate — all discover by the end that holding firm to a belief and refusing to ever entertain doubt can be disastrous. The characters that survive in my story are the ones who realize this in time.
DJF: In the afterword to The Wolf at the End of the World, you discuss the issues surrounding a white, British-descended author writing about Cree and Ojibwe cultures. One solution for white Canadian writers is to simply not write from a First Nations character’s perspective. Why was it important to you to eschew this, and include perspectives from Ojibwe characters such as Ed Two Rivers, or Cree characters such as Kate and Zach Morgan, in the novel?
DS: First, thanks for addressing this in your questions. Second, my apologies, because this will be a long answer, but it’s important to me to be clear on this, because this relates to my main fear in writing the book. Let me start by talking about that fear.
Any author who writes about a current culture other than their own risks being accused of cultural appropriation. That risk is even greater if the writer belongs to the majority that has traditionally held power in their society and is writing about a minority group in that society. It becomes greater still when that majority has oppressed that minority for nearly a quarter of a millennium, as the First Nations people have been oppressed since the Europeans first arrived in this land.
I’m a white male of European descent (English, Welsh, Irish) who is writing about Cree and Ojibwe culture, traditions, and beliefs. My ancestors stole their land, broke treaty after treaty, and introduced programs and policies consciously designed to destroy their rich and unique culture and way of life.
Perhaps the most egregious wrong perpetrated against our First Nations was the residential school system mentioned by Ed in the book, in which the Canadian government and various churches engaged in a premeditated program and formal policy of cultural genocide. The publicly stated goal was to assimilate the “Indian” into Canadian society (meaning white European culture), but the program was designed (in a federal minister’s own words in the 1920’s) “to kill the Indian in the child.”
The residential school system involved the forced removal of First Nations children as young as six years old from their parents and homes, and their mandatory and permanent residence at boarding schools funded by the federal government and run by various Christian churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian. The abuses perpetrated on First Nations children in residential schools have been documented by the survivors of the system — thousands of cases of horrific physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The system began in 1892 and didn’t end until over a century later when the last school run by the federal government closed in 1996.
Amazingly and thankfully, despite the sad history of residential schools and continued government and cultural oppression, indigenous people have persevered in finding ways to carry on their traditions and to bring their rich heritage to new generations, refusing to have their culture relegated to the past.
(If you would like to learn more about this shameful chapter in Canada’s history, I’d recommend Basil H. Johnston’s book, Indian School Days, which relates his personal experiences in a residential school. Johnston is an Ojibwe writer, storyteller, language teacher, and scholar, and has received the Order of Ontario and Honorary Doctorates from the University of Toronto. His other books were also a wonderful research source for this novel, which I list in The Wolf‘s bibliography. I’d also point you to the film Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide, which is available on YouTube. I would also recommend the “Truth and Reconciliation” website at http://www.trc.ca.)
Additional atrocities continue to be revealed, including the recent exposure of federal research experiments in various communities and residential schools where our government subjected First Nations people to forced malnutrition to study the effects.
So, yes, I’m a tad paranoid that I, as a white man of British descent writing a story that draws from the storytelling traditions and culture of the Cree and Ojibwe, might be accused of cultural appropriation.
I could respond by simply saying that if a writer must only write about characters who are the same as themselves and solely of their own culture, then literature would be a dull and anaemic creature. Shakespeare was not a Danish prince, nor Robert Louis Stevenson a peg-legged pirate. Bram Stoker was not a vampire, nor Isaac Asimov a robot. J. K. Rowling is not an adolescent boy wizard, and Stephen King is not a homicidal car or teenage girl with telekinetic powers.
But I’d be dodging the issue. So first, let me explain why I was drawn to Cree and Ojibwe traditions and stories for this book and why they were key to telling the story I wanted to tell.
It started with my shapeshifter species, the Heroka. I wanted to create something different from a standard werewolf. Writers have been there, done that too many times. For one thing, I wanted the Heroka to include all animals, not just wolves. And I wanted them to be more than just another bunch of shapeshifters. As absurd as it may sound, I wanted my Heroka to be believable.
Well, okay—as believable as shapeshifters can be. For one thing, I wanted to downplay the shapeshifter element. I wanted the primary characteristic of the Heroka to be the bond they hold with their totem species, and to have that bond be complete—physical, mental, and spiritual. I wanted the very vitality of a Heroka to be tied to the vitality of their totem.
Why? Because the bigger message here, the theme of the book if you like, is a warning call about what we’re doing to our environment, to our natural resources, to the wilderness that once defined this land—the wilderness the animal species that call this country home depend upon for survival.
So if this story was going to be about environmental exploitation and animal habitat destruction by modern Western society, I needed a contrasting cultural view, one founded on a deep and abiding respect for the relationship that exists and has always existed between humans and nature, humans and animals—a relationship that our modern society has forgotten and forsaken. I wanted a belief system that was diametrically opposed to the European view that places humans and our needs at the top of the pyramid of life on Earth.
And I found it in the stories of our First Nations. Now, I’m not saying these stories encompass all of aboriginal culture. First Nations people are diverse and express their beliefs in varied ways, plus a large number today are also urban dwellers. But many First Nations stories speak of the close connection between humans and animals and the land, and I believe those stories continue to have relevance.
So that’s why I chose to draw on the rich and wonderful stories and traditions of the Cree and Ojibwe in this book. But that’s only part of my response to any concerns a reader might have about cultural appropriation.
I researched. A lot. I read as much as I could about the ceremonies, beliefs, traditions, and histories of the Cree and Ojibwe. And I read the stories. Ever so many stories. Because, as Wisakejack also tells Jack, that’s how the People taught their children. At first, I found those stories very strange, but eventually I came to understand them, appreciate how they both entertained and educated, taught children about the dangerous harsh environment that they lived in, where starvation was only one bad hunt or one greedy hunter away.
I did more research. I stayed at an Ojibwe First Nations Reserve. I interviewed the chief and her mother. I visited three different reserve communities and talked to as many First Nations people as I could. I read more.
In short, I tried to do my homework as best as I could. I’ve included a bibliography of reference sources that I used in the back of this book. If you’re interested, I heartily recommend that you check them out and read the stories yourself, both to enjoy and to learn more about the culture.
Finally, I’ve treated the Cree and Ojibwe culture with reverence and respect wherever I’ve used it in this book. That wasn’t hard to do. The more I learned of the culture, the more I held it in reverence and respect.
So there’s my defence. I fell in love with the stories and the culture, and found in them the same core truth that is the theme of the book and the same vitality that drive the Heroka. I did my very best to make sure I got things right and as accurate as possible. And I treated that culture with respect.
DJF: The conflict in your novel between the Ojibwe people of Thunder Lake and the hydroelectric dam that has had devastating effects on the land and wildlife is paralleled by recent events such as the protest in New Brunswick where Mi’kmaq people at Elsipogtog First Nation clashed with developers over shale gas fracking. Do you think there is a reluctance in the dominant (white) Canadian culture to deal with the cultural context of land and environmental rights?
DS: I believe that there is more than reluctance. There continues to be a refusal to deal with these issues in an honest and equitable manner. In the example you cite above, I find it disturbing that the issue at the heart of the conflict is not solely one of “native rights”—it’s an issue that should be of concern to anyone in this country.
But other issues continue to linger unaddressed or new ones continue to rise in terms of our treatment past and present of First Nations peoples. Too often, I find that the core problem is our European-based societal view of humans at the top of the food chain and the belief that this gives us the right to do whatever we want to the land, whereas the world view of the First Nations traditional beliefs reflects what I think is the true reality—that we as humans are the most dependent of all creatures, so we should be respectful of the rest of the life forms on our planet. As they go, we go.
DJF: You’ve mentioned that in your Heroka stories, you didn’t just want to do “werewolf” stories – that that ground has been covered. What clichés about werewolves do you think has been overdone, and does their use in stories betray a cultural (perhaps European?) bias towards what is “wild” or “untamed”?
First, I have always loved the traditional werewolf story. An American Werewolf in London is one of my all-time favourite movies. But as I mentioned above, I wanted my Heroka to be different and for the focus of their stories to be more on their relationship with their animal totem species. This aligns with the focus on environmental and animal habitat issues that I wanted as one of the themes in the books (and the other Heroka stories you mentioned).
I didn’t want the focus of my shapeshifter to be on a human becoming an inhuman beast. It’s a small step from there to viewing animals as our enemies and a threat, and a smaller step from there to using that as a justification for destroying the wilderness as we are doing.
So I’d say that I’m trying to avoid what probably is a European cultural bias against what is wild and untamed.
DJF: In your novel, young Zach Morgan dreams of Wisakejack, who tells him that in the order of creation, humans are dependent on everything else for survival. This is at odds with the trend in Western civilization to see humans as the most powerful force in the world today. What do you think stories such as those told by Wisakejack can offer the modern world, which, in its race to exploit and use resources, echoes the greedy, devouring Windigo spirit your characters must grapple with?
DS: The Cree spirit Wisakejack is the voice for the traditional Cree and Anishinabe stories in this book. The story you reference above, I think best demonstrates the dichotomy between the traditional beliefs of native people and modern society, and why the beliefs of the Cree and Anishinabe fit so perfectly with the Heroka and the theme of the book.
First, Kitche Manitou created the four elements— earth, water, fire, and air — and from them made the world — the Sun, stars, Moon, and Earth. Then he created the orders of life. First plants, which needed the sun, air, water, and earth. Then the plant eaters, which need the plants. Then the meat eaters, which need the plant eaters. And finally, he created humans. We came last, because we need everything that Kitche Manitou created before us. Air, water, earth, sun, plants, animals. We are the most dependent of all of creation, making us the weakest of all orders of life, not the strongest.
The Heroka understand that relationship. They get it. They understand that — as Wisakejack told Zach — everything’s connected. Western society has forgotten that. We’ve forgotten that we are dependent on the land. Forgetting our connection, we’ve lost it, too.
DJF: Over the course of researching for this novel (and the short stories set in the same world), what did you find most challenging?
DS: I did a lot of research for the book—police procedures, how the OPP operates in a small northern town, First Nations police forces, small northern communities, going into the bush, getting the flora and fauna and weather right, DNA sampling and testing, and hydroelectric dams.
But without a doubt, the most difficult part was doing the research that I detailed above about the Cree and Anishinabe stories, beliefs, and culture. On one hand, it was extremely enjoyable.
One of the delights of researching this book came from reading as many of these stories as I could find.
But the stories also caused me some worry. I would read one story, say of Wisakejack and the flood and the recreation of the world, and then read another version of the same story that was significantly different in events and details. For example, in some versions, his wolf brother lives, in others he dies, while still in others, the wolf is not even mentioned.
So back to my fear. I was so concerned about getting the facts and stories right. How could I do that if every version of a story was different? Which version was the “right” one?
I puzzled over that until I realized that these stories were transcribed from versions that people remembered being told when they were young or used to tell to their children. Storytelling was always an oral tradition, and each storyteller would tell their own version of a traditional tale. So every version I was reading would naturally be different, varying as the storytellers varied. Or as we learned about Ed and his storytelling class:
“He never read to the kids from the books. Storytelling was an oral tradition, not a written one. Reading the stories didn’t let him change them, adding something each time around to give a slightly different meaning to the story from the last time he told it.
“Besides, he liked his versions better.”
In the end, I think it’s as Wisakejack tells Zach, “a story is true if its meaning is true,” and I tried to stay true to the meaning of all the stories in the book.
DJF: In the “Spirit Dance,” Gwynn Blaidd is the first-person narrator. In the Wolf at the End of the World, his perspective is one of several shown in the third person. How else did the story you wanted to tell in the novel change the way you approached it?
DS: I tend to have multiple point-of-views even in my short stories, and enjoy that type of structure in storytelling. A novel gives a writer even more room to introduce additional characters and mix their character arcs with the various plot arcs. I enjoy reading novels with multiple pov’s, and I enjoy getting inside a character’s head. It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy the works of Charles de Lint so much.
In terms of telling this particular story, besides Gwyn, I have two other main POV characters (the blind boy, Zach Morgan, and his mother, Kate), and a few minor characters where we’re occasionally in their heads. For me as a writer, it helps a reader to understand a character better and to make them more sympathetic, especially if some of the decisions a character makes in the book might not place them in the most positive light, such as with Simon Jonas, the leader of the Tainchel, the shadowy government agency that hunts the Heroka, or with Kate Morgan, Zach’s mother, who has her own reasons for fearing the Heroka.
Plus it helps create plot tension, when a reader knows something that a character doesn’t know because the reader has been in another character’s head and understands that character’s true motives, not just the version they’re presenting to the rest of the cast.
DJF: What surprised you most in the course of writing The Wolf at the End of the World?
DS: What an interesting question! And I actually have an answer. As you mentioned, The Wolf is based on my earlier short story, “Spirit Dance.” One of the reasons I wanted to go back to that world for my first novel was simply to tell more of Gwyn’s story.
Besides Gwyn, The Wolf includes several of the characters we first meet in the original short story — Ed Two Rivers, Leiddia Barker, Michel Ducharmes, the Tainchel, and of course, Gwyn’s pawakan companion, Gelert. I found that I had no trouble stepping back into all of these characters.
Except for Gwyn—which came as a huge surprise, since he was the character that I figured I “knew” the best. When I finished the first draft, I knew that he wasn’t “right” yet. It took me a while to figure out what his problem was — he didn’t have one. In my mind, I’d let him get too happy and contented over the five years between the story and the book. I solved that in the rewrite by taking him back to a darker place again to start the book.
DJF: In the afterword, you specifically ask First Nations readers, be they Cree or Ojibwe or any other people, to contact you with their reactions to what you may have gotten “wrong” or “right” with the treatment of their cultures in the novel – or even just to share their thoughts with you. Why was this important to you, and what do you hope the outcome of such a dialogue might be?
DS: It’s important for all the reasons I listed above regarding my fear of being accused of cultural appropriation. I have tried very hard to get the facts right about the culture and stories and issues of the First Nations people, and I would sincerely love to hear back on impressions and reactions to the book. Tell me what I got right, what I didn’t.
DJF: What is next for the characters or the world of the Heroka?
DS: Pain and misery. Nah, just kidding, but there will always be some of that or the story is boring. I have another Heroka novel planned, but it will come after I finish my current project, which is a young adult urban fantasy set in Toronto. That book has astral projection, rune magic, body swapping, and the most unusual hero (I think) you’ll have come across in quite a while. It’s the first in a planned three-book series. After I finish book 1 in that series, and assuming The Wolf sells well and there’s demand for another story, I’d return to the Heroka and pick up Gwyn’s story again from the end of The Wolf. Any character who survived the climax of The Wolf would also appear in the second book, because I love my characters, and I think a writer owes it to their readers to continue their stories if you’re returning to their world.
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For more information on Doug and his writing, including The Wolf at the End of the World, visit his website, where he offers an excerpt of the first four chapters along with buying links and discount coupons for both the print and ebook editions. He also publishes a newsletter readers can sign up for, and if you are on Twitter, you can follow him there as well.
The Wolf At the End of the World
- By Douglas Smith
- 360 pages
- Lucky Bat Books