Today we're sitting down to talk with Charles Shirriff, author of Spirits of a Feather, Souls of a Feather, and It’s Not Where You’re Going-It’s How You Get There: Autobiographical Stories .
FQ: Are Spirits of a Feather and Souls of a Feather autobiographical?
It is funny you would ask this question. Several years ago, I was asked by a young man who I was working with in a counselling relationship if I would write his “autobiography” for him. I agreed on condition that he would take me with him to experience as much of his life first-hand as possible. For about 5 years I went with him to gay bars, raves, parties, etc. and met his friends in their natural environment as his “straight uncle.”
However, he was not ready to share enough of his early years in an abusive, dysfunctional family for me to write a proper biography. Not willing to waste the wealth of experiences he had provided for me, I decided to fictionalize his story enough that I could still write his actual biography at a later date. In writing these two novels, I incorporated my young friend into two of the characters. Jay represents most of my friend’s actual personality (except for his being gay) while Steve, being gay, allowed me to make use of my experiences and understandings of gay people and of the gay community.
FQ: Why did you pick Winnipeg as a location?
My friend lived in Winnipeg when I met him and I lived near Winnipeg. The novels are officially works of fiction, and could have been based in any large city. I chose to make the novels as “fact-based” or as a “fictionalized biography.” Hence, the environment needed to be true to the story.
FQ: Do you have Native American blood?
No. But I have taught many native (or “First Nations” people as we now refer to them in Canada) and have been involved with them in many and varied situations. I have always been interested in people who are different from me.
FQ: Why did you select the eagle as a totem animal for Jay?
I looked at the various totems and the eagle was most appropriate for my friend, and hence for Jay in the novels. The majestic eagle is strength and vision. The eagle symbolizes power and prestige. It protects the spirit and the body, representing health and wholeness of being. It signifies the person who rises above the petty details of daily life to take in the big picture. This seemed like a good fit.
The moon watches over us and is the protector and guardian of Earth. Moon has the ability to change our moods and might have been appropriate. I did consider this totem, but it was too hard to personalize and incorporate it into the story line.
The others were just not appropriate to Jay’s character: Whale is the traveler's friend, Hummingbird is the healer; Bear is strength and health, Beaver is community and sharing, Frog is success coupled with humility, Raven is wisdom and understanding, Wolf is the teacher and nurturer, Sun is faith and inclusion. None of these was a good fit. Besides, the Eagle is much more interesting (plot-wise) than the Frog, for example.
FQ: I loved Arrow the dog. Why did you decide to include him in the story?
I didn’t decide to include him. He wrote himself into the story. He just appeared when I was describing Jay knocking on the native shaman’s room – he growled from within the room, and when the door opened - there he was. I have found that in writing, I am usually not in charge of the words as I type. I set up scenes in my head, but then they tend to write themselves as I type - with or without my approval.
For instance, Phil was supposed to be a “walk on” character as a foil for developing Jay’s character during the bus trip. He was supposed to get off the bus in Brandon and then disappear forever. I was surprised when I found he was getting back on the bus to complete the trip. So I decided to have Jay walk away and leave Phil in the bus station. I had no idea that Phil would take Jay home with him, let alone become a major character.
FQ: What is the basis for your interest in these different cultures?
My interest in cultures/religions was fostered through the people I met in my personal life and in my educational/counselling work. I did extensive research to fill in details concerning the various cultures and to develop and understand them, but I always worked within my personal knowledge of typical individuals.
I had a person in the head office of the Bahá'í in Toronto read relevant sections of my draft to be sure they accurately reflected the Bahá'í philosophy. My chapters on Hutterian life were rewritten and corrected extensively by teachers at the colony where I was working at the time when I was writing.
FQ: Are you working on anything now?
It will probably be a book of humorous short stories or “essays” based on illogical (or silly) rules, ideas, signs, conventions, etc. that are accepted as normal or logical in our North American society. I will probably use a format of short stories or “essays” interspersed with very short vignettes (similar to the format of my recently published autobiography, It’s Not Where You’re Going – It’s How You get There). The working title for my next book is, Life Is Not A Gay Bar - don’t ask why. It just presented itself to me one day.
To learn more about the author's three books, please read the reviews at:
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