Interview with Eden Robinson

Eden Robinson is a Haisla/Heiltsuk author who grew up in Haisla, British Columbia. Her first book, Traplines, a collection of short stories, won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998. Monkey Beach, her first novel, was shortlisted for both The Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction in 2000 and won the BC Book Prize’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her most recent novel is Blood Sports.

Stephanie McKenzie (SM): Okay, Eden . . . I’ve been waiting to ask you this for a long while. Is there going to be a sequel to Blood Sports? I’ve been on edge since I finished that book.

Eden Robinson
Eden Robinson

Eden Robinson (ER): Death Sports was about 100 pages along when it died and refused to move anymore. Sometimes they’re that. I’m not sure if it’s my approach, or if I need to do more research, or if I just need to wait, but it isn’t coming anytime soon.

SM: I’m interested in the way in which you seem to market your work. Or maybe it’s the case that you find a story takes time to tell or perhaps that a story deserves to be told again and again until the point is made? I’m wondering if you could talk about the fact that all of your works are interrelated—that the moment one ends another begins. What is the purpose of that for you? Having works build upon one another?

ER: I like the characters, and kept trying to give them better endings. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the muse went dark and no amount of chocolate was going to cajole a happy ending.

SM: I often refer to you—if I’m trying to recommend someone read your work—as Canada’s Flannery O’Connor. Have you read much O’Connor? If so, are you a fan of her work?

ER: Oh, my God, it was such a relief to find O’Connor! Her material, her stylistic choices, her worlds—everything resonated. Huge fan. Can’t pick a favourite book.

SM: I’m really interested in the fact that you experiment so much with different genres: the short story/short story collection (Traplines); the novel (Monkey Beach); the “screenplayish” novel (Blood Sports) and expository prose (Sasquatch at Home). Did you set out to experiment with as many literary genres as possible? Or did the genres choose you, so to speak, as the stories developed?

ER: I envy writers who are multi-genre! I work mostly in fiction and dabble in essays. Blood Sports was where I finally figured out how to play with structure and I was like a pyro with a box of fireworks. Must light everything now. I’m trying to find a way to tell certain stories, and some stories demand a different approach.

SM: I know you’ve pointed to Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe as literary influences. I’d be interested if there are other literary influences who have been important to you. Any female authors? You mention Jane Austen in one interview. Also, I’m wondering what you are reading right now and who you would recommend?

ER: Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler for their fearless world-building. Lee Maracle’s Celia’s Song for the bratty mink. Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and its supreme lack of bathos. Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean because her Aristotle was perfectly human—and I was a huge fan of Mary Renault’s ancient Greece, and Annabel’s eye for details reminded me of her. Lynn Coady’s flawed and hilarious characters. Lisa Moore’s collection, Open, with every perfect sentence. The Margarets. Erika Wurth for her urban rez gangland stories. Right now I’m reading Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy. I also found Stephan Graham Jones, a native writer who genre-hops.

SM: This next question begins with a long comment. Thing is, first and foremost, your writing brought me back to a state of excitement that I experienced as a kid reading Nancy Drew. And that’s a huge compliment, by the way. That is, when I encountered your work, I encountered suspense again, the desire to save the last few pages for a perfect time, the desire for everyone to go away and leave me alone with my book. So that’s my first response to your writing. As a fellow writer, I also admire your writing style and spend time wondering how you create the suspenseful worlds you create. Then, as a professor who teaches literature and who has developed a course on your work, I’m led, of course, to experience your writing in many different ways—aside from being a reader who simply delights in a well-written story. To that end, I’ve come to think of Jeremy not just as a messed-up character but as one who is representative of the psychosis of a nation. Canada. Canada’s participation in residential schools. Canada’s strange and violent policies, its past and present realities. I’m wondering if you can comment on what points and ideas you see your various works as making—either separately or together. Maybe the direct question is “do you intend for your works to be allegorical”?

ER: Wow. Thank you. That is quite lovely to hear. My younger cousins have been complaining about how long my novels are—they’ve read them in First Nations English 10/11/12 and then again in first year university.

Our culture is weird and violent because people are weird and violent. If the Canuck fan riot in Vancouver showed us anything, it’s that we have a lot of repressed rage. What are we angry about? What aren’t we angry about? We have our generous moments, our kind moments, our happy moments, but we’re glossing over a lot of ambivalence. The violence towards women, especially the missing and murdered indigenous women, underlines the things we aren’t talking about, the things we’re leaving unsaid.

The residential schools were an example of the way we treat fellow humans as if they weren’t human, as if a group of people didn’t have the same feelings, fears, needs and joys as everybody else. Watching Ferguson, watching the #ICan’tBreathe movement, watching the current Muslim terrorist fear-mongering in Canada tells me that we aren’t comfortable believing ‘other’ people are human. You won’t get our empathy, our sympathy, our compassion unless you look and think just like us.

SM: I’d love to ask you some questions about specific characters and specific moments in your fiction. . . The Smythes, for example, in Traplines. At first, they seem to be these do-gooders who provide a stark contrast with Will and his world and who seem to represent one half of the dichotomy that poses impasses in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations, though, as you’ve pointed out, only one of the stories in Traplines has a specific Indigenous context. But upon further reflection, they creep me out, really. They never address the issue of how their child went missing. Mr. Smythe seems to break boundaries by approaching Will in inappropriate ways (without Mrs. Smythe being present) when he asks Will to live with them. Both he and Mrs. Smythe don’t go through the proper social agency channels to help Will. Can you comment on the Smythes as you understand them? Did you mean for them to be creepy? Did you mean for them to be representative of something?

ER: I meant for them to be helpful, but it is creepy. People often come up with solutions to help other people that don’t include asking the people who need help what they need. When you impose a solution on someone, the power dynamic is always weird, no matter how good your intentions. You can see the same dynamic all through Canada. Solutions imposed on other people don’t often benefit the people they’re meant to help.

SM: Perhaps the strangest story in Traplines is “Dogs in Winter.” It doesn’t seem to neatly fit with the others, though it does fit, of course, with your contemporary-gothic style. I’m wondering if you could explain why you chose the title you did for this work and how you see this story meshing with the other stories in the collection?

ER: The strangest story in the collection was “Terminal Avenue,” which was quickly excised. It was my spec fic, bondage, aboriginal response to Oka and the Fraser River salmon wars. After 50 Shades, I think it probably would have been the title piece, but back in the mid-90s, bondage porn didn’t belong in a serious fiction collection and we replaced it with “Queen of the North.”

“Dogs in Winter” was titled after the opening sequence of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which was, and still is, one of my favourite Helen Mirren movies. How the idea of the girl with a mother who is a serial killer and eating writers got co-joined is something only my subconscious can explain.

The short story was written after I heard an interview with the Unibomber’s brother, who had recognized his brother’s writing and turned him in to the authorities. He gave a moving interview on NPR and it haunted me for a long time. I started to wonder what it would be like to have someone in my family who had done something horrible and what would it do to that character to be the one who turned them in?

SM: I’m interested in your depictions of psychosis in Traplines and Blood Sports. Or maybe you don’t see these characters as psychotic . . . If you do, though, how do you understand psychosis and how you’ve represented it in these works? Do you see Jeremy, for example, as intrinsically psychotic, or is he the product of a failed system? What about Firebug? If you don’t see these characters as psychotic, what do you see as being ultimately responsible for their behavior?

ER: If psychotics are defined by their lack of empathy, then I think our age is psychotic. Our clothes and our fancy gizmos are made in sweatshops by kids. Our meat is caged in boxes until it’s slaughtered. Our jobs are piece meal. Our houses are crazy-inducing expensive. Our planet is gearing up for a massive, polar melting hot flash. We are obsessed with security but we’re less secure than we’ve ever been. A lot of our turmoil is driven by that lack. By our longing for safety, longing for that magical, mythical time when we felt in control of our destinies.

When I was writing about Jeremy and Tom, I was thinking about power dynamics in relationships, and how they played out in families, and how Tom’s longing for safety pushed him into a crappy family dynamic and how Jeremy’s lack of acceptance in his own family made him want Tom’s unconditional surrender. Jeremy was never able to figure out his father, who was never comfortable with him. Jeremy’s lack of impulse control led to his break from his father and then his mother and his actions came close to landing him in prison.

So Death Sports was about how Blood Sports had changed Tom. Although he’s not psychotic, he’s changed. Colder.

SM: Your works, if we do read them as allegorical, might be said to capture the essence of collective PTSD. We see not only individuals flailing in trauma and traumatic recall but also communities. Did you conceive specifically of PTSD when you were writing these works? I’m not sure if PTSD is the right term . . . But given the problems that plague these worlds—especially the hangover of residential schools—is there any clearcut thing your works point to that would be capable of breaking the cycles of abuse that you depict?

ER: I offer no solutions. I’ve had a lot of bouts of depression and the absolute worst thing is the horseshit solutions non-depressed people foist on you to make themselves feel comfortable with your pain. If you’ve been traumatized and your trauma is denied or made invisible, your suffering is worse. People in our society deal with all kinds of mental trauma by themselves and, instead of being helped and supported, are more often than not punished for being broken. They’re tougher and more resilient than they’re given credit for.

SM: Perhaps the last question will have answered this one, but what is your perspective on how change can take place–social revolution, that is? Is there a moment and time for armed revolution? Many of the characters in your writing, for example, are sick of “taking it.” How can one or a group of people stand up and affect change—specifically in the wake and present reality of such sweeping problems as epidemic addiction issues, cultural abuse, poverty, self hatred?

ER: Well, the responses to Ferguson and #ICan’tBreathe and Idle No More and Occupy make it clear that frank dialogue and social media are game changers. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt. I think we’ve moved past the post-racial discussions to the post-post-racial. Race issues are intertwined with poverty issues. The re-emergence of unions and the demands for a living wage should be interesting. Basic issues of food, housing and job security would go a long way to addressing the tensions in our societies.

SM: I’m wondering if you can see or define different genres which have emerged out of the various works published by First Nations artists in Canada (and perhaps Aboriginal artists internationally) since First Nations writing has grown over the last while. That is, we have seen the emergence and growth of First Nations writing since the advent of the Native literary Renaissance of the late 1960s/1970s, its solid growth since its fueling in the 1980s and 1990s, and its impressive track record in the last several decades. Often, scholars talk of how your work shares characteristics with the gothic, for example, and your work is placed within a kind of canonical (in terms of British, Canadian and American) framework. However, you, for one, talk of the influence of Haisla traditions in your work (I’m thinking of what you say in Sasquatch at Home as well as of Monkey Beach and the privileged information it offers readers). There is something very fresh and different in your work, as there is also in the work of Drew Hayden Taylor, for e.g., and also Tomson Highway, to name just a couple of other Indigenous writers. Do you see new genres emerging that are not traceable to what could be called canonical/colonial traditions but to Indigenous traditions (and I recognize, of course, at the same time, that writers are influenced by numerous traditions as they are citizens of the world and as people are all living in the 21st century together)?

ER: I’m solidly in the third wave of Ab Lit. The younger native writers, in general, are far more urban, and tackling identity issues and cultural issues with more social-media savvy. Some of them are exploring identity issues through the genres–we’ve got a lot of horror and spec fic and mystery and thriller and noir writers coming up–which give you more leeway to be transgressive with your narratives. They might not end happy, but they’re going to take you on a ride.

SM: In terms of your writing, what are you up to these days? What are you working on? Or are there other preoccupations/interests right now?

ER: I just finished a first draft of a novel called Son of a Trickster, about Jared Marin, who really wants a normal life but discovers his father is Wee’git, a westcoast trickster who pissed off a bunch of other supernatural creatures hellbent on revenge. I set it in modern day Kitimat and Vancouver.

I’ve also been working on a trashy, band council romance which has a lot of angry, awkward sex. It’s a brick now, and I’ve set it aside to have a good think about it.

I’m also mulling a non-fiction essay called My White Accent where I’m exploring language loss and cultural identity.

SM: What is your favourite fictional work out of the three you have written thus far—Traplines, Monkey Beach and Blood Sports—and why?

ER: In Traplines, the novella Contact Sports is my favourite because it was hard won. It’s my apprentice piece, the story where I tried out everything to make it work. I had an idea, put it away, despaired, picked it up, put it away, stomped on it, and always came back to it. It took ten years, on and off, to finish. Contact Sports taught me everything I needed to learn to write Monkey Beach.

SM: I just want to thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m a huge, huge fan of your writing, and your ability to craft such powerful stories is amazing.

ER: Thank you! You made my day.