Williams and Robinson

Giller Prize-winner Ian Williams (l.) will converse with the U.S.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Marilyn Robinson on the craft of writing, themes and the power of fiction at Vancouver Writers Fest. FULL STORY

Eden Robinson

April 07th, 2008

BCBW: Tell me about your family.
ROBINSON: My parents are both highly imaginative and they both loved to tell stories. Dad, more about if he had the chance, would have been an artist or an engineer. Or an architect. My mother was the reader. They never had the opportunity I had, or the support system. I have a brother who is four years older than me. He's always been incredibly good with numbers, at computers. Now he's teaching computers with the school board in Bella Bella. He's the one person in the family who reads the instruction book for the VCR.

BCBW: And your sister Carla?
ROBINSON: People underestimate my sister. They think because she's gorgeous, she has no brain! [Laughter] And then she bowls them over. She's much, much more than they expected. She's possibly the most positive person I've met. And she's a lot tougher. She has to be. She's on TV in Toronto from Saturdays to Tuesdays as a news anchor for CBC. [Laughter] Watching Carla go through the shit she went through is quite inspiring because she handles it with so much grace. She's three years younger. It's great having her with me at the same stage of our careers. We get to compare notes. She tells me some of the things she's feeling and they're the same feelings I'm having. It's such a relief. I can't wait for more Haisla people to get famous!

BCBW: Besides Monkey Beach, have you visited any other spiritual places?
ROBINSON: I love the Mayan temples; but the first place that moved me deeply was Kitlope. It was the first place that struck me as having a special energy. That was in 1992. I'd won $2,000 in a PRISM writing contest so I took the summer off and I went up to Kitimat and got invited up to the Kitlope. It was part of the Rediscovery Program. I went up there on a boat with sixteen 16-year-olds boys. By the time we got there, I knew Wayne's World by heart without even seeing it. They described all the scenes in intricate detail. [Laughter] Schwing!

BCBW: What happened?
ROBINSON: I just went up there for something to do. But when we actually got there, it was eerie. The cabin was haunted. I was a city kid. I'd brought my hairdryer. Someone said to me, 'Where you going to plug it in?' The only generator we were using was keeping the fish and the meat cold. I thought, 'Oh, I'm just going to unplug it for a while and blow-dry my hair!' [Laughter] I didn't realize the fish were more important than my hair. [Laughter]. We went up to Kitlope Lake. There was such a sense of place! It touched the part of me that tells stories. And it was the part of me that had been missing. That trip was the first time I'd ever made bannock. [Laughter] It was the hardest bannock you'd ever had! [Laughter] Oh, God. It was rock solid!

BCBW: What about literary influences?
ROBINSON: The first author I read obsessively was Stephen King. I think it was The Shining that made me want to start writing. And we had a grade four teacher, Mr. Mung, who absolutely adored Edgar Allan Poe. The Purloined Letter. The Golden Ladybug. He's still teaching there at Cormorant Elementary. I went there from grades two to seven.

BCBW: Where did you get books in Kitimat if there wasn't a bookstore?
ROBINSON: There was a Salvation Army. We also had a second-hand bookshop. My Mom would be reading about World War II and my Dad would be reading Popular Mechanics. It took forever to get me out of there. I liked science fiction and horror. The first time I realized books were telling a truth, not the truth, was when I was reading the Arthurian legends. I read two different versions and I asked people which one was true. I was told 'whichever one you want'.

BCBW: It must have been a radical change to leave home.
ROBINSON: Those were bleak years at first, my punk years. At UVic, I had short, purple hair. I was living in a dormitory and there were all these perky cheerleaders in the dorm. And the food was terrible. We threw jello against the wall and it stuck. Before that I'd lived for a while in Cranbrook. That was my first time on my own. I was thrilled to get a huge one-bedroom apartment for only $200 a month. I soon found out why. The next floor was rented by a biker gang and they threw endless parties. Nobody could shut them up.

BCBW: At UVic, you got into Bill Valgardson's class. Things started clicking for you. What makes Bill Valgardson such a good teacher for people like you and W.P. Kinsella?
ROBINSON: He was an incredibly positive soul. If you want support for believing that you can write, he is definitely someone who'll give it to you. I still have the 'Affirmations for Writers' he handed out on the second day of class. The first one was 'Writing is easy and fun for me.' [Laughter] 'Writing is easy and fun for me!' He would always say that writing is like panning. You're going to get a lot of dirt but what you're looking for is nuggets. You focus on the dirt, not the nuggets.

BCBW: There was a lot of panning in Monkey Beach
ROBINSON: [Laughter]. Yeah. Three years solidly, and six or seven years off and on. The psychos in my first book, Traplines, were a lot easier. [Laughter] When Traplines came out, not a lot of people realized I was Native. The attention was more focused on the writing. Now there's a growing awareness that I am Haisla. It's actually been nice to get some bad reviews this time. I'm not on a pedestal [as a Native author]. I don't want to be untouchable. That's not going to help me grow as an artist. Writing is a job, it's what I do, it's what I love. But on some days I'm completely and utterly overwhelmed. My writing has gone far beyond anything I imagined.

BCBW: Your agent Denise Bukowski had something to do with that. And Louise Dennys, your editor. Both influential people in Toronto.
ROBINSON: [Laughter] When Denise is your agent, she's actually very motherly. She's kind of like my aunt or something. And Louise was very, very sensitive. There were times when I was ready to chuck the whole thing into the garbage. She made the process a whole lot less scary. She has a non-intrusive style of editing that I really appreciated. I really don't respond very well to the more 'authoritative' approach. [laughter]

BCBW: What were some problems?
ROBINSON: I had a lot more people in the earlier drafts. When you're used to dealing with hundreds of cousins, for me having 20 characters in a novel didn't seem so bad. [Laughter] When I was growing up, my cousins were more like sisters and brothers. Compared to other people, I was always a little bit dyslexic about keeping track of who all the relatives were. Living in a small place like Kitimaat has its advantages and disadvantages. If you were over at someone else's house near dinnertime, people just fed you. But at the same time, you don't necessarily want your parents to know instantly who you are dating.

BCBW: Now you have to become a public figure to survive. This business of making writers into performers can be quite bogus.
ROBINSON: Liposuction, here I come! [Laughter] Oh, God!

BCBW: Back in grade ten, you wanted to be an astronaut. If you weren't a writer, what would you like to be now?
ROBINSON: A pastry chef I took some French classes last year so I might attend the Dubreuille School of Cooking. I love baking. I also thought about being an electrician. [Laughter] And I'd like to be a voodoo high priestess.

BCBW: After reading Monkey Beach, will people expect you to be 'psychic'?
ROBINSON: Oh, God, yes. [Laughter]. And some will obviously want to make fun of my beliefs. I find it strange sometimes that people can assume they know how the universe runs. This is how life is, this is how death is, this is what's going to happen to me after death. That sometimes strikes me as arrogant. If you look back a hundred years, people thought differently. And if you look back four hundred years, people thought differently again.

BCBW: I was suggesting some people might expect you to exhibit some shamanistic qualities. [Laughter] Do you have any premonitions about me being hit by a car?
ROBINSON: [Laughter] A green one. [Laughter] I was into the occult for a few years as a teenager. And I can read palms. [Laughter] I read an astrology book once that said my birthday, January 19th, is 'the day of dangerous genius'. [Laughter] I was born on the same day as Edgar Allan Poe and Janis Joplin.

BCBW: What about your Haisla opera?
ROBINSON: [Laughter] My Dad took me to the Mt. Layton Hotsprings, between Terrace and Kitimat, and I was very hyper, bouncing around. I had had way too many cups of coffee. I was learning a bit of Haisla and I loved opera, so it occurred to me to combine them. [She bellows operatically.] I've got the libretto written for the first couple of scenes. It's very Wagnerian, very dark. In older times, you see, there were four or five clans. I'm from the Beaver clan. I was adopted into it. That's means I'm not supposed to marry someone else from the Beaver clan even if they were from a different village. That would be considered incestuous. So my opera would be about that. Lovely and dark and horrible.

BCBW: You're not joking about this.
ROBINSON: No. [Laughter] There are two people on the Haisla Opera Committee. Myself and my mother. She's quite unwilling. [Laughter] My father has a videotape of me singing opera on Monkey Beach. [Laughter]

Essay Date: 2000

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