Litdish: Ten Questions With David A. Robertson
David A. Robertson is a multi-award winning, best-selling Indigenous author, journalist, educator, public speaker, and podcaster. His first book, a graphic novel published in 2008 titled The Life of Helen Betty Osborne, tells the true story of a Native teen whose dream to be a teacher was extinguished when she
was brutally murdered. Years later, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry concluded that her death resulted from racism, sexism, and indifference.
Robertson has since written more than two dozen books, primarily for children/young adult audiences. They all focus on educating readers about Indigenous people—their communities, histories, cultures, and contemporary issues. Robertson emphasizes the importance of accurate representation of Indigenous people in literature, teaches about the Indian Residential School System and its lasting harmful effects, and raises awareness regarding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) epidemic.
The lengthy list of awards Robertson has received includes two Governor General’s Literary Awards for Young People’s Literature in 2017 and 2021, for When We Were Alone and On the Trapline, respectively. Several of his books made the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books for Kids & Teens list, as well as Quill & Quire’s Best Books lists. Robertson was also the 2021 recipient of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s Freedom to Read Award.
A graduate of the University of Winnipeg with a BA in English, Robertson has penned numerous articles that are found in publications such as the Toronto Star, CBC Parents, and Freedom to Read. He’s contributed to several anthologies, including Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. He is also the writer and host of Kíwew, a six-part CBC podcast series that follows his journey of discovering his Native identity and learning what it means to be Indigenous.
Robertson, a member of Norway House Cree Nation, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with his wife and five children. It was a pleasure speaking with him about his work, his mission, and his writing processes.
- The majority of your work is geared toward children and young adults. Why is this your most-chosen audience?
I write for children and young adults because I see in them the greatest capacity for change. And that’s what we need in this country and in this world. We need informed youth who can take action that will build better communities. The level of ignorance in today’s society is astounding, and a lot of that has to do with what we had—or did not have—available to us to learn from when we were growing up. I’ve often said, “The more you know, the better you do,” and so, the more children know, the better they’ll do. Our job is to make sure they know as much as they can, and so much of that knowledge comes from stories.
- Much of your work is graphic novels. In seeking to educate youth about Indigenous history and culture, did you believe this medium of storytelling would be especially effective in attracting and engaging young readers?
Initially, I wrote graphic novels/comics because I thought it would be the best way to engage with kids. I wanted my work to educate, and I wanted it in classrooms. The combination of pictures and words creates the perfect educational tool. I’ve worked with kids and teachers on how to get the most out of my graphic novels in a school environment. I see them as really good support for the difficult job teachers have. If you think about it, graphic novels/comics are the oldest form of communication, so it makes sense that this literary form speaks to us, including kids, so powerfully.
- You have several children’s/YA series: The Misewa Saga, The Reckoner series, The Reckoner Rises series, The Big Spirit series, and the 7 Generations series. What’s your process for planning out a series?
I plan out everything from the beginning if it’s a plot dependent story. And a series is definitely plot dependent. You have a lot of juggling to do, you have a lot of connections to make, and you have a lot of continuity required. The best way to do this is to structure every novel so you know exactly what happens and when. Use a traditional structure that works for you. And then apply that same structure to the larger story, the entire series. That way, your individual novels, as well as the series itself, all work together. And things you mention in book one, you know how those things factor into book three. Or book six. I used to be a pantser, but I’m now most definitely a plotter. I try to hang on to some pantser qualities though.
- You’ve written for every age group. How difficult is it switching between these groups, especially if you’re simultaneously working on projects for different audiences?
It can be difficult, but you have to know what you’re doing, and that comes with experience and proper scheduling, in terms of planning out your day. You can’t switch from picture book writing to memoir writing within one writing session. You have to give yourself time to get into the right headspace. I might work on a picture book in the morning, or middle grade, take a break, and then in the evening, work on my non-fiction or adult fiction. You must organize it that way, and then prepare, just like you would in any other discipline. Half the work is preparation, and then it’s execution.
- You’ve mentioned that in order to write The Barren Grounds, you had to learn how to write for middle grade. What steps did you take to achieve this? Did any mentors help you in this process?
I had good editors, more than good mentors. My mentors would be the writers of the books I read to help me prepare. C.S. Lewis was a mentor because reading Narnia again helped me figure out how to world-build, story plan, and write fantasy characters that are believable. The first step was reading. After that, it was writing, re-writing, drafting, editing, and revising, until I got it right. But I’m still learning and getting better. I like to challenge myself by trying all forms of literature, in all genres. It helps me build my writing skills and be the best writer I’m capable of being.
- What inspired you to use traditional Indigenous story adaptations as the basis of your Misewa Saga books (i.e., Cree sky legends about the Fisher [Big Dipper] Constellation, the Great Bear [Ursa Major] Constellation, and the Sweat Lodge [Corona Borealis] Constellation)? Why is it important to keep these stories alive? Will these legends continue to appear in your writings?
The influence of Indigenous cultures, in particular Cree culture, will always be present in my work. It’s an expression of my identity, a reclamation of story, and a sharing of story that has value for others. The stories inspired me, and while we’re an oral culture, I wanted to document the stories in a different way, to ensure they’re always present for Indigenous kids, and so non-Indigenous kids can read, learn from, and enjoy them as well. In that way, it’s also an act of reconciliation. The star stories are so rich and have so much to teach, I felt pulled to adapt them in a respectful, but new, way.
- Your books speak of how Indigenous children have been harmed by separation from family and culture, through abusive foster care systems (The Barren Grounds) and the Indian Residential School System that forced them to disconnect from their native customs, traditions, and language (When We Were Alone). How can educating young readers (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) about these truths be a vehicle for change and healing?
If we’re really going to work together to heal and create change, we have to know why we’re doing it. We have to know what we’re talking about. We have to know the history and what’s happening today. We can learn in several ways, and one way is by reading books that have value and meaning. Our stories were told by others for so long or not told at all because we were muzzled in this colonial country. Now we’re taking them back and making sure our truths are heard. That’s exciting.
- You’re known as a prolific writer. In 2020-2022, you published seven books: Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory (your memoir), Breakdown, The Barren Grounds, The Great Bear, On The Trapline, Version Control, and The Stone Child. Your six Kíwew podcast episodes were also published in 2020 and 2021. What kind of writing process enables you to keep up that expeditious pace?
I work hard and expect a lot of myself. I want to be the best I can be and do the best I can do. Life is short, and I have a lot to say. So I’m saying as much as I can, as best as I can, without sacrificing quality.
I’m pretty meticulous. I write for a set word or page count every day, depending on whether it’s a novel or a picture book. I write in the morning and at night and usually set aside the middle of the day for emails and editing. For a novel, it could take three to five months to finish a first draft, and I don’t stop writing until I’m done. Then I start revising and cutting before sending it to an editor. I love revising. I do it on my own and look forward to substantive work with my editors. I use a laptop and use either Word or Google Docs. The only book I’ve handwritten is On the Trapline.
- You’ve described your podcast as a companion piece to Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory. After years of writing in book form, why did you decide to approach storytelling from a podcast perspective? Did you encounter challenges in producing the audio content?
I didn’t encounter many problems. It was a challenge to learn a new writing form, but I’ve done that throughout my career. The podcast exists because there were parts of the story that didn’t fit in the memoir’s narrative. But they were important to me and of value to others. Much of that information came from what my father said or told me directly. It made sense to do a podcast so my father could be present—so you could hear him speaking directly to me, and through me, to you.
- I heard there’s a new trilogy following the Misewa Saga series, which will have the same characters. When will the first be published? What other projects are you working on?
It’s not so much a new trilogy as a continuation of the series. It’s grown from three books to six. I had plans for more stories if the books did well, and they did. So I was able to realize that plan and continue the series uninterrupted. The fourth book will be out in the summer of 2023 and two more in 2024 and 2025. If there will be more in the series, if I have more to say, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, I’m having so much fun writing the series. I have much on my plate, though. More graphic novels, a chapter book series, more adult novels, picture books…my plate is full for probably the next five years. After that, I’ll reevaluate and then keep plugging away.
Gail Vannelli retired as an attorney and now writes children’s/YA fiction. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s won several Writer’s Digest awards for her fiction. Her recent work has appeared in Cynsations, where she’s a news reporter and writer, and in Lunch Ticket, where she’s been a lead editor, assistant editor, interviewer, and blogger. She’s the founder of Kids Story Studio, a free kids story writing class.