Waubgeshig Rice digitally drops in on Island book club

A screen shot of the Zoom meeting between the book club and best selling author and former CBC UpNorth host Waubgeshig Rice.

MANITOULIN – CBC listeners were dismayed to learn that UpNorth’s host Waubgeshig Rice was leaving the program to pursue a career as a fiction writer, but the national broadcaster’s loss will prove to be Canadian novel readers’ gain as the popular broadcaster is working on a sequel to his bestselling novel ‘Moon of the Crusted Snow.’ 

The Wasauksing First Nation writer now lives in Sudbury, but in a digital world everyone is just around the corner, so the writer was able to drop in on a bi-weekly Manitoulin book club meeting held on Zoom recently. He came at the invitation of the club’s organizer, Mary Dantouze. The Expositor caught up with Ms. Dantouze and Mr. Rice this week to chat about the experience as seen from both sides of the page.

“We were reading his book ‘Moon of the Crusted Snow’ and I thought, because he is from Parry Sound he is kind of local, so I took it upon myself to reach out to him on Facebook and, knowing he was leaving the CBC, see if he would be willing to come and speak to us about his writing,” said Ms. Dantouze. “I didn’t hear back from him at first, this was back in May. I was going to have it be a surprise for the people in the book club, but since he didn’t get back to me right away I told the club about it.”

The other readers in the club were very excited about the prospect and encouraged Ms. Dantouze to reach out to Mr. Rice again. But it turned out she didn’t need to, as about two or three weeks later an email response arrived.

“I was just about to try contacting him again when he responded to my original email, saying he was sorry for taking so long to get back to me,” she said. Turns out he had a really good reason for the delay. “He and his wife had just had their second child,” said Ms. Dantouze.

A date for a meeting was soon set up and the club members could barely contain their excitement. The appointed day arrived and each member logged in to meet the writer.

“He was really very nice,” said Linda Erskine, one of the book club members. “We were all very excited to meet him as we all really loved his book.”

“Mary just messaged me on Facebook saying that ‘we just read your book’,” recalled Mr. Rice. “I wasn’t able to hook up with them on the first meeting (due to the baby’s arrival) but I asked if they were still up for it.” They were and he was, so they set a date. It was an interesting experience for all involved.

“I guess we are all getting pretty used to Zoom meetings,” said Mr. Rice. “It isn’t ideal, but people are learning how to deal with it.” Mr. Rice explained that the dynamics of a videoconferencing meeting are very different from the normal face-to-face audience, host and author experience. “It was a really great experience,” said Mr. Rice. “It was nice to meet so many people enthusiastic about reading your work.”

Being able to meet readers is a valuable tool for any writer, noted Mr. Rice. “As an author, if you are not interacting with readers, you find yourself in kind of an echo chamber. Talking to yourself.”

The difference between live and video meetings is that organic dynamic conversation is a bit more stilted with each person taking turns talking, he pointed out. “But it worked out really well, I think, it was a very nice experience,” shared Mr. Rice. “You lose the natural flow of conversation where people pick up on an idea expressed by someone else and continue that thread.”

“You can’t prepare a bunch of pre-canned responses,” he continued about the reader interactions. “If you did, I think that would be very disrespectful.” But talking to a group of readers is very different from responding to an interviewing journalist’s questions. 

Giving up his day job as a popular CBC broadcast host and taking the plunge as a full-time writer was a bit scary, admits Mr. Rice, but he noted that there were a couple of things in his favour before he handed in his notice. First and perhaps foremost, he had a couple of books under his belt before handing in his notice at the CBC—with ‘Moon of the Crusted Snow’ a best seller.

“I had a collection of short stories, ‘Midnight Sweatlodge’ already published by Theytus in BC,” he said. “They published my first two books.”

Still there were some definite unknowns in the mix.

“I had applied for a Canada Council grant, but I had not heard back from them when I put my notice in back in April,” he said. “I also had a couple of other freelance opportunities lined up as well.” So he wasn’t totally leaping blind.

“I really loved my job at the CBC,” said Mr. Rice, but the call of the quill had its hooks in him deep. “No risk, no fun,” he laughed.

The ability to devote himself full-time to his writing has him very excited about this new phase in his career.

Ms. Dantouze described ‘Moon of the Crusted Snow’ as a dystopian novel, based on apocalyptic events taking place down south that cause a remote Northern First Nation to come together to meet the challenges when things stop arriving from urban centres and they must retreat into the bush to resume traditional livestyles.

“At first there is a lot of panic and fear; people clean out the Northern Store,” said Ms. Dantouze. (The Northern Store is a chain of retail operations focussed on servicing remote Northern communities.) Soon people come to re-discover the importance of families and learn to adopt the old ways in order to survive.

For an Anishinabe-kwe the story resonated especially, but even the non-Native members of the book club found a lot to love in the compelling story.

“It was a real page-turner,” said Ms. Dantouze. “It is a book you just can’t put down.”

Mr. Rice’s new novel is a sequel to ‘Moon of the Crusted Snow,’ taking place some 10 years later. There is no working title yet, but Mr. Rice has a good idea of where things are going.

As for the book club, Ms. Dantouze said that she might consider reaching out to other authors for future meetings. “We are always open to new members,” she said.