Author took time to build up her courage to write new novel

Monday, June 3rd, 2024 10:53am


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Katłı̨̀ą Catherine Lafferty shares the inspirations and challenges of writing her latest novel Firekeeper.


“Even if you're a doctor or lawyer or whatever you're doing in your life that pays bills, you should still make time for art.” — author Katłı̨̀ą Catherine Lafferty
By Odette Auger
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The latest novel from Dene author Katłı̨̀ą Catherine Lafferty, Firekeeper, is the coming-of-age tale about Nyla, a young woman moving toward light through struggle and trauma.

Nyla is a young teen whose mother can’t care for her properly. Nyla is left to navigate dark paths and people on the streets of a small northern town, as well as battle her own demons.

Through Nyla’s healing journey, she reclaims culture, belonging and identity. She grows to understand her compulsive arson and learns gives back to community.

"It's a journey of self-love and discovering identity and accepting all the different facets of who you are as a human being or as a spirit,” said Katłı̨̀ą.

“In society, we don't like complicated girls or women. We don't like women who act out or are difficult. And I wanted to make Nyla difficult and complex and yet, through all of that, you can still love her. Society doesn't allow us to do that, especially Indigenous women and girls. We're supposed to be polite and quiet.”

Some stories take extra time and care. Firekeeper had been brewing for about six years before Katłı̨̀ą started writing it.

Initially hesitant to fully explore certain themes in her first novel Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat’a and her memoir Northern Wildflower, Katłı̨̀ą said she gradually built up the courage in Firekeeper.

“Maybe I had to work my way up to feeling out the water, or treading in the water, to make sure it was safe to write about some of the things that are in Firekeeper,” said Katłı̨̀ą.

“I know there's people that have been through a lot worse than I've been through,” she said. “But I think the hardships that I've experienced throughout my life helped to influence my writing. And it feels like I have a duty to tell the stories because I know I'm not alone in what I've experienced in my life.”

Katłı̨̀ą said the hardest part of writing Firekeeper was concern for how some readers might understand the sensitive themes in the book. She took care to handle assault scenes authentically, sharing insight into how these experiences can create self-doubt and waves of shame without assigning any blame.

The most challenging moments in the novel are also the most sensitive. Katłı̨̀ą chose to communicate these events in a way that leaves much to the reader’s imagination, rather than going into explicit detail. It’s a narrative choice that adds emotional depth and impact while respecting the reader’s ability to understand and empathize.

Intuitive writing process

While Katłı̨̀ą begins her writing with a story idea, she lets the story reveal itself to her as she writes.

"I definitely go with the flow. I don't plan. I just start from a concept and then it unfolds. And sometimes it even surprises me."

She gives an example in Firekeeper where Nyla is walking with an Elder named Alice, eating berries as they go. Nyla finds a worm in her berry and she throws it down. Later on, another character in the novel, a younger girl called Nayiìhtła, is eating all the berries in that same area.

“She's just munching them down and she gets a bellyache. And then I realized that those are connected, but I didn't do that. I only realized a few weeks ago that the berries are connected somehow,” Katłı̨̀ą said.

“So that was a surprise gift that I didn't even know, and I wish I would've had more time to sit with it and sort of give it some closure,” she said. “What is the teaching here that connects the two scenes? I'm even questioning it. I don't really know.” asked Katłı̨̀ą if she thinks this is how our subconscious shares messages.

“I think it's spirit. I really think it's spirit that comes through,” Katłı̨̀ą said.

Connecting spirituality and creativity

For Katłı̨̀ą, writing is an inherently spiritual process. After deciding to get sober six years ago, she said this opened her creative and spiritual self.

“I felt like a veil was lifted and a distraction was removed out of my way,” she said.

“And then I was able to open the door to writing and open that portal to be able to do this work."

She said art, whether writing, painting or music, transcends the physical realm, connecting us to a higher dimension.

“That's why it's so critical that we continue to do art no matter what. Even if you're a doctor or lawyer or whatever you're doing in your life that pays bills, you should still make time for art.”

As an articling lawyer who completed three degrees as a single mom, Katłı̨̀ą lives this advice. She still wrote for her community newspaper, wrote a memoir, two novels, and is currently working on two non-fiction books.

It was announced today that Katłı̨̀ą has sold her work MOTHER EARTH IS OUR ELDER in a six-figure deal to HarperOne (World, Excl. Canada) and McClelland & Stewart (Canada, English). The book is described as an “urgent and meditative work grounded in northern Dene wisdom and cultural laws, exploring place-based teachings, food sovereignty, institutional design problems, environmental racism and the ongoing Land Back movement.”

While she had early encouragement from a teacher and foster mother, Katłı̨̀ą grew this creative path on her own.

“People in my family didn't read. No one read,” she said.

“I guess I’m sort of the anomaly out of my whole family and, even now, I don't think any one of my family members have read any of my books.”

“But that just goes to show you that, I guess, we need somebody. Each family needs a storyteller, whether that be through art or through oral storytelling or keeping records of your family history,” Katłı̨̀ą said.

“The interesting thing about writing is, when I'm dead and long gone, somebody can just pick it up and I'm still painting that picture in their mind. Even when I'm gone. It transcends so much of what we know of reality.”

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.