On Fire at 5 AM

Book-lovers of all kinds and all ages are about to enter an exciting week as two literary festivals come to the Yukon.

Five writers will appear at both the Live Words Yukon Writers Week (April 27-May 3) and the Young Authors Association Conference (April 28-29).

Brian Brett brings luscious poetry; Claire Eamer combines humour and real science for kids; Alanna Mitchell talks about the serious science of oceans in biochemical trouble. Dorris Heffron’s most recent book, City Wolves, imagines the life of a female veterinarian during the Gold Rush; and Richard Van Camp will offer a combination of storytelling and readings.

Each year the Young Authors event chooses one writer to travel to some of the smaller communities near Whitehorse. This year Van Camp will make the trip to Pelly Crossing, Carmacks and Teslin.

Van Camp is a writer who gets up around 5:00 each morning, puts on a pot of coffee and then sits down for a couple of hours to write.

That’s the daily routine he describes during a recent phone interview.

The creativity in those mornings can take almost any form: short stories, a novel, two baby books and the text for two comic books, to name a few things.

The two comic books were commissions, and Van Camp is particularly animated when he talks about working on them.

Each comic takes about two years to create, from idea to paper.

Taking the theme or story concept from the funder, Van Camp first creates a script and then works with the artists.

“The comic book artist is very skilled at narrowing down the idea, which is important because as you know I’m a novelist and a short story writer. When I was working on Path of the Warrior, I gave Steve Keewatin Sanderson what I thought he could do in a month, and he told me in no uncertain terms that I had given him a novel.”

Path of the Warrior (2009) was commissioned by the First Nations Health Council. The story follows Cullen, a young First Nation drug trader, dealing with the shock of seeing a child take a bullet meant for him.

He heals by working at the local community centre, gradually becoming a sports coach who is loved by, and loves being part of, the youth community in the Anywhere, Canada town.

Van Camp loves the mechanics of how comics are made.

“There are a lot of rules. You never want to put more than five or six panels at a time, because the eye can only take on so much. In fact I’m a huge comic book collector and there are certain comics I just won’t read because they put too much on one page.”

The next step is to hire voice actors who perform the script, line that up with an animatic (an animated storyboard), and show the results to different youth groups.

“It’s great, they’re able to say ‘That was funny,’ or ‘I didn’t understand that’ and ‘How come you guys are saying this when you should be saying that?’ It’s actually a very efficient way to create.”

Kiss Me Deadly (2011), a story about sexual health, was commissioned by the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT). It’s just printed and will soon be distributed to at least 10,000 Northerners, Van Camp says.

His novels and short stories are for adults, but as a Dene Dogrib youth growing up in Fort Smith, Van Camp says, there were times when words could almost kill, and when words could save a life.

“Schools ask me to talk about being a writer or talking about why I don’t drink, why I don’t smoke, why I don’t do drugs. Or we talk about anti-bullying – I was bullied heavily when I was growing up. So it’s talking about the real hard truths about what goes into making an artist or a writer.”

Writing became a large part of Van Camp’s world when he went to study land claims in Yellowknife.

“I took Native Management studies, and then I was told by a great instructor, Ron Klassen, that I was a writer. He told me ‘You’re a writer and you need to be with other writers.'”

That was the first time that Van Camp heard about the En’owkin International School of Writing. He went to the Penticton school, which focuses on education in Indigenous culture and the arts, for two years. Then on to the University of Victoria, then to the University of British Columbia for a Master’s degree.

“So I’ve been writing for over half my life now,” Van Camp muses. “I started writing [my first novel] The Lesser Blessed when I was 19. And it took me five years. And there’s been no looking back, I just keep going.

I do 200 shows a year, internationally, and so sometimes I just wake up and I’m just so grateful to be where I am.”

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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