Thomas King came to Canada almost by accident. In 1980 he wanted to start a new life for himself and his nine-year old son after the breakup of his marriage. An old friend from Alberta called to tell him about a teaching position at the University of Lethbridge. he said no at first, but several phone calls later, he found himself driving north from Utah to Alberta.
“We hit an incredible hailstorm on the way up, just before the Alberta border,” he recalls. “The hailstones were so big that we had to park under an overpass and wait it out.” It was a dramatic welcome to a country where King would eventually settle permanently. He now laughs at his son’s reaction to the intensity of the storm. “My son looked at me and said, ‘Just so we get this straight Dad. This was your idea.’”
Years later Thomas King, now a Canadian citizen, lives a world away from the sudden summer squalls and edge-of-the-planet vastness of the Alberta prairie that he called home for a decade.
Outside the 1920s brick house he shares with his partner Helen and their two children in Guelph, Ontario, a cold spring rain slaps against the patio. Sitting at his kitchen table, cluttered with books, newspapers and photo albums, King tries to explain the hold the Prairies and the people he knew there still have on him. “All of my material, for the most part, is centred in that Albertan landscape and around that reserve life, that small-town life. For whatever reason, I found that stimulating, more so than I find the landscape of Southern Ontario, or in California, where I lived most of my youth. It feels as though you’re on the edge of almost a dangerous kind of place, on the edge of an anvil. It’s appealing. It’s as though you can see forever. If you go out past Edmonton, say, near the Yellowhead Tribal Council offices, you look out to the west and there are no signs of ownership. It’s not that there’s nothing. There’s everything.”
It was while King was living in Alberta that he began to write and publish short fiction in literary magazines. His first novel, Medicine River, appeared in 1990, followed by Green Grass, Running Water and a collection of short stories, One Good Story, That One, in 1993. Not that literature – and especially Native literature – was foreign to him before moving to Canada. For his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Utah, he explored Native oral tradition and contemporary fiction, and currently specializes in Native literature and creative writing as an associate professor at the University of Guelph.
His stories, organic in their movement between contemporary and aboriginal concepts of time and space, introduce the readers to the world of mythical animals from traditional aboriginal stories, trademark Native humour, and an aboriginal perspective on realism and values.
The coyote character inhabits many of King’s works, subverting plots and refusing to let the reader remain in the comfort zone of a chronologically paced and reality-based story. The creature’s mere presence in the story is disconcerting to first-time King readers. There are few contemporary fiction writers who veer off the course of their story lines to digress to a place at the beginning of time where Coyote reams and there are no humans in sight.
Coyote holds a place in the oral tradition of the North American Plains similar to the role Raven plays in West Coast stories. The trickster characters in King’s fiction have been icons of his literary and cultural sensibilities since he was a young man. Today, however, coyote runs loose in King’s poems and fiction, almost as if the clever marauder had been waiting all these generations for a writer to come along and allow him to get back to his tricks
When I asked him to account for his own prominence in Canadian literature, he answers without hesitation. “I think I just got lucky. The critics and publishers hadn’t seen this type of writing before. In five or 10 years, if I can’t keep it up, there will be a lot of young writers who will pass me.”…..
…..As my visit with King comes to an end, I look outside and notice that the spring rain has changed into a major squall. And although I am tempted to linger a bit longer, ask a few more questions, listen to a few more stories, I rationalize that driving down Highway 401 at rush hour in a storm during the waning daylight hours is not a good idea.
Still, it isn’t ever day that you find yourself swapping stories and anecdotes with one of Canada’s finest storytellers. But I am also aware that Thomas King has a novel to write, and I have taken up most of his afternoon. There is little chance, I realize, that he will share even one more story today without the intervention of Coyote himself.
My rental car is parked in the cul-de-sac, and as I sprint through the rain, I notice that the car’s deflated real tire is half submerged in a puddle of rainwater.
“Coyote,” I curse under my breath as I kick the flat tire.
Coyote replies with a grin, “Just one more story…?”