Teen novel a hit

by Janet Smellie
Northern News Services

NNSL (NOV 18/96) - Saying "No" to the offer of a free cell phone to use during his Yellowknife book tour wasn't an easy choice for 25-year-old Richard Van Camp, but he declined nonetheless.

Van Camp was in Yellowknife last week to promote The Lesser Blessed, his first novel in a series that follows his main character Larry, a Dogrib Indian growing up in the small Northern town of Fort Simmer.

Skinny as spaghetti, nervy and self-depreciating, Larry is an appealing mixture of bravado and vulnerability. His past holds many terrors: an abusive father, blackouts from sniffing gasoline, smoking dope and an accident that killed several of his cousins.

A newcomer to the publishing world, Van Camp says The Lesser Blessed is just the beginning of a series of five books about Larry and his friends.

"It's the story of four months out of a 16-year-old's life. It's autobiographical in the sense that it's set in the community where I grew up. I'm not going to deny that some of my characters are based on real people," Van Camp said shortly after an interview on CKLB Radio.

Intentionally written to be an "easy read" in order to inspire a teenaged audience, The Lesser Blessed has captured so much popularity, the original 1,500 copies have already sold out. Another 1,500 are now being printed.

Van Camp was born in Fort Smith and is a member of the Dogrib Nation. He studied land claims in Yellowknife and acupuncture in Hangzhou, China.

For the past three years, he has acted as a cultural consultant for CBC Television's North of 60. A graduate of the En'owkin School of Writing in Penticton, B.C., he's currently finishing his masters of fine arts in writing at the University of Victoria.

Van Camp, who took five years to write the book, considers his novel a first in the North. "I think it's first-rate teen fiction that will hopefully capture a lot of people who don't usually read.

"This is the first in contemporary fiction written about Northerners. I had a woman in Fort Smith come up to me and say, 'Thank you for writing this. We're not reading about them (southerners) any more, we're reading about us.'"

Van Camp, who says he spent his early years living on what they called Satan Street in Fort Smith, says he hopes his novel, already tagged "powerful and very funny," can help young people.

"I have a lot of optimism for young people -- nothing but hope. The big thing about the Territories is you can do what you want and still make a difference in your community.

"You get involved by volunteering or even just having a family. You're not a number like some kid in a big city."

During his tour Van Camp offered readings for high school students in Yellowknife.

During his one-hour session at St. Patrick's high school, he opened by telling students he would gloss over the many swear words that fill the pages out of sensitivity for his audience.

"We have to remember that this book is about the life of a 16-year-old. Sixteen-year-olds swear to excess."

The school's librarian, who has already added the book to the school's collection, was also selling copies of his book.

"I hope my book impacts you the same way Judy Bloom impacted me," he told students.

His next book in the series, Come a Little Death, is expected to be published soon.

Van Camp also participated in An Evening with Northern Authors, where he was joined by Michael Kusugak, Jamie Bastedo and others. He says his visit wouldn't be possible without the support of Judith Drinnan, owner of the Book Cellar in Yellowknife.

"I want to move back here when I finish school. The North's my home. I have a lot of my best friends here." Friends including Jon Liv Jaque, who, following the CKLB interview, tried to offer Van Camp the use of a free bright-yellow cellular phone during his visit to Yellowknife.

"Come on, use it. How else can I call you? Just push enter. Come on try it," said Jaque.

"Wait a minute," retorted Van Camp, obviously a little leery of the thought of walking around Yellowknife promoting his first work of fiction with a yellow cell phone glued to his ear.

"No, I'm in the public eye here. I'm doing readings at the school. If I carry this thing around, I'm finished."