When Tlicho author Richard Van Camp landed his first literary-related job delivering the now-defunct Slave River Journal around Fort Smith at the age of nine, it’s doubtful the newspaper’s publishers knew what they had.

“I was a paper boy,” said Van Camp. “Forty below or forty above it didn’t matter, we brought it to you every Thursday.”

Now, several decades and dozens of books later, it’s clear what the publisher had acquired – a hard worker.

And hard work pays off.

“I get up every morning at four and I usually write for about an hour straight. You know what they say, a page a day is a book a year,” said Van Camp from his Edmonton home as he waited for the postman to deliver a book deal for a new series of graphic novels called Wheetago War, which will be similar to The Walking Dead, “But far more terrifying and far more hilarious.”

Two of Fort Smith author Richard Van Camp’s more recent works – Moccasin Square Gardens and Three Feathers – have been shortlisted for the 2019 CODE Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Young Adult Literature. image courtesy of Richard Van Camp

The novels are set in a post-apocalyptic world where the wheetago, which are supernatural, malevolent man-eating creatures, are called into existence due to man’s greed where they lay waste to civilization.

The good news: there is a last holdout of Dene people living together in the North and “medicine power” has returned, said Van Camp.

The bad news: they’re up against the wheetago, who are smarter and more complex than the average zombie.

“A wheetago is a being that is always starving,” said Van Camp. “The more it eats, the hungrier it becomes and the more it drinks, the thirstier it becomes. It’s very much a spiritual cannibal.”

A human can become a wheetago after being bitten or cursed, he said.

The first official book in the Wheetago War series, called Wheetago War: ROTH, follows a father who is bit by a wheetago during a three-day war in which the zombie-like creatures take over most of the planet.

Wheetago War: ROTH will be illustrated by Kyle Charles, a Cree artist from Cold Lake, Alta., who currently lives in Edmonton.

The work will be published by Renegade Arts Entertainment and will be released in the spring of 2021.

Some readers will note that Van Camp has already introduced the wheetago in some of his previous works, including two short stories in Moccasin Square Gardens, “Lying in Bed Together” and “Summoners.”

Van Camp shortlisted for prestigious book award

Van Camp’s hard-working habits have also paid off in other ways.

Two of the author’s works – Moccasin Square Gardens and Three Feathers – have been shortlisted for the 2019 CODE Burt Award for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Young Adult Literature.

The CODE Burt Award is a Canadian literary award that honours Indigenous-authored literature for young adults.

Six shortlisted works are up for the award.

The winning book will be distributed to schools, libraries, community and friendship centres across Canada.

Moccasin Square Gardens, Van Camp’s twenty-fourth book in 23 years, he said, is a collection of 10 often dark but mostly funny short stories, many of which are set in Fort Smith.

“I wanted my twenty-fourth book to be a real celebration, a real dance and a real jig,” he said. “I wanted it to be a good time read where people would be chuckling, laughing and blushing and saying that’s how it is in the North.”

Moccasin Square Gardens pokes fun at man-babies – grown men who still live with their parents – and bad leaders, he said.

“I think we all know leaders that have made a fortune doing a whole lot of nothing for people in their communities,” he said. “And people are way too polite and don’t speak up enough.”

Many of Van Camp’s works star a cast of flawed, yet lovable, characters introduced in his earlier collections and graphic novels.

“Life’s about second chances and I think the characters I like to write about are all making runs at second chances,” he said.

Readers will recognize Flinch in Three Feathers – one of three young men who vandalize their community and are sent by its elders to live nine months on the land as their sentence – from Moccasin Square Gardens.

“It’s an ever expanding universe of incredible characters who are themselves their own galaxies in this great Fort Smith constellation,” said Van Camp. “And I don’t even know where it’s going to end up.”

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