Interviewed by Stephanie Chou
Eden Robinson is an internationally acclaimed author from Kitimat Village, BC. She is a member of the Haisla and Heilstuk First Nations. Her debut book, Traplines, a collection of four short stories, was a New York Times Notable Book and won Britain’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. Her first novel, Monkey Beach was nominated for the Giller Prize, the 2000 Governor General’s Award for Fiction and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. The novel was also selected as a Globe and Mail Editor’s Choice. It was the first English-language book to be published by a Haisla writer. Her most recent novel is Blood Sports, and her extended essay Sasquatch at Home, first delivered as a talk at the 4th annual Henry Kreisel Lecture, explores modern storytelling through a blend of personal anecdotes and the intricacies of cultural protocol.
Eden Robinson has the most contagious laugh on this side of the globe. She shares a birthday with Edgar Allan Poe and Dolly Parton and is certain this affects her writing in some way. Combine these sensibilities with her early influences of Stephen King and David Cronenberg, and it’s natural that Eden’s writing is at once humorous and dark. As a long-time admirer of Eden’s work it was my absolute pleasure to interview her via email.
Eden received her MFA from UBC’s Creative Writing Program and is the program’s Virtual Writer-in-Residence for the Fall 2014 term.
What moves you to write? You’ve said that your characters have “sprung from your muse.” Can you explain that compulsion?
People are intricate puzzles, and I find myself wondering how their minds work, and then try to put myself in their boots and then see where the story goes. For instance, I was listening to NPR and the Unibomber’s brother was being interviewed. He spoke very movingly of the moment when he realized his brother might be a murderer and the emotions he went through and what he knew it would do to their family, to his brother, to himself. I was haunted by him, and that’s where my muse steps in, that’s when he whispers in my ear. The resulting story was “Dogs in Winter,” whose title comes from the opening scenes of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. How the two things became joined in my mind is one of those quirks that I find hard to explain.
What are you writing habits? What are some things you do before embarking on a new project?
In my twenties, when I was learning my craft, I wrote between 12-18 hours a day. In my forties, I can write for four hours max before my back gives out, my eyes cross and my latent carpal tunnel starts to twinge. I am firmly a night writer. My best writing comes at night. But with life comes obligations, and now I write when I can squeeze in the time, sometimes getting up earlier, sometimes taking a moment in a doctor’s office, sometimes in airports waiting at a gate. There is no perfect time to write, I’ve discovered. You do what you can with the time you have.
I usually have a good long think before committing to a book. I’m a slow writer and a book every five years is my top speed. I have a long list of novels I want to write, and I realize I don’t have enough time to write all of them. So I usually read what other people have written which is similar to what I want to write to try and see what I can steal. In my current manuscript, for instance, I’m working on a large cast of characters and different parts of the book are narrated by different people. I usually work with single narrators and never leave their head for the entire novel, so this is a new skill, and the learning curve is weird. Usually it takes a few tries to find the right narrator, but for this one the narrators are obvious and page-hogs.
My process for writing a book is similar to planet accretion: I have to have a certain mass of ideas before the assorted bits of dust and rocks collapse into themselves and start to spin. If it sounds messy, that’s probably because it is.
What are some unusual jobs you have done to support your writing life? Any tips for writers trying to achieve this balance?
LOL, well, most of my day jobs have been dull. I was a receptionist, mail clerk, copy clerk, laundry plant worker. Most of the women my age from my reserve have gone into the trades, and are dry walling or welding. Our coffee conversations are filled with a lot of different terminology and union gossip.
Work/family/writing is a tricky balance. When you’re transitioning in any one of those parts of your life, be gentle with yourself. If you’re too tired to write, read. Fill your creative well.
You mentioned in an interview in the Quill and Quire that when you were writing Monkey Beach you were writing for 12 – 18 hours a day. How important do you think creative isolation is for your own writing process?
LOL, ah, the twenties. Yes, I had a lot of time and energy then. I absolutely need at least an hour a day to be alone with my thoughts. I’m an introvert, though. Extroverts have to work a lot harder to enjoy writing. I can write around people now, but when I’m working through the story in my head, or mulling a scene I can’t quite nail, I need quiet. Otherwise, I just need a pair of noise cancelling headphones and tea.
In The Sasquatch at Home, you explore issues of Haisla copyright, and how you balance intimate clan stories and traditional protocols with modern storytelling. What was something you learned during this process?
I learned that my family is very forgiving. And that traditional copyright is expensive, so stick to the Haisla public domain stories. And that if you end your novels with open, ambiguous endings, your family will phone you up and lecture you on the proper way to end a story. And if you kill off a character they like, they will tell you exactly what they think of you.
How influential would you say place and setting has on your work? You were invited to a Haisla Rediscovery Camp in Kitlope Valley when you were writing Monkey Beach and you mention that the experience heavily influenced the structure and content of the novel. How did the land and ocean influence you?
Well, I’m a moody, grim writer, so I like moody, grim settings. I had a hard time writing in Calgary because it’s very sunny. Who can write in all that sunlight? Eventually, I put up blackout curtains, but it was still awfully open and dry.
Sometimes, a place resonates with you. The Isle of Skye in Scotland was one of my favourite places in Europe. Antigua in Guatemala was another place that lived in me for a long time. I’m not sure what stories would come if I lived there, but I’m sure they’d be different from what I’ve written in Vancouver or Kitimat.
How was the experience different from the setting in Bloodsports against the backdrop of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?
Again, moody, grim writer & moody, grim setting. Most of my mother’s family lives in East Van and they were amused by the locale, but couldn’t quite stomach the 40 page torture scene, which was inspired by having to quit my two-pack-a-day habit rather than East Van itself.
I have this banana idea of writing a novel about a car pile on the 401. I lived in Etobicoke for a year, and commuted into Toronto and there were always crashes, and when the weather turned, they were frequently nasty. I read Ballard obsessively, but I think my novel would probably be more weather-erotic than erotic. Lingering descriptions of the ice fog descending just before the transport truck with leaky brakes hit the turnoff. Each chapter would be narrated by a different driver in different parts of the crash, a Canadian As I Lay Dying. I might have to learn about engines and have a better understanding of physics, though, which is off-putting.
You do such a phenomenal job of weaving the supernatural through your work. What is your attraction towards the supernatural and its relationship with our world? How do you examine that relationship through a literary lens?
I suspect a lot of it’s cultural. The stories I was told growing up were full of supernatural creatures who were described the same way you’d describe your neighbours. Oh, those sasquatches. Always stealing bivalves and blondes. Well, Wee’gits playing with the tide again. Crazy raven. Gran visited from the other side to say she wants more raisin pie in the next burning. A lot of that attitude comes into play when I’m writing. I tend to view the supernatural characters like the other characters, prone to idiosyncrasies and family squabbles.
To what degree is your writing political? I’ve read many of your articles in the Globe and Mail and the Tyee and deeply respect the stance you’ve taken. You are an active and passionate voice in your community; does this influence your writing?
My family is highly political and usually entrenched in either administration or elected positions. So, naturally, I rebelled and wrote as apolitically as possible.
I was resigned to seeing Northern Gateway terminate in Bish Cove, our reserve across the channel, but found when the federal approval came through, I was furious. The rage burned through my writerly insecurities and once I started writing, I felt less helpless.
I also have a different relationship with my communities. When Idle No More started in late 2012, the backlash was predictable and vicious. A lot of people I thought were allies weren’t, which makes the people who came forward to speak out against the injustices all the more special. The LGBTQ community was vocal, as were the Sikh and Palestinian diaspora, the African-American writers and intellectuals, academics, scientists, CUPE, most of the environmental groups that had been labeled “radicals,” Amnesty International, PEN Canada.
I have never loved my fellow writers more than I did during that hard time. My worldview expanded to encompass different communities and I like the cross-conversations we have. I love the books that have come out of that time. I love the conversations I have with other native writers who were changed as well. I especially love the native urban youth, the elders. I’m still mulling, still thinking, still turning it over in my head. I don’t think I’ve fully processed it, but I’ve changed as a person and that can only change your writing.
Stephanie Chou is a writer from Vancouver, BC. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and she is currently a first year MFA student in UBC’s Creative Writing Program.