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Books The indomitable Eden Robinson discusses writing her new Trickster sequel amid struggle and loss

Eden Robinson poses for a photo at Cafe Calabria in Vancouver, May 11, 2018.

Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

It has not been the best of years for Eden Robinson. The award-winning Haisla and Heiltsuk author turned 50 in January – there was a week of parties, which was good – but she has been struggling with health issues and loss. Her father died last October; Robinson had been taking care of him and they had been working on a children’s book together. Then this spring, her grandmother, Alice Annie Hunt, died. “Everyone called her Granny Annie,” Robinson says.

In the midst of all this, beginning in May, 2017, Robinson was struck with polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disorder. It began as an intense weakness in her inner thigh muscles and advanced quickly and aggressively – typical with PMR, she explains. By October, when her father died, both of her shoulders were frozen and her knees had begun to lock. It made writing difficult – certainly anything that required a sustained focus was impossible – and she was just finishing the first draft of Trickster Drift, the second book in her Trickster trilogy.

“I have never appreciated my mobility more,” she says. “And I’m so grateful that I have the family that I have.” Through the worst of it, she had cousins come over in the morning to help her get dressed and with meals.

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The pain she experienced found its way into the content of Trickster Drift, which has just been published. “It was a little darker than I was expecting,” she laughs.

But the book is full of light and love. (I was surprised to see it left off the Scotiabank Giller long list until I learned that because of its publication date, it was not eligible for this year’s award.)

Robinson drew a great deal of inspiration from Granny Annie in writing one of the central characters in Trickster Drift, Mavis Moody. Mave, as she’s called, is a kind, intelligent, compassionate whirlwind, an Indigenous rights activist and a successful author. She takes in Jared, her 17-year-old nephew and the protagonist of the trilogy.

Jared has moved down to Vancouver from Kitimat, B.C., quit drinking and drugs, and is trying to make a go of it at school and with a straight job (as opposed to making a living from his famous pot cookies, as he did in Kitimat). Aunt Mave’s apartment should be a refuge, but Jared, as the son of a Trickster, is saddled with supernatural awareness. There’s a ghost watching TV in the apartment, and the wallpaper comes hauntingly to life. Monsters appear in unlikely places.

Geographically, Robinson is closely associated with Northern British Columbia. She lives in Haisla territory in Kitamaat Village, outside the town of Kitimat. This is the part of the world where her breakthrough first novel, Monkey Beach, was set, as well as the first book in the trilogy, 2017’s Son of a Trickster – both of which were shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

But growing up, she spent summers in Vancouver, specifically in the eclectic east side Commercial Drive neighbourhood. And this is where she has set the second novel of her trilogy, Trickster Drift.

“I have two aunts, an uncle, my grandmother, my great aunt and about 300 cousins living in this area,” she says amid the clattering of coffee cups at Café Calabria, the Commercial Drive coffee spot which is as well known for its signature Roman statues as it is for its hot drinks and Italian sandwiches.

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When she moved here to do her MFA at the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program in 1992, she also chose to live in this neighbourhood – at least to begin with.

“I had to leave East Van because I had too much family here and it was really hard to date,” she says. “I lived two blocks from my Gran’s place and she could see my front porch from her back porch. So I went on a date with this guy from Bella Bella and she was so excited. So 30 seconds after I got home, she phoned [and asked] ‘how did it go?’”

At this point, Robinson launches into her over-the-top infectious laugh. She is remarkably cheery on this morning, despite the fact that the previous evening she had delivered the eulogy for Granny Annie, who would have been 95 in July.

Robinson has a loopy and wonderful sense of humour, expressed not just by her trademark laughter but her delightful author’s bios.

“Eden Robinson has matriarchal tendencies. Doesn’t have a pressure cooker, but knows how to jar salmon. Her smoked salmon will not likely kill you,” her Trickster Drift bio begins. It wraps up: “Be warned, she writes novels and tends to be cranky when interrupted.”

In addition to the Giller, Son of a Trickster was shortlisted for the BC Book Prizes’ Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize at the BC Book Prizes. Last November, Robinson was named the recipient of the prestigious $50,000 Writers' Trust Fellowship. Then in the spring, Robinson received an honorary doctorate from UBC.

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“Eden Robinson is one of Canada’s leading Indigenous authors and is widely regarded as one of the most talented and fearless writers of her generation,” UBC president Santa Ono said, introducing her.

Robinson is now working on the third instalment of the trilogy, to be titled The Return of the Trickster or The Trickster Returns. She is in the early stages; she took the summer off to deal with her health issues, mostly trying to find the right dosage of medications and adapting to an assortment of side effects.

A film adaptation of Monkey Beach is shooting in Kitimat, starring Adam Beach (Suicide Squad) and Grace Dove (The Revenant). Robinson pitched in during auditions to read lines, but doesn’t have an official role. “Cheerleader?” she suggests. Her sister Carla Robinson is an associate producer on the project. “She explains the process to me so it sounds like I know more than I do,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail during production.

She’s well enough now to tour and has a long list of appearances through October and into November with Trickster Drift, which is dedicated to John Robinson, her father. “Always in my heart,” the dedication reads.

“This one’s for dad,” she says. “The next one will be for Gran.”

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