Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with James Bartleman

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James Bartleman (courtesy of Random House)

Memoirist and former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario James Bartleman talks to Open Book about the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, and why he chose to address the epidemic of youth suicide on First Nations reserves in Northern Ontario in his first novel, As Long as Rivers Flow (Knopf Canada).

James Bartleman will join authors Joy Fielding and Emma Forrest at the Harbourfront Centre on Wednesday, February 23. Visit our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, As Long as Rivers Flow.

James Bartleman:

I was deeply distressed when I travelled in northern Ontario and discovered that an epidemic of youth suicide has been going on up there for over two decades, out of sight and out of mind of mainstream society. After attending too many funerals for wasted lives, I decided to talk to the survivors and use the power of the pen to bring the story to the attention of Canadians. I had already written four books of non-fiction and was familiar with that genre but I was convinced a novel, a fictional account would better reflect my strong emotions on the issue. I thus wrote an account of Martha, born in a remote reserve in 1966, her removal to residential school at the age of six where she is abused by a priest, her return, broken in spirit, to her community at the age of sixteen, the birth of a little boy who is taken from her by the Children’s Aid Society and the birth of girl who enters a suicide pact with other children. Despite its sober theme, it is a story of hope, healing and embracing life.


The main character, Martha, must deal with the life-long effects of the abuse she suffered at a residential school near James Bay. How did Martha's character emerge and develop as you worked on this novel? Is she based on a particular person?


I interviewed dozens of residential school survivors and Martha is a composite of them all.


Why were you inspired to explore the painful history of Indian residential schools through fiction as opposed to through non-fiction?


An author can better express emotion and develop strong characters in fiction than in non-fiction.


Your previous books, including the award-winning memoirs Out of Muskoka and Raisin Wine, were all non-fiction. How did the experience of writing a novel compare with the writing of your non-fiction books?


I loved writing my books in non-fiction. But I relished the creative writing experience of fiction and the freedom it gave to tell a story, to create characters I really cared about.


Tell us about the research you did for this book. Was it difficult to immerse yourself in such painful stories for an extended period of time?


I am a member of a First Nation myself and grew up listening to the wisdom of my mother and others who are now elders about the Native condition. In addition to reading widely, I visited every remote First Nation community in Northern Ontario and spoke to the chiefs, band councillors and elders. Sadly, I also attended too many funerals for young people who committed suicide as a result of the intergenerational impact of the residential school experience of their parents and grandparents.


When you are working on a writing project, do you seek the advice or close friends or a writing group, or do you prefer to wait until the work is near completion before you share it with anyone?


I first wrote one complete draft and then sent it to a number of people I trusted including Alistair MacLeod, who ran a creative writing class at Humber College that I attended.


What was the last book you read that really knocked your socks off?


Disgrace by Coetzee.


What are you working on now?


I'm at work on another novel with a Native theme.

James Bartleman rose from humble circumstances in Port Carling, Ontario, to become Foreign Policy Advisor to the right PM Chrétien in 1994. After a distinguished career of more than 35 years in the Canadian foreign service, in 2002 he became the first Native Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. Among other books, he is the author of the prize-winning memoir Out of Muskoka.

For more information about As Long as Rivers Flow please visit the Random House website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

1 comment

I am writting a high school ISU essay on your novel, As Long as the Rivers Flow, and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions? I thuroughly enjoyed your novel, but at the same time found it quite difficult to read because you were so blunt and straight forward. I actually think that because you cut to the chase and did not hold back at all throughout the novel, it ws just that much more impactful. When I say hold back, I mean that you were not afraid to use one of the more extreme scenerios that would has been seen as a result of the resedential school system. I have done a lot of research on residential schools and have taken it upon myself to make sure that what those young aboriginal children went through will never be forgotten. I know I am only a high school student, but I really do want to make a difference. On another note, I would really appreciate it if you would answer the questions below and email me at

1. I know that Aboriginal children did go through a lot during their time in residential school, to say the very least. However, how accurate is your fictional story of Martha?
2. Do you think that it was a mistake to have the plot of your story span over such a large period of time? Or was it intentional so that the after effects of the residential school experience would be made known?
3. As a continuation of the previous question, if you were to wirte the book again, would you have included more of Martha's life? When I say this, I mean, would you have been more thurough and included more information from every stage of her life?
4. If you could change the conclusion, would you have changed it to make it more realistic? (I hope that that was not offensive, I was just find it hard to believe that someone could be that forgivin after experiencing so much pain.
5. Finally, as a developing writer, looking back on the novel, is there anything that you would change about it? For instance; writing style, how you developed the plot, etc.?

I would be extremely grateful if you would answer these questions and reply to me via email. I truly enjoyed your novel as it has inspired me to do greater things in my life.


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