Q&A with Rudy Kelly
With a few weeks to go before All Native is officially launched, Muskeg Press caught up with author Rudy Kelly to discuss the All Native Basketball Tournament, the writing process, and his best Halloween costume.
Chris Armstrong: I am here with Rudy Kelly, the author of All Native. But I think the question that most people have on their minds, Rudy, is: you dressed up as “Muskeg Man” for Halloween a while ago. How long did it take you to put that costume together?
Rudy Kelly: Well, probably at least three hours. There was a considerable grass skirt that I used for that, as well as a sweater that I cut up, a nice ugly brown sweater. The whole chest garb. And of course I had to make the mask out of Muskeg Press clippings.
CA: That’s right!
RK: Downloaded off the Internet. I was pretty proud of that.
CA: I was pretty proud of you too, actually. Of course, you’re very good at doing costumes too. You did a lot of costumes with The Daily News.
RK: That’s right. I used to write a weekly column, VideoView, which actually won a provincial award. It was for doing reviews for newly-released DVDs, as it was in those days. And to jazz it up, my mug shot would be of a character from the movie that was featured that week. I’d do usually three movies, but I’d have one that I’d focus on. Doing the photo was very involving and it really stressed out my then-wife at the time because she took the pictures, and I was a perfectionist. I was like, “no, no, that’s not quite right, the light’s not good.” I was obsessive.
CA: I have to say, you were great for the photo shoot today. So thank you. Yes, a man of many talents, Rudy Kelly. I mean, we’re joking now, but you’ve done a lot in your life. You worked for the Daily News, you did these great movie reviews, and you dressed as Muskeg Man for Halloween. Those three things alone would be enough for any mere mortal. But we’re here to talk today about the book, All Native. Your first novel.
CA: Yeah. Are you excited? Are you nervous?
RK: I am. I’m very excited. It was nerve-wracking. The nervous part was actually writing it and seeing if I could plough through it. I’ve always wanted to write a novel but I’ve always thought, gee, after playwrighting for so long, and that craft where you’re mostly writing dialogue, could I write a novel? I mean, with plays you’re writing where scenes are, but more often than not you’re leaving it up to the director to decide how people are going to move around, and what settings are going to actually look like and how they’re going to flesh out. I thought, gee, I wonder because I’m so trained in that style, that it’s going to be hard for me to paint pictures of where the characters are and what they look like in a novel.
CA: Interesting. So there’d be a bit more in-fill with a novel, I guess?
RK: Yeah. My goal when I first sat down to do this was, boy, it would be nice to write about 270 pages. Even then, that felt immensely daunting. I once wrote a mini-novel for the famous weekend novel-writing contest, that is an international contest, and that was only about 112 pages. I wrote it on a weekend. That was something. But to write a full-blown novel? I was scared, quite a bit at first as I was writing it, because I thought, oh I don’t know if I have enough. But, thankfully, things started to come through.
CA: Well, it’s an accomplishment you should be very proud of. It’s a huge accomplishment just to get to that – well, you’re at 373 pages for this novel. But even just to write even 100 pages, you should be very proud, I hope you are.
RK: Yes, I am. Everybody’s a perfectionist, but I got to a point in the second read-through where I said, let’s be real here, nothing’s perfect but I’m happy with it. A lot will be in the eye of the beholder, the reader.
CA: And the story of the novel itself – I remember we were speaking about a year, a year-and-a-half ago, I was trying to cajole you into getting this novel written. Back then, though, it seemed like the story was a bit different. You were talking about, I think, about Bella Bella, them having a team, and rising up in the All Native.
RK: Yeah. To do that, my plan was to actually go and spend some time in the village. I thought of Bella Bella just because they do have a good history, and I didn’t want to be biased to my own village and my own tribe. And Bella Bella, they’re a small village, at one time, underdogs, and next thing you know they rang off several championships in a row, all basically based on work ethic and speed. Of course, they make an appearance in the book because of that, because I’ve always admired their program, being a small village that worked hard. And my understanding, from what I’ve heard, is that the community works year-round to fundraise, and they get these kids ready to go and support them.
CA: Interesting. I’ve read the novel twice now, and I can really tell your passion for the All Native. What do you think makes it so special, this tournament?
RK: Well for one thing, right off the top, there’s no money on the line. People show up, teams come from Alaska, from Washington State, a team came from Sitsika, Alberta, and they show up all the time in great numbers, 50 teams a year, and it’s just a trophy on the line, bragging rights for the village. Usually money tournaments is where you get all the big talent, where you get all the big teams show up. But you get this many people, this much of a buzz over pure bragging rights – that, to me, is one of the great things. And the other thing is, as it’s mentioned in the book, that it really is kind of like a modern-day potlatch. Even back then, when they started it, it was just as much of an excuse to say, we don’t get to see our cousins that much, and we certainly have something in common with a lot the other people on the North Coast … This is a way of getting Haisla, Nisga’a, Haida, Tsimshian, everyone together to show that we do have something in common. Without getting into some of the hardships that First Nations people have gone through, I think it was good to be able to do that, share stories and realize, you know, we’re all in the same boat.
CA: You can definitely see how it unifies everyone. I see it every time I go to the tournament, and I see it on these pages as well. But if we could touch upon hardships for a second…I mean, you don’t shy away from those in the book either. Do you want to speak about that at all? Just even what’s in the book?
RK: Yeah. The key issues involving First Nations people that still exist today – you know, it’s getting better. Obviously, it’s not as bad as the early days. But here we are in the 1960s and 1970s, where most of this book is placed, and I personally grew up in poverty. Eight children, two parents, living in a basement suite. We were sleeping in the living room, most of us, on the floor. And we were just scraping by. You know, basketball – it’s kind of a funny connection – because basketball and soccer – people wonder why are those games so popular amongst First Nations people? Well, because all you need is a ball. That’s all you need. You need a ball, you can make a hoop up out of anything. So I think the fact that those are the sports of choice, there’s a reason behind that. It’s practicality.
And yeah, there is some violence in the book, there is some parenting issues, there is behaviour issues in one of the boys for sure and a lot of people in the book. And a lot of that arises from some of the hardships, including, of course, the big ‘R’ – residential schools. The trickle-down effect of that. And I personally had a dad who was not a very good man, but I look back on it and wonder what made him who he was. And since then, I’ve heard from other people who know his history, and have shared some of it with me, and I kind of get it. It doesn’t mean that he’s forgiven, but I understand what might have turned him into the kind of person he was. I certainly see in this book, there’s also still good people too, though. And that’s what I really tried to hammer home with one set of parents of one of the boys, is that it doesn’t always have to be that grim horror story that we hear all the time. People can persevere, and certainly they do in this book.
CA: It’s interesting you mention residential schools, because I don’t remember anywhere in the book that you actually mention residential schools. It’s almost like this shadow that is cast over the 1960s and 1970s, even to today.
RK: Yeah, the last residential school wasn’t shut down until the eighties. And that’s not long ago. That always bothers me when I hear people say, you know, just get over it. It’s like, oh that’s all in the past. No, it’s not. Even colonialism wasn’t that far away, but residential schools, there are a lot of people that attended it. Even some of my brothers and sisters attended day school. It is certainly a long impact and, like I said, I’ve seen lots of bad parenting. And again, there are scenes in the book, and one in particular that takes place in a village, that I actually experienced. Obviously, I’ve changed it, but I had a similar experience. And there a lot of these things in the book that are a little sad. And some of the violence, you know, I experienced it, or I heard of it or I’ve seen it from friends. But there’s humour in the book too, and that’s one thing that a lot of people have noticed about First Nations people, is we have a very dark sense of humour. If you’ve ever heard the comedian Don Burnstick, I remember some friends saying when they saw him, “I can’t believe he was joking about his mom throwing shoes at him.” A lot of that stuff has become a running joke for us now, and that’s how we deal with it. At some point, you gotta laugh.
CA: So you’ve touched upon some of the themes of the book. What do you hope the reader takes from it?
RK: I hope the reader takes that there’s always hope, and there’s always good even in the darkness that one of the characters is in here. He meets a good kid, a kid who has two good parents, and those people actually kind of take a shine to him. I was talking to somebody recently about some of the problems of kids on the streets in Rupert and that’s a personal thing for me as well. A lot of people say, “that kid’s hopeless” or “stay away from him.” And there’s a lot of kids like that. Hopefully through this book, people will say, “let’s not give up on that guy.” Or, “yeah he’s bit of a head case, he gets in lots of trouble, he’s selfish, but …” I remember being a teenager and being very much like that and I managed to pull my way through it – even though I still got into trouble. I just think that, don’t give up on kids. And don’t give up on the ability of people and First Nations people to improve their lot, not by hand-outs but through their own pure will. Which, really, the two parents in this book do, by just making that choice. They decide to live in a way that they think is better for them to be parents too. They keep a smaller family. I’m not saying that big families are bad, but they made that choice thinking that this is how we’re going to be better as parents.
CA: I’d like to touch a bit upon your storied basketball career, which I’m sure you drew from for the book as well. I’ve seen the statue of you outside of the civic centre, doing the classic fadeaway jumper.
RK: That’s right, yeah.
CA: But you never –
RK: I was never – I played some 21, which is, for those people who don’t know, it comes by different names around the world. But it was basically a free-throw game. You hit the free-throw, you got the rebound, and you drain that, you get another point, and whoever gets to 21 first wins. And I was really good at that. I used to play it in my back yard here, just down the street on Fourth East. I used to actually beat some of the real basketball players at the Civic Centre. I used to hang out, and the Trojans would be playing. And they were a championship team here in Rupert. Most of the guys, I graduated with. I would play them in 21 and I’d win more often than not, and they were frustrated by that because they knew I wasn’t a player. So they would basically goad me into playing some 1-on-1 or 3-on-3 just so they could feel better about themselves: now we’re dominating him like we should be. But I think I still have a strong knowledge of basketball through osmosis, through knowing a lot of basketball players, good friends who are basketball players. And having covered it as a sports reporter for a decade as a reporter in Prince Rupert, covering the All Native Tournament and having to produce three pages every day on that. I also wrote the program, exclusively, for about five or six years, for the All Native Tournament, so I got to meet a lot of basketball players and interview a lot of the stars and future hall-of-famers in the All Native as well.
CA: So though you never played, you were very much involved.
CA: You were an observer of the sport, and loved the sport too, obviously.
RK: Yeah, it’s an interesting game. It’s one of those games, similar to soccer, that you’re always out there. You switch guys on and off, but it’s a constantly-flowing game. It’s not like baseball, where you wait for the batter to get up and then he hits the ball or he doesn’t, and things happen. Or football, where everyone lines up. I love those games too, but basketball has that energy, that flow. Fatigue really is a factor, and being able to pace people and throw people in when you see, hey this guy’s slowing down, we’re going to bring some fresh blood off the bench. It’s also one of the strangest games for me, in that – you know, there’s an old joke that it’s like your wife giving birth, you only have to be there for the last three minutes. But that was actually a joke made for an NBA game, which is true because when you’re scoring 120 points each, you probably do just need to wait for the end. And that’s the different thing about the All Native – it’s very rare that you’re going to see a guy who is big enough to dunk. So it comes down to speed and skill, for the most part. Although sometimes it’s size. Certainly, if you’ve got a big man like Sid Edenshaw, the famous Haida player and hall-of-famer, it’s pretty hard to move that guy. He’s six-five, six-four, and just a thick, strong man who happened to be a great shooter as well. But for the most part, All Native basketball a run-and-gun type game, which I think most people like run-and-gun anything, whether it be hockey or basketball.
CA: Just talking to you here, I can see how, reading the book, how all your life experiences, how all your knowledge – not only about basketball or even growing up as a First Nations kid – has really seeped its way into this book. I’d like to talk a bit about the writing style too. The one thing I noticed when I was reading it, I mean, you don’t really have flowery language. You have some really interesting turns of phrase. The highest praise I think you can give someone is that you read a book and it doesn’t even feel like you’re reading it – that’s what it felt like to me. I ploughed through it on a plane. I thought the writing was great.
RK: Oh, thank you.
CA: Do you want to talk a bit about your process at all?
RK: Some of my favourite writers, Richard Adams for one, is amazing with flowery language and similes. Boy, he’ll describe a waterfall and it will be like two or three pages of how it looks. And I love that too. There’s room for all sorts of writing, of course. Everyone says that Hemingway is the sparsest writer, and he just tells a good story. So a different end of the spectrum but he’s still a great writer, obviously. I’ve always believed in the saying, that whether it be a book, a play or a movie, that the story’s the thing. And I’ve always really stuck to that and remembered that. As long as you’ve got a good story – yeah, you could flower it up and add more to it – but that was the most important thing to me, that I really need a strong story here. When you first came up to me and said, “where are you with this book?” – I wasn’t anywhere with it. I had chunks of stuff, this moment, that moment. And then I thought, okay now I actually have to tell a story. So that was a challenge. And to me, I was happy with the story. And that’s the main thing: it goes in a reasonable way. Without giving away anything, even the surprises surprised me as a writer. I thought, wow, I’m gonna do this. But then to be able to look back on it and say, okay, there was a reason for that. And I’m really a believer in trusting your unconscious, because I think a lot of writing is unconscious initially. And then you look back and say, there was a method to my madness on that one. It was a lot of fun to just sit there and say, oh wow, did I just do that? Is this really gonna happen? It was really neat.
CA: Yeah, well, some of the surprises I wanted to kill you for. There were some really funny surprises too. There are moments of outright hilarity in this book. I mean, I was laughing out loud in parts of it. For me, the story’s great – you’ve got a great story here. What I really like is that there’s quite a few episodes that pop up. There’s funny episodes, and then there’s the darker episodes. Can you talk about which ones were more difficult to write? Which were fun to write?
RK: Certainly some of the shenanigans were fun to write, and I found myself smirking to myself as I was writing them. And the one scene we both know, without getting into details, the end-of-summer days for the boys in Port Ed –
CA: The slingshot scene.
RK: Yeah, we’ll call it the slingshot scene. It was a tonne of fun. I couldn’t write that fast enough. Once I got an idea of what was going on, it’s like, this is a hoot. And I basically just put myself there. I was in that moment with those kids. Yeah, that was a real lot of fun to write. Obviously, the darker scenes, where some of the violence takes place…I wrote those slower. The funny scenes, it didn’t seem like I could write those fast enough. But the darker scenes – because they have such weight, and some of it is personal for me, and I know they’re real, so I wanted to make them as real as I possibly could, because that’s happened to people, and it does still happen to kids so I wanted to have that gut-punch feel to it.
CA: There’s definitely a few gut punches. I felt I got punched in the face, actually, a couple of times in the book. Well, I have to say, Rudy, a huge accomplishment, you should be proud of it. I was more than honoured to be your publisher, and very grateful for this opportunity. It’s your first novel. It’s also Muskeg Press’ first novel. So yeah, I’m very excited about the book launch on February 15. Is there anything you’d like to add to this intense grilling that you just got for the last 20 minutes?
RK: I hate using the word “pride” because it seems vain, but I’m certainly happy with what I’ve done. Like I said, I was scared for a while because I didn’t seem to have a story. And when the story came, it really relaxed me. And I’m happy with what I’ve done, and I think people will enjoy it. And I’ll throw off my modesty hat now – I know I’ve done well in playwriting and skit-writing and columns and that, so I think I have a good sense of humour and can spin a story pretty well. Even in person, when I chat with people, they think I’m a good storyteller. It’s good that I’m now able to do it on a larger scale and share this story with people, which is a story that is not just my own, but the experiences of others that I’ve known. And I think it ends hopefully, and that’s always a good thing. I’m jazzed about it, and very grateful to you for giving me a nudge with the stick to get me going on it, and for pumping it out. It looks great and I gotta admit, it’s turned out better than I thought it would.
CA: Well, that’s what I thought too! We’re gonna have a big hugfest here soon. Well, thank you for your time, Rudy. I’m excited, I’m sure a lot of other people are excited to read this book too.
RK: Thanks a lot, Chris.
Rudy Kelly's first novel, All Native, will be officially launched on Saturday, Feb. 15 at Javadotcup in Prince Rupert at 2 pm.
For more information on the event, visit our Facebook page.