Two years ago I heard Eden Robinson read from her novel Monkey Beach and was captivated by the rich world she created with her words. That was during my first residency at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Residency MFA program. This past July, I had the good fortune of being a student in Robinson’s fiction workshop during our summer residency at the IAIA. Robinson proved herself to be not just a gifted writer who dares to write about the dark side of life—psychopaths, serial killers, drug and alcohol abuse, violence—but also a great teacher who was able to take us into the nitty-gritty work of scene analysis and character bibles, as well as envelop us in her warmth, wit and intelligence. And she made us laugh, always welcome during an intense week of writing and learning.
Eden Robinson is the author of the novels Monkey Beach, Blood Sports and the upcoming Son of a Trickster; Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols & Modern Storytelling, which originated as a Henry Kreisel Lecture at the Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton; and the short story collection Traplines.
Traplines won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998. Monkey Beach won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2001, was long-listed for Dublin IMPAC Award, and shortlisted for both The Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction in 2000. One of the stories from Traplines, “Queen of the North,” was also published in The Penguin Anthology of Stories by Canadian Women. She is a recipient of the University of Victoria’s Distinguished Alumni Award. The daughter of a Haisla father and Heiltsuk mother, Robinson grew up in Kitamaat Village, a reserve on the northwest coast of British Columbia.
The Rumpus: One of the most striking aspects of your first novel, Monkey Beach, for me was how thoroughly it immersed me in the characters’ world. I felt like I lived in British Columbia for the days that I read it and resented the times during which I had to put the book down to deal with the “real” world and its obligations. I’m even planning a trip to British Columbia next summer. Will you be bringing readers back to Kitamaat and the surrounding forests and water in Son of a Trickster, your new novel that’s slated for release in 2017?
Eden Robinson: Thank you. That’s lovely to hear. I was so homesick when I wrote Monkey Beach. I had enormous student debt and a poorly paid job so I couldn’t afford to go home. I loved my apartment, my roommates and being twenty in Vancouver, but all the childhood things I had taken for granted and had to do without I wrote into that novel. In Son of a Trickster, I’m in the same landscape, but a different headspace. I’ve moved back home and I adore it. But I’ve been in perimenopause since my late thirties. I expected the hot flashes and the night sweats, but my perfect memory went out the window. I used to edit in my head—move scenes around and re-write just by remembering. Once the change started, I could barely remember my own name. I had to adapt all my writing and editing strategies. I became the queen of Post-Its. Also, I seem to have lost my filter. I usually tame my off-kilter sense of humor for novels, but I let it run free and it was like a dog let loose in a park after a long day stuck inside.
Rumpus: Nice analogy! I hope you enjoyed the unfiltered-humor writing as much as a dog enjoys a romp in the park. Do you share your home with any animals?
Robinson: Alas, no. My last pet was a canary named Elvis. I’d open her cage to let her fly around the apartment while I was writing and, when she was tired, she’d perch on my monitor and watch me type. I inherited her from my gran, who was too sick to take care of her anymore, but I spent so much time alone writing Monkey Beach that she was often the only company I had for days. I never saw myself as a bird person, but I formed a very close bond with her. She died on the day the final draft of Monkey Beach was approved. Dad was visiting and offered to buy me another one from the nearby pet store because I was crying like crazy. He’s not really a pet lover.
Rumpus: What else can you tell us about Son of a Trickster and how long did it take you to write this one?
Robinson: I’ve always loved Trickster stories. I really wanted to set my mythic characters in the present. I was noodling around with it for years. Then I took a break from writing fiction because I was involved in fighting the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which was a crude oil pipeline that was going to have a terminus on our territory. When I came back to Son of a Trickster, I was a different person. I looked at all the generous feedback I’d been given, and had an aha moment: the story was being told by the wrong narrator. Once I found Jared, the first draft took a year to write.
Rumpus: Did you grow up in a reading or storytelling home? Is your family supportive or your writing and the subjects you choose to write about? How about others in your community?
Robinson: My family is filled with wonderful storytellers. I lack their gift of gab, so it’s a relief to be able to write. Dad and Mom were frustrated artists—Dad wanted to study engineering or architecture and Mom wanted to be an actress—but the world was a different place when they were young so Dad became a public works foreman and Mom became a stay-at-home mom. When I said I wanted to be a writer, they were thrilled. They did everything in their power to support me.
Writing about your community is difficult for any writer. The push and pull of representing your world responsibly and your artistic license is a tricky balance. In general, I’m careful when I’m dealing with subjects of deep cultural importance and write with abandon when I’m dealing with issues of personal dysfunction. I don’t think anyone’s normal. I don’t see the point of pretending we’re clones.
I think the best advice I got was to not worry about what other people would think while you were working on your first draft. Focus on getting it out of your head. You can always edit the manuscript later. The critiques I received from my father’s community didn’t actually have to do with any of the things I’d been afraid of—spiritual or cultural aspects—they were more annoyed that I’d killed off this character or those characters hadn’t hooked up or I’d done an open ending and it didn’t give them a sense of closure that they were expecting.
Rumpus: Do you get any flak for not writing exclusively about Native characters?
Robinson: LOL, no. I do get flak for the lack of romance in my stories. I don’t really get romance. Bring me fish or moose, not flowers.
I’ve had people who see all my characters as Native, even if they aren’t. It’s kind of like assuming all a writer’s characters are really female because the writer is a woman. I’ve learned to let that go. Once your writing is out there, you can’t control how other people perceive it. All you can do is stand in your truth.
Rumpus: Your process in your earlier writing years sounds rather intense. You wrote up to eighteen hours per day, downed caffeine and sugar, and smoked up a storm. How has that process changed over the years?
Robinson: Hahaha, oh, Lord. The twenties: when your liver and back are indestructible. I have carpal tunnel so I can’t write more than four hours total without tingling numbness. I take a lot of breaks and do stretches. I miss smoking (two to four packs a day) but I don’t miss the crackle in my lungs when I breathed. Towards the end, it sounded like someone stepping on bubble wrap.
Rumpus: I have sometimes found experiences that require complete devotion and that consume be to be weirdly satisfying. Do you miss the old eighteen-hour days?
Robinson: I do. They’re exhausting, though, and I’m burnt out from writing for days or weeks afterwards. If I have a clear spot in my schedule, I like to tackle the heavy scenes that require the heightened emotion and focus of a long writing session. Otherwise, I have daily obligations that can’t be ignored.
Rumpus: In your story “Dogs in Winter” from Traplines, you write about a serial killer, and in “Contact Sports,” also from Traplines, and the related novel Blood Sports, you write about a psycho- or sociopath. Do you research the psychology of such characters and how far do you go with that research? For example, do you track down people who’ve been diagnosed with personality disorders or talk to mental health professionals?
Robinson: Personal experience that led to research and an attraction to True Crime stories. People with antisocial personality disorders aren’t automatically bad—they simply approach the world with a more ruthless set of lenses. The lack of empathy or very weak empathy and the ability to read other people’s weak spots can be a flammable combination when you get in the way of something they want. But they aren’t a different species. They’re a part of our spectrum. Our ability to turn off empathy for specific kinds of humans and then use faulty logic to justify our beliefs is messily sociopathic. Our ability to factory farm animals is coldly psychopathic.
Rumpus: I’ve heard you describe how different the publishing world in Canada is from the United States in that Canada has only a handful of literary agents and publishers. Do you think that’s a plus for Canadian writers in that it’s easier to grasp the scene or an obstacle because of the smaller number of options?
Robinson: Fewer publishers mean you have a limited set of aesthetics, so you know who can and can’t send your work to. You have more situations where you take the offer or don’t get published or you learn to self-publish. On the other hand, the States has more publishers and a wider range of aesthetics but so much more competition—the amount of writers vying for the same spot as you is staggering. I think they’re different challenges, but equally frustrating when you’re trying to get your foot in the door.
Rumpus: It’s been said that Americans don’t read much foreign literature in translation. Do you think Canadian writers are read more widely in the United States because we share at least one language in common?
Robinson: I think we are. I think it goes the other way as well. Canadians are fond of darker stories, serious stories, so if you’re a Mystery writer or a Romance writer or Fantasy Writer, you will most likely have an American publisher and agent. In general, Americans like to be entertained. Canadians seem more suspicious of it.
Rumpus: You’ve said that you wrote Blood Sports with its forty-page torture scene at the time that you were quitting a heavy smoking habit, two or more packs a day. What’s harder work, quitting smoking or writing?
Robinson: Smoking. Seventeen tries. Only the threat of an oxygen tank could make it stick. But if I gave up writing, I’d have to find an equally obsessive way to fill my time. Yarn-bombing skyscrapers or making houses out of empty soda bottles.
Rumpus: When I read Contact Sports, I found the character of Jeremy so deliciously creepy that I couldn’t stop reading. At the same time I wanted to skip to the end so that I could stop worrying about Tom. I got as close as turning to the last few pages, though I didn’t let myself actually read. Have you ever considered killing off Jeremy in a future story or do you think it’s good for us to be on edge with worry about him lurking out there still for you to sic on us from time to time?
Robinson: Death Sports. Tom obsesses about killing Jeremy daily, hourly but he worries about his daughter becoming a target again. Jeremy has a perfect, outwardly normal life now, but it’s fraying because of a sexual abuse scandal. The case goes nowhere and Tom knows if he doesn’t do something, the kids who came forward are going to go through what he went through. His motivations are less noble and more vengeful, and it scares him that he’s changed so much. I’ve written a hundred pages in, but it stalled so I either need a writing skill I don’t have yet or a piece of the puzzle is missing and I need to keep my feelers out so I recognize it when it shows. It’s on the back burner for now.
Rumpus: I’ll enjoy the anticipation. You mentioned your involvement with fighting the Enbridge Pipeline earlier. Your essay on that subject published by The Tyee in 2014, “Thirty Humble Conditions for Northern Gateway Proponents,” doesn’t hold back in its criticism of the pipeline’s proponents and the government yet contains humor at the same time. For example, you wrote, “Darth Vader’s theme should play when you enter a room.” What is the extent of your political activism and what forms does it take besides writing essays like this one? Given that, do you see yourself writing a full-length work involving politics and activism?
Robinson: We elected our Donald Trump and he was named Stephen Harper. He was better dressed and less volatile, but he loathed people of color in general and First Nations in particular. Absolutely thought we were the murderous rapists coming to steal everyone’s jobs and/or suck the system dry. Most of my activism was aimed at supporting the front line people and telling our truth to counter all the propaganda.
I’m still figuring out how to be an ally. It was easy with Enbridge because it was happening to my home. So many marginalized people came forward to support First Nations during Idle No More, our version of Black Lives Matter. It’s hard to forget that kind of love when so many other people were screaming hate. I find myself moved by social justice issues. I’m not sure where that will lead me. I’m willing to nurture it. I don’t know if I have a book in me, but I’m sure I have more essays.
Rumpus: That’s really good to hear. I think “Thirty Humble Conditions” is a great essay and will serve as an example for me in terms of how to use the anger generated by stupid people stuff effectively.
You’ve called yourself a “grim writer” and include a fair amount of violence in your work. Do you believe there’s a connection in the violence we are seeing among humans, towards animals and towards the natural world?
Robinson: I think we’re in a 1970s-level moment of social transition and they’re always full of upheaval. As violent and deranged as we can be to each other and to other species, we’ve got nothing on tsunamis, hurricanes or tornadoes.
Rumpus: Excellent point.
Robinson: I think we learn slowly as a group, but we learn. The ozone layer is still there.
Rumpus: Although your writing is dark, your public personality is quite cheerful and positive. Do you have any hope that we can stop the destruction of our planet before it’s too late? How about world peace and treating all people and living beings with compassion?
Robinson: We have good people. We have selfless people. We have great leaders. If this year in crazy weather has been a precursor, I think the rest of us will come around and change our ways out of pure self-interest. The world is fine. Our place on it is precarious. We can be the new brand of self-extincting dinosaurs or we can evolve.
Rumpus: I like that characterization. What’s your favorite season, if you have one? I’m wondering if a “grim writer” prefers winter with its cold and darkness and potential for mischievous thoughts about what goes on in the shadows.
Robinson: Autumn. Pretty leaves, pumpkin pie and sweaters. Perfect weather for reading. Winter is great but I hate shoveling. We get ten feet of snow a year. It makes the grim grumpy.
Rumpus: What are the top three books that you think everyone should read right now?
Robinson: The Break by Katherina Vermette. My fall anticipations are Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood and Swing Time by Zadie Smith.
Author photograph © Arthur Renwick.