Robertson talks reviews, novels and life post-Wallflowers

Eliza Robertson’s debut collection of short stories, Wallflowers (Hamish Hamilton), has been praised in Canada, across the Atlantic and in the United States, with The New York Times calling it captivating. In recent years Robertson, a B.C.-born graduate of the University of Victoria, won the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the piece “We Walked on Water,” was a finalist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize and earned a MA in prose fiction from the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Prize Scholarship. In the midst of completing her PhD in the U.K., Robertson talks to The Coastal Spectator’s Erin Anderson about delving into novel-writing and plotting out her next steps.

It is unusual I feel for a short story collection to get as much press as Wallflowers. The book has received many favourable reviews–what have been some of your favourite reviews or turns of phrase used to describe your writing? 

Well, I like when reviewers acknowledge its darker places…but also when they use adjectives like “weird.” The stories function on both levels. Probably my favourite review came from Stinging Fly, which is a journal in Ireland. I don’t remember the words the reviewer used, but she was the only one to mention the stylistic exploration. Some of the stories can be frustrating to read if you’re not someone who likes denser prose. I suppose she acknowledged that readers will have to work for a few of these stories, and that that is okay.

Some reviewers of Wallflowers made note of the collection’s diversity. What was your approach to curating the book? Were there stories that didn’t make the cut? Which story or stories do you feel best reflect where you want to go as a writer?

Its diversity reflects how much I wanted to try new things at the time… which I still do, though it may be less obvious in the writing now. There were a few stories that did not make the cut, yes. Similarly, I thought about removing a few stories that did make the cut, but ultimately they stayed in. It’s been interesting to watch– some reviewers’ least favourite stories are other peoples’ (and occasionally my own) favourites… and some of my personal least favourites have been picked up as the strongest. It’s reassuring, in a way, to know you can never please everyone with a book like this. I’m not sure if any of them specifically point to where I am headed as a writer–I don’t know where I am headed as a writer myself. But the final story, “We Walked on Water”, is one of my favourites. 

You had a novel ready at the same time as Wallflowers. How did the short story collection end up being your first release? It seems like novels still run the market so to speak–do you agree? What do you see as the differences between novels and short stories as both a reader as a writer–other than length?

A first draft of the novel had been written, but it was nowhere near ready. (Can you tell I have had trouble with the transition from story to novel writing?) I think my agent wanted to wait for the novel to be more fully formed, but then I won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and she thought it savvy to capitalize on that attention… So she sent out the story manuscript before the novel was ready. In fact, neither of my publishers had seen a lick of it before they agreed to buy it. (But nor would they buy the story collection without promise of a novel to follow.)

Yes, they do still run the market, unfortunately. Every time a story collection does well, the commentary seems to begin or end on the exclamation, “and it’s a story collection!”

As for the difference between the two forms… well– I think stories can be a lot more playful. They can shape-shift between forms and styles and voices more easily than a novel can, which is why I love them. They can also be launched from the momentum of a single moment, whereas a novel needs slower build up. I don’t know if I have gotten the hang of it yet.

You are the midst of your PhD right now, part of which is writing a novel. Are you finding time to write outside of that commitment?

The PhD is a creative-critical hybrid, so it involves writing a novel as well as critical research, which keeps me pretty busy. On top of that, I am redrafting a different novel (which was sold alongside Wallflowers in the two-book deal) and teaching an undergraduate course.

I can’t tell you too much about either novel yet, as they’re both remain embryonic. (The new one because it is new, the old one as an effect of its redrafting.) You see, I spent an intensive three months changing everything about it–point of view, structure, chronology, the characters’ ages, names… and I am awaiting my editor’s feedback. It is sitting in a quiet mental box until then.

Essentially, it’s about a girl trying to friend her friend in Vancouver. But I can’t divulge too much beyond that.

What are your plans post-PhD? Do you think you will stay in Europe or return to Canada? Are you hoping to focus entirely on writing or do you plan to keep up some kind of day job, teaching perhaps?

I have no idea! I miss Canada, though. I could see myself living in Montreal or Vancouver. Equally, I’ve always wanted to try living in the U.S…. not forever, but one or two years might be fun. In my ideal world, I would live 1/4 of the year in Canada, 1/4 of the year in the UK, 1/4 of the year in northern California… or New York, cliché as it is… and 1/4 of the year in the south of France.

Of course I would love to focus on writing, but that’s not likely if I hope to maintain an income. Even if I did have the luxury to write full-time, I am not sure it’s ideal. I think I like writing more when I have a distraction. That distraction could be teaching–I am doing that now. But in many ways I would prefer to do something completely unrelated to literature. Like film production or work for some open office space with bean bag chairs.