Canada Reads·In Conversation

Why Son of a Trickster author Eden Robinson became a writer — and how she keeps getting better

Actor Kaniehtiio Horn is defending Son of a Trickster on Canada Reads 2020.
Eden Robinson is the author of Son of a Trickster. (CBC)

Eden Robinson started writing her Canada Reads-contending novel Son of a Trickster with specific family members in mind: her cousins.

Today, the "darkly humorous coming-of-age story" is a certified hit with a larger audience. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize and is being adapted into a TV series set to premiere on CBC in 2020

Son of a Trickster is a contemporary Trickster story told from the perspective Jared, a teenager who drinks and smokes too much, sells weed cookies to get by and has a tumultuous relationship with his intimidating mother.

And this is just the beginning of the story. Son of a Trickster is the first book in a trilogy. Trickster Drift, the second book, is out now, and the third book is coming soon.

Actor Kaniehtiio Horn is defending Son of a Trickster on Canada Reads 2020.

The debates were scheduled to take place March 16-19, 2020. Given the ongoing developments with COVID-19 and the related travel concerns, Canada Reads has made the difficult decision to postpone next week's event until we can convene our stellar panel of advocates in front of a live audience. 

Canada Reads content will still be featured this week (March 16-20), in a series of one hour programs dedicated to this year's books and authors.

Robinson spoke with CBC Books about the pressures of writing a trilogy and her Canada Reads experience thus far. 

How has the Canada Reads experience been for you?

"It's been really good! It's been a lot of fun meeting the other writers and the defenders. And the trash talk has started already!"

How have you been taking the positive response to Son of a Trickster?

"I wrote this book specifically with my cousins in mind. I wrote it to a specific cousin. I knew that if they liked it, then I would be okay. The broader acceptance of that novel has been pleasantly surprising."

Did you intend for this story to be a trilogy?

"No. I have a lot more respect for people who write trilogies or series now. It's a lot of work. It was supposed to be a short story and then it kept building and building and growing. It was like yeast.

"Any confines I tried to make, it seeped over them. Now that I've got the first draft of the third novel done, I can see where I'm letting Jared go."

I have a lot more respect for people to write trilogies or series now. It's a lot of work.- Eden Robinson

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

"I didn't want to be a writer until Grade 11. Before that, I wanted to be an astronaut! I watched documentaries and shows about astronauts. I saw the insane tests they did to weed people out and then I discovered they had a height limit. You had to be at least five foot three. My heart was broken. It wasn't to be!

"But I come from a family of readers. We always read books. Everyone had their their own stuff that they were interested in. We would spend time in secondhand bookstores. In Grade 11, one of my English teachers read out to the class a short story that I had written and the class liked it. I got the writing bug that day.

"I had never actually met a writer, other than my Uncle Gordon. He wrote [1956 book] Tales of Kitamaat. Talking to him, he said, 'Just put the words down.' And then I got published!

"At first I thought I was going to be writing horror. That was my first love. But then I was accepted into the bachelor's program at the University of Victoria. I started reading beyond my comfort zone and discovered that there were other ways of writing that I was attracted to and loved."

Did anyone discourage you from wanting to be a writer?

"My mom was a frustrated actress. She loved acting, but there were no opportunities for her when she was young. My dad was a frustrated architect. When I said that I wanted to be a writer, they were so enthusiastic. I assumed that everyone had that experience, that your family cheered you on! But I came to appreciate how rare that was. 

If you focus on your craft and focus on your story, it can be a reward.- Eden Robinson

"Most of the writers that I've met through school were like, 'Get a day job!' But if you focus on your craft and focus on your story, it can be a reward. When I was in my 20s, it was no problem to write between 10 and 18 hours a day, depending on my work or school. But in my 50s, now that's not reasonable."

Letterkenny actress Kaniehtiio Horn will defend Eden Robinson's novel Son of a Trickster on Canada Reads 2020. Ahead of the debates, the actor and author chatted about what really lies at the heart of the award-winning supernatural novel. 5:18

How did growing up in British Columbia shape you as a writer?

"I assumed that everyone knew everything that I knew. There are about 60 different First Nations in British Columbia. I was used to a multitude of nations. When I started writing, I assumed everyone knew most of the cultures I know, or knew what a potlatch was. I went into writing and assuming people have a lot of knowledge about it. 

"In the early years, a lot of my work was impenetrable. When I started writing Monkey Beach, one of my mentors told me that there's a balance that I will have to decide on between what I want to explain to people who aren't from your community and my story.

"Every time you have to explain, you're giving up pacing or giving up room for characterization. I had to find a balance that made me comfortable. For Monkey Beach that was incredibly tricky. I tried writing it a number of ways.

I'm really thrilled to see Indigenous fiction blossoming.- Eden Robinson

"Today's Indigenous writers have a bit of an easier path because there's more of an expectation that the reader is going to go into the manuscript with some knowledge of the Indigenous peoples in Canada. There's more expectation that readers will go and do the homework. 

"But when I was coming in people were still asking me very basic questions about Indigenity. That evolution has been over the last 20 years and has been amazing to watch. Even the subject matter that the younger Indigenous writers are tackling is great to see. When I was starting out, no one would have wanted to read that. It's exciting. I'm really thrilled to see Indigenous fiction blossoming." 

Eden talks about her novel "Son of a Trickster." 16:49

What are your thoughts on the next generation of Indigenous writers?

"There's a huge generational difference right now in Indigenous fiction. I'm a Gen X writer, who typically wrote about about disillusionment. Whereas some of the millennial writers who are coming into their voices are very suspicious of the status quo. They are tackling a lot of things that are happening in their community. They are a lot more fearless about that and less prone to putting up with bullshit. 

Watching younger writers create new spaces has been wonderful to see.​​​​​- Eden Robinson

"The younger writers have more of a platform with social media, but they have less support than we did. When I came into writing, there were a lot more places to get funding. As an Indigenous person, you were less likely to get them, but they were still there. There were more publishing houses, so you had a broader range of writing. Watching younger writers create new spaces has been wonderful to see."

Why are you drawn to writing horror?

"I went through cyclical depression. When I was a teen, depression was not something that you talked about. It was not something that you explored. It's not something that you went to therapy for. Horror books were the only place where I felt that kind of dread as a physical reality.

Horror was a wonderful way of exploring the different landscapes in my own mind.- Eden Robinson

"The mood in the books matched the mood inside my own head. When I was reading, it was validating — there were places in the world as dark as they are in my head. Horror was a wonderful way of exploring the different landscapes in my own mind. 

"As I have become more accepting of the idiosyncrasies of my head, it's been very freeing. I've done a lot of therapy, I've talked about it, I've written about it. There's a quieter place in my 50s. right now.

"I thought that with quieter space in my own head, my fiction would become lighter. It's freed this insane sense of humour that my family knows very well, but I reined in for everything that I wrote before Son of a Trickster."

Haisla and Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson's latest novel uses the power of magic to reveal truths about addiction and community. 9:14

How has it been knowing that books like Monkey Beach and the Trickster series are being adapted for screen?

"For Monkey Beach the movie, I actually tackled the adaptation process in the beginning and then fired myself because I hated it so much! It's a different kind of writing! It's like writing free verse all your life and suddenly having to write sonnets. 

"For Son of a Trickster, I know that I didn't want to write for television. I didn't realize what a control freak I am! It would have driven me nuts. I met [director/filmmaker] Michelle Latimer a couple of times was shown the storyboards of the six episodes and what parts of the books were being adapted. I've seen scripts and I could see where they were going with it. It's been great to see."

How do you define success as a writer?

"Being happy with the work that I've written. Being able to have the space to see what a particular piece needs to be a better piece of work.

"I know going into the next books that there are things I would like to tackle. I like to challenge myself — success is being able to broaden my skills as a writer."

Eden Robinson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2020 contenders

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