Interview with Douglas Smith #SFWAStoryBundle

Douglas Smith is the author of “The Wolf at the End of the World,” one of the dozen books included in the SFWA Fantasy Bundle (set your own price!) along with my own “Black Angel.” Let me say up front for my readership that there is a lot in “Wolf” for furries: it’s about a race of First Nation shapeshifters, who also have familiars (of a sort). What’s more, the trickster god Coyote figures prominently in this book (as Wisakejack). He’s very well written, and you can totally imagine him as a coyote throughout. Besides all that, the book is fun and engaging with a social conscience and I would happily recommend it to anyone.

Doug was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book. Read on:

  1. What are you proudest of about “The Wolf at the End of the World”?

I’d say I’m proudest that I finished and published my first novel, especially since it was a book that required so much research. Looking back, I must have been insane to make that sort of book my first.

I write in the afterword to the book of the extensive research I did to make sure I got the Cree and Ojibwe stories, culture, and current challenges correct. I didn’t mind doing the research, because I fell in love with those stories and that culture, and found in them the same core truth that’s the theme of the book and the same vitality that drives the Heroka. But writing about another culture was a constant source of worry, as I wanted to do my very best to get things right and as accurate as possible and to treat that culture with respect.

But the research didn’t end there. I also had to research, among other things, hydroelectric dams, power generation and transmission; impact on animal habitat of logging, mining, and dams; wolves and their behavior; animal rights and activism; forensic DNA sampling, legality, processing procedures, and timing; what DNA evidence could be extracted from a two-week old exhumed corpse of a murder victim; Cree and Ojibwe language; police procedure in a small northern town and on First Nations reservations; the Windigo psychosis; as well as local flora, fauna, geography, weather, and life in a small Northern Ontario town.

  1. What’s one interesting story or fact you discovered that didn’t make it into the book?

I just went back to check my research file. I have fifty-two pages of single-spaced notes on these topics, with references to the original source material. The vast majority of that research did not make it into this book. But I’m planning sequels, so some of that research and especially the other stories will get their chance to appear in one of those.

Something I found fascinating in Ojibwe stories and traditions is what I’d call the “theme of four.” Everything seems to occur in fours: primal elements used in cleansing before a vision quest (water, fire, stone, wind), aspects of physical world (sun, moon, earth, stars), orders of life (earth, plants, animals, man), species of animals (four legged, birds, insects, fish), seasons, directions (each of which is associated with a color), the stages or “hills” of life (infant, youth, adult, elder), stages of vision (preparation, quest, vision, fulfillment), orders of the Midewiwin, number of days of a vision quest, judges of each gender for Midewiwin judging; days that a corpse is left exposed on burial platform to let soul-spirit leave; days a fire is left burning beside death post of deceased; symbol for Kitche Manitou (circle with four projections); sons of Winonah (human mother of Nanabush); number of processions around the Midewigun before a Midewewin ceremony; aspects of health and sections in medicine wheel (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual).

I make reference to this pattern of four in one of the stories that Wisakejack tells Zach, about the four orders of life, but as you can see, there is so much more. I expect to make use of that in future books, as well as more of the stories I couldn’t find a place for.

 

  1. I do recommend that everyone read your Afterword; the amount of work you put into the research is impressive. Is there anything you’ve learned in the years since this book was published that you would like to add or change or simply share with readers?

Nothing that I would change. I continue to be grateful for the response to the book. Unfortunately, I also continue to be surprised by encounters with non-First Nations People who still remain ignorant of the abuses perpetrated on generations of First Nations children in the residential school system. So if I would share something with non-Native readers of THE WOLF, it would be to point them to some resources where they can learn more about the sad and shameful history and legacy of residential schools in Canada. In 2015, the federal Truth and Reconciliation Committee completed its multi-year investigation and hearings, publishing its final report and recommendations. The full reports are available here, as well as a timeline and history of residential schools, together with a set of learning resources for educators and students. Similar abuses took place in the US, and sadly in every country in the world “colonized” by a European power. If you’re unaware of this history, take the time to check out these resources.

 

  1. One of the protagonists of “The Wolf at the End of the World” is blind, which I thought was well portrayed. How did you research blindness to write him?

I didn’t do formal research into blindness, so I’m glad you thought Zach’s situation was well handled. I’ve had blind friends and staff who’ve worked for me in the day job. Our youngest son is physically handicapped, but not blind, and I’ve written a lot of characters with physical challenges.

I’m a character-focused writer, which means I can’t start a story until I “know” my characters. I write scenes with a strictly limited point of view, so when I was writing Zach’s POV scenes, I just put myself into his headspace and imagined being in his circumstances but without the benefit of sight.

Those scenes were both interesting and fun to write. Interesting, because I know when I was in the flow of writing the first draft of a Zach POV scene I’d often find myself starting to write a visual observation of the setting before catching myself. But it was a fun challenge, and really forced me to be “in” Zach’s head and POV when writing him. That might be why he was probably my favorite character to write in the book. Well, he and the spirit Wisakejack, whose scenes together were much fun to write.

 

  1. What other speculative fiction authors, classic or contemporary, have influenced you?

As a kid, I read Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov. And more, but those three were the ones where I read everything by them I could find. I’d say of those three, Ray Bradbury had the biggest impact, certainly when I started out writing short fiction. In university, I discovered Roger Zelazny, who I’d probably list as my major influence, although Charles de Lint would be a close second.

 

  1. When people finish this book and naturally want more, where can they go?

Well, if they want more stories of the Heroka, I would point them first to the novelette, “Spirit Dance.” It was my first professional sale (so be kind) and takes place five years before the events of THE WOLF AT THE END OF THE WORLD. In it, you’ll meet many of the main characters in THE WOLF.

I also have two other Heroka short stories, “A Bird in the Hand” and “Dream Flight.” Both of these feature Lilith Hoyl, a female Heroka of the bird totem. Read them in the order listed, as “Dream Flight” is an immediate sequel to “A Bird in the Hand.”

All three stories are available as ebooks on all major retailers. See my bookstore for retailer links.

If readers want more Heroka beyond that, they’ll have to wait until I write the next novel, which will pick up things shortly after THE WOLF. The next book will feature all the same characters (well, the ones that survived the ending), as well as bring Lilith Hoyl into the mix. I’m planning two more Heroka books in the same arc.

But those books will have to wait until I finish my current project, a young adult urban fantasy trilogy set in Toronto (and Peru) and featuring dream walking, astral projection, lucid dreaming, rune magic, a lost expedition, and much more. I’m currently finishing up the second book in that series.

I’d also point readers to my two short story collections, CHIMERASCOPE and IMPOSSIBILIA. Retail links for all of my books (print and ebook editions both) can be found on my website bookstore.

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