Authors are often asked how long it takes to write a book.
For Richard Van Camp, Gather, released this month through University of Regina Press, is 30 years in the making.
You may know Van Camp as the Edmonton-based novelist, penner of short stories or the creator of Blanket of Butterflies, the graphic novel that was nominated for an Eisner Award, which is the top honour in the world of comics. But, 30 years ago, he was a kid seeking direction in Fort Smith, N.W.T. He admits that he felt disconnected, aimless. He couldn’t speak to his grandparents in their Dene tongue without a translator.
“I knew the names of the constellations in English, but not in Cree or Chipewyan,” he says. “I had to know the capitals of the 50 states but we didn’t learn about Dene laws. Why?”
So, he started volunteering driving a Handi-Bus, transporting the elderly around town. And he started to listen. To hear their stories.
“So I started to record them,” he says. “I got their permission to record their stories, and I became a sort-of journalist, with a tape recorder from Radio Shack.”
And it’s the recordings of those stories the serve as the backbone for Gather. It’s a book about how to share stories, about the need for stories, and how good stories can soothe the soul. But Van Camp uses some of the tales he recorded, as well — including stories from famed Canadian playwright Tomson Highway and a heartbreaking recounting of the casual brutality of residential schools from the author’s mother.
“It had an effect on my entire life,” says Van Camp. He recalls walking in front of residential school properties in Fort Smith “and never putting two and two together” in terms of his feelings of displacement in the town he called home.
Van Camp also has a spot on Soundcloud for the audio of many of the stories he’s collected. He also posts them to YouTube.
“It makes me nervous about something if I worry that it’s going to be forgotten,” he says. He refers to stories as “medicine.”
“I’ve been giving away stories for a long time,” he says. “I’ve shared them, I’ve emailed them. If someone is struggling, I’ll tell them I’ve got 24 miracle stories for you and send them along.”
And, the point of his book is to encourage readers to become storytellers in their own communities — to preserve the tales they hear from grandparents, neighbours and friends. When Van Camp knows that a story is being preserved by being passed down, he’s elated.
“I just want to do a jig whenever I see someone posting really beautiful stuff.”