INTERVIEW WITH JAMES BARTLEMAN
James Bartleman came to writing late in life after a career in Canada's Foreign Service and as Ontario's 27th lieutenant governor. He is an officer of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Aboriginal Achievement Award. He is married to Marie-Jeanne Rosillon, has three adult children, five grandchildren and a dog named Ado.
Why did you take up writing books at an age when most people are retiring?
I turned to writing after I nearly died in a botched hotel room robbery when I was Canada’s High Commissioner to South Africa. The incident led to a huge depression including suicidal thoughts. I recovered when I took up new challenges, becoming Ontario’s lieutenant governor and, more importantly started to write books.
You grew up as a member of two worlds: the Chippewas of Rama first nation and the Euro-
Canadian community of Port Carling in Muskoka. What role did storytelling and literature play in your youth?
My father, a white man, was a great storyteller. As a teenager, he lived the life of a hobo during the Great Depression, travelling across Canada in boxcars, begging, doing chores for food and working in a lumber camps. He liked nothing better than to entertain visitors to our home with his stories of these times and I listened in. I also spent my early years listening to the stories told by my mother's relatives from the Rama Indian Reserve who told stories about the monsters they had seen emerging from Lake Muskoka, the Windigo who ate people, and the much feared the bear walker. But the greatest influence on my development as a writer was my imagination. I was a daydreamer and would lose myself in stories that came to me uninvited at all hours of the day. I’m still a day-dreamer.
Were you a reader as a child?
As a six-year old, I used to bring the comic books scrounged at the village dump back to the tent that was our first home in the village and my mother taught me to read. When I joined the local library as soon as I started school, I wasn't looking for great literature. I wanted to feed my imagination and to disappear into a world where the poverty and prejudice of my everyday life were absent.
During your years as Lieutenant Governor, you set up a program to promote the love of reading and literacy among First Nations children in Northern Ontario. Why?
The Indigenous children in the remote First Nations lag well behind children elsewhere. Their families are still suffering the corrosive effects of the residential school system, their schools lack libraries, the teachers are usually inexperienced and there are no special education teachers. That is a big reason why many of these kids are just giving up and killing themselves in huge numbers, fifty times the national rate.
And so I appealed to people of goodwill to donate good used children’s books and established libraries. Then I came up with a model for reading summer camps to teach kids, grades one to six, how to read and to like reading. The program I established is now run by Frontier College in over a hundred First Nations communities across Canada. The kids read an average of 11 books each at the camps and are doing better in school. I then set up a creative writing that awards six prizes every year. We get about 500 submissions from indigenous kids every year. The kids write their hearts out and the winners become heroes in their communities.
After I retired as Lieutenant Governor, I turned to writing social justice novels about Indigenous peoples.
What does your writing space look like?
I can write anywhere but find the best place to be creative is to be isolated on a plane.
Who are your favorite writers?
My all-time favorite writer is Tolstoy. As a backpacker in Europe back in the 1960s I spent a summer reading War and Peace while hitchhiking in northern Norway. Other favorites are Ortega y Gasset, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard and Shusaku Endo.
You've now worked as a non-fiction as well as a fiction writer. Do you have a preference?
I once enjoyed writing non-fiction books but now focus only on social justice novels.
Could you tell us something about your latest novel, coming out in May called A Matter of Conscience.
My novel deals with the twin tragedies of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the Sixties Scoop, the two matters Canadian society is attempting to come to terms with. It will be the first novel to deal with these issues. Despite the difficult subject matter, my book does not dwell on the difficult scenes but is a study of what would lead someone from an ostensibly normal middle-class family to murder a stranger, in this case an Indigenous woman. In the same way, I look into the heart of the Indigenous woman who unknowingly stumbles into marriage with the male protagonist. For readers interested in digging deeper into issues, I have attached to the novel a selection of useful background documents.
James Bartleman is the author of several books:
Out of Muskoka (2002)
On Six Continents (2004)
Rollercoaster: My Hectic Years as Jean Chrétien's Diplomatic Advisor (2005)
Raisin Wine: A Boyhood in a Different Muskoka (2007)
As Long as the Rivers Flow (2011)
The Redemption of Oscar Wolf (2013)