Norma Sluman was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She lived in all three prairie provinces and was deeply interested in Canadian Indigenous issues. She loved to write, she loved history, and she spent most of her life studying both. While raising three children, she researched and published three books including Poundmaker, Blackfoot Crossing, and John Tootoosis: Biography of a Cree Leader (with Jean Cuthand Goodwill). Her last book, The Amulet was published posthumously by her daughter Marnie.
Why did Norma choose to write historical fiction?
She wanted to give an accurate portrayal of history that wasn’t just from the European settlers’ point of view. She found that all the written history was from a singular perspective—it was all from a governmental or military point of view. There was nothing in any of those accounts about what life was like for Indigenous people at that time. Of course there was nothing written down from their perspective because their traditions of storytelling were oral but that meant that was written down was inaccurate and incomplete. At least half of the story was missing. Everything was from the point of view of the settlers and nothing was from the perspective of those who were being “settled.” Everything was written from this really colonial perspective that celebrated the idea of the settlers coming in and recreating their own country and traditions in a new place, erasing the local culture and imposing their own culture on the local people wherever they found them. My mother wanted to show people what happened from the perspective of those people who were being erased and ignored.
What was Norma’s research process like?
A lot of her research wasn’t going to libraries, although she did spend a lot of time there, it was being friends with Indigenous people and listening to them tell their stories in their own words. A lot of her lifelong friends were Cree and Sioux and Blackfoot. One of her closest friends was Jean Cuthand Goodwil l and they worked together on a biography of Jean’s father John Tootoosis. People told her so many stories and she found those stories beautiful and touching.
What was her writing process like?
During the day when she could ship us kids off to school she would write, then shut down in the afternoon to make meals and do housework and whatever else she had to do. She did all her writing on a manual typewriter. Most of her actual research involved physically going to library but the research and the writing weren’t separate events. She didn’t do all her research first and then sit down and write. She would kind of do it in fits and starts. She would write and then when she came to a place where she needed to know something she would go back to the library to find out what she needed to know. Then she would start writing again. It wasn’t like now. She didn’t have Google. If she needed to check something she had to go the library and look it up.
Once she finished a draft she would edit right on her typewritten pages. She would make notes all over them and when she was happy with that then she’d type them out again, in triplicate. It was a really laborious process. I remember her telling me that people would come up to her at book readings and say things like “Oh, I could write a book!” And she’d think to herself, “Sure you could…” because it’s not easy. People don’t realize how much blood, sweat and tears are involved in writing a book.
You did a lot of editing on the manuscript of The Amulet. How much of The Amulet is yours and how much is Norma’s?
The book is very much my mother’s. I did my best to keep her story and the perspective of it exactly the way she wrote it. Any changes I made were to fill in gaps, to expand where things were missing or to shift language which might have perpetuated stereotypes or undermined her purpose of supporting Indigenous rights and highlighting Indigenous stories.
Do you have any more of Norma’s manuscripts hidden away?
No, they’re all published now. Any future books will have to come from me. I would love to write a continuation of The Amulet in the not so distant future and explore what happens to Catherine and Jay and their son. We’ll see what the future brings!
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-Laurie, Associate Editor
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