Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Day in Ndilo

My friend Fred (a former Chief)
I am in Ndilo, a small community on the end of Latham Island in Yellowknife. I am working for the First Nations around Great Slave Lake, on legal issues of vital importance to them.

Yesterday, the day began with an opening prayer. Michel Paper, a 97 year old elder, gave the prayer, but first he told us how on the weekend he stepped off the bus at the KFC in downtown Yellowknife and on a whim bought a couple of lottery tickets. He scratched once, then twice, then three times and each time he had a match. He figured he had won something.

He went back to the booth where he bought the ticket and the lady checked the computer. Then she picked up the phone, dialed a number, and gave the phone to him. A woman's voice told him he had won a million dollars.

For some of us this would seem like a poor joke. What is a 97 year old going to do with all that money? But not Michel. He has a grown son and two grandchildren, and he has been worrying about them. Now he doesn't have to worry.

He said he is going to send $5,000 to Rome for the Vatican to say a mass for the ones that have passed away. He is going to pay for a really big feast in his community. Then he will know that his grandchildren will be fine. He thinks the Creator guided him to buy that ticket so he will have peace of mind.

Later in the day I was talking to my friend Fred, a former Chief. Fred has been dealing with a crisis of falling caribou populations. He was wearing a baseball cap with the name of the Bathurst Caribou Herd on it. I was admiring the cap. He said: "100,000 of them disappeared and then just showed up again."

I said: "100,000 hats? Who orders 100,000 caribou hats?"

"No," he said. "Caribou."

He laughed and said he will get me a cap.

It seems all the biologists in the north have been saying that the caribou numbers have crashed and so the government banned hunting in a huge area. Fred has been saying that they haven't crashed. Nobody has seen 100,000 caribou carcasses anywhere. Seems the Bathurst caribou herd split up, likely because of all the mines up here in the caribou's customary territory, and 100,000 went off to find a different place to live. But they didn't bother to tell the scientists.

And now they are back.

It reminds me that will all our airplanes and satellites the North is a big enough place to lose track of 100,000 pretty big animals. And that the experts are often wrong.

But Fred knew all along that they weren't really gone.

In the evening I went to the school gym in Ndilo to watch the Hand Game. Fred was there and he told me that ten years ago you couldn't drag the young people out to play. Now it was all the young men playing. It was really great fun, the drumming, the gesturing, the guessing, the gambling. In the midst of the young men I recognized Alfred, a 75 year old elder, on his knees playing the game and having a ball.

The business of our day was important political business, but what I will remember from this day in the north will be these three things: the millionaire elder, the miraculous return of the caribou and the smiling elder on his knees hiding a penny from the kids.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


It has been two weeks since I emailed my would-be agent. Well, I would have him be my agent. I haven't heard anything from him at all. I put the finishing touches on the manuscript two days ago now, and I am feeling an onrush of the combination of arrogance and complete self-doubt that I suspect all authors share.

You have to be arrogant to write a book, unless you plan to hide it in a drawer. If you write for any audience it takes arrogance to assume that people out there will want to read what you are writing. But the act of writing consists of putting one word after another, like bricks on a wall. You want to believe that you have chosen the correct bricks, and that you have put them in the right order, and that the wall will stand up, and that the building the wall is part of will serve a purpose, and also that it will be beautiful.

I know that I can write, in the sense of choosing the right words and putting them in an interesting order. But do the words add up to a book? Is it a book that is worth reading? Will people want to pay money for it? Will someone want to make a movie of it? Who knows?

And that is where the self-doubt comes in. It has taken me many years to get to this point and do I really know that my writing is worth the time to read it?

The publishing business is always strange. Authors need agents to be taken seriously by publishers. Publishers will publish what will sell. What will sell is determined by getting shelf space in the big chains. And then there is Oprah.

I have assumed I need to go through the usual channels. I will get myself an agent. My agent will see the unique merits of my creation and auction off the rights to the publishing houses, who will seek the rights to my book like piranhas after a piece of choice meat.

Or, my little manuscript is just another of the hundreds of thousands of unpublishable products of vanity and I will only get published if I pay somebody to do it.

I am toying with the idea of self-publishing. I can put my book up on the internet. I can print copies myself. I can make a financial investment in getting the book out there, buying some ad space, sending out review copies, etc.

Hmmm.... I hope that damn agent calls this week.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Momentous Day

Well, this is a big day for me. Not only am I writing my very first post in this blog that I created two and a half years ago (let that sink in for a second!) but I just sent off the first part of my novel to a literary agent.

All my life (or at least since my teens) I have thought of myself as a writer. In fact years ago I thought that my life was a failure because I had not published a book. I can't recall when I stopped thinking this way. In fact my life is not a failure. I am a successful lawyer, with a wife and son I love dearly. My work is meaningful and important.

But all the same, I have never had a book published. I have written books and parts of books and outlines for books. I have started and abandoned more book projects than I will ever admit to. A couple of years ago I thought I had just about finished a book on First Nations law and policy. Then I realized I no longer believed as completely as I should in the things I had written.

Angelina said to me that I should put it aside and get back to the novel I had started. The novel was hardly a novel yet. It was about 30 pages. It was an interesting beginning. It was about my father and me. It was pretty raw stuff. I really had no idea how those 30 pages were going to become a novel.

So anyway, always an obedient husband, I sat down at the computer and just started typing. My problem was that I wasn't sure what to type. I even thought about making it a memoir. But when I made a decision just to make stuff up, it started to become a novel. I am just putting the finishing touches on the last couple of chapters.

In a previous life I knew just about everyone in the Canadian book publishing industry. The agent I have chosen is an old friend, and I think I can rely on that old friendship to get him at least to read the 40 pages I sent him today.

The picture is of Lake Louise, taken from inside the Chateau. Part of the book is set there.

So, dear readers, wish me luck! And stay tuned.