Jules’ Tools for Social Change: Grey Eyes, an interview with Frank Christopher Busch

Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.This month’s featured author is Frank Christopher Busch, author of Grey Eyes, published by Roseway Publishing. Grey Eyes is Frank’s debut novel and is set in the village of the Nehiyawak, in a world where European colonization of Indigenous people has not occurred. As Frank explains: “what I want to do is throw our modern problems at our ancestors to show people how they would have dealt with them.”


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Dear Reader,Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.
This month’s featured author is Frank Christopher Busch, author of Grey Eyes, published by Roseway PublishingGrey Eyes is Frank’s debut novel and is set in the village of the Nehiyawak, in a world where European colonization of Indigenous people has not occurred. As Frank explains: “what I want to do is throw our modern problems at our ancestors to show people how they would have dealt with them.”Frank has launched an IndieGoGo campaign, Grey Eyes , to put copies of the book into the hands of readers at schools on First Nations reserves, which are funded at rates 40% lower than other schools in Canada.I met Frank at the Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair on November 16, 2014, where we chatted about the conception of the book, his unique marketing and promotion strategy, and the incredible importance of providing Indigenous youth with access to their culture. Our conversation was recorded and is embedded below, with a written transcription below the embedded sound file.
Transcription:Julia Horel: Hi, I’m Julia, I’m the blogger behind Jules’ Tools for Social Change, and I’m here with Frank Christopher Busch, who is the author of Grey EyesFrank Christopher Busch: Pleased to be here.JH: Can you tell our readers a little bit about what Grey Eyes is? What’s the story?FCB: Well, it is a story that takes place in pre-contact North America, prior to European arrival, and it’s based on the legends, mythologies, culture and spirituality of the First Nations people—specifically the Nēhiyawak, as we call ourselves, better known as the Cree tribe.So, into this particular traditional village, there’s a boy born with grey eyes. According to their legends, everybody knows that if you’re born with grey eyes, it means that you’re going to have special abilities, like special magic. Now, unfortunately, because it’s such a rare and powerful gift, there’s no one around to teach the boy how it works, and he has to kind of rise up to learning it very quickly in order to protect the village from their enemy, the Red Eyes. And the Red Eyes have the same kind of magical abilities, but they use it for evil. So the boy has to dedicate himself to the teachings of his adopted grandfather, who happens to be the medicine man. So, he learns the secrets of the plant world, the teachings of the medicine wheel — he learns the ceremonies and tries to find that power within himself to help his village.JH: How long did it take you to conceive of and write the book?FCB: Three months. And that was while I was working full-time at a law firm, eight-hour days. I put two to three hours a day into it, and it just kind of poured right out, it bled onto the page. It was very therapeutic, because at the time I was working with residential school survivors for their claim against the federal government of Canada, and the residential school settlement agreement, so I was kind of touring the country, mostly small communities, isolated reserves, explaining how the settlement agreement works, and interviewing the survivors one-on-one.So I got into a situation where within a three-year period, I had presented to about two thousand residential school survivors and I interviewed about eight hundred of them. So I absolutely heard stories that would curl your hair, and I was actually approached by someone who wanted me to write the worst residential school novel ever written, to take the worst sexual abuse stories that I heard and put them kind of into one storyline. And I thought, wow, that’s a really bad idea, because, first off, it’s not my story to tell. These survivors shared their stories with me because they were basically legally obligated to do so, but also, I thought: where does that take us as a country? I mean, we have a lot of work out there about what happened in residential schools, and its social impact, but we don’t have that much out there about how do we move forward?  So I really thought about what the survivors needed, and the message that I got from them over and over again was that they kept saying, “I just want my culture back.” So I thought, how do you give someone back a culture when they’ve been so taken away from it, or separated from it through colonial assimilation policy, and I thought: well, you have to show them what it would have looked like if they got to live their life free of government intervention, and were just able to grow up in a traditional community with their language and culture intact.JH: Is the idea that Grey Eyes is an alternate history as if European contact had never happened?FCB: Yes, or possibly prior to, or after European contact. [laughs]JH: So, is it historical, as if pre-contact, or imagined, as if colonization had not occurred? FCB: Well, I guess colonization doesn’t really factor into it, because it can kind of be either or. I’m trying to remain very ambiguous on the time frame, because it’s going to be a series—I’m going to be writing seven books—so I don’t want to give away what may or may not happen in the future.The concept is that at least this group of people has not had contact with European culture, and they are still very much in their own world. I think there’s this misconception out there that nothing was happening in North America until Europeans arrived. When you read our history books, that’s kind of what you hear. “Well there were some Indigenous people, doing whatever Indigenous people do, and then we showed up and the greatest country in the world was born.”Yeah, I take a little exception to that gist of history, you know, and I kind of think about: no, there were stories happening, there were the same kinds of problems as we have today. Even amongst Native people, there’s this ideology that our ancestors lived in this utopian world where everyone got along, and everyone was so enlightened, and I thought: no, they struggled to survive. And they had all the same social problems that we have today, but they had governance structures in place to help deal with them, to help mitigate those problems. And I really think in the Native community, that’s what we’ve really lost, is our social structures, those constructs that are set up to help people govern themselves together harmoniously in a society. So that’s kind of what Grey Eyes is about: they live in together in the traditional matriarchal system of the Cree people. You know, the eldest female in each clan is the matriarch, the matriarchs get together to make the decisions for the group through consensus, and the men make up the warrior societies that take their direction from the clan mothers.Based on this social construct and how it operated, was really how we resolved the issues. With my novels, what I want to do is throw our modern problems at our ancestors to show people how they would have dealt with them. I incorporate this fantastical concept of the magic in order to kind of help communicate the power of culture, the power of faith, whatever you want to call it, these kinds of feelings that are created when you work together as a society and participate in communal ceremonies, what effect that has on bringing together a village as a single unit.JH: So, to promote the book, you did a lot of marketing before it was even launched?FCB: Yeah, I have the advantage of being something of a marketing expert. I’m the marketing director of a national Native non-profit now, and so I took some of the skills that I had from business and marketing and applied it to the publishing industry. And some of it was a bit of a shake-up because, you know, the publisher wasn’t familiar with my process, and wasn’t always comfortable with what I was doing in a lot of ways. You know: oh, it had never been done, or that’s not really done in this industry, but well, this is me, and I’m going to do it my way, come on, just go along with it. So: “okay, it’s your effort.”So what I did was, I actually provided portions of my original manuscript on a Facebook group, allowing people to share them. I made it kind of open source, and we’re talking the first fifteen percent of my novel, like, the opening ten chapters. That was a really huge contribution, but people read it enough to get hooked and they started talking about it. I amassed this huge social media following, and when the book was about to be released, I offered it for presale through PayPal, through myself. I believe I received about six hundred preorders and generated around $12,000 in revenue, that I was then able to apply to my marketing plan, so I kind of gave myself an advance in that way.It was pretty different that I was doing that. I don’t think a lot of authors do that—they don’t see themselves as being a salesperson. When you get published, you become the primary salesperson and the brand of your book. The people want to know who the author is, what the author’s story is, what gives the author the audacity to tell these stories. So, I knew that going into it, and kind of built a brand in that way, and it seems to have been quite successful.Now when I have a new idea, the publisher is like, “yeah, go for it!”JH: Because it worked.FCB: Yeah, and not all of my ideas work. Some of them kind of flopped, but I keep trying new things, and I talk to other authors. I do a lot of cross-promoting with other authors and I was really surprised to find that authors, by and large, seem to think they’re in competition with one another. So, I kind of explained to authors: well, you know, it took me three years to get the book submitted, edited, published, the whole nine yards—three years. And a person, a fast reader, could read it in five or six hours. You know, for me, I read about a book a week, so, three years to make a book … I should be recommending other authors in my genre. It’s funny how few of them want to do that. I’m bringing people more and more on board to start doing this, and to develop us as a genre, and I feel like anyone who reads my book and enjoys it, I should be able to give them five book recommendations of other authors who are in a similar genre.JH: Can you talk a little bit about your IndieGoGo campaign?FCB: Yes, it’s called Grey Eyes . Initially, when I wrote the manuscript, I had these delusions of grandeur that I was going to write this book that would be perfect for First Nations schools, and that all six hundred thirty-three First Nations would all buy a set of books, and I would become a bajillionaire overnight.So that was a wonderful fantasy, until I found that First Nations schools are, per capita, funded 40% less than public schools. Most of the English teachers on First Nations have approximately a $500 annual budget for buying books. And schools don’t really get any discounts or wholesale opportunities unless they’re a part of a greater school district, and the First Nations schools are not. A lot of them are just buying replacement books at full retail. I thought, okay, well, that’s no good, I’ll never get it out that way. And I really want our youth to be able to read the story, because there’s a lot in there about rites of passage and growing up, and coming of age.I launched the IndieGoGo campaign to allow people who are interested, and want to support First Nations Education, to donate, so we could do a special print run. I partnered with my publisher, Roseway Publishing, and Hignell Book Printers to do a special run of Grey Eyes for the schools, and we do it at a wholesale rate. So basically, people are able to donate $10 to the IndieGoGo campaign, and we’re able to put one book into the hands of a First Nations reader.We’re in a situation right now, to date, we’ve raised just enough to donate about five hundred copies. They’ll be donated in sets of twenty-five to First Nations schools in partnership with on-reserve educators. That will include the full teacher’s guide that was developed by a First Nations educator, so that anyone, regardless of ethnicity or knowledge of First Nations history or culture, can still deliver the curriculum.That’s going to be really great, and I’m still continuing in that vein, and will probably continue that. I may launch another one shortly after for other First Nations authors, because my book is probably appropriate for grade nine plus, and a lot of First Nations schools I’ve been talking to only go up to grade six or seven.  So I’ve identified another really good book, Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette, which I think would work very well for the grade six, grade seven crowd. I’ve been talking to Aaron about starting a campaign to get his books into schools in the same way.JH: Anything else you’d like to share with potential readers?FCB: Definitely to find my book and read it; I guess I have to slip in that shameless self-promotion. I’ve had a lot of really great reviews. I was reviewed by Joseph Boyden. He had some really great comments for me, as well as other Native authors: Duncan Mercredi and Ernie Louttit. It’s being described as “the Native Harry Potter for grown-ups,” so I appreciate the compliment, but it’s kind of funny when you’re an Indigenous author and you’ve got to be to be compared to something non-Indigenous immediately. But, yeah, I would say that’s probably a valid comparison, minus the four-hundred fifty million in sales, right?JH: So far!FCB: So far. One day at a time, I guess, one book at a time. JH: Thank you very much.FCB: Thank you.[Editor’s note: as of November 20, 2014, the Grey Eyes IndieGogo campaign had raised enough funds to send 549 copies of the book to First Nations schools.]