Eden Robinson: Role model? Good Lord. Who thinks I’m a role model?

Interview by Will Johnson // from issue 4, Vol 1

The Humber Literary Review’s Will Johnson talks curse words, poverty porn, family dynamics, and what makes for good fiction with celebrated writer Eden Robinson. Robinson’s most recent novel, Son of a Trickster, was published in winter 2017 by Knopf Canada.

WJ: On the opening page of your new novel, Son of a Trickster, your main character Jared’s mother refers to someone as a “fucking cuntosaurus,” and right away I understood why the Walrus was making such a fuss about what they call your “juvenile” language—which ultimately led to the fiction editor, Nick Mount, quitting the magazine. Looking back, what are your thoughts on this mini-debacle?

R: You can pretty well tell by the first page if this novel is for you. You either laugh or close the book. Cursing is an art for this character, and she’s inventive with her foulness. I didn’t mind softening the language because that’s what I do for readings, but once we got down to the third edit and we were taking out “crap” and “orgasm,” I didn’t think there was a lot left of the earthy vigour in the story. I get tired of the expectation of preciousness in fiction. Entire swaths of Canada have robust cursing vocabularies. Maybe we can reflect a more diverse cursing world. Especially in the era of the Internet and HBO.  

WJ: My favourite photo of you was taken at the Kinder Morgan pipeline protest on Burnaby Mountain, where you deployed your infamous “sarcastic eyebrow.” In this current political climate, what role do you think authors of literary fiction (and artists of all kinds) have to play, and what role does humour play in the public dialogue?

ER: Artists tend to think about things and have strong opinions that we’re going to share whether you like it or not. The Trans Mountain Pipeline being rerouted under Burnaby Mountain may save Kinder Morgan a buttload of paperwork from residents, but they’re going under SFU, for crying out loud. A university filled with students and professors who are creative and vocal.  

My role in the KM Trans Mountain fight is pretty small. My community isn’t impacted by it. It doesn’t run through our territory. I don’t want to speak for the Indigenous communities or the local communities or the artistic communities dealing with this. I’m simply pointing out things that I see as unfair or wrong, given my experience with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipelines. In the photo, I was trying to make the people on the front lines laugh. I know what a toll putting your whole being on the line takes on your life. It was my way of showing support.  

WJ: I read once that you consider Stephen King to be one of your strongest literary influences, a choice that seems like a middle finger to the literati establishment—a non-Canadian and a genre writer!? Son of a Trickster has even been compared to The Trailer Park Boys. It seems more and more that you’re exploring the blurry line between high and low culture. How do you find the sweet spot? 

ER: The artist’s treatment of the material influences how it’s executed and received. A younger me would have written Son of a Trickster as far more gloomy and far less goofy than the current me has written it. And a future me will take the same material and go in a completely different direction. King remains one of my touchstones because he taps the horror of everyday lives so well and transmutes that experience.

I also think we need to differentiate between high and low culture and high and low income. I’m wary of writing “poverty-porn,” but I don’t think the answer to that is to not write about people in low-income brackets. I’m trying to capture what I see, what exists, but in a way that shows the characters as living their lives and having adventures. I grew up in a company town. I’ve lived in booms and busts. What I see right now is people being afraid of becoming wage slaves and crushing levels of debt. A lot of stress. And not a lot of political will to tackle the inequality. Not a lot of sympathy for the working class and our invisibility in the political landscape. I’m also interested in the perversion of that frustration into scapegoating minorities. You can ban all the immigrants you want, but automation is still going to kill what’s left of the good manufacturing jobs.  

And I loved Bubbles. We need more Trailer Park Boys. We need more Republic of Doyles. Creative industries employ a huge number of people and create massive spinoff benefits. I would think nurturing our television and film endeavours would be job number one of anyone who cared about job creation for Canadians.  

WJ: I’m a huge fan of your novel Blood Sports, both because you conjure East Vancouver brilliantly and I can’t stop reading about your deliciously deranged characters Tom and Jeremy. They made their first appearance in your collection Traplines, and the ending of your novel is crazy ambiguous, so I wonder: do you think either of them will make a third appearance? 

R: Death Sports. I made it one hundred pages in, but it stalled. I’m not sure if it’s because I need to think about it more or do more research, or if it’s a writing skill I don’t possess yet. All the titles are, coincidentally, titles of Van Damme fight movies. I had a huge crush on him when I was younger. My mom’s a big fan of action movies.  

WJ: The past year has been Twitter-dominated by controversies swirling around both Stephen Galloway and his friend Joseph Boyden, both of whom claim aboriginal ancestry. As our first Haisla writer and a First Nations role model, how do you think we should proceed/heal/dialogue from this in-fighting?

R: “Role model”? Good Lord. Who thinks I’m a role model? In my own family dynamic, I’m the enabling middle child, so I don’t think I have the necessary diplomatic skills to suggest a path to dialogue and healing.  

But many years of therapy have taught me that triangulating an argument never solves anything. The people who need to speak about Boyden and Galloway are Boyden and Galloway. If they want to repair their relationships, they need to be the ones who initiate that conversation. And forcing people to forgive them and/or get over it, because conflict makes the community feel uncomfortable, isn’t a path to healing, either. This doesn’t have closure. We don’t need to come to an agreement. These are ongoing discussions about race, class, and gender that have no end point. They evolve (or don’t) as our society evolves (or doesn’t).  

WJ: Trickster features some of the most imaginatively disgusting violence I’ve ever experienced in a novel, and throughout, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pulp Fiction. Jared’s mother repeatedly tells him, “The world is hard, you need to be harder.” You’ve compared your work to Edgar Allan Poe in the past, and I know your fiction routinely goes to grim places, so I guess I’m curious what you think we can learn as readers from experiencing the darker side of humanity? 

ER: I think people experience violence on a personal and societal level all the time. That’s probably why Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are so popular. I think we’re assaulted in creative and deranged ways on a daily basis. Why are we pretending we aren’t? Why do we have to put a sunny spin on crazy shit? How safe does it feel to be a woman in our society? How secure does your job feel? How close are you to financial ruin? How much of a safety net do you have? Your entire life can become unhinged by a car accident. You could lose everything with a side effect to a common medication. Being indigenous in Canada is to be relentlessly trolled. Having a mental disorder is to become untouchable. Our world, the place that supports our existence, is on the verge of becoming unlivable. We’re about to extinguish all life on Earth. We’re about to melt the ice caps and drown in the most literal way possible. But instead of focusing on any of that, let’s see what the Kardashians are up to this week. Let’s tweet about Saturday Night Live hurting our presidential feelings while we install billionaire bigots in positions of power. Let’s make sure the suicidal Indigenous teens have canoe storage.  

WJ: With the recent release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, the abuses of residential schools and the Canadian genocide of First Nations peoples is at the front of many people’s minds. Do you think fiction has a role to play in efforts to bring us together as a country? And what do people fail to understand about the First Nations experience as you see it?

ER: Fiction, good fiction, allows you to live another life. You get to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Reports and testimony can give you facts and feelings. Fiction can immerse you on levels that other mediums can’t.  

First Nations are not one big lump any more than Canada is one homogeneous country. Cornerbrook is different from Port Hardy, much as Haisla is different from Mi’kmaq. My experience is different from someone who grew up on an urban setting or another Nation. Even my generation has a different experience of Canada than the generations coming after me. What we have in common is blunt oppression, an insistence that we allow ourselves to be erased for the common good. 

WJ: Basically everybody who knows you raves about your overwhelming laugh. Throughout Trickster, humour plays a vital role in the proceedings, and I found myself routinely snorting/giggling at things that surprised and horrified me. It’s a good reminder that literature doesn’t need to be stodgy or pretentious, and we’re free to ridicule ourselves and each other for our quirks and idiosyncrasies. My final question for you is this: what keeps you laughing?

ER: y family keeps me humble and laughing. When you watch people coping with chronic, debilitating illness or the death of a loved one or a house burning down, and they do it with humour and strength, it’s a reminder that we’re all temporary. We’re on a journey with no fixed destination. You can plod through it or embrace it in all its complicated, messy glory. When I start to overthink things, I fix my mind on my niblets or my sister—people who remind me that love exists beyond the confines of time and space, and your heart can operate like quantum particles, existing in two places simultaneously. 

EDEN ROBINSON is a Haisla/Heiltsuk author who grew up in Haisla, British Columbia. Her first book, Traplines, a collection of short stories, won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998. Monkey Beach, her first novel, was shortlisted for both The Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction in 2000 and won the B.C. Book Prize’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her latest novel is Son of a Trickster.