Robin van Eck is a Calgary writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies in Canada and the United States. Her first novel, Rough, was released November 1, 2020 by Stonehouse Publishing. When she’s not writing, Robin works as the Executive Director for the Alexandra Writers Centre. For more information: www.robinzvaneck.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
This is an interesting question. Since this is my first book, I guess it’s made me realize that dreams really can come true if you put in the work. Having a novel published has been something I wanted since I was a child, but I’m not sure I really thought it would happen. It’s like how many people fantasize about winning the lottery even when they know how unlikely that is.
This is bigger than a short story publication, that’s for sure. Most of my short story publications I felt good about, but I didn’t really get excited over it. And while many of my friends would tell you I wasn’t excited about the novel, I was. I’m just not great at showing it and I think it’s taken a really long time to sink in. There’s a fear that goes along with it too. Short stories published in literary magazines tend to get read by mostly other writers. A novel will be read by readers and that scares the hell out of me. What if they hate it? What if I offend someone? What if they love it? I’m not great with attention directed at me and I hate confrontation. So there’s been a lot of emotions I’ve had to deal with over the last year and half since the book was accepted.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve always been interested in writing fiction. Poetry makes my brain hurt and I’m not very good at it. Non-fiction always seemed too personal and I never had a desire to share my life, though that has changed. I’ve written a few personal essays which have been published and now really enjoy that form, but it’s sporadic. Fiction first.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Starting is never the problem. Keeping going, however, is. I may write a chapter or scene and then the story stalls until I have time to think about it.
When I’m really in the zone, I’m a pantser when it comes to my writing, no planning, just let the story carry me where it wants and deal with structure later. I really enjoy this part of the process because I’m not overthinking it. This can also be very problematic at times because second and third drafts are painful to sort through and the final product rarely looks like the first draft.
4 - Where does work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Each project is different. I might be inspired by something I see on the news, or imagine a character, or a situation, or whatever is going on in the world.
The idea for Rough came in parts. Shermeto was actually a secondary character from a discarded manuscript. After the Calgary flood, someone told me about an image of the homeless being evacuated on foot across the Centre Street Bridge. I don’t know if that image actually exists, but it created a picture in my mind that never went away. Then, one day I had a conversation with a friend about homelessness and how some people have chosen to live that way and it made me wonder, why would anyone choose to be homeless if they didn’t need to be? There was never a doubt in my mind that this would be a novel.
That said, my second novel that I am currently working on, started out as a short story but after my critique group got a look at it, they all said it was bigger than that.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are all part of the process and I don’t mind doing them, but I do prefer something outside of your typical reading. Make it an event that people will remember. Some of the best readings and book launches I’ve attended or been a part of involved audience participation. Face it, not all writers are great readers. If you don’t have a theatre background and run the risk of lulling people to sleep, find fun and creative ways to engage your audience and make them pay attention. They’ll thank you for it and be talking about it for years to come.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m very fascinated by human nature and why we do the things we do. How can we be connected as one society? How can we forgive and move on? How can we be compassionate and empathetic? Why do we judge so much?
No matter our financial status, sexual orientation or the colour of our skin we all feel, hurt and love the same way, so why is there such discrimination all around us? Sure, we’ve been through different experiences, but the emotions are universal.
I used to think the world was different 30 years ago. Now I think it’s not, we are simply more connected virtually that we are more aware of how terrible people can be to one another.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers have the ability to see and explore the many patterns of human nature. We don’t see the world as black and white. I think writers play a huge role in our culture. We have the ability to change minds and open hearts in a way that can create connection, empathy and bring us all together.
Writers write because they want to say something or they’re trying to understand their world and at the same time help someone else to understand their own. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re working in either. There are some great social justice issues tackled in horror fiction as much as literary fiction.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
So far my experiences with an editor have been fairly straight-forward. I do think it’s essential. Editors are trying to make your work even better and can see the story through a different lens. We become blind to our words after a while and things we thought made sense, actually don’t.
Honestly, by the time I get to an editor, I’m kind of tired of the story—remember it’s already been through 4 or 5 drafts—and tend to be fairly agreeable on mostly everything they suggest.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write what you want to know. Writers are curious by nature. Write about things that you want to understand and explore, while using your lived experiences for emotional connection and engagement.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
Fairly easy. I’ve always loved short fiction because it’s shorter and feels more accomplishable. A novel is a beast. If anyone tells you it’s easy, they are lying or complete literary geniuses.
Short stories are easier to digest in short sittings, while novels take more focus. We live in such a hectic, constant moving world, I can see an appeal for both.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m an early morning writer. It used to be 7am or 8am I would write for a couple of hours and then go to work. COVID changed that schedule quite a bit. I’m up every morning around 5:30am and drive my husband to work. When I come home, I grab my coffee and write for a few hours, walk my dog and then virtually clock-in to my daily job as the Executive Director for the Alexandra Writers Centre.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Nature. Photography. Art. Anything to distract for a little while. When my mind isn’t on the project at hand, I can start to see it more clearly.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Diesel and Comet. When I was a kid my dad worked for CP Rail and he would come home from work everyday with blackened hands and scrub them clean with Comet.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
100%. I am a nature lover and feel quite at peace outdoors. I also love photography and have been known to wander with my camera on occasions. When I’m not feeling so adventurous, I might draw or knit. I think all of these give me a comfortable distraction in which I am also still creating. I’ve gone through whole scenes and dreamed up new ones while knitting a scarf or a hat. Photography allows me to see things through a different lens and find patterns where I might not have seen them before.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
While I tend to lean more towards an upmarket writing style, I love losing myself in anything written by Stephen King, Clive Barker, Haruki Murakami.
However, I’ve really found myself reading a lot more Canadian fiction and nonfiction. Jesse Thistle, Ian Williams, Lauren Carter, Lynn Coady, Miriam Toews are some of my favourite Canadian writers today but there are so many.
I also read a lot of short stories. George Saunders, Junot Diaz, Shirley Jackson, Ayelet Tsabari, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to hike the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. Also, I’d like to drive across Canada. Having grown up in the west, I’ve never been further than Saskatchewan so I would really like to see the rest of our country.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’d probably be working with animals in some capacity.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not sure I really ever had a choice. I’ve loved to write almost as long as I could read. Even when I took breaks and wasn’t writing regularly, it was always there, waiting for me to come back.
I also don’t think I’d have accomplished what I have without my involvement with the Alexandra Writers Centre. Being around others who feel the same as I do has made a huge difference. Even when I’m not writing, the writer life is a part of my everyday so it makes a little harder to ignore my own projects.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I absolutely adored Bunny by Mona Awad. I don’t watch a lot of movies anymore but really loved Rocketman.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on the final draft of another novel which is even bigger than the first one – in length and concept. In Lieu of Flowers explores the many facets of death—suicide, death by natural causes, accidental death, medically assisted dying—something I have always been fascinated with and feared. It follows Joy, who is terminally ill and has made the decision to die with medical assistance. During her “reflection” period, she is trying to write her own obituary but in order to do it properly she has to reconsider her life and what brought her to where she is now.
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