“I finally asked those questions about what high school and her first relationships were like.”

Five years ago, after her high school graduation, my daughter Ellie paddled 500 miles through subarctic Canada along the Thelon River in an area known as the Barren Lands. The trip took 45 days, and she and her three friends didn’t see another human for 30 of those days. The following year, when Ellie was away at college taking a writing course and was given a short story assignment, I said that I had an idea for her: two young women embark upon the Thelon River journey, then one dies a week in. The other is tasked with canoeing the remaining miles out of the wilderness with the dead and rotting body. Ellie said, “Dad, why don’t you write it?”

I did.

Though it started as a short story, it grew over time. The simple adventure story needed dialogue (remember, it’s just one woman with a dead body) and an emotional arc, which opened up a range of issues. Ellie is gay, and I wanted my main character to be Ellie-like. So then I needed to explore the relationship between the two characters and their backstories. I’m an older heterosexual guy and I’d never set foot in subarctic Canada, so I was deeply reliant on my daughter’s research. It pushed us to communicate—really communicate.

I guess, like many parents, when it comes to their kids’ developing relationships, it’s strictly don’t ask, don’t tell, and don’t get pregnant. For me, as the parent of a gay child, it was much more than that. With a heterosexual daughter I could pretty much imagine the kinds of relationships she might have had, but with Ellie the relationship and sex thing was much murkier. To write this book honestly, I now had to ask those uncomfortable questions.

Something else—and I don’t want you to think that I’m not a caring father, because I most certainly am. Like a mother character I wrote about, I had wanted a “normal” child who ran with a clique of high school friends, went to prom with all those prom photos, got married in front of our friends and relatives, and had a family. Of course, none of this was told to Ellie overtly, nor did I discuss this with my wife or anyone else. It’s just something I secretly felt. I’m guilty of having those very un-woke thoughts.

So, back to the book I was writing. I started with the simple stuff that Ellie really enjoyed relaying to me—what the Thelon and surrounding tundra looked and felt like, how strange it was when the sun never completely set, the wildlife, the plant life, canoeing day after day, camping, and her relationships with fellow paddlers. But then, as I wrote, the backstory of each character had to be written honestly. I finally asked those questions about what high school and her first relationships were like. What was it like to be outed in junior high? What were the good relationships and the dysfunctional ones? We even talked about sex. Through our discussions, the very fictional backstories of the characters came together.

Ellie and I talked over the phone much of the time, but some of the more personal items were discussed over rounds of beer at local bars. Her partner, Kate, was present for some of these discussions. Somewhat to my surprise, they enjoyed these conversations, and I quickly got over my awkwardness.

The short story turned into a novel, The Barrens. I added Ellie as the coauthor because much of the book is her story, and she’s the one who provided the descriptions that brought the setting and the relationships to life. We’re thrilled it will be published in May.

How did our book collaboration change our relationship? We’d always been close, but that closeness revolved around doing things together—stuff like skiing, paddling, scuba diving. We still do stuff together, and to be honest that’s the core of our ongoing relationship (she and I do not really like to sit around and talk about emotions and relationships—ick!). But I now know and have empathy for what she went through growing up and going to college. I asked and she told, which provided a deeper grounding of our relationship—nothing overt, more like a couple of buddies that share experiences. It’s there, and both know what they know.

And guess what? She did and does have a clique of friends, mostly those she paddled with. She does want a wedding in front of friends and family. And she and her partner do want to have a family. I’m grateful for our closeness, and grateful that her story became our novel, which will soon be a book the world can read.

Kurt Johnson is the coauthor, with his daughter Ellie Johnson, of The Barrens: A Novel of Love and Death in the Canadian Arctic, to be published by Arcade on May 3.