Telling Tales in Atlin

With six books and three CDs to her credit, Ivan E. Coyote may be Yukon’s most prolific storyteller since the triumvirate of Service, London and Berton.

Next month, Coyote will take the stage at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival, to deliver some of the “good old-fashioned kitchen table stories” that are her stock in trade.

Yukon born and raised, Coyote now lives in Vancouver, but seems to be in continual motion.

At the time of the interview for this article, she and her wife had just arrived in Yukon for a family visit, fresh from a performance the night before in Portland, Oregon.

She recently performed her story about teaching men to tie a double Windsor knot on Definitely Not the Opera from the CBC’s New York City studio. Last fall she was in the corporation’s Dublin studio, also for DNTO.

Coyote learned her early storytelling chops from family members such as her uncle Rob, her mother and her aunt Pat.

“Even Old Flo was pretty good, when you got her going late at night. So it kind of came naturally from there,” she says.

Then there is her uncle Dave, a Roman Catholic priest.

“He managed to fashion it into a bit of a career, too. A different union,” Coyote laughs.

Despite her yarn-spinning pedigree, Coyote actually began her performance career around 1989 as a folk singer.

“I kind of transitioned into storytelling,” she says.

“I was so young back then, I wasn’t really that conscious of the bigger picture. I was just kind of doing what felt natural to me, and I was happy that people seemed to engage and like it.”

Coyote readily admits to having a love affair with words.

“Absolutely. And the space between words, too. Live stuff is really about timing. It’s really about delivery and unfolding things and pacing things,” she says.

“It’s a real give-and-take with the audience, much more than people would think. There’s a lot more listening going on than might be apparent to the naked eye.”

For almost a decade, Coyote has been able to “cobble together a pretty decent living” by telling stories and other related work.

“It would be a misnomer to say that I make money just from telling stories, although that’s where most of it comes from. But it’s a little bit teaching, a little bit of book royalties, a little bit of CD sales, that kind of thing,” she says.

“I kind of parcel it together. I’ve been doing a lot of keynote addresses and plenary things at conferences and stuff like that. And then the anti-bullying stuff in the schools.”

But getting there took time.

“I was pretty realistic at first that I was going to have to keep the day job going on, so I did that for many, many years,” she recalls.

“Then, I just slowly… I remember making a conscious decision I’m going to pay the hydro bill this month with the $35 cheque for this article I wrote for Loop magazine, I think it was, back in 1994 or something like that.”

Starting with the occasional paid gig at open mics and the like, she eventually began to pay her own way as a performer and writer.

“Then it was the hydro bill and the phone bill and the cable bill. Then it was a portion of the rent.”

Many of Coyote’s stories draw on her Yukon childhood, but another common theme is gender identity.

As a lesbian who is often mistaken for a man, Coyote never felt the need for an Ellen DeGeneres-type coming out as a performer.

“I’ve always been who I was, so I’ve always taken that to the stage. It was just a matter of acknowledging the unspoken or not, rather than I was busting out with some big secret that nobody knew,” she says.

“I had a 13-year-old kid in Castlegar a couple of years ago tell me that I was my own prop. I told him that was one of the most insightful things anyone had ever said to me about my work, bar none.”

The highly-prolific writer and entertainer has two new shows in the works. One, called Kraft Singles for Everyone is a series of family stories she will perform with Vancouver musician John Wood.

The other, called Gender Failure, will see her teamed up with frequent collaborator Rae Spoon.

As if that weren’t enough, Coyote is wrapping up a new book called A Tomboy Survival Guide.

“Everything from how to fart with your armpit to putting cards in your bicycle spokes to make it sound like a motorcycle,” she says.

“Knot tying, tie-tying, fishing tips, tree forts. There’s a chapter called ‘Forts of All Sorts’. There’s a chapter called ‘Safety, I Guess’. It’s pretty fun.

And there’s a second novel in the works, “a kind of CanLit big door-stopper” called The Truth About That Man.

Still, there will always be time for performances such as her turn in Atlin July 6-8.

“I like to have a book project on the go and a live show performance project on the go at the same time, because they both sort of tickle different parts of my brain.”

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