Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Dave Olesen

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Dave Olesen

Author, bush pilot, and wilderness guide Dave Olesen is no stranger to tough terrain. After 15 years of competition as a dog sled racer, he dedicated four consecutive winters to long trips away from his remote Northwest Territories home, following the points of the compass. His journeys south, east, north and west make up the narrative of Kinds of Winter: Four Solo Journeys by Dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories (Wilfrid Laurier University Press)

Part memoir, part exploration of the north by a true northerner, Kinds of Winter goes beyond northern clichés to deeply examine one of the world's most unique areas, the human-animal bond and much more.

Dave speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

In our conversation, Dave tells us about perceptions vs. truths about the north, why going back to basics is good for a writer's process and a devastating loss he and his family suffered.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Dave Olesen:

Kinds of Winter is a personal narrative describing four solitary winter journeys. Intense trips in deep cold and profound isolation, immersed in the vastness of the Northwest Territories. These trips were a lifelong dream of mine. The book is a product of the dream. By their nature and setting the expeditions were my focus day to day. By that I mean that although I had a book in mind from the start, my focus was not the book but the actual physical doing of the journeys. I trusted the writing to follow from that, but of course I had no idea whether what I wrote would ever become a published book.

I took inspiration from the fact that some of the finest books I have read have been accounts of journeys, interwoven with the personality, ruminations, and digressions of an engaging narrator-traveller-author. I have always been inspired by the melding of intense physical doing with the ongoing mental contemplation and then, much later, the polished written description. For me it was a natural progression, though not always easy, from expedition to journal to narrative.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


The central question of the book is not a question but a quest. One man’s quest for a deeper appreciation of his chosen home place in the Far North. Northern Canada is a place so fraught with clichés and stereotypes that it rarely emerges honestly in written descriptions. Throughout my years in the north I have always chafed against those sappy portrayals which constrain and alter perceptions of the North. As I got farther into the writing I also came to grips with my own lifelong fascination with North and with “north-ness.” What was driving me out the door into the cold at 40 below zero? Why this lifelong fixation on North? Those are questions that emerged as I wrote, and I try to answer them in the book.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


Of course it changed, because I first started “working on it” when I began the preparations for the first of the four journeys, in 2002. And at that point the journeys were all in the future — they were just a goal. As they each took place, there were predictable aspects to them, things I could have easily seen coming — cold, wind, deep snow, dog-team events, and the day-to-day ups and downs of solo travel through wild country. But I changed, too, and for me the country itself changed, and has remained changed. The book tracks some of those changes. Marking 2002 as a start point I worked on the book for 6 years, and then for another four years I was involved with it steadily, trying to find either an agent to represent it or a publisher to publish it, and then for the past two years I have been working with Wilfrid Laurier University Press.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I have always been suspicious of authors pining away about “space, food, rituals, and writing instruments.” I understand that these aspects of writing are important to some people, but too often I think they are cop-outs. “Oh if I only had a little log cabin on a lake or a cozy studio apartment in Copenhagen, then wow, would I write…” But such fussy requirements seem a little too finicky to be trusted. What I need in order to write: a pencil, a paper, a quiet place, and something to say. For me the quiet place, the pencil, and the paper are the easy parts, because I live year-round in one of the most remote and empty corners of Canada — let’s face it, one of the most remote corners of the world. The something to say — especially when it comes to the wilderness of the far north — is the challenge.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


When I get discouraged I usually just take a break. I am a working bush pilot and guide, so there is always something looming — on any day of the year — in those other aspects of my life. I just turn my attention to those if the muse leaves me high and dry. Then when I do get back to the writing I see it with fresh eyes.

I also think it is helpful to “lower the standard” when the writing gets stuck. Just write and don’t look back or revise for a few days.

Which leads me to say that I miss those sheaves of marked-up paper in this age of screens and keyboards. I think there is a risk of being a little too impressed with how polished even poor writing can appear to be, once the slick computer program is done dressing it up. I wrote the entire first draft of Kinds of Winter long-hand on notebook paper. On the trail my journals were the first drafts — a paper journal and a pencil, on mornings and evenings in the tent.

With a paper manuscript, when it starts to get tough, you can see that it is getting tough. Cross-outs, arrows, big X’s and crumpled pages tossed on the floor. That is good. It shows that work is being done. Those crumpled pages are like piles of sawdust on the floor of a workshop.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


As I approach the final pages of a great book I always realize I am dragging my feet — I just don’t want it to end. I am so drawn in that a part of me is living within the book all the time. I have had both fiction and non-fiction do this for me now and then. In Canadian non-fiction there is a great book called The Dangerous River, by R.M. Patterson, describing his time on the Nahanni River back in the late 1920’s. Patterson completely draws the reader in, with beautiful turns of phrase in his paragraphs. I was constantly underlining and re-copying passages longhand into my journal. Some of his sentences and paragraphs are, to my mind, prose poems. Another book like this is A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky. A historical novel set in the 1830’s, in the upper Missouri River country.


What are you working on now?


To be honest I am mostly working, along with my wife and daughters, on coping with the aftermath of the destruction of our home at Hoarfrost River by wildfire this past July. The product of 25 years of hard work went to rubble and ash in a few short hours, as a wild hot gale swept in through tinder-dry forest. Our path forward at this point is not clear. The landscape we love is a charred ruin, a cold moonscape now sliding toward winter solstice darkness. But this book is finally out and that is a bright spot for me, and for my family too.

Dave Olesen grew up in small-town Illinois. He has a B.A. in Humanities and Northern Studies. A veteran dog musher, he finished the daunting Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race eight times. Olesen immigrated to Canada in 1987. He lives on Great Slave Lake with his wife, Kristen, their two daughters, forty-three huskies, and a ninety-year-old Danish sailboat. He works as a bush pilot and guide.

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