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Meet Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Eliza Robertson

If she’s not already on your radar, Eliza Robertson is a writer to watch. Earlier this year she won the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her haunting story “We Walked On Water” and accepted the prize from John le Carré at the Hay Festival.

I’m a big fan of her work and was pleased to join her in last year’s Journey Prize Anthology. Her stories are ambitious, intimate, and possessed of an almost poetic compression of language and image. In piece after piece, whatever her subject matter, her work displays confidence, a light touch, and a dazzling command of voice and structure. We’ll be hearing much more from Eliza in the years ahead, and for that I am grateful.

Eliza Robertson was born in Vancouver, Canada and grew up on Vancouver Island. She studied creative writing and political science at the University of Victoria, then 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. In Canada, she has won three national fiction contests and has been twice longlisted for the Journey Prize. Most recently, she was a finalist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize. She lives in Victoria where she is completing her first novel and story collection.

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You’ve had a great year – Journey Prize anthology for the second time, shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize, and now the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Congrats on the well-deserved success. How does that feel at this point in your career?

Of course, it feels wonderful. But I’ve had good years in the past, and they inevitably follow with a multi-year dry patch. I don’t know— do you ever stop feeling insecure as a writer? To quote Matt Haig… “Being published doesn’t make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones. (I should have gone to Oxbridge! Why wasn’t I invited to Hay? Am I not Granta enough? I wish I was Jonathan Franzen!)”

Will my book stack up? Maybe I can only write stories! By the time Téa Obreht was 25, she was in The New Yorker’s Top 20 under 40!

Note: I saw Matt Haig at Hay this year, so yes, there are happy endings. Or happy plots points along the way.

Tell us more about the experience at the Commonwealth Awards ceremony. What was it like to see your story stacked up against the other regional winners? How did you handle the exposure?

The awards night was so much fun! Indeed, the entire festival was a blast. I was there for three or four days and managed to see a few talks— John le Carré’s last interview (though he’s made that threat before), Irvine Welsh, Lily Cole, and yes, Matt Haig. John le Carré presented the award, which was surreal. Jo Byrde at Commonwealth Writers snapped a photo in which I look like I am about to eat John le Carré. That captured my excitement well, I think. As far as exposure… the pressure was relieved by my co-winner, Sharon Millar. Sharon is lovely. She brought me delectable chocolates from Trinidad. She is also a fine writer, and it was a pleasure to share the experience with her.

Your writing is very understated, your word choices deft and unshowy. So much goes on under the surface, and every word is used to maximum advantage. Who were your early influences? When you began writing, were there writers you wanted to emulate?

I have to laugh, because some of my writing is very showy. The word “romp” has come up in workshop a few times. My early influences come from Lorna Jackson’s WRIT 309 coursepack. Lorna Jackson’s WRIT 309 coursepack included Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, Mark Anthony Jarman, Zsuzsi Gartner. It is the fault of Lorna Jackson’s WRIT 309 coursepack that to this day I mostly read story collections.

I don’t know why you’re using the past tense, though. I still want to emulate these writers. And here are others I’ll add to the list: Herta Müller, Michael Ondaatje, Annabel Lyon. I’ve even read their novels.

When I read your work, I feel I’m in the presence of an exceptional editor; that you chisel away until you’ve found just the correct word or phrase. Do you have any general maxims or suggestions for other writers about editing or any technical advice that has been especially useful for you?

I rarely edit a line after I write it. That moment of chiseling occurs before I commit a line to the page. And I would say the process is mostly intuitive. I can’t articulate it well, other than to compare the story to a tunnel that I must grope through with my hands.

I don’t recommend writing by maxims, unless you know you can break them. Saying that, I have learned tips along the way that have morphed into personal neuroses. I avoid auxiliary verbs (to be, to have.) Truly, I can’t write a copula + present participle construction without twitching. I am eating. He is riding a manta ray. 

A good piece of advice is to know your weasel words— the words that creep in when you don’t realize it. “Just” is a common one, “little,” “is/was,” “so.” Read a hard copy of your story and edit for these words alone. You should also know if you rely on certain verbs too much. “Look” and “stare” are my personal crutches. Another common one is “walk.” Lorna Jackson has made me question myself every time a character walks.

Also: something may happen “all of a sudden” once per 3 or 4 books.

Your Commonwealth Prize-winning story, “We Walked on Water”, is a heartbreaker. You write about the quiet grief of a brother and about the healthy rivalry between a sister and brother. What was the spark that made the story come alive for you? How did you put it all together? 

The spark that made the story come alive was the rhythm. I got the rhythm in my head, and the prose snapped into place. I think some describe this feeling as finding a character’s “voice,” but for me, it felt like a beat. I was on a train across Canada, and we were passing through the Cascade Mountains around Hope. All of a sudden, the BC track in Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite entered my my head. “Land of the Misty Giants.” That started the story in a very literal way, you’ll notice. I stole the title for my first line.

Some writers preach the gospel of voice, others plot or narrative structure. What element(s) do you feel are most important to you in your own work?

I am terrible at plot. I write sentences and hope for the best. You can get away with this in a short story. In a novel: less so. I am struggling through the mire of that editing process as we speak.

If you could spend an afternoon with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and how would you spend the day?

Good gracious, I have no idea. I could select one of my favourite writers, but not all of them will be people-people. That said, a day with George Saunders would be hard to beat. I think we would go fishing. I have never fished in my life, and I am vegetarian, but George Saunders and I would go fishing.

What can we expect to read from Eliza Robertson over the next few years?

With luck, a couple books will come out. With greater luck, one of them will be a novel.

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Eliza Robertson - head shot

Read Eliza Robertson’s Commonwealth Award-winning short story “We Walked On Water” online at Granta. See Eliza interviewed at this year’s Hay Festival here. You can also find Eliza on Twitter.

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