Quill and Quire

Eden Robinson (2005)

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Author Profiles

Playing rough

Eden Robinson gets gritty again with her new novel

Eden Robinson writes some of the most disturbing fiction that Canadian literature has ever seen. A member of the Haisla First Nation, she lives in the village of Kitimat in northern B.C., but much of her work – including Blood Sports, a new novel due out from McClelland & Stewart in January – makes only passing reference to her heritage. Instead, she often writes frightening (and darkly funny) tales of urban drug dealers and serial killers, characters who make Tony Soprano seem well adjusted.

Given all of this, meeting the 37-year-old author for the first time, as I did this past October at a downtown Vancouver café, can be a surprise. Robinson is warm and chatty, perpetually on the verge of breaking into a jolly belly laugh. And her personal style is conservative – indeed, almost yuppieish. An attentive companion might sense a nervous edge to that laugh of hers, or spot the tiny green tattoo of a heart in the centre of her chest, but otherwise the first impression she puts across is one of utter normality.

Her reading tastes run to mainstream CanLit as well. “Actually, I’m a huge fan of Canadian literature,” she tells me, mentioning a number of big books that she’s recently enjoyed, including Lisa Moore’s Alligator, Michael Winter’s The Big Why, and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road. “This period is so good for Canadian writers – it’s sad that the writing is flowering at a time when the market is so tough.”

Not that Robinson doesn’t have a whole other side to her. She cites Stephen King (“everything before Cujo”) as a formative influence, as well as filmmaker David Cronenberg (especially Scanners, with its infamous exploding-head sequence). She also mentions a number of music videos, including Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” as having informed her aesthetic.

Robinson is easy to get rolling on her likes and dislikes – mostly her likes. She loves stationery stores, riffs happily on the eternal battle of PC vs Mac (she uses the latter), and enjoys talking about cars (she recently purchased her first, a Taurus). She dislikes Glock handguns – “too clunky, like an SUV or an IBM” – preferring heritage-style pistols produced by Toronto’s Para-Ordinance.

Okay, so she doesn’t actually own a gun. But she did learn to shoot while researching the new novel. Blood Sports – a sequel to an earlier Robinson novella, “Contact Sports” – tells the story of Tom Bauer, a young Vancouver family man dogged by a dark past imposed on him by his cousin Jeremy, a charming psychopath who wears tailored suits, deals cocaine, dabbles in pornographic filmmaking, and kills people for both business and pleasure.

Seen as a whole, the novel has an almost cinematic arc: Tom is kidnapped by gangsters who take him to a remote rural cabin and torture him for information on his cousin’s dealings. Within this familiar pulp-fiction framework, however, Robinson employs a surprising range of techniques. Sections jump between conventional narrative, screenplay format, epistolary format, and second-person narration. There are also surprising, jagged leaps backward and forward in time.

“The structure was unnerving as it came to me,” says Robinson. “Especially when I started to get into the second-
person stuff. I’d originally had a traditional narrative in my head – in fact, this was the first book where I had actual plot outlines. Unfortunately, the characters just ignored them.”

* * *

Blood Sports is Robinson’s third book, after Traplines (1996), an acclaimed short-fiction collection, and Monkey Beach (2000), her first novel. Traplines was hugely successful for a debut short-story collection. Picked up by publishers in seven countries (including Estonia), it earned advances in the six figures, won Britain’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In addition to “Contact Sports,” it included stories about fistfighting adolescent females, an abused native boy on the run from his troubled family, and a suicidal girl whose mother is a convicted serial killer.

Given such precedents, Robinson’s follow-up novel, Monkey Beach, was a surprise for some readers. While it’s also based on a story from Traplines (“Queen of the North”), it uses the material in a very different way. Set in Kitimat, the book tells the story of a native girl’s redemptive quest to find her brother, who has been lost at sea. Filled with references to traditional Haisla culture and folklore, including cameos by Sasquatch, it feels much more like conventional CanLit than the pungent Traplines.

Monkey Beach received a nomination for the Giller Prize, and the notices were generally positive, if not quite as glowing as they had been for Traplines. There was considerable back and forth between Robinson and her editors at Knopf Canada over the manuscript, and some observers wondered if Knopf was looking to smooth out her work’s rough edges. But Robinson downplays such suggestions. “Well, I had enough pressure from myself, in terms of making it into an actual book,” she says, chuckling. “Seriously – I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have the technical knowledge to write a novel, and so I had to learn as I went along. That’s why it took me so long.” (Knopf representatives did not return calls from Q&Q by press time.)

Robinson’s agent, Denise Bukowski, tells a similar story. “I think it has more to do with Eden herself,” she says. “She has two different styles in her – one aboriginal, the other raceless. It’s harder to market her books because of that, but I love her for it. She writes what she wants.” Bukowski adds that the different styles have varying appeal to different markets, and to certain publishers. British houses, for instance, tend to be less interested in the native material than French ones. Bukowski says that Robinson’s current publisher, McClelland & Stewart, has been extremely enthusiastic about the new book, and entirely on board with the darker, and more technically adventurous, side of Robinson’s muse.

“I wasn’t ever worried that people aren’t going to get it,” says Jennifer Lambert, Robinson’s editor at M&S. “There are violent situations in the book, and it’s true that you have to be an active reader to piece it all together, but the characters are very strong and easy to relate to. When there’s violence, I don’t think it’s gratuitous, because it offers so much insight into the situations, and into human nature in general.”

* * *

Despite her easygoing nature, Robinson can occasionally be a frustrating subject for the keener interviewer. Critics have argued that her work seems to draw a link between historical colonialism and contemporary popular culture, for instance, but the author says she writes about pop subjects simply because they amuse her. And the serial killers? “I’m just intrigued by them – I don’t know why.” She shrugs, laughs.

On technical matters, in contrast, Robinson is one of the most analytic writers I’ve interviewed. She’s quite happy to hold forth on the rewards and dangers of the second-person voice, or the types of technical mistakes that first novelists tend to make, or different authors’ strategies for representing changes in characters’ mental states.

As an undergraduate, she studied creative writing at the University of Victoria. She initially did poorly in her writing courses, failing her introductory fiction seminar twice – an ordeal that she now feels was good for her in the long run. “There were some really talented people at Vic, much more talented than I was, but I think the fact that the writing came so easily hurt them in the end. They weren’t used to struggling, and when things became hard later on they just gave up.”

By the time she went on to UBC’s famous graduate program in creative writing, she’d already begun to master her technique. She cranked out an early draft of Monkey Beach while still a student in the program, as well as the stories that would make up Traplines, which was published when she was a spry 27.

Her writing process begins with an intuitively composed first draft, followed by a painstaking series of revisions, in which she explores different techniques and approaches. “Contact Sports,” she says, went through 33 individual drafts – though most of the pieces she writes require about five.

When working on a novel, she writes for 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. “When I was full into Monkey Beach, my sister came to visit,” Robinson says, giggling at the memory. “We had lunch, and two weeks later she came back and said, ‘You haven’t taken off that dress, have you? That’s the same ketchup stain.’”

She got the first of her two lung infections during the final rush to complete Monkey Beach – at a time when she was smoking two packs a day of Craven Ms and mainlining jumbo bottles of Pepsi Max. Around the same time, she was diagnosed with celiac disease – a digestive ailment caused by an intolerance to glutens. “My doctor had lots of recommendations,” she remembers. “Moving, for instance. So I took aquacize. At first, I couldn’t keep up with the 80-year-olds. After 12 weeks I was up to the level of the people who’d had heart attacks.” Nowadays, Robinson is in much better shape. To cope with the celiac disease, she exercises regularly and sticks to a wheat-free diet.

* * *

Currently, Robinson is mulling over ideas for her next book. In the months before Blood Sports took over her life, seemingly of its own will, she was working on a research-based novel about 1970s native activists, to which she may yet return. She has an idea for a series of fantasy books, and has also considered writing yet another “Contact Sports” sequel, tentatively titled Death Sports. (There’s also her dream of becoming a BC Hydro linesperson, which we’ll leave aside for now.)

She moved back to Kitimat four years ago, after several years in Vancouver, and says she plans to stay on in the area for the foreseeable future. Without a hint of self-consciousness, she mentions that she’s currently shacked up in her parents’ basement. The problem is that new houses are hard to come by – the area is surrounded by mountains on one side and ocean on the other, and there’s little room for further development.

“Not only that, there’s talk now that some of the land that the newer areas are built on may be prone to rock slides. And there’s danger from the ocean, too. If a tsunami ever hit, there’d be nothing left.”

Naturally, she laughs uproariously as she tells me this.