Culture, Community, and Connection: Author Richard Van Camp Writes 26 Books in 26 Years
“When I was 19, I just realized that nobody was telling our story,” recounts Richard Van Camp, a proud Tłı̨chǫ Dene from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. He shares his stories because none of the books he read growing up in Fort Smith reflected the joys of his Northern childhood. He wrote 26 books in 26 years, including The Lesser Blessed, which made his career take off and later became a movie.
“Our stories are set in Fort Smith because I really want to showcase the beauty of our community and our culture.”
“There was no looking back once I had a publisher and an agent and I knew publishers were waiting. That's when I really came to life as an author. I'm really proud of my career. I'm really proud of everyone I've been able to work with,” he recounts.
“Every day when I wake up, I'm so grateful for our home. I'm so grateful for my work and my purpose. I'm so grateful for my family, my friends, and my health.”
Van Camp loves to mentor new writers and champion their work. “I think we're living in a really exciting time. You never know who's going to publish what next. There's so many voices, and it's impossible to keep up, which is a good problem to have. It's anyone's game now and that's what keeps me on my toes. Big publishers right now are very interested in Indigenous stories. It's an exciting time to be Indigenous and to tell your story your own way,” Van Camp beams.
“I've had formal training and I'm really grateful for all my training because I was able to breed traditional storytelling with the written word.”
To refine his craft, he went to the En'owkin International School of Writing for Aboriginal Writers in Penticton in the 90s, learning from talented Indigenous faculty. He went on to the University of Victoria for a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing at UBC.
“Take advantage of the good things that come from a formal education, but at the same time, balance that with your culture. It's okay to focus on your culture as well.”
He had advice for Indigenous students leaving their home communities. “Have fun, do your best, enjoy where you are, but also, never be afraid to connect with home. It's really important that you remember the three C's: culture, community, and connection. If you have [them], that really is a good way to fill your love cup, and know you're breaking trail not just for yourself, but for your family, because our children are watching, our nieces and nephews are watching and our grandbabies down the line are watching,” he advises.
“Bring that knowledge home, bring it back because we really do need leaders who have that formal training and share those gifts with the North.”
Van Camp had a pretty easy life path. “I was raised in a house filled with books, stories and music. I have the discipline. I have been very blessed with my health, mental health and, again, culture, community, connection, and my really strong family,” he recounts. Two of his brothers are lawyers and one is a doctor. He credits their success to their parents, community and classmates.
“I think if anybody would have told me when I was 17, ‘Richard Van Camp, you're going to be one of the first Tłı̨chǫ Dene authors. You're going to write 26 books in 26 years. One of your novels is going to be a huge, huge movie. You're going to help launch the careers for other actors and writers and artists. Your life is going to be so amazing, more amazing than you would ever realize. You're going to marry the love of your life. You're going to be a proud father to a beautiful child. You're going to live in Edmonton. You're going to have a beautiful home filled with music and love and great cooking,” he beams.
If he could give his younger self advice it would be, “Just enjoy every day because good things are coming. I think that would be my message to everybody: do your best. Show up with a good heart. Do the hard work because it's always worth it. Good days are coming for us all ahead.”
To maintain his wellness, Van Camp goes back to the three C's. He prioritizes daily exercise, social visits, time outside and a positive attitude. While the pandemic has been hard, he’s been able to restructure his life to do author visits, keynotes and workshops virtually so he’s not travelling all the time.
Purpose keeps him going in his busy career. “When you wake up every day so excited to get to work, that really is a gift because you're fulfilling your purpose. you're working towards something bigger, not just for your family, but for others too,” he offers.
“I'm so grateful to my publishers and my agents and everyone I get to work with because nobody does it alone… I'm so grateful that when I'm stuck on a story, I can pick up the phone and call someone that I really trust and they're always willing to help me. That's why when you look in the back of all my books, you'll see the list of people I thank because I really want to acknowledge I'm always learning. I'm a student of the craft of writing and storytelling, so I'm always eager to learn from those who know,” Van Camp explains.
“As writers, we have a duty to do these big soul inhales. You can't just run on fumes all the time. You have a duty to read and to write, to write and to watch and to ask and to research.”
He finds inspiration in Star Wars, the stories of his elders and his parents, the books he reads and all the new work and success of Indigenous writers. He’s motivated by Northern storytellers of the past who used newspaper and radio to share their knowledge, language and traditions and also by the writers of the future.
When he was 19, he just realized that nobody was telling our story, and now with 26 books in 26 years, Richard Van Camp has been bridging the gap by following his purpose every day. At an exciting time to be Indigenous and to tell your story your own way, Van Camp is championing new Indigenous voices while sharing his own, grounded in culture, community, and connection.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.