Joseph Boyden is afraid of heights. Still, when his wife decided she wanted to go bungee jumping, he went too. Not just as a spectator, but harnessed to the end of the long elastic tether. That jump was a triumph of guts over fear. It didn’t cure his anxiety, but the exhilaration of tackling something that terrified him still fills Boyden with a sense of achievement.

He tells the bungee jumping story to the graduating students of Nipissing University. It’s an unusual deviation from the standard pep talk typically addressed at convocation but Boyden’s talk of courage and risk-taking reaches both students and faculty. He is, after all, a skilled storyteller.

His first two novels brought him unexpected success. First there was Three Day Road – an allegorical journey down life’s rivers, which has been translated into 15 languages and earned countless awards, including McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year. His second novel, Through Black Spruce, has been on Canadian bestseller lists since its debut last September.

It was a risk becoming a writer – a risk with no guarantees there would be any kind of pay off. But then again, teaching in James Bay was a risk. Moving to New Orleans, where he´s now the writer-in-residence at the University of New Orleans MFA program in fiction, was a risk. Bungee jumping was a risk.

Boyden graciously set aside time from a family trip up the Florida/Alabama coastline to speak with TORO about writing two novels, gangster rap in New Orleans and the supposed allure of First Nations spirituality, among other topics.

Q: Three Day Road transformed me. If a book can transform its reader, what does it do to its writer?
A: Writing that book was a four-and-a-half-year process. I think I grew up in so many ways by writing that novel. I didn’t have an agent; I didn’t have a publisher the whole time writing it. I didn’t know if it would ever see the light of day, but I kept chopping away. There were many, many times I felt overwhelmed and felt I was wasting my time. I went through a lot of emotions writing that book. But I really feel that it was a growing up period for me – a final maturation process.

Q: You’re not an old man now.
A: No, not at all.

Q: So you must have been very young when you began writing it.
A: I showed it the first time at the end of 2003. I’d been working on it, but really since ’98 in a serious way. I was 31 or 32 when the idea first came to me, and then I really started at it in earnest when I moved back to New Orleans from James Bay.

Q: New Orleans is not the safest place to be.
A: Neither is James Bay [laughs]. But for different reasons.

Q: I´ve never been to New Orleans but I hear it can be a rough place.
A: It was ranked, per capita, the murder capital of the States recently, which is a shame. Most of it is drug related, turf-related gang wars, but it spills over all the time into innocent lives, which is the most unfortunate part of it. Living there, you just have to be careful. If you’re careful and smart, you don’t do anything stupid, and the vast majority of people get by just fine. It is at times quite disheartening, especially in summertime when it seems the murder rate goes way up.

Q: And especially since the city has such a great soundtrack. You might think that music could tame the demons.
A: You would think. I’m not blaming any type of music, but certainly New Orleans is one of the hubs of gangster rap. I feel it glamorizes the kind of thug life or street life, the get-rich-or-die-trying frame of mind, which I think is one of the most damaging things in our community.

Q: When I think of New Orleans music I think zydeco.
A: New Orleans is very much that too. It’s the home to all kinds of music from blues to jazz to zydeco to hardcore rap, to you name it.

Q: What drew you there?
A: Originally, I was a roadie for a punk-rock band and we would go through there. I fell in love with the city – the history of it, the way it’s kind of a living history. It was like a little bubble in America that is so unlike anywhere else in the States.

Q: I know a lot of musicians who have gone to New Orleans and found themselves returning.
A: Writers too. A lot of writers have gone through there and called it home for at least a short time.

Q: What band were you a roadie for?
A: It was a band called Bazooka Joe.

Q: I know Bazooka Joe.
A: Well, there was another band called Bazooka Joe that had a hit on the radio. But that wasn’t them.

Q: So your first love was music, or was your passion limited to carrying equipment for musicians?
A: Music has always played a big role in my life. I was never a musician per se. I played the blues harmonica but I was never too serious about any other instruments.

Q: Where are you right now?
A: I’m right on the Florida/Alabama coast. My wife’s sister and her husband and two kids came down to visit, so we thought we’d get them out of New Orleans for a while and down to the beach.

Q: Did you say your wife’s sister?
A: Yeah.

Q: Good. For a moment I thought you said your white sister.
A: [Laughs]

Q: Which would have been cool, just a different direction for the interview. But now that we’ve broached the subject, you are First Nations, are you not?
A: My family is Métis. I’m a mixed blood of Irish, Scottish and Ojibwa.

Q: And you’re a teacher.
A: Yeah. Moosonee was my home base and I would travel up the west coast to James Bay to teach. I was Professor of Aboriginal Programs at Northern College. Now I’m writer-in-residence at the University of New Orleans.

Q: Has being of mixed heritage posed any problems for you within the First Nations community?
A: My experience with First Nations communities across Canada is that they’ve always been extremely welcoming, especially when the band is not my own. The Cree up in James Bay, the Ojibwa in different communities than mine – I’ve only found incredibly warm and open arms. I’ve lived in a number of these communities. I think if you show that you’re not going to isolate yourself from the community then people are quite open.

Q: After reading author Sherman Alexie’s book Indian Killer I’ve become sensitive to the idea of the non-native outsider digging up whatever native roots that can be found in order to belong.
A: Sherman is actually a dear friend of mine. The white person who wants to be adopted by the Indian tribe fascinates Sherman. That kind of stereotype I think tickles him a little bit. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he would say enough Indians had a hard enough time being raised Indian. And he doesn’t quite get some white people, whose heart is probably in the right place but they’re locked in a wannabe status.

Q: The desire to be part of a culture that is so rich in spirit, mythology, history and mysticism can hardly be a mystery. Your books Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce present some pretty convincing arguments for wanting to belong.
A: Well, my characters are always flawed. I think they’re human that way. You look at any of my protagonists, whether it’s Will Bird or his niece Annie, or in Three Day Road, Xavier, they all make mistakes. They’re all human. But if you notice between Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce there’s quite a bit less of the mysticism or the mythical aspect. And I did that on purpose because I think that in this 21st century, the culture´s definitely all there but sometimes the spirituality is not nearly as strong as I think it once was.

Q: Is it not the same for all religions?
A: I would think so. I’m remembering myself in childhood versus now. My father raised us very Catholic and I’m not much of a churchgoer anymore.

Q: Was it harder to write the second novel after the success of the first?
A: I had to pause for a long while after writing Three Day Road. I ended up doing a lot of travelling around the world. I’m very lucky that way because it came out in so many languages in different countries. There was a sense of worry and wonder if I could do it again – if I could write another book after a successful first one. There was a bit of concern there. But as soon as my characters grew up and took over in Through Black Spruce, all of those worries just went away. I actually enjoyed writing Through Black Spruce more than Three Day Road. I felt like I had already learned something from writing Three Day Road. Once I got into Through Black Spruce I was no longer concerned.

My wife Amanda is a novelist, Amanda Boyden. And we really push each other to write. Writers go through a lot of dark moments of the soul. But Amanda and I continue to push each other as best we can. One sees the other writing and it gets us motivated.

Q: How did you and Amanda meet?
A: First day of graduate school back in New Orleans in 1992. We both joined an MFA program, a Master of Fine Arts fiction program. We met each other on the first day of class.

Q: Given the photo I’m looking at of you on the back of one of your books, I’m sure she was quite easily smitten.
A: [Laughs] I think I was the more smitten one.

Q: What do you as a writer with a Métis background owe to the First Nations community?
A: What I owe to First Nations people in Canada is to be honest and to get it right if I’m going to write about the culture. As a writer I write about what inspires me and grabs me by the gut and just pulls me and won’t let me go. It’s just a straight road from there on. There’s no apologies or anything else. I go for what obsesses me and what captivates me.

Q: Living within a Canadian wilderness seems to be one obsession. Are we as a nation losing our spiritual connection to the wilderness?
A: I think so. Ninety per cent of our population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border. A lot of Canadians have never been up in the bush, which is a shame, but not everyone is built for that kind of life. In any kind of urban society such as Canada has there’s a real disconnection between a person’s average life and life in the wilderness. But certainly I like nothing more than to go up to James Bay Lowlands and just disappear and go canoeing, fishing and hunting. It’s my way to escape.

Q: With Amanda or without?
A: She comes on the rare occasion, but it’s more of a boy’s trip. I bring my son Jacob up. I often go with one of my many brothers. I always go up and visit my best friend.

Q: Who was the encouraging voice up in James Bay that planted the seed that you had the ability to write?
A: I don’t think there was anyone particularly in James Bay because I was keeping a very low profile at that point. I didn’t have any books out at the time. I was writing quietly, but I didn’t let anyone know that I was writing when I was living there those couple of years. But way back in undergrad in York University in Toronto there was a professor named Bruce Powe. I was taking a number of non-fiction courses from him and he was the first one to tell me that I got something and I should keep writing – that I got a shot at it. So I decided to pursue the MFA – the Master of Fine Arts program down south.

Q: So I’m wrong in assuming you were raised in James Bay?
A: I grew up in Toronto and Georgian Bay.

Q: That was a huge assumption. What took you to James Bay?
A: My sister Mary lived near there for many years. She told me there was a teaching job. I was just out of graduate school and needed work and inspiration, so those things came together really nicely.

Q: Sounds like that in itself is a good story. Is it too homespun for you to write about?
A: Maybe one day when I’m older. I want to live a life more fully before I start doing memoirs.

Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. For more from Thom, visit the Saturday Night at the Movies blog.