David A Robertson is the author of numerous books for young readers including When We Were Alone, which won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award and was nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. A sought-after speaker and educator, Dave is a member of the Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg. His latest book, the first in the three-part Misewa Saga, is The Barren Grounds (Tundra Books, Fall 2020). He also has a memoir, Black Water, out this fall from Harper Collins Canada.
In The Barren Grounds, Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations. It’s the first book in an epic middle grade fantasy series that CM Magazine calls: “rich in its characterization, evocative in its descriptions, and skillful in its weaving together of traditions of the past and life in the present.”
Interviewed by Meg Sullivan.
Meg Sullivan (MS): The Barren Grounds launched just this Tuesday (September 8th) and you have two other books, Black Water: Family, Legacy and Blood Memory, a memoir and Breakdown, a graphic novel coming out soon as well – congratulations, you’ve been busy! Things are likely looking a bit differently than expected from when you finished writing these books. How did Tuesday feel and what does this fall look like for you?
David A. Robertson (DAR): Yes, the memoir is launching on September 22nd and the graphic novel on October 27th. The graphic novel is a sequel to The Reckoner Trilogy called The Reckoner Rises: Breakdown which begins a new trilogy – three books between the next month and half!
Tuesday was fun! Now you are so much more reliant on social media than you would have been otherwise. I am not often comfortable with that, but you have to find a way to embrace it. It was fun to see the posts on Instagram, Facebook and the tweets, and I signed copies at our local bookstore. There will be lots of festivals and virtual appearances – I’ll just be in my PJ’s in my bedroom on the laptop this time around. It’s weird, but fun! It is easy with the pandemic to get nervous about how things will go but you need to make the best of it and do the best you can to make sure people see your work.
MS: The Barren Grounds tells the story of Morgan, a young Cree girl in foster care who, through the unfolding of the book, goes through a process of cultural self-discovery. She’s tough, she’s funny and she has a huge heart. What inspired Morgan’s character and her story?
DAR: I think you find that you implant pieces of yourself in a lot of the characters you write. There is a bit of me in Morgan. At her age I was also very disconnected from my Indigenous identity for different reasons. We both went through the process of reconnecting with that identity, and felt how empowering and important it is to go through that journey. Morgan does this through a physical journey to Aski but the coming to herself is something that somewhat reflects my own coming to what it means to be Cree for me. The strength in Morgan I drew from my daughter, Emily. She is a strong, fierce and hilarious woman who puts passion into everything she does, and I tried to emulate that in Morgan.
MS: We hear humour all throughout the novel: in Morgan’s tough sarcasm, in Arik’s sassiness, and even Eli and Ochek (delightfully) surprise us near the closing of the story as the four characters become close. Did you intentionally decide to include humour when you set out to write this novel?
DAR: Humour is a part of our culture, there is a dependency – almost like a need – for humour in our lives. As a Cree person, humour is innate in how we tell stories and how we write characters and dialogue. It was probably intentional but it comes naturally as well. In the story as humour becomes more essential in the relationship between the four main characters, it reflects Morgan’s and Eli’s reconnecting to the land and their culture, and the vibrancy of that connection. You also see it as Ochek – as he grows closer to the kids he lightens up and falls in love with them as a family. Humour embodies that process. I also like having breaks in the adventure and thrilling stuff, moments where you can laugh along and connect with characters.
MS: Through the characters and story of Misewa in the novel, the reader learns hard and heavy truths about past and present realities for Morgan and Eli, and for many Indigenous peoples in Canada. And yet the story is light, funny and full of hope. Can you talk about how you decided to share these elements and how you struck this balance?
DAR: This was intentional as well. What I was trying to do was to find the right story to share those hard truths for younger readers. For a long time I’ve wanted to talk about foster care and its impacts on Indigenous children in a way that was formative and generated empathy without traumatizing anyone. I also wanted to broach the subject of land protection and land stewardship, and how colonial history has impacted our environment. These were things that were very important for me to include in this story, as well as integrating these themes into the re-telling of Cree legends. Finding a way to balance all these elements together was a challenging thing to do but also really fun! Reading other middle grade novels helped to see how others approached this genre – Narnia is an obvious influence. And then preparing, writing, editing, refining and refining, and trying to tell the best story I could tell.
MS: I couldn’t stop noticing how visual The Barren Grounds is to the reader, I could see the scenes and characters so clearly. You also write graphic novels – how visual is your process for writing?
DAR: I think I am a visual writer, I’m not sure if cinematic is the right word, but not far off from that. I do think of the story in a bit of a weird way – as a movie – and then I kind of adapt that to a novel in my brain. For graphic novels I watch the movie in my brain and hit pause at the right beats. I then write what I see into a script and hopefully, if I do that properly, the illustrator can draw what I saw in the first place. I think it helps with middle grade and YA writing, they are very action oriented and character driven. The pace is fast, there is more dialogue and more action. I’ve been learning the genre and form as I go. Being visual has helped in creating the character world and story into something engaging and fun for kids, as much as I also want them to learn from the messages I try to engrain in the stories.
MS: From what I’ve pieced together from reading online, Morgan, Eli, Ochek and Arik’s journey to bring the ‘Green Time’ back to Misewa is also a re-telling of the Cree story of Ochekatchakosuk or the Fisher Stars, the constellation also referred to as the big dipper – do I have that I right? As the characters move through this story, Morgan draws parallels to fantasy novels as she tries to make sense of the strange new world with talking animals and harrowing ice bridges in which she finds herself. Is there a connection for you to fantasy novels?
DAR: Absolutely, I was overtly adapting the legend of the Fisher Stars into the novel. From talking and reading research from Cree elders into that constellation I’ve found that everyone tells the story differently. What is universal is that Ochek climbs a large tree to escape arrows, one strikes his tail and he falls. He is then placed in the stars by the Creator for his sacrifice. This book was a way for me to try to take the elements of the fisher constellation and tell it in my own way – it is the heart of the story.
I haven’t read a ton of fantasy novels, but I definitely love fantasy stories that break the fourth wall. It was fun to incorporate how someone who would love fantasy novels (Morgan) would interact in a fantasy world, for her to note the parallels between the stories she read and what she experiences. It allowed a bit of play with that fourth wall through self-referential writing. In my book The Reckoner, the coyote – the trickster – talks to the reader and he talks to the writer. He exists outside of the novel and there is a ton of self-referential humour in his character. I tried to tone that down but to give some of that to Morgan’s character.
MS: The good news for us is that The Barren Grounds is just book one of the Misewa Saga. I read online that a translation for ‘misewa’ could be the thought of as the Cree concept for infinity. What does ‘misewa’ mean in the context of this series and did you know from the start that The Barren Grounds would be one piece of a bigger story?
DAR: ‘Misewa’ literally means ‘all that is’ and each book in the series will tell a Cree story about the sky. Yes, I’ve had it mapped out from the beginning – what that story will look like and the journey Morgan and Eli will take over the course of the three novels. I’ve also thought about how the story can expand if we decide to do more and I have a lot of ideas of how to expand the world. All books will take place in the north country, although it is referenced in The Barren Grounds that there is more in Aski than just the north country. There are other villages, animals, portals, and things I think about. Book two is finished and I will probably start writing book three in January. Book two is a time travel book. As a kid I loved time travel stories, especially Tom’s Midnight Garden, and I wanted to write one in the trilogy. The concept is if Eli can draw pictures and open portals, could they do something to go back in time? I won’t say any more than that.