Home > Interviews > The Door to Personal and Magical Transformation is Darkness: An Interview with Eden Robinson

Interview by Anita Bedell

Eden Robinson is the author of the novels Monkey Beach (2000), Blood Sports (2006) and Son of a Trickster (Penguin Random House, 2017), the short story collection Traplines (1995), and Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols & Modern Storytelling (2011), which originated as a Henry Kreisel Lecture at the Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton.

Traplines won Britain’s 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 longlisted for the 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. Eden was also recently honoured for her contributions to Canadian literature with the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award. She is an MFA graduate in Creative Writing at UBC. The daughter of a Haisla father and Heiltsuk mother, Eden grew up in Kitamaat Village, a reserve on the northwest coast of BC.

I had the pleasure of meeting Eden when she was in Vancouver for Incite Vancouver to talk about her latest novel, Son of a Trickster; a book I devoured in less than 48 hours. A fellow northerner from a company town, “cuspy” Capricorn and 1990’s twenty-something goth who still gets teased for wearing black, Eden and I had a lot to talk about. It was after an hour of talking, that we realized we still hadn’t talked about her book — “Oh yes, I have a book!” Promptly followed by Eden’s trademark laugh. I wish I could include the laugh track to this interview.

You’ve had a lot of success with Traplines and Monkey Beach. Can you tell me a little about those days?

51RFX9QRV1L._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_In 1992, I was just finishing off Contact Sports. Having so much trouble. I hadn’t written anything that long before. It wouldn’t come, wouldn’t come. But it’s actually one of my favourite stories because it taught me all the skills I need to write a novel. When I was writing it, the tone never felt right, so I switched the narrator, male to female to male to 1st person to 3rd… very briefly to 2nd, sounded a little corny…. so once I had Contact Sports I had a very decent thesis [the third story of her Master’s thesis]. But the other story was not Queen of the North, it was Terminal Avenue. My thesis advisor was Keith Maillard. He was so patient. I had no idea how patient until I started teaching.

So yeah, when the publishers got together they all agreed that story was not appropriate for literature so we worked on Queen of the North.

I have not read that one yet, Terminal Avenue

My scifi bondage Aboriginal ode to Oka (and the Fraser River Salmon Wars)…. back in the 90’s bondage in lit wasn’t really a thing yet. [The Story of]O was the only semi-respectable thing.

Oh, but the Anne Roquelaure Beauty’s Release/Beauty’s Punishment series…

My goth favourite!

When I was living in Victoria as a goth, we were all getting neck tattoos—you could only get tattoos on the naval base in Esquimalt—I bragged about getting a spiderweb choker and pendant on my chest— I used to wear spider earrings, army surplus clothes, my hair shaved, purple…. 10 minutes with the needle, and I’m like, “that’s ok”. “Way to commit!”—my friends teased me relentlessly.

A heart. I have this tiny heart shape on my chest. It’s supposed to be a lot bigger and darker. With time it’ll spread on its own…. in hindsight maybe the spiderweb choker would have been “a little much”.

Oh, to be 18… when the world is just so… the world….

Now, my mom calls my style “widowed librarian”.

Traplines was your Master’s thesis at UBC, and then you were in Vancouver doing the “hustle” and trying to write Monkey Beach?

I was working at the Unemployment Insurance (UI) office on Main & Quebec—it was long, long days—the frontline was uncomfortable, working phones… I remember the week they switched the rule that when you get fired you can’t get UI… that was brutal. I thought, I need to find a new job. Luckily, Monkey Beach got picked up. Straight jobs are maybe not for me! Medical and dental is great…. but… it was a hard go.

And I actually thought Monkey Beach was going to be narrated by Karaoke and that was how Monkey Beach would have opened, but after I wrote about 50 pages, she just didn’t want to do anything, she was too traumatized. So going through the narrators—it’s always a process—and after finding Lisa, she was like a sentence in a story, once I found her, it found itself.

What made you decide to move back home?

With Monkey Beach I got to travel a lot. I got good reception for Monkey Beach and I really enjoyed it. Instead of taking the advance and turning it into a condo down payment, I blew mine traveling through Central America! I was tall, rich and beautiful there.

In 2002/2003, I was back in Vancouver, but my dad got diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and I moved back home in 2003. Mostly to help them with their taxes. Paperwork is my wheelhouse! I moved about 11 blocks from town, but as my dad’s health declined, I moved closer.

As of 2011, I live just two blocks from my parents and it’s great.

With Son of a Trickster let’s maybe start at the beginning, with where the idea came from. And did you always know it was going to be a trilogy?

No, I didn’t always know it was going to be a trilogy… I thought it was going to be a short story.

9780345810786And there were several points of inspiration: the first one was my dad telling traditional Wee’git stories to his grandchildren. They didn’t think they were funny, but they politely laughed. And I thought that was sad, those were the stories I grew up with, but they didn’t have any context for them. In Haisla culture the Trickster is the transforming raven. He teaches our children about our rules and our protocols. By breaking all the rules! He’s the bad example. He’s earthy and funny. You get to see the consequences of bad behaviour without actually having to do them. You live vicariously through him. He has many roles in our culture, some more formal. The stories I’m focusing on are the informal ones. The stories families would tell after supper around the kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking, and the stories would get wilder and funnier, trying to one up each other. I really wanted to try to put them into fiction.

At the same time, I was writing a collection of short stories set in East Van, about a traditional dance group that formed with honourable intentions—to preserve their culture, their language, their songs, their stories, but things fall apart. Out of that collection, one of the stories had a character coming down from northern BC on a greyhound bus, alone, without a plan, and no money. It’s a very lonely opening, and it haunted me.

The story got its power from that opening scene. Now that’s the opening of the second book.

The more I wrote myself into the story, the longer it got, until it was a novella. When you start to hit 200 pages, you think it’s a novel… In 2015 when I got an editor—I was doing a lot of flashbacks to Kitimat, they were so dense, I was trying to split them up—10 chapters where it was Kitimat/Vancouver/Kitimat/Vancouver… the feedback I got from my first readers was that it was fun but confusing. Once I started clumping things together the Kitimat section was way longer. And once I made it linear, the Kitimat section expanded and expanded and suddenly it was two books. I finished the first draft for the second one and I still hadn’t introduced the main antagonist. That’s probably in book three then!

And then I’ll move back to the short story collection, and that will likely be a multi-voice novel.

And you dedicated Son of a Trickster to your niece and nephew?

It’s great to have obsessions. You can call them “plans”. Obsessions need focus. My niece and nephew were my undivided focus for many years and they said it was “uncomfortable”. I turned that focus instead to something productive. And that’s why I dedicated the book to them. The benefits to having a crazy auntie.

So what do they think of the book?

I don’t know yet! Oh but I will when they read it!

I’m curious about the reception your community has had with your writing. Do they feel they are being fairly represented? That the culture and traditions are being honoured? Do you worry about that?

I had my first reaction from home. An older cousin. There’s a scene with… icing—the cookie monster—it was not appreciated. I was told, “You can leave things out.”

I have to say, that’s a great scene. What was your inspiration?

Strictly my imagination. 😉

You’ve mentioned wanting to represent the Trickster, or Wee’git, in present day. Why was that important to you?

When I try to tell the story from the perspective of the Trickster, he’s kind of like Sherlock Holmes, he knows more than everybody and his voice sounds arrogant. I bounced around the narrators, as I normally do, and tried various incarnations with Jared [the protagonist] until it worked.

monkey-beach-eden-robinsonWee’git had a paragraph in Monkey Beach, living in a condo, and I wanted to squeeze more of him into Monkey Beach but I couldn’t without shifting things around. Even then I knew I wanted him in the present. So he flits about in this book and the next one, but once Jared accepts the supernatural—less concerned about being normal—Wee’git comes back and they have a relationship. Not a comfortable one. When he comes back we start to learn about the various roles he has in our culture. I never thought about the weight of him being sacred. He’s surprisingly angsty. So we’ll see… that part is still fuzzy for me right now. There are various kinds of Wee’git, more traditional ones, and their stories are still being told, and this Wee’git is my addition to it.

It’s also a union regulation as a Native writer that you have to write a Trickster story at least once.

Is that similar to the Elvis clause? Because I was so happy when Uncle Doug showed up!

Yeah, union regulations… at least one Elvis reference per novel. This has been a really fun book to write!

You have were-otters!… are there stories in your culture about otters?

Richard Van Camp was telling this story at The Writer’s Festival, and his otters were so benign and just wanted to have babies. The otters I grew up with are way creepier. If you’re a kid and you want to play with someone but no one’s around, and suddenly there’s a whole bunch of kids on your lawn and you go join them, and suddenly you’re too busy playing to realize that you’re in the woods and you’re alone. If you don’t find your way out you’re going to die. Those were our otters. Lots of creepy otter stories. Like when they imitate your mom’s voice to lead you away… I never really understood their motivation. But when I started writing it was very clear they were going rogue because they didn’t have a place.

So, they are representational of loss of habitat? You also mention the closing of the Eurocan pulp and paper mill and the Enbridge pipeline conflict in Kitimat. Did you include all of these details because they’re representative of Kitimat, or were you making a political statement?

When I was growing up, I was told what it was to be a good Indigenous person, and they were always morals: this is how you should think, this is how you should dress, this is how you should talk, and it burned me out of ever wanting to tell people what to think in fiction. So I’ll present the idea. I’ll give the characters justification for it, but I don’t ever want to be the writer that tells you what you should think, or this is the lesson…

In OpEds I feel completely free to say what I think, and this is where I’m coming from, but in fiction I’d rather present the characters in the story and let you decide according to your own experiences. Which, was not well received in Monkey Beach because the ending was so ambivalent, or Blood Sports. This one is a little tidier… a non-ending.

With Sarah, because she is such a political creature, it was hard not to let her be a mouthpiece, and when that happened I would just try to sit in the story and give her more than slogans and attitude, and try to see who she was as a person; who is she and what does she think.

With the otters, once I figured out they would be in the story, I didn’t understand why they did what they did, but once their backstory started coming, it seemed so obvious. They’re ecological refugees. And they’re pissed.

And with Eurocan, I don’t see that a lot in fiction. Sure, big company and polluting, but when you’re from a company town and all your family works in that industry, there’s an ambivalence to biting the hand that feeds you. It’s a messy messy dance. You would think there would be great rejoicing in the community when a big polluter fails, but it’s traumatic. It was a big shock, and it reverberated and reverberated. And that was what I wanted to put in fiction.

What works so well in Son of a Trickster is how the fantastical elements of the story are rooted in the real world. The backdrop of real-life Kitimat (the closing of the Eurocan pulp and paper mill and Enbridge pipeline conflict)… parental neglect, violence, drug abuse—it’s all rather grim. The characters are all having a hard time. But magic seems to be equally grim. Magic isn’t saving anyone—this is not Harry Potter—it’s not healing relationships, and helping people grow and find themselves, it’s not stopping people from killing themselves. Can you talk about this magic?

The door to personal and magical transformation is darkness. You don’t get to be a better deeper person by having no conflict. The crucible’s important to self-development. So, going from just wanting his [Jared’s] family safe, as it evolves, it changes—when he changes—it starts to shift. The foundation shifts, and that’s what I was interested in. In our culture, once you get into our spiritual beliefs the stories are horrific, crazy and dark, but that’s how we were explaining what it’s really like to live. It’s often unpleasant, but what does that unpleasantness mean?

The transformation humans go through is experience. Magic can sometimes be a hindrance. And the cost of abusing it would be horrific. We do have those characters, those stories… You could cheat, but you’ll pay for it.

As grim as your stories are, as violent and dark and heartbreakingly real, they are also funny. Laugh out loud funny at times. Was this something you hoped for the novel, or was it just something that happened because that’s who you are as a writer?

It’s just me taking life a lot less seriously than I used to when I was younger. I think that’s my Capricorn sign growing older… easy going, productively obsessive… “Cuspy obsessiveness”—I’m a Capricorn Aquarius. I read both the horoscopes.

I love how many Indigenous writers we are seeing now. More women writers than there used to be (Bev Sellars, Leanne Simpson, Tracey Lindberg), or at least that we were hearing about. Do you think they were always there, we just didn’t hear about them? And if so, why now? What’s changed?

They were always there. For a long time, it was the boys who got recognition. The grandmothers didn’t get a lot of love. That started to shift in the last few years. There weren’t a lot of novelists. A lot of times I would be the only Indigenous person at an event, but now, there are a lot more. They’re used to the literary world and more versed in social media, and they’re a lot more confident telling their stories. They don’t feel the need to explain. The younger voices, they are very fierce, are so exciting.

Can you recommend any off the top of your head?

Leanne Simpson, she’s stunning because those stories are speaking to the heart of experience. Cherie Demaline, The Girl Who Grew A Galaxy; Chelsea Vowell, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada; Gwen Benaway, Passages; Katherena Vermette, The Break; Joan Crate, Black Apple. And some that aren’t published yet.

I get goosebumps thinking about how much they kick ass.

Anita Bedell was born and raised in northern BC. Her parents are true Canadian pioneers—rednecks, some might say. When she wasn’t learning how to grind flour or bake bread, she was cutting up wild meat, working on engines, checking trap lines and snowmobiling. When she wasn’t doing all of those things, she was partying and drinking her face off. Anita writes about the north. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at UBC.