If there was a prize for the best author laugh in CanLit, Eden Robinson’s would be at the top of the list. Her unrestrained guffaw is so spontaneous and unselfconscious that, even as a stranger, you can’t help but be drawn in.
Robinson’s laugh filled CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto during the Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony last November. Robinson was greeting well-wishers on stage after being presented with the Engel/Findley Award, a prize that recognizes a remarkable body of work by an author in mid-career. Robinson found out about the $25,000 honour by phone at her home in Kitamaat Village – the Haisla Nation community on the north coast of British Columbia, about 10 kilometres away from the municipality of Kitimat – while waiting to hear back from a furnace-repair technician. It’s easy to imagine the eruption of delight that surprise call must have triggered.
But don’t get the wrong (sunny) idea. Robinson has earned a reputation for producing dark, sometimes brutally violent, gothic stories. In a 2005 profile that appeared in this magazine, Robinson was credited with writing “some of the most disturbing fiction that Canadian literature has ever seen.” (Robinson says she considers her own work “mid-level dark,” but “no one can take David Adams Richards.”) Her new novel, Son of a Trickster (Knopf Canada), the first book in a trilogy, will be familiar to readers in its melding of contemporary pop culture with the author’s Haisla heritage and Pacific northwestern indigenous cosmology, but this book is in many ways a tonal departure for Robinson. While her earlier books are infused with a gritty humour, Son of a Trickster reveals a lighter side that parallels changes in Robinson’s personal life.
Son of a Trickster is the coming-of-age story of Jared, a 16-year-old Kitimat teen known around town as the go-to guy for weed cookies. Although he’s a partier – the bucket beside his bed gets plenty of use – and has already witnessed a lot of violence in his young life, Jared is at heart a nurturing caregiver. He lives with his unhinged mother, whose language would make a sailor blush and who often leaves him alone while on drug runs with her boyfriend, Richie. As the story unfolds, Jared becomes more entrenched in the supernatural – his grandmother claims he is the titular son of the trickster Wee’jit, and therefore not human. His adolescent world and all its concerns eventually become inhabited with witches, talking ravens, cannibalistic river otters, and a group of philosophizing fireflies that first appear after a mushroom trip.
The relatively sprightly tone is in stark contrast with the grim violence in Robinson’s 1996 award-winning story collection, Traplines (praised by The New York Times for its Canuck weirdness), and her previous two novels, 2000’s Monkey Beach and 2006’s Blood Sports. Robinson – who half-jokingly credits her personal life and poor health for the earlier books’ dark themes – quit smoking cold turkey in 2004 while writing Blood Sports. She says she can pinpoint the page she was writing the day she gave up her two-pack-a-day habit: her protagonist Tom is beaten by gangsters looking for information about his psychopathic cousin Jeremy. “It’s a 40-page torture scene, which was, in hindsight, quite cathartic,” she says. “But none of my family has made it through reading that.” The following year, Robinson was diagnosed with celiac disease, which had affected every aspect of her life. When she eliminated gluten from her system, it not only cleared up her agonizing digestive issues, the chronic depression she had been coping with since she was 13 vanished as well.
With her first three books, Robinson would write up to 18 hours a day. She loved late nights, often working until 2 a.m. But then she started experiencing back trouble, a new day job sucked up a lot of energy, and she found herself caring for her parents and their own health issues. On top of everything else, menopause kicked in, which began affecting her memory. As a result, Robinson discovered that her chapters were getting shorter and shorter – some were only a page long – and she lost her ability to mentally shift around a story structure. “I just took my memory for granted. It was just brilliant,” she says. “I could hold entire scenes in my head, then edit them without writing them down.”
Not surprisingly, Robinson soon lost all motivation to write, the desire replaced by a new sense of despair. An unlikely situation brought her back. In 2010, the energy company Enbridge announced plans to run a twin pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat. “I remember being completely furious, because it was going to impact so many things about our land, our ocean, the way we live, and we hadn’t any input,” she says. Robinson began writing op-eds, which in turn made her feel re-energized. “I started writing again with passion,” she says. “And that triggered an interest in writing another novel.”
She started working on a follow-up to Blood Sports, called Death Sports, but stopped around 100 pages in. A trashy romance also got tossed. But then Robinson came up with a concept: what if she dropped the Haisla trickster Wee’jit into contemporary society? It was unusual for Robinson – who sought the advice of her elders before writing about the spirit world – to start with an idea or concept, rather than a character. She tried various points of view, including one from the river otter’s perspective, but nothing came together. At the same time, Robinson was also working on a short story, and while it never quite gelled, she couldn’t shake the opening scene of a young man on a Greyhound bus leaving Kitimat for Vancouver.
Robinson began writing furiously, and soon had 370 pages – enough for two books – employing a complex structure that featured flashbacks and time shifts. Her editor, Knopf Random Canada Group publisher Anne Collins, suggested she simplify the narrative, and so for the next two years, Robinson worked on doing just that. She says it took her a while to come to grips with the fact that she was writing humorous voices. “I’m used to black humour,” she says. “It still has a lot of dark elements, but there is a lot of zany, screwball stuff, like the fireflies. When they came in, I was like, I have no idea what these guys are. They were just so much fun to write.”
Son of a Trickster has a certain connection to Monkey Beach, a finalist for both a 2001 Governor General’s Literary Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the first English-language novel to be published by a Haisla author. That story focused on a young woman looking back on her childhood with her brother, who has disappeared; the novel also incorporated a spirit underworld filled with sasquatches and raven tricksters. Robinson’s agent, Denise Bukowski, recalls reading the opening lines of Monkey Beach – now in its 25th printing in paperback – in 1995, calling it an experience she will never forget. “It sent a thrill down my spine and made my hair stand on end – all the usual clichés – that nothing else has before or since,” she says. “I knew I was looking at the work of an original, if not a genius. And that feeling returns with everything she writes.”
University of Toronto professor and former Walrus fiction editor Nick Mount first met Robinson in 2004, when he invited her to speak to his first-year undergraduate class. He initially brought her in because he knew that his students would love Monkey Beach (they also loved her, as it turns out), but soon became a fan himself. “What drew me to her? The darkness that exists alongside a remarkable sense of humour,” he says. “I don’t think it’s true she writes the most violent stories. I have attraction to darkness in a story that is literary as much as it is cultural. It comes more from her literary heroes, like Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King.”
In September, Mount quit The Walrus, citing creative differences over the general-interest publication’s demands for more “family friendly” material. The last straw for Mount came when management requested the words “crap,” “Jesus,” and “orgasm” be replaced in a forthcoming story. That piece in question happened to be the first chapter of Son of a Trickster.
Mount had acquired Robinson’s “Nanas I Have Loved,” which introduces Jared and his family. He says that Robinson was very accommodating during the multiple rounds of edits as she already had to soften some language for public readings, but he continued to defend the story’s profanity: “Trickster’s a very vulgar character, you know? Where Trickster is, there’s going to be vulgarity,” he says. “But secondly, and more practically, the mother in the story – she’s got a mouth like a trucker – but the story itself criticizes that.”
Mount adds, “I kept trying to say, ‘Look guys, we agreed to this, and she’s Eden Robinson, for crying out loud. It’s not gratuitous in any way; it’s inherent to the story.”
While Robinson’s language may not have been to the taste of one publication, Bukowski is confident that Son of a Trickster and its follow-up titles, with their pop-culture references, relatable narrator, and nod to speculative fiction and indigenous storytelling, will appeal to a new, young generation of savvy readers who haven’t yet been exposed to Monkey Beach. It’s a hope that Robinson shares. And although it’s too early to tell whether Robinson will achieve the same level of success this time around, there’s a very good chance there will be more laughter-filled stages in the future