The David Pelly interview

The Ancestors Are Happy is a masterfully woven tapestry portraying a landscape of stories, which also offers a compilation of personal tales from Inuit informants whose lives collectively span the 20th century, a period of remarkable transition for the North. It draws on the author’s experiences and encounters over forty years of living, travelling, and learning in Nunavut. David Pelly’s lucid text is rooted in oral-history collected from Inuit elders, for which work he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and in his meticulous research of historical sources. You will be carried on a journey across Canada’s Arctic, into the land itself, and into the lives of a memorable array of northern characters. At the core is an exploration of Inuit cultural tradition, the hallmark of David Pelly’s celebrated writing career, which includes nine previous books and countless magazine articles. The ancestors are happy, say Inuit elders, when the stories from the land are told, and retold, and preserved.

Your latest book The Ancestors Are Happy has been a long time in the making. Can you discuss its development over the last decade or more?

In the sense that I have been listening to, learning, the stories from the land for the past four decades, yes, this book has been a long time in the making.  My awareness that Inuit have an incredibly strong traditional connection to their land has evolved and grown over the years, to be sure.  It has become a fundamental premise of my view of the North.  It is the Inuit elders who shared their stories with me who have given me the gift of this perspective.  As for the title itself, that did not take its place of honour on the cover until part way through the process of assembling the stories for this book just last year.  It comes from an experience 20 years ago, when a wise and thoughtful Inuk, reflecting after an evening’s celebration of old stories and traditional knowledge, said to me “Our ancestors are happy.”  I never forgot his words, and I’m thrilled to think that in some small way this book is now contributing to making the ancestors happy.

You’ve been honoured with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, 2012 while in 2015, you were named one of Canada’s Top 100 Explorers by Canadian Geographic. How does this recognition help with your creativity?

Everyone appreciates recognition, of course.  You’re right – it’s an honour.  That said, I don’t think either of these events has any impact on my work or my creativity.  Far more important to me have been the acceptance and approval of the people whose stories I have recorded – that was essential to my ability to engage in this creative process.  When Tuinnaq’s daughter said publicly that Pelly is “one guy who has learned to talk to our elders and listen to stories – nobody could have done a better job writing down my mother’s memories of her childhood,” now that was a meaningful honour, which had a significant impact on me and my writing.
I must also add that I don’t like the word “explorer” because it somehow denotes that a person is finding the unknown.  I have never claimed that; I don’t believe that.  I’ll leave it at that.

Most writers don’t necessarily spend a great deal of time on foot in the cold to research their books. From a technical perspective, how to you take notes in less than desirable weather?

That’s a curious question; it would never have occurred to me, but I guess you’re right.  Certainly, I have spent many hours in the iglu at night writing down thoughts and observations, asking my Inuit companions questions and recording their answers, making sure I had the details of the day recorded.  But to your specific question, how to manage -40° temperatures, I can only say that I always kept a very small notebook close at hand, with a pencil (which works regardless of temperature or weather conditions), in order to quickly scribble down the keywords to remind me of points I’d expand upon that evening in the tent or iglu.  All very old-school, I suppose, but it worked for me.

For the casual nature lover, what would you suggest in terms of reading in this field of study? What books can you recommend that you have written, and what ones can you suggest that you didn’t write? 

I love the Arctic landscape, don’t get me wrong.  But I’m not a “nature writer” per se.  My work has more of a cultural bent.  That’s why some have called me “a modern-day explorer of the cultural landscape.”  (I can just about live with that tempered use of the word!)  Two of my books – Thelon: A River Sanctuary and The Old Way North – are each, I would say, a biography of a place, the stories the land would tell if only it could speak.  So, in that sense, they are rooted in the natural landscape, but primarily as a cultural context.   All that said, probably the most important book I have written, because it was rooted almost entirely in Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (the traditional “way of being”), is Sacred Hunt.  In that 2001 book, I examined the relationship between Inuit and the natural world, the very system which supported their way of life for a very long time. Some of the best writing about the North, by folks who have travelled on the land, has as its central feature a strong sense of place.  I think of PG Downes, Dave Olesen, John Moss, or Sigurd Olson.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced while completing The Ancestors Are Happy?

Not really an obstacle, but probably the biggest challenge was selecting what stories from the land to include.  In the end, I believe, my choices were influenced by a number of factors: wanting to achieve a balance, wanting to select tales to which I have some sense of personal connection, and aiming to celebrate certain people who were important to me as friends and informants, my travelling companions on this nearly life-long journey.

What is the biggest misconception about you as a writer?

I really have no idea.  I don’t dwell much on what other people think.  If you were to tell me what somebody might think of me as a writer, perhaps I could tell you if it is a misconception or not!  I’m pretty much an open book; there’s no secret agenda here.

In a previous interview, you said that “the North is a rich source of story material.” Are you ever worried you’ll run out of material? Or is that simply impossible?

“I really love the notion of the landscape as a tapestry of stories.”

It’s definitely impossible to imagine.  I have a long shelf full of journals and notebooks, and many hours of taped interviews with Inuit elders.  (By the way, all that material has been or will be deposited in the Nunavut Archives.)  So the wealth of stories will outlast me by a long-shot.

When you are in your home and working on a book, what does a day of writing look like for you?

I truly do not have a routine.  I have usually been working on multiple projects at the same time, so every day is different.  For me, that’s part of the joy of being a writer, a freelancer, and a contractor.  Every day is a new challenge and another learning experience.  There’s very little drudgery.  I’m not a person who likes to force my writing – I know some writers say they are compelled to put down so many hundred words every day.  Not me.  Even when working on a book, I may go for several days focused on other projects, before going back to pick up the longer writing project wherever it left off.  In a sense, though, the mind is always working away quietly in the background, contemplating where that next bit of writing is going to take you.  Time is an ally.

Family is evidently important to you – how has sharing the experience of travel and research with your loved ones informed your creative process?

For Laurie and me, the North, and Nunavut in particular, has been at the very centre of our life together.  We lived there. We worked there.  Our adopted son was from there.  Many of our big family trips were by canoe in the barrenlands, certainly some of our best memories.  I’ve written very little about our actual travels.  But because we have shared all these connections to the land and the stories and the people, there’s no doubt that my writing has even deeper personal roots in some ways.

What would you like to talk about as it relates to The Ancestors Are Happy for the public?

I really love the notion of the landscape as a tapestry of stories.  I hope that is what this work successfully represents.  It is definitely the theme I will focus on if/when asked to speak about the book.  The land, the stories, the animals, the ancestors – these are all the elements woven together which sustain the people of the North.  It is the stories which tie the people to the land, or as old Aupilarjuq put it, referring to the land: “It actually ties up with our lives and we become one.”  Understanding this is key to appreciating the North as the soul of this country.  My small contribution to that is this book, just enough, I hope, to make the ancestors happy.

For more information on The Ancestors Are Happy, please visit Crossfield Publishing’s website.