Interview by Dana Hansen

I met with Krista Foss on an overcast day in early May 2014 at one of her favourite spots to write, the Mulberry Street Coffee House in downtown Hamilton. Over cappuccinos and date muffins, we discussed her forthcoming first novel, Smoke River, the importance of story in the struggle for identity, what she’s reading, and her plans for what comes next.

HLR: The story in Smoke River closely resembles the Grand River land dispute in Caledonia that erupted in 2006. What made you decide to tell the story of this ongoing dispute?

KF: While the novel is inspired by conflicts such as Caledonia, it’s not a re-telling of those stories; it’s fictionalized account of a land dispute. Many things drew me to the subject matter. To start with, I have a grandfather who is part Native. He never spoke about his roots because he internalized the racism of the time, and was actually in great fear of that part of his heritage being discovered. My mom was proud of this ancestry. She would tell us five kids, who all ended up looking like my dad – a six foot, cheese-eating, skiing, sweater-wearing immigrant from Norway– that it was part of our heritage, too, though there was very little she could tell us.  So there was a disconnect for us.

Thematically, that fascinated me. Experientially, I haven’t lived through marginalization, isolation or racism, but I have some understanding of an identity denied, of a history denied, and as a writer I find this compelling. I knew that that struggle for identity would inform the characters in the book.

I was also influenced by my experiences as a reporter based in Winnipeg covering stories Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  A few years after I moved back to Hamilton from Winnipeg, the Caledonia conflict began and it reminded me of what happened at Oka and Kanehsatake which I’d followed because my brother was sent there as part of CBC’s TV crew. I remember Alanis Obomsawin’s film, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, as revelatory in terms of seeing the story from the other side of a barricade. So I drew upon actual conflicts and experiences, merged them, compressed timelines, and created a fictional story that explores land, memory and identity.

HLR: Smoke River delves into some of the darkest aspects of Canadian history, including the atrocity of the residential schools. What were some of the challenges for you in writing this novel when you were writing about some of these aspects of Native experience?

KF: I have one character, Helen, who is of the generation of Mohawks who would have experienced residential schools, so I felt it was necessary to address that – even though it’s a brief passage. That’s a painful subject for First Nations peoples and of course, as a writer, the big question is whether or not I have permission to touch it. I don’t make it a focus of the narrative, but to ignore this history because it’s uncomfortable for me as a writer would be another way to deny it – and I’m even more uncomfortable with that. 

HLR: What kind of research did you do, and how did you prepare yourself to write this novel?

KF: I drew on my experiences as a reporter in Winnipeg and a teacher. I did a lot of reading and watching documentaries, and interviewed townspeople and protestors. I spent time in the archives of the Woodland Cultural Centre, and in Ohsweken reading coverage of the Caledonia conflict from the perspective of the reserve’s two newspapers. I completed a course in conversational Mohawk (Kanienkehaka) and I had early versions of the manuscript read by a Metis friend of mine who participated in a blockade and also a Mohawk academic. I reread material about Oka, and several books on tobacco. Not all the research was done up front: often, I would stop writing to research something. 

HLR: Were there any characters in the book that you found especially difficult to write? Conversely, were there any that you found came easily to you?

KF: No, I didn’t find any of them difficult to write. I really fell in love with all of my characters. I even felt sympathy for the characters that are the most ethically compromised: I saw them wholly. I felt privileged to be able to dive into all of these characters. The biggest tug for me was how much space to give each of them.

HLR: The novel seems very much concerned with the power and influence of Native women – as leaders, mothers, and sources of great wisdom. But it is also concerned with the suppression and abuse of Native women. Can you speak to these aspects of the novel?

KF: In general, strong women are always compelling, aren’t they?  One of the tragedies of colonialization, and especially the Indian Act, was the resulting economic and political disempowerment of Native women. I think that is part of the reclamation that is happening in Canada. It’s not just the reclamation of space, but also of roles and power. What great subject matter for a novel. 

HLR: One of your characters in Smoke River muses about stories, saying that throughout his various struggles and isolation, “the rope of stories remained,” and that he had only to grab hold of the rope to “save himself from being submerged.” Does this represent your own feelings about the importance of stories, of narrative in our lives?

KF: Yes. In our own families, the kinds of tales that our parents tell us about who we are and where we come from are inextricable with the way we look at the world and how we respond to it. To a degree, stories are a way through and can save us, as with Nate, whose words you’ve quoted. But with some of my other characters, their narratives feed their self-deception and entitlements.  It’s the courage to confront, recover or re-write those narratives that distinguish the novel’s characters.

HLR: In addition to being a novelist, you are a short story writer and a two-time finalist for the Journey Prize. How was the experience of writing a novel different, if it was, from writing short fiction?

KF: I had started another novel and wrote and rewrote that novel several times, and then I realized I needed to work on my technique but I had lost confidence with the novel form. So, I turned to short stories because there’s an amazing discipline to cracking the code of short fiction and it’s wholly different from novel writing, which was also refreshing. The novel is an immersive experience that can go on for years and there are so many choices available to you. With short fiction, you start with a more disciplined mindset i.e. Well, I can’t do everything with this piece – so what am I going to do?

HLR: You are also a former journalist. Did your decision to leave journalism relate to your decision to write fiction?

KF: Absolutely. I always wanted to write fiction. I would have little flirtations with it, get my fingers burned, and pull away. I wish I had had more boldness and confidence to pursue it earlier. Journalism helped because I was writing and exploring. I still look to journalism for inspiration for my fiction. I realized that I needed to make the big leap, and then I did, and then I lost nerve again for a little while and ended up teaching. With teaching, though, I was able to create some necessary mental space to focus back on writing.

HLR: Do you write every day?

KF: No. I wish I could say I did. But it might be a vestige of journalism, that I need a project or a deadline for focus and productivity. After finishing something, I re-juice. Still, if I’m not writing, I am thinking about it, making notes and observations, and doing a lot of reading.  Then I find a new project and write again.

HLR: Do you read while you’re writing?

KF: Not a lot. I can read nonfiction, but I have to be careful about who I’m reading while I’m writing because I’m wary of adopting other writers’ voices or being overly influenced by their choices.

HLR: What are you reading right now?

KF: Right now I’m reading Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things, and I’m loving it. I have a big pile of CanLit waiting for me - Nancy Lee’s The Age, David Adams Richards’ Crimes Against My Brother, Richard Wagamese’s  Medicine Walk, Nadia Bozak’s El Nino, among others. But I also want to get to Junot Diaz’s latest, and beyond that push myself to read outside my comfort zone. 

HLR: What are you working on now? 

KF: I’ve just finished a short story for Hamilton Arts & Letters magazine and I’m thinking about the next novel. I’m at the concept stage, making notes, figuring out how I’m going to research it. I’m eager to tackle another novel and more short stories. Eventually, I would love to write essays, too.

HLR: You are the founder of Hamilton’s GritLit literary festival. What is the importance of the festival to a city like Hamilton?

KF: It’s incredibly important. Hamilton has a very strong literary community, and the festival organizers who came after me have done a great job. This year’s readings were really successful.  The festival just keeps getting better. There’s a growth in the arts community here in general that’s creating such energy, and momentum. It’s a good time to be a Hamiltonian.

HLR: Thank you so much, Krista.