How 1960s California and the male gaze inspired Eliza Robertson's debut novel

The author explores the inspiration and themes behind her latest book, Demi-Gods.
Demi-Gods is Eliza Robertson's debut novel. (Ellie Gillard/Penguin Canada)

Eliza Robertson won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013 for her collection Wallflowers. Her debut novel, Demi-Gods, begins when 9-year-old Willa meets her stepbrother Patrick. The midcentury story follows the charged encounters that Willa continues to have with Patrick, as she moves from childhood into adult life. This interview originally aired on Oct. 9, 2017.

Taking the shine off

"I was looking at these Super 8 videotapes that my grandfather had taken. I think he actually filmed them in the early 1960s. My mom's family would go on these summer trips and they did go to California. I remember being totally enchanted by the footage in California in the early 1960s. It was something about the light and the aesthetic that got into me. I just felt like this is the time frame I want to land in. But also, I think there is something about the apparent sanitization of that time that I wanted to out. I don't think it was as sanitized a time as T.V. can let us believe. There was an underbelly of dysfunction. It's easy to think it was all peachy keen, sparkly white smiles and Coca-Cola. I liked the tension of trying to write a very contemporary novel but it not being set now, creating a juxtaposition between the times." 

Past versus present

"I think that on the one hand not a lot has changed with regards to gender roles, specifically with regards to the female body and how women internalize and embody expectations of them without even thinking of it. I think it's just how we grew up. I think it's how I grew up, in many ways. But on the other hand things have changed. For one, it's likely Willa's mother would know she has depression and women aren't just going to school to get married now. Obviously things have changed, but not as much as you'd hope."

Reversing the male gaze

"A lot of this novel is about Patrick's gaze on Willa, but I also wanted to invert that gaze. In the language, I wanted to physicalize and sexualize how the men looked to Willa and have Willa almost see them how her mother sees them. Actually the title Demi-Gods was inspired by a photo series taken in Brooklyn, New York in the 1960s of very beautiful men. It was called Les Demi Dieux. [The photo series] was very much about the male gaze. It was a male photographer shooting these men. I found myself really captivated by the photos and this idea of seeing men in art sexualized because that's not very common."

Eliza Robertson's comments have been edited and condensed.