Eden Robinson Returns

Son of a Trickster’s author is just as funny as her books

Art | by Emmet Matheson

Have you read Monkey Beach? You’ve gotta read Monkey Beach. Monkey Beach is easily one of the top five Canadian novels of all time. It’s just so good. Are you sick of hearing me talk about Monkey Beach yet? Well, good news. There’s a new Eden Robinson novel out. Eleven years after her follow-up to Monkey Beach, the also-essential Blood Sports, the Kitimat, B.C. author has just published Son of a Trickster with Knopf Canada.

The best thing about the new book — aside from the fact that it’s every bit as bitingly funny and full of life as Monkey Beach — is that it’s the first part of a trilogy.

Story-starved Eden Robinson fans, like you and me, are in for regular doses of the good stuff for a few years.

Though the book shares some similarities with Robinson’s earlier books — like Monkey Beach, Son of a Trickster features a young Haisla protagonist in touch, often unpleasantly so, with the supernatural, one reader has described it as “Harry Potter on the Rez”— Robinson says the circumstances of the book’s creation were vastly different.

When she started writing Blood Sports, for example, she had a two pack a day cigarette habit. When her lungs developed a crackle, she had to reassess her priorities.

“It was sheer vanity,” she says. “I just couldn’t see myself flirting with an oxygen tank.”

So, on June 1, 2004, a date Robinson summons without hesitation or ceremony, she quit smoking cold turkey. Very quickly, the title of Blood Sports went from being a metaphor about nurturing family bonds to something more literal.

“I was writing about the gentle, healing power of love,” Robinson says. “That didn’t work. You can see it around page 100, where the main character is tortured for 40 pages. My family was like, ‘we love you, but what the hell?!?’”

Eden Robinson laughs as much as she speaks. Her laugh is cheerful and uplifting. It shows no sign of a lung problem. She’s not just breathing easier, she’s also eating better. Since writing her first two novels, Robinson was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant. Changing her diet has made her life much more comfortable.

“I gave up gluten in 2005 and it changed so many things,” she says. “We thought it was Irritable Bowel Syndrome at first and I used to have to actually Google all the bathrooms any time I went out.

“I do miss croissants. I had an erotic dream about croissants and smoking. I woke up feeling guilty, as if I’d done something terrible. I guess I had.”

Robinson will gladly and gleefully hold forth on gluten, from the lack of grains in the traditional Haisla diet, to the joys of creme brûlée, or her patience with people who voluntarily go gluten-free: “I tell my cousins, ‘that’s the wrong soy sauce.’”

Not long after Blood Sports’ release in 2006, Robinson moved from Vancouver back to Kitamaat Village, the Haisla town 11 kilometres south of the Northern BC city of Kitimat, to help care for her father who has Parkinson’s Disease.

“Everything I hated about living in a small town when I was growing up turned out to be very comforting in my mid-30s,” she says.

Unfortunately for her readers, small-town life wasn’t exactly conducive to writing novels. In addition to helping her parents, working in government and arts organizations (“my wheelhouse is paperwork”), Robinson also became an activist.

“We started hearing rumours about Enbridge (the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline) and then there were all these omnibus budget bills,” she says. “I had also started teaching, and marking is so time-consuming. So I put down writing.”

By 2014, though, she had carved out some writing time between four and five in the morning. She found inspiration in workshops she was doing with storyteller and writer Richard Van Camp from the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation in the Northwest Territories, and in seeing her father try to explain traditional trickster stories to his grandchildren. And especially in the writing workshops she was leading with high school students throughout BC, where Monkey Beach is part of the curriculum.

“We were just working on story creation with these Grade 10 and 11 students,” she says. “And the stories they’d come up with were just completely wild, so much fun.”

Out of these workshops, Robinson was starting to put together a series of short stories about a traditional urban dance group in East Vancouver. From these stories emerged an image Robinson couldn’t shake of a kid coming down into Vancouver from a northern small town. She made a few attempts at mixing all the various ideas together, including a version narrated by Wee’git, the Trickster himself. Another version hopped around into different characters’ heads every 50 pages.

But, finally, Robinson came up with Jared, the titular Son of the Trickster, and found his voice. And things really started to happen.

She started filling in the backstory of the kid on the bus to Vancouver.

“The Kitimat section just expanded and expanded,” Robinson says. “I hit 600, then 1,000 pages, and I had to split the book in two. And now I think I have the opening for the third book.”

Even though she’s long ago given up cigarettes and gluten, Eden Robinson’s writing is still subject to the indifferent whims of biology. Perimenopause, she reports, has done a number on her technique.

“I had a beautiful memory,” she says, still laughing. “I used to be able to edit in my head. But now I’m Queen of the Post-Its.

“I tend to live in my head and forget that I even have a body, so every now and then it has a way of reminding me it’s still here.”

Eden Robinson will read and sign books at McNally Robinson (3130 8th St. E) on Wednesday, Feb. 15, in the Travel Alcove at 7 p.m. Son Of A Trickster is in stores Tuesday, Feb. 7.