News and Interviews

"I am Story": Getting to know GG Nominee Harold R. Johnson, Author of a Stunning, Genre-Defying New Memoir

August 23 posting Harold R Johnson

Governor General’s Literary Award nominee Harold R. Johnson's newest book combines his expertise in fiction and non-fiction, in a genre-blending work that is being hailed as the crown jewel of an already acclaimed oeuvre.  

Clifford (House of Anansi Press) tells the story of Johnson's return to his childhood home in a northern Saskatchewan Indigenous community for the funeral of his brother, the titular Clifford. It's a stunning family tale of rich remembrance, warm wit, and spellbinding storytelling that blends fantasy, memory, and musings. Eden Robinson called Clifford a "luminous, genre-bending memoir".

We're excited to get to know the man behind the book here on Open Book through our version of the Proust Questionnaire, a set of personal, philosophical questions named after the author who loved using the questionnaire to get know people. 

Harold paints us a gorgeous picture of his home (including singing Huskies!), makes us crave a great cup of coffee, and gives us some encouraging straight talk on the idea of talent. 

The Proust Questionnaire with Harold R. Johnson

What is your dream of happiness?

Holding my wife’s hand, getting a phone call from one of my children, watching my grandchildren play.

What is your idea of misery?

Getting caught in a cycle of thinking about the abundant misery and suffering taking place right now on the planet.

Where would you like to live?

I live in a cabin on my family trapline, off grid, with a team of huskies that like to stage a group sing especially shortly after they have been fed. I live next to a large body of water that is still safe to drink straight from the lake, I am surrounded by nature that is still healthy. I don’t want to live anywhere else.

What qualities do you admire most in a man?

Honesty.

What qualities do you admire most in a woman?

Honesty.

What is your chief characteristic?

I am not a Chief. I am an Indian. I like being one of the people. It is an important role.

What is your principal fault?

I spend a lot of time in my head.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Coffee. Strong, dark, freshly roasted, freshly ground, brewed with water that still has its life in it.

What faults in others are you most tolerant of?

I try to remember that we are all human and we all have faults, we make mistakes. That is what makes us human. It is the defining characteristic of humanness.

What do you value most about your friends?

That I have them.

What characteristic do you dislike most in others?

I struggle being tolerant when I am confronted by someone intoxicated by alcohol. They are impossible to have a conversation with, but they won’t stop talking.

What characteristic do you dislike most in yourself?

That I am at times intolerant of others.

What is your favourite virtue?

An ability to genuinely listen. (Unless the speaker is drunk.)

What is your favourite occupation?

Other than my present occupation of being a writer, I am fond of the idea of operating heavy equipment, especially a dozer. My ideal would be a D7 Cat with a tilt blade and a ripper and firm till soil to work with that didn’t have too many boulders in it and I could just play all day.  Or, as a lumberjack again, with a chainsaw and big timber.

What would you like to be?

A complete human residing on this planet for a long time enjoying good health and happiness.

What is your favourite colour?

Blue.

What is your favourite flower?

Lady Slipper.

What is your favourite bird?

Humming.

What historical figure do you admire the most?

Leo Tolstoy.

What character in history do you most dislike?

Pilgrims.

Who are your favourite prose authors?

Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner.

Who are your favourite poets?

Louise Bernice Halfe.

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?

Tom Sawyer, Don Quixote.

Who are your heroes in real life?

My children.

Who is your favourite painter?

Harmony Johnson-Harder.

Who is your favourite musician?

Right now, Nathaniel Ratteliff.

What is your favourite food?

Groundhog roasted no spice.

What is your favourite drink?

Coffee followed by a Catnip, mint, and Labrador tea combination.

What are your favourite names?

Billy.

What is it you most dislike?

Feeling grouchy because I am tired and hungry.

What natural talent would you most like to possess?

There is no such thing as a natural talent. We are what we practice.

How do you want to die?

When I am ready, alone, under a tree, in the winter, praying.

What is your current state of mind?

Grateful.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I survived to age 61.

What is your motto?

I am story.

______________________________________

Harold R. Johnson is the author of five works of fiction and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (and Yours), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. Born and raised in northern Saskatchewan to a Swedish father and a Cree mother, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School and managed a private practice for several years before becoming a Crown prosecutor. Johnson is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation and lives in the north end of Saskatchewan, with his wife, Joan.

Buy the Book

Clifford

I open my eyes in the darkness, laying on my side, half my vision is of the earth and shadows; the other is of the sky, treetops, and stars. I should write Clifford’s story. The thought emerges fully formed . . . The thought dissipates. I close my eyes and the earth and the sky disappear. The warmth of my sleeping bag wraps around me and sleep pulls me under into that half-world where reality and fantasy mingle in a place where coherent thoughts disintegrate.

When Harold Johnson returns to his childhood home in a northern Saskatchewan Indigenous community for his brother Clifford’s funeral, the first thing his eyes fall on is a chair. It stands on three legs, the fourth broken off and missing. So begins a journey through the past, a retrieval of recollections that have too long sat dormant. Moving from the old family home to the log cabin, the garden, and finally settling deep in the forest surrounding the property, his mind circles back, shifting in time and space, weaving in and out of memories of his silent, powerful Swedish father; his formidable Cree mother, an expert trapper and a source of great strength; and his brother Clifford, a precocious young boy who is drawn to the mysterious workings of the universe.

As the night unfolds, memories of Clifford surface in Harold’s mind’s eye: teaching his younger brother how to tie his shoelaces; jousting on a bicycle without rubber wheels; building a motorcycle. Memory, fiction, and fantasy collide, and Clifford comes to life as the scientist he was meant to be, culminating in his discovery of the Grand Unified Theory.

Exquisitely crafted, funny, visionary, and wholly moving, Clifford is an extraordinary work for the way it defies strict category and embraces myriad forms of storytelling. To read it is to be immersed in a home, a family, a community, the wider world, the entire cosmos.

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