: Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree, Vol. 1 (2023). Her work has been translated into five languages and she has won many literary awards. She sometimes teaches Creative Writing and English Lit at the University of Alberta. These days, she lives in Edmonton with her partner. She is hearing-impaired. I (Athena) is her first novel.
More here: ruthdyckfehderau.com
First, rob, let me just say thank you! I appreciate this opportunity!
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first and second books were written along with James Bay Cree storytellers: The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree (2017) and E nâtamukw miyeyimuwin: Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree, Vol. 1 (2023). It’s an incredible honour to hear and then write their stories, to work closely with Elders, and to have my writing published under their imprint. So this novel, my third book (though I started it first), is a very different experience and has a different function. Even though it’s fiction, it’s more personal to me in some ways because I have chosen all the material. And in other ways it’s less personal. (Writing the stories of others teaches me about myself.) Both the novel and the Cree books require all my craft; in that way, they are similar.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I have always considered myself a fiction writer. That I have two non-fiction books out now, with another couple commissioned, is as much a surprise to me as to anyone.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I prefer to write slowly. I love writing and try to savour the process. And no, first drafts tend to look nothing like final drafts. I try things out, examine them from many angles, and delete what doesn’t work. Nothing is precious. For me, writing really is rewriting. Often many times.
(That said, the books I write for the James Bay Cree come with a fierce sense of urgency. The remaining survivors of Indian Residential School are aging, and many of them want to participate in the project, so I’m trying to gather as many stories as I possibly can, and I do work at a slightly faster pace on that project.)
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
It depends on the material, I think. A story chooses its own genre and length and structure. Different every time.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love them! Reading stuff out loud to an empty room (or to my partner) is part of my process, part of how I know if my characters are authentic or contrived. Reading finished pieces isn’t part of my creative process, really, since the stories are finished, but I do enjoy it.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Questions change and shift with the political climate, and that’s important. Those shifts often teach us to see those we’ve marginalized and help us to figure out how to be kind – and, for me, questions that address marginalization, kindness, and respect are the questions that matter. (And they’re timeless, really. Writers have been asking these questions for centuries. I could go on…)
But I think a novel suffers if it’s about an idea (or a plot) rather than about a character.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think writers should write stories that compel them, stories driven by the characters themselves, because a character struggling to see their way through the world around them is (I think) always revealing and always relevant.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The process of working with a good editor, turning over every word and phrase with another thinker, is a very great pleasure. Some presses don’t use editors very much any more, and (I think) the writing suffers for it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
From a Cree Elder named Tommy Neeposh: “Listen. If you don’t listen, you’re like a tied-up dog, walking in circles, always seeing the same things, never knowing more than you know now.” (It’s the epigraph in E nâtamukw miyeyimuwin: Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree.)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (non-fiction to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t see them as very different, really. The point is to use craft to tell a good story. The source of the material is different but the skills are the same.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I eat, I sleep, I write, I read, I exercise. I do some version of these in some order every day no matter where I am in the world.
And it’s not always easy. The last time I lived in Nairobi, for instance, our neighbourhood had regular brownouts, so I had to be sure to have a laptop battery that could hold 8 hours’ charge, and to have it fully charged at the start of each day.
And exercise. In one place in the North, for instance, some months were too cold for most outdoor exercise, the community gym hours conflicted with my schedule, and most buildings had low ceilings. I couldn’t even really do burpees or jumping jacks, let alone jump rope. So I figured out horizontal exercises. In Dhaka, I also couldn’t go outside (security problems) so I ran stairs in our 6-storey building. But it was so hot and I didn’t want to cover up in order to sweat and also didn’t want to disrespect my Muslim neighbours by being in a shared space in workout clothes. So I waited ‘til midnight when they (who woke early for morning prayers) were asleep and exercised then. Running in Johannesburg was its own torment because the altitude is 1000+m higher than Edmonton. While living in Poland, way back in ’02, the guys at the gym kept trying to be chivalrous and lift the weights for me (eye roll). Etcetera. Eating and sleeping can also require enomous creativity in some places, but you don’t want this to be a novel.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
First, I usually work on two pieces simultaneously, and when I need a break from one, I go to the other. Second, I move. I usually stand to write and do a good deal of pacing. If I’m stuck, I go for a run or lift some weights or do some yoga. The physical act of motion helps move through a writing or thinking clot as well.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Boreal forest after rain. Edmonton smells amazing. (Well, not so much these smoky days, but most of the time.)
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above. But also - people influence my work. All the time. What they say, how they move, what they pay attention to. People are “forms,” right?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Many of my closest friends are writers or artists of some kind and they influence me a great deal. I also think it’s extremely important to read stuff that’s very different from what I write. But here’s a list of writers whose work I regularly return to, specifically because they make me think long after I have finished reading their books. So, here, in no particular order:
Judith Herman, Elizabeth Strout, Tom Spanbauer, Tomson Highway, Octavia Butler, Stephanie Nolen, Barbara Gowdy, Pat Barker, Rebecca Makkai, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Gaetan Soucy, NK Jemisin, Philip Pullman, David Chariandy, Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Mark Haddon, Lauren Berlant, Anthony Doerr, Judith Butler, Chandra Mayor, Tola Rotimi Abraham, Emma Donaghue, Candas Jane Dorsey, Aritha Van Herk, Pauline Holdstock, Eden Robinson, Amia Srinivasan, Shyam Salvadurai, Anna Marie Sewell, Fred Stenson, Lee Maracle, Jacqueline Rose, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Esi Edugyan, Virgina Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Shani Mootoo, Linda Alcoff, Gloria Sawai, Hannah Arendt, John S. Milloy, Joanne Episkenew, Michael Ondaatje, Yasuko Thanh, JM Coetzee, Willa Cather, Timothy Findley, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Knox, Michelle Good, Michel Foucault, Neil Gaiman, Sherman Alexie, Chinua Achebe, Astrid Blodgett, Richard Wagamese, Nalo Hopkinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Olga Tokarczuk – yeah, I better stop. I’m not even half way through.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Grow really old. See some more places.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Oh wow. Any number of things. I like making things. I would have enjoyed being a filmmaker, though my hearing loss might have caused problems. Before hearing loss, I was a part-time musician. I started university thinking I would go into medicine, and I still think I would’ve enjoyed it. I appreciated working with folks living with brain injuries and developmental disabilities (which figured prominently into I (Athena)) and could have made a career of that. Also enjoyed being a prof and could have done that full time. I love being outside, grew up on a farm, and don’t shy away from physical labour so that opens up other opportunities. For this novel, I had to learn quite a bit about geology and totally see the appeal. I could do almost anything if it paid my way to travel more. Especially if I could write about them after.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I love stories. What a privilege to write them.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently re-read a favourite: The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer. Impresses me every time. And I recently re-watched one of my favourite films: Antonia’s Line (Dir. Marleen Gorris)
20 - What are you currently working on?
Marketing the two books that I launched this year. Thinking about the next novel. Nearly half way through gathering and writing the stories of Indian Residential School survivors for E nâtamukw miyeyimuwin Vol. 2.