'He taught me a love of stories': Eden Robinson on her dad, a new novel and Writers' Trust fellowship
Talking to Eden Robinson, it doesn't take long to realize she has the best laugh in CanLit. The novelist from Kitamaat Village, B.C., is kind of famous for it.
Quill & Quire describes it as an "unrestrained guffaw, so spontaneous and unselfconscious that, even as a stranger, you can't help but be drawn in." The Globe and Mail calls it "unbridled, loud, contagious."
The Indigenous writer is shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her latest novel, Son of a Trickster; and this week, she was named the 2017 recipient of the Writers Trust Fellowship, which comes with a $50,000 award.
Amidst all the highlights in her professional career, Robinson has also had to reckon with a personal loss. Her father, Jonny Robinson, died last month after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Robinson this week, not just to hear her chuckle — but to talk about the year she's having. Here is part of that conversation.
Eden, big congratulations to you. This $50,000 fellowship — this is supposed to help people stay in the business of being writers. What does it mean for you?
(laughs) Thank you. Yes, this means that I can have more time for writing and I won't have to freelance this year. It makes me feel so humbled. It is wonderful.
I know it's also in the midst of this crazy time personally for you. Your father passed away [last month.] I'm so sorry.
And I know you were caring for him and trying to juggle all these demands and all these high points. How difficult was that for you?
Well, my dad was my best friend. And he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1998, and I didn't move home until 2003, and I discovered that he was funny.
He had a quirky sense of humour. He loved adventure. And he loved, loved, loved his community. So when I moved back to Kitamaat, I wasn't expecting to find it as comfortable as I did. Because I left when I was 18, eager to see the world and never come back. But in my forties I found all the things that were restricting [about home] were familiar and comfortable. And I appreciated knowing everyone's back story.
I know he influenced you. What did he teach you?
He taught me a love of stories. He told stories all the time. We would wake up, and he would tell me stories over coffee. He loved to drive. And he loved ... Sasquatch. (laughs) He read Son of a Trickster, and his big disappointment in it was that there weren't any Sasquatches.
Did he ever see one?
He was hopeful that he would see one. There have been a lot of sightings around northern B.C. this year. And he was very hopeful. But I think the closest we ever came was when we were camping in Dragon Lake, in northern B.C. I had put my ear plugs in because dad had really bad sleep apnea. That night the whole campground heard inhuman, sort of ... yodelling.
It was musical but not quite a wolf. Not quite a person. They were talking to each other. I missed all of it because I had my ear plugs in. In the campground there was a big debate in the morning, about whether it was teens, or a wolf, or whether it was really Sasquatch.
I want to ask you about another mythical animal — featured in Son Of A Trickster — which is a raven, [the Wee'git] and its relationship with this boy Jared. Can you tell us about Jared and the raven?
I loved Wee'git stories growing up. "Trickster" stories in Haisla and Heiltsuk culture were all about protocol. There is lots of hierarchy in our culture. The stories were about what happens when you don't follow the rules. They were told as funny, crazy stories, to teach you about our nuyums, or protocols, by having a character [Wee'git, the transforming raven] that broke all of them. And I was trying to bring Wee'git into a modern setting. To see what would happen if he was running around in the world today.
And [Wee'git follows] this teenage boy, Jared, who sells weed cookies, he has a dysfunctional family life—
OK, wait a second, we have to stop here to point out the very famous Eden Robinson Laugh.
(laughs) It's not full throttle yet, I haven't had all the coffee I need. I have an Aunt Ramona who I share this laugh with. When she laughs and I laugh we go up and down at the same time.
This is infectious. I want this recorded and played whenever I'm feeling down. Just you doing that.
(laughs) Aw, thank you.
But anyways — how did you get inside the head of a teenage boy? That's got to be the most frightening place to go.
(laughs) Well, a few years ago, Monkey Beach was put on a pilot curriculum for First Nations High Schools in B.C. I would tour northern B.C. going to the different high schools.
We would split the class up, and they would create a character. And we would have the characters go on an adventure. [The students] were very quiet at first.
But once they were engaged, they sent their characters on the craziest, wildest adventures. A lot of the details about teenagers, and their thinking, came from those sessions with the students. I really wanted the book to have that kind of energy.
And is Jared, in the next books — is Jared growing up?
Yes. Jared goes down to Vancouver, and he ends up staying with his aunt who's been estranged from his mother for many, many years. While he's at her apartment, he discovers it's haunted. The ghost that lives there is a huge fan of Doctor Who and Douglas Adams. So the elements of the supernatural start creeping back into his life. He really wants to just have a quiet, normal life. He knows he's the son of a trickster but he's in complete denial about what that means. And this book is him dealing with that.
This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Eden Robinson.