Writing across multiple genres no small task – but managing schedules and headspace helps

David A. Robertson finds ‘commonality that makes it comfortable’ to work with different types of writing

Winnipeg-based David A. Robertson is a busy guy these days.

David A. Robertson
David A. Robertson

For starters, he has three new books coming out this fall. There’s The Barren Grounds, Book 1 of The Misewa Saga series, a middle grade fantasy novel; Breakdown, the first graphic novel in his The Reckoner Rises series; and his memoir Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory.

Robertson’s own life, and that of his father, is also being shared in his five-episode CBC podcast, Kiwew (the title is a Cree word meaning “he goes home”).

Aside from the new works, he also has a new edition of his award-winning debut novel, The Evolution of Alice, featuring a new final chapter; a Cree-English edition of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning picture book, When We Were Alone; and German editions of When We Were Alone and Strangers, the first YA novel in his The Reckoner trilogy.

  • The Barren Grounds
  • David A. Robertson
  • PRH Canada Young Readers
  • $21.99 Hardcover, 256 pages
  • ISBN: 978-07-35266-10-0

How does he juggle so many different genres? “I’ve been adapting to different types of writing over my career, but there’s also a commonality that makes it comfortable,” Robertson says. “And that’s trying to find the thread – what the narrative is – that holds the story together. I don’t think it’s that different in non-fiction and fiction, in a way – because you have to think about what holds it all together, and you still need to have the journey.”

Telling the story of his life and writing fiction are not so very different, he says. “It’s about finding the truth in the story, but it’s also about finding the truth in what you want to say.”

Robertson’s early writing took the form of graphic novels, and his love for that form continues in his new The Reckoner Rises series, which continues the story of Cole Harper, a First Nations youth with severe anxiety and the power and desire to save his community. In Robertson’s The Reckoner trilogy of YA novels, Cole was a superhero figure with a great origin story, so he is a good fit for comics.

Robertson’s adult novel, The Evolution of Alice, was first published in 2014 and garnered acclaim from readers and critics. Unsurprisingly, he considered writing a sequel to the open-ended novel about Alice, her daughters, and her friend Gideon.

“The characters always seemed to be real to me,” he says. “That’s one of the things I heard most from people who read the book.” He started a sequel, but says, “I really just wanted to drop in on them and see how they’re doing.”

The result was a short story, published in Prairie Fire in 2017, which became the final chapter of the novel in the new edition.

And now, Robertson is writing for middle grade readers, too. The Barren Grounds tells of two foster kids, Morgan and Eli, who find their way into another world, a sort of Indigenous Narnia, where their adventures help them to understand issues of identity and home – familiar territory for Robertson.

With so many projects on the go recently, on top of working a day job and parenting, Robertson says he has to schedule his time carefully. “I can’t work on a middle grade fantasy, like The Barren Grounds, and right after work on the memoir, and then work on the graphic novels.”

He spaces his writing times out. “For me, the important thing is getting into the right headspace, because the writing styles are different, the characters are different, the language has to be different.”

Sadly, as Robertson worked on his memoir and podcast, his father passed away at the end of 2019. On top of the enormous effect that had on him, he says he also had to consider whether, and how, it would change the work on Black Water and Kiwew.

The podcast, especially the last episode, changed more than the memoir. “I thought it was nice to take the opportunity, as hard as it was to write that episode and perform it, to be able to really honour him,” says Robertson. “In the end, it was a good testament to the man that he was, the father that he was. I was glad to be able to do that, as much as I would prefer not to have had to do that.”

Now, he says, he frequently re-listens to that episode. “It helps me to feel like he’s with me.”

The memoir wasn’t affected as much, although he did rewrite the epilogue, as a goodbye to his dad. “It allowed me to celebrate his life,” he says.

Currently, as Robertson gears up for a busy fall, like many authors he is navigating a new reality for book-related events as gatherings may be restricted owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, he’s looking forward to introducing three new books to readers.

“I’m excited for each one for different reasons,” he says, “and I’m proud of them.”