Eliza Robertson is a Canadian writer based in the UK, currently completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, and is the author of Wallflowers. She talked with Rory Gleeson, an Irish writer coming to the end of a two-year stay in Canada, via a dodgy Skype connection.
Rory Gleeson: So, I have questions and things if you don’t mind me asking.
Eliza Roberston: Yeah, please do.
RG: Okay, well I wanted to talk to you about Canadian writers leaving and how that question is treated in Canadian literature. You’re from BC originally and then you left. You’ve been in Norwich, at UEA, for four years now. Did you plan on leaving for that long?
ER: I don’t think I necessarily planned to leave for four years. It’s very common for Canadians to leave. At least it’s not an abnormal thing. It’s a little different from taking a course elsewhere, but I think there’s something about Canada where, if you want to be published outside of Canada, it’s easier to make those connections outside the country to begin with. If I did my MFA at a Canadian university, I’m not sure I’d have a UK contract or a US contract. But also I just wanted to try something new. I’m somebody who travels a lot anyway. I applied to programs in the US as well, but UEA was the one that gave me funding, so …
RG: Well, there it is. Are there parts of Canadian writing that you feel you fit into? One thing I noticed about Canadian writing is that, at some point, someone will sleep in their car. I think it’s just because the drives are longer. And you have one of those scenes. In your Tigers story (“Missing Tiger, Camels Found Alive”), he hunkers down in the car for the night.
ER: That’s hilarious. I’ve never noticed that, in terms of it being a pattern in Canadian writing. That’s a good observation. I always see my writing inspired by BC in terms of how the wild comes into it, how wildlife comes into it and the natural world. It definitely fed a lot of those stories in Wallflowers. I think actually being here for so many years, I haven’t been writing stories based in BC for a long time.
RG: Do you find it more or less difficult to write about Canada having left?
ER: I think I wrote about it more when I first left, when I was here for the MA. That was when some of my most “British Columbia stories” were written. But it’s been so many years now. I find it’s just not as fresh in my mind. I reckon when I move back to Canada, I will write more stories set in the UK, and then it’ll gradually shift over and I’ll start writing about Canada again.
RG: So you plan to go back?
ER: Yeah, I’m kind of getting tired. My PhD is ending. Like you, I’ll be getting kicked out of the country, probably in a year. But also Brexit really put a damper on the whole United Kingdom thing. I was really on the fence.
If I did my MFA at a Canadian university, I’m not sure I’d have a UK contract or a US contract.
I was thinking maybe I should get a job in London and stay here for a bit longer, but then as I was debating this, the Brexit vote happened. I just felt this kind of disgust, the same way you’d feel if you were living in the US right now, just sort of a sense of not really belonging to this place in the long term. Saying that, I really get along with British people.
RG: Ha! Don’t worry.
RG: It’s not going to come out like you’re trashing England.
ER: No, no, no! I mean, I don’t know a single Brexiter, right? The country is divided, and I had a slight sense of, “Well if you don’t want me here, half of the country, then I’ll go.”
RG: Do you think [the desire to leave] is more of a worry about where the country is going? Or is it that when you get a shock, a kind of homing instinct kicks in? When you feel under threat, you want to go home.
ER: I think it’s both things. I am worried where the country’s going. I did have a real sense after Brexit that, “Look where the US is right now. Look where the UK is right now. Those are the two countries I wanted to live in.”
There’s more tolerance and appreciation for short stories in Canada. The UK kind of bears with them if they’re interested in publishing you, but it’s not encouraged
And Canada is one of the few countries left with somewhat of a progressive government at the moment. Why am I not living there? Why am I not taking advantage of that while we still have it? I have no doubt we’ll be electing some kind of conservative goon, if not in the next election, then probably the one after. So I may as well enjoy this period of relative peace while I can.
SKYPE PROBLEMS INTERRUPT SEVERAL INTRIGUING QUESTIONS
Eliza Robertson’s first collection, Wallflowers.
RG: Do you worry that when you’re writing about Canada or setting things in Canada, you’re writing about the past? That you’re writing about a Canada that doesn’t quite exist anymore?
ER: It’s funny you say that because my (new) novel is set in the 1950s, so I literally am writing about the past. I lived in Victoria for 25 years, it’s not going to change drastically in the last four years in ways I won’t have already observed, if that makes sense. I’m not too concerned about that. I would be more hesitant to set a story in Toronto because I’ve only been there a few times. I’d be more hesitant to set a story in Vancouver, even though I was born there. But if I could do enough research to see how Victoria had changed, that wouldn’t bother me.
RG: Have you found English literary culture different from Canadian literary culture?
ER: I have. There’s more tolerance and appreciation for short stories in Canada. The UK kind of bears with them if they’re interested in publishing you, but it’s not encouraged. I would say it’s actively discouraged. You’ll never see a huge advance go to a story collection, at least I haven’t, and yet this is a thing I’ve been thinking about recently. A first novel will get a huge auction and you just won’t see that same kind of attention [on short stories]. That is the same in Canada. I think everywhere it’s easier to sell novels than short story collections, but Canada still has them.
I don’t want to sound like I’m making too many judgments, but I do think the culture in Canada is generally a bit more literary, to be honest. I think that what passes as literary fiction here is quite commercial. Again, you’ll find that in Canada but to a lesser degree.
RG: I wonder what you mean by the word “literary”? I mean, in England, is there more of a focus on readability and safe choices?
ER: I don’t mean readability and safe choices, I mean marketability and whether something will trend, whether it meets some kind of algorithm for what publishers think will make a huge splash.
It’s funny you say that because my (new) novel is set in the 1950s, so I literally am writing about the past.
Publishers everywhere are paying attention to that, but if you’re not ticking those boxes, I think it’s more difficult to get published in the UK than it is in Canada.
RG: I wanted to talk about witches for a little while.
ER: That’s very funny, go ahead.
RG: You were already talking about witches when I (first) met you, along with a bunch of your friends. That’s beginning to actually become a part of your publication history now at this stage. You wrote “The Maenad” and you’ve also quoted a line from Zoe Heller about female writers self-describing as amateur practicing witches. What’s with witches?
ER: It’s funny. I’m so annoyed because witches are really trendy at the moment, whereas I have been into witchery since witches were cool in the ’90s. I think what happened was that all these people who were kids or adolescents in the ’90s have grown up and reclaimed witchiness as cool. I couldn’t say I’m a practicing witch but that’s not because I don’t want to be, it’s because I don’t have the fucking time. If I had more time to devote to witchy rituals then I would. I’m studying astrology though, I’m actually taking an astrology class in London.
RG: How’re you finding it?
ER: I’m enjoying it. I think in my ideal future I’d actually be a professional astrologer slash writer.
RG: What’s the attraction there, what do you use it for? Is it more a different way of looking at yourself, understanding your own mental states and feelings, or is it actually just your need to find out what happens to you next month?
ER: It’s the former. I think astrology offers this alternative language to look into yourself, and it’s so rich with archetypes and symbology. It’s really interesting to research. A lot of Greek myth comes into it, Greek and Roman myth. I really admire certain contemporary astrologers. There seems to be a real movement among feminist, queer groups, and people of colour as well.
I think what happened was that all these people who were kids or adolescents in the ’90s have grown up and reclaimed witchiness as cool.
There are certain groups of people, and women are in that group, where their opinions have been subordinated, and in the same way, the occult disciplines such as astrology and witchiness have been dismissed by white western science. There’s a certain affinity between groups that have felt marginalized, and this somewhat marginalized way of speaking and way of thinking about the world. I wouldn’t say I use it in terms of predictive forecasts, but maybe, maybe that’s the next step.
RG: I was hearing about witches from you before I heard it from anyone else.
ER: I like that you have a record of that. I remember watching this happen, with slight horror, maybe dismay, with [my housemates] Rebecca and Lily, “Oh my god, everybody’s talking about witches but we’ve been doing this for ages.” I moved back into [my old house] in July and we had a house clearing ceremony, we smudged the house and called the corners. It was lovely.
RG: Actually, at UEA at the moment, a lot of female writers are doing very well for themselves.
ER: Yes, they are.
RG: You have Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Julianne Pachico, Rebecca Tamás, Anna Metcalfe.
ER: Sharlene as well. Sharlene Teo. She’s just had a major book deal with Picador.
RG: It seems to be a good time and place for young female writers. Do you think that English literary culture is more receptive to young female voices, or do you think it’s still a closed shop?
ER: There are a lot of young women in the UK who are doing very well. I think it’s hard to say whether that’s a victory for feminism. I don’t think it’s a victory if they’re being marketed on being a young woman, if that makes sense. I’ve seen book covers and it’s like, “Are you selling cosmetics or are you selling a book?” I’m not immune to that either. I would be hesitant to necessarily equate that with a victory for feminism, but I definitely do think that the UK literary industry is receptive to young women writers at the moment.
RG: There’s a variety of different women in your stories and to say they have “complicated” relationships with men is maybe not fair, but some of them are very aware of their vulnerability in the world and their vulnerability to men. Many of them do hit back against that, and try their very best to assert their own power, whether it works (out) well or not. Was that something you were consciously investigating, or just things that came out naturally writing through your own concerns?
ER: I don’t think I was very conscious of those things as I was writing. One thing that I did become quite disturbed with after I’d already written the collection was that many of the stories feature women or characters generally who are on their own. I don’t think any of those stories feature a healthy, romantic relationship, for example.
There are a lot of young women in the UK who are doing very well. I think it’s hard to say whether that’s a victory for feminism. I don’t think it’s a victory if they’re being marketed on being a young woman …
It often features characters who are made isolated by their circumstances, for whatever reasons, and so what you’re describing could be an aspect of that. I wouldn’t say that was a conscious role that I was writing. I wrote those stories over four years, starting in my second year of university at UVic. I went through a big development in that time as well, from the earliest stories in there to the latest.
RG: What’s with your new novel?
ER: It’s funny because of what you’ve just described in terms of women pushing back and having complicated relationships with guys. That is actually what this novel is about in many ways. It centres around this somewhat toxic but magnetic relationship between a young girl and a boy who is effectively her stepbrother. They only see each other four or five times, and the novel is based over those episodes. They’re drawn to each other, but he also treats her as a plaything and it develops over time. It’s set in the ’50s and ’60s on Salt Spring Island and California.
SKYPE PROBLEMS INTERRUPT AGAIN, AND THE INTERVIEW COMES TO A CLOSE
Eliza Robertson was born in Vancouver and grew up on Vancouver Island. She attended the creative writing programs at the University of Victoria and the University of East Anglia, where she received the 2011 Man Booker Scholarship. Her first collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award, the Danuta Gleed Short Story Prize, the East Anglia Book Award, and selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice. In 2015, she was named by Joseph Boyden as one of five emerging writers for the Writers’ Trust Five x Five program. She lives in England.