An Interview with Room 38.2 Commission Eliza Robertson

Interview by 
Meghan Bell

Eliza Robertson was born in Vancouver, Canada, and studied creative writing and political science at the University of Victoria. She pursued her MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Scholarship and the Curtis Brown Prize for best writer. She has won fiction contests at The Malahat Review, PRISM International, and The Fiddlehead, has been included in the Journey Prize Anthology three times, was a finalist for the CBC Short Story contest in 2013, and won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013. Her first short story collection, Wallflowers, was published in August to critical acclaim. Eliza, the featured author in our spring 2015 issue, was kind enough to answer a few questions about writing, travel, and submitting to literary contests.

ROOM: First off — Congratulations on the excellent reviews for your debut short story collection, Wallflowers. Unfortunately, despite the recent critical success of some story collections, they still have a harder time finding publishers and readers than novels. What do you think short stories offer writers and readers that novels don't?

ROBERTSON: First off: thank you! It's nice that the book is out in the world, and that some people have written genial things about it. That's not meant to sound falsely modest. There are authors I love who have been lambasted or critically ignored. (Jonathan Safran Foer, Flannery O'Connor, Nabokov...) (These three occasionally lambasted rather than ignored.) It happens. It happens often. So I'm relieved to dodge the bullet this round.

What do short stories offer readers that novels don't? A concentrate, I suppose. Even the best novels will present tension, language, characters, etc. in their more diluted form than stories. It's a necessity of the medium. I find stories offer more room for play and experimentation too, which I love. It would be difficult to sustain George Saunders' stories into novels ... they would lose their trademark energy and tiggerishness.

ROOM: Your forthcoming story in Room, "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus", takes place, in part, at the Sagrada Familia in Spain. Can you tell us a little bit about your inspiration, and the research involved?

ROBERTSON: Yes! Two years ago, I spent a weekend in Barcelona for a lindy hop exchange. I stayed with a local dancer, and in my short time there, she whizzed me around the city and told me everything I could hope to hear about Catalonian politics. One of the sites we whizzed to was, of course, the Sagrada Familia. Basilicas are, by their nature, impressive...but the Sagrada Familia is out of this world. Literally. And I am taken by the story of it ... how it has been in construction since 1882. The words "sanctus sanctus sanctus" wind around one of the towers, and something about the insistence of that image stuck with me.

ROOM: As an avid traveller, and someone who studied overseas, how does physical space affect and/or inspire your writing?

ROBERTSON: In a number of ways ... For one, I find that the west coast wriggles into my writing a lot more since I've left. Leaving places defamiliarizes them in the same way that travel familiarizes you with new places ... such that both the new and old places attain a comparable level of strangeness. I like to write in that space of strangeness, I suppose. In some way I connect with places easier than I do with characters. I don't know what that says about me psychologically.

ROOM: We will be announcing the winners of our annual contest -- who will be published in the same issue as "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus" — in the next couple of weeks. As a three-time literary magazine contest-winner yourself, what advice do you have for writers when it comes to contests?

ROBERTSON: I suppose the most important advice is not to give them too much weight. Contests are so subjective. My story "Roadnotes" beat D.W. Wilson's story, "The Dead Roads" ... which went on to win the BBC Short Story Prize in 2012. It's a gamble. Don't define yourself by contest wins or "losses."

ROOM: What's a question that you've always wanted someone to ask you about your work, but no one ever has?

ROBERTSON: Hmmm ... no one's asked me, "Do you like writing?" I think people assume writers must love what they do, but most writers I know are miserable, or at least hate it 50% of the time. (Not everyone. I believe my housemate Kim genuinely loves to write.) The answer: I do like it. Yes. How much I like it has varied from 40% of the time to 80% of the time, depending on where I am with a project. Right now I like it closer to 75%.

ROOM: One last question! Can you recommend a handful of books to add to our #readwomen2014 reading list?

ROBERTSON: Hey, I'm on that list! Ha ha ha. Okay, wait. Do they have to be books that come out this year? Because I would recommend any book by Annabel Lyon (especially her collection, Oxygen), or Lisa Moore (especially Open.) If you're looking for something this year... how about Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress? Too easy? (I haven't read this book yet, but I have a lovely hardcover sitting on my desk, and I can't wait to dip in.) Or: Doretta Lau, who didn't-win the Journey Prize the same year I didn't-win it. :) Her book How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun came out this year too.

[Ed Note: Doretta Lau is the commissioned author for issue 38.3, Trespass, edited by Helen Polychronakos. And How Does a Single Blade of Glass Thank the Sun is, indeed, amazing.]

Room is accepting submissions of fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and artwork on any theme for issue 38.2 until October 31, 2014. In addition to "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus" by Eliza Robertson, the issue will feature an interview with Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, as well as the winners of our 2014 literary contest.

More Information On Upcoming Calls For Submissions

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