Follow the Fear:
For some writers, producing critically-acclaimed novels requires a carefully negotiated dance with their creative muse, guided by writerly discipline and sensibly chaperoned by a well-considered outline.
For others, it’s more like being propelled by unseen forces towards the creakiest roller coaster ride in a fly-by-night carnival. You’re shuffled into a car and just before it lurches from the platform, you notice the chill in the ticket-taker’s smile: there’s no getting out of this now. Your heart sinks when it becomes apparent that your seat belt is broken, and as the antique car clacks mercilessly up an impossibly steep incline, you try to remember how to pray.
A heart-stopping eternity later, you return to the platform, dismount from the car and reassemble your guts—and to your astonishment, throngs of admirers find artistic value in what you’ve just done.
Eden Robinson is clearly in the second camp of writers.
“I guess the guiding motivation would always be: follow the phobia,” she says from her home in Kitimaat. “If I’m afraid of it, it’s bound to be good.”
Fear is alive and kicking in Robinson’s new novel, Blood Sports, which was published in February by McClelland and Stewart.
Set in Vancouver, the story follows the twisted relationship between Tom, a manipulable convenience store clerk who’s trying to extract himself from the control of his cousin Jeremy, a coke-driven sociopathic gangster.
Their relationship is further complicated by Paulina, a recovering junkie who’s loved them both and is now mother to Tom’s child, and by Jeremy’s drug-dealing former business associates, who sweep Tom and Paulina into an attempt to snare Jeremy.
The complex plot is fleshed out through a collage of literary devices: a collection of letters, police transcriptions of Jeremy’s homemade videos, stream-of-consciousness first-person narratives, and straightforward third-person narration.
From a heartfelt letter in the book’s first pages, we learn that Tom has decided to sever the connection between himself, Paulina and their daughter, for their safety. The reasons for this are revealed by the ensuing action, which moves between Vancouver’s drug-ridden Downtown East Side, the café culture around Commercial Drive, and glittering seaside high-rises of the West End.
The story climaxes at the sepulchral basement of an isolated suburban home, where Paulie and her daughter are confined in a custom-built prison cell while Tom, enduring unspeakable torture at the hands of his captors, struggles to hold onto information that will ensure their survival.
No, it’s not bed-time reading—but tell that to anyone who wanders into Blood Sports and attempts to put down the book before bedtime. Robinson’s fully developed characters and their complex relationships get under your skin. The lushly described settings resonate with anyone who’s ever lived in Vancouver—particularly those of the Downtown Eastside.
And whether or not you have a taste for gore, you’ll find (as I did) your day’s priorities, and maybe your night’s dreams, quickly rearranged by this book, which quietly grabs you by the throat, plunges you into suspense and won’t let you up for air until the final pages.
Robinson reflects on the creation of Blood Sports, which actually had its genesis in Traplines, her first collection of short stories, which won the Winifred Holtby Prize and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of the Year.
Blood Sports’ birth was at least as messy as the torture scenes that splatter its pages. Robinson wrote in what she calls “great galloping gasps”: 12- to 18-hour writing days, deliberately deprived of internet, cable or phone, and hopped up on coffee, Pepsi Max and Craven M cigarettes.
While self-doubt scratched at her door during the writing process [“this is my most insane stuff yet… will anyone actually read this?”], the book’s key characters took on lives of their own, morphing into wildly divergent incarnations and narrative voices. Working with little more than a skeletal outline, Robinson rewrote extensively—some 32 drafts over five years.
She contrasts her way of working with that of a writer friend who prefers to record every atom of an idea onto 3”x 5” index cards, which are then ordered into a solid outline before the writing begins in earnest. Robinson’s comparatively chaotic approach, she jokes, is the “vomit method.”
“I’ve tried to do this in a more balanced way,” she laughs now. “But I’m a binge-writer.”
So why is Robinson turning into a sort of specialist in the disturbing material which is making her a poster-girl for a genre of literature that some critics call Northern Gothic?
Robinson, who grew up in the tiny Haisla village of Kitimaat, was once a bookish, painfully shy teen who was riddled with phobias about things like ants, driving, and the experience of pain. She’d harboured dreams of being an astronaut, a paradox considering that her fear of heights was so acute that for many years she could neither live nor work higher than the third floor.
In her mid-teens, right around the time when Robinson learned that being 5’2” made her too short for NASA recruitment material, she began cranking out dark stories for high school creative-writing classes—stories drenched with pain, death, “exploding heads.” Students and teachers responded enthusiastically. “I realized I had a talent for gore,” she remembers.
Suddenly, Robinson remembers, she was doing something that was recognized as “cool.” “Writing is one of the only places where you get to be courageous.”
Developing that talent took work. Robinson barely passed her first two years of post-secondary education in creative writing at the University of Victoria. “The exploding-head stories just weren’t cutting it,” she laughs, remembering a turning point: a decision to fully embrace the work of learning her craft. Robinson went on to pursue her Masters at UBC’s celebrated creative writing program.
Robinson also decided to exorcise her own demons. Thanks to years of therapy, voice lessons, desensitization training, a Toastmasters membership and even a sky-diving experience, she’s conquered several life-limiting phobias.
Today, she gets thrills from book promotion tours, guest appearances at writers’ festivals, teaching and traveling. Her keen sense of humour is often self-deprecating, frequently punctuated by her explosive laugh, and more than a little twisted.
Picture Robinson at home in Kitimaat, warming up for a day of writing. This usually involves a full pot of coffee, watching Discovery Channel shows (the Daily Planet, which she describes as “a total geekfest” digest of scientific discoveries), and her absolute favorite: May Day, a series which offers shard-by-shard analyses of spectacular human disasters, including crashes of boats, trains and a blimp. She’s particularly fond of the episodes that focus on planes.
“How can you not like watching airplanes go down, and the investigation that follows?” she says, before erupting into uproarious laughter. “There’s something satisfying about it.”
Robinson is well aware that her preoccupations don’t resonate with everyone. She’s always “a bit shocked” that people actually read her books, and expected Blood Sports wouldn’t be an easy sell. “I knew this was not going to be a nice, cheery, bouncy chick-lit book. God love ’em, I wish I could write like that, but I don’t.”
Earlier versions of Blood Sports actually contained more graphic torture scenes, which were pruned at the urging of her editor. “They were starting to slow down the plot,” explains Robinson. “Too bad I can’t make a DVD with the deleted scenes.”
So why is she still drawn to writing such dark and disturbing material, particularly when she’s still, by her own admission, “terribly afraid of pain”?
“I’m going to go with the phobias,” says Robinson. “I don’t know how normal people work through their anxiety, but it’s kind of cathartic to experience them vicariously through a character. It’s art therapy, I guess.”
Clearly, following the fear is working for Robinson, who has become one of Canada’s first female native writers to gain international attention. Blood Sports has met with favorable reviews since its release in early 2006. Like Monkey Beach, Robinson’s debut novel which won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and earned a Giller Prize nomination, Blood Sports is about to be made into a feature-length movie.
Robinson is hanging out in Kitimaat, recovering from her five-year wrestle with Blood Sports. And with the glee of a puppetmaster pushing characters through situations that scare the living daylights out of her, she’s already brewing a sequel.
Blood Sports is published by McClelland & Stewart.
© Larissa Ardis 2006