Interview with the Author, Lawrence Millman


RP = Russell Potter

LM = Lawrence Millman


RP: You’ve gathered these stories in a manner that seems quite different from the way stories tend to be collected by professional anthropologists. What do you see as the key differences between your approach and theirs?

LM: Well, the academics who profess folklore have an elaborate process they go through - willing themselves to be regular guys and gals, petting the dog, digging potatoes, and so on, and then at long last they produce a tape recorder and ask the "informant" if he knows some stories -- whereas my approach is much more haphazard. When you're hanging out with elders, the stories take their own natural course. You don't have to go through a process designed by some doctoral program...

RP: Maybe you could give an example?

LM: In Greenland, I once saw a couple of men somewhat in their cups who were sitting on a big glacial erratic.   One of them looked over at me and said, "Hey, white man, fuck off!" Then he asked, "D'you want to have a beer?"  Which, by the way, reflects the ambivalent mental state of the Inuit - on the one hand, white people have been fucking them over for years, and on the other hand, everyone wants to emulate white culture. Anyway, I took him up on his offer, contrary to all the "rules." And it turned out that one of these guys was a real font of stories.  Perhaps the stories were lubricated by alcohol, but who says you can't collect stories from a drunk?  Only hidebound academics...

RP: And they were receptive to the interest you expressed?

LM: Well, part of it was that they were delighted that I could speak their language, for Qalunaat like me seldom bother to learn anything other than the expressions for "hello" and "goodbye."  The other thing was that I hadn't gone to Greenland simply to collect stories.  I was exploring parts of the island and writing about my explorations.  So I was meeting the people as a natural part of my work, and this created a kind of bond.

RP: The first story in your book is a version of the legend of the Inuit spirit known in Greenland as Nerrivik ("food dish"), but more commonly called "Sedna" by anthropologists. She seems to have many different names in many regions, and some Inuit resent the way the name "Sedna" has come to be accepted as her only name.

LM: Well, today a lot of people are getting the name "Sedna" out of books.  In fact, many of them wouldn't know there was such an entity as Sedna but for the books written about their traditional lore.  As for some of the elders, they don't like to use her name because once upon a time there was a taboo -- you say her name, and she refuses to provide for you. Ted Carpenter talks about this in his book "Eskimo."

RP: The anthropological method always seems to be to try to boil down, to condense the wide variety of names and tales in the oral tradition into a few "master narratives," linking them up to the tropes in the Stith Thompson index and so forth.

LM: Right.   Being a writer myself, I have an instinct for stories, and my feeling is, the tales I collected were just good stories, similar to the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Borges.  Indeed, a lot of Inuit stories bear a a certain resemblance to magical realism, and in some respects they're every bit as rich and complex. That Stith Thompson stuff is really for people who are publishing in petit mal journals or who are trying to get tenure in places like South Dakota.

RP: Did you encounter any pressure to change these stories from your publishers?

LM: As it happens, a good many of them were shortened a bit.  I took out local references, place names, mnemonic devices, and such.  Neither the publisher or I wanted this to be a book just for specialists.   The original publisher, Noel Young, was an old friend of Henry Miller's, and he'd actually published some of Miller's work.  Now that he's dead, I can tell you this: his initial attraction was not that I was providing a window on Inuit culture, but that the stories were sexy.

RP: That’s amazing. It’s funny, though, the writer that comes to mind when I think of many of these stories is not so much Miller as William S. Burroughs — I mean, you have all these detachable body parts, all these animated inanimate objects, it almost reminds me of Naked Lunch, they’re so hallucinatory.

LM: Well, they are. The thing about it, I often think, is that in places where the material culture is very bare, the need to imaginatively transform the world is well nigh overwhelming.  Whereas, if you go to someplace verdant, you don't have to perform any transformations, because the wealth is already there.  In other words, when you have at your fingertips a voluptuous world, the imagination tends to be more mimetic than it would be when the culture and landscape are austere. Also, the fact that  people are often skinning and cutting up animals somehow translates into the rather different types of dismemberment you find described in the stories.

RP: Do you have a favorite story?

LM: "The Fox Wife and the Penis of the Lake." There was a review of the book when it first came out, in the Village Voice. The reviewer had done some background reading, and he compared my version of that story to one retold by Peter Freuchen, which, the reviewer thought, was nice, while mine was disturbing and somehow less authentic. But of course Freuchen had been writing in an era when you couldn't write about a giant penis rising up out of a lake, so his version started in the middle and left the penis part of the story out!

RP: So what’s the best way to get these kinds of stories?

LM: I often think you have to be poor, just like the people you're hanging out with. You acquire a certain arrogance when you can afford to insulate yourself from the people you’re living among. When I was living in Greenland, I really didn't have much money; I was wandering about on the proverbial shoe-string, and that's when things started to happen.

RP: Do the people you collect these stories from appreciate them?

LM: When Kayak Full of Ghosts first came out, I sent a copy to one of the elders I’d gotten a story from in Chantry Inlet. I got a letter from the old man’s son, saying that his father couldn’t read it, but that he appreciated the gift. But the son had read the book, and really liked it; he wrote that it was "almost as good as Stephen King."

RP: High words of praise -- where can you go from there?

LM: Right now I'm editing a series of reprints of Arctic books for The Lyons Press and the Explorers club, for which I'll also be writing introductions. I've just written the introduction for Dillon Wallace's The Lure of the Labrador Wild.  This book is one of the books which inspired me to go North.  It's both amazing and ironic that you can be inspired to go somewhere by an account of an utterly disastrous expedition.

RP: As someone long ago bitten by the Franklin bug, I think I know what you mean. So, do you have any parting expression in Inuktitut you’d like to leave with?

LM: Yes — Quisuktunga.

RP: Which means?

LM: I’ve got to go take a piss.

RP: Well, I wouldn’t want to hold you up — thanks for talking with us.

LM: Ilaali...  (You're welcome.)