In 1950, nine-year-old Willa’s life changes when her mother introduces her new partner’s son, Patrick. Left to their own devices, Willa is swept up in Patrick’s wicked games and as they grow up their encounters become increasingly charged with sexuality and degradation. Robertson says her aim as a writer is to reclaim a sense of wonder. Demi-gods (Bloomsbury, £12.99)is her debut novel.
Demi-Gods is your debut novel. Tell us a bit about your background and your plans for the future.
I’m originally from an island on the west coast of Canada, but lived in Norwich for five years. This summer, I completed my PhD at the University of East Anglia and moved to Montreal. Artists gravitate here for many reasons, but the big one is rent control. It’s a bit like Berlin: cheap-ish for now, acceptably grungy. My plan is to write and study astrology. In my ideal future, I would do both.
Did you set out to write a coming-of-age novel? What are some of your favourite books from that genre?
It always surprises me when people describe Demi-Gods as a coming-of-age novel. I understand why but the novel skips over most of the age-coming. It circles the relationship between Willa and Patrick, how they have left marks on each other. They are young for the first third of the book, but their experiences aren’t young, or typical of novels in that genre. As far as favourite books like this: Ali Smith’s Autumn comes to mind. So do the stories in Beth Nugent’s City of Boys.
How do mythology and ancient tales inform Demi-Gods and why do they interest you?
I’m interested in the mythic dimensions of everyday life. I love how dysfunctional the gods were in Ancient Greece. That’s partly why I chose the title. I can’t remember the source but it has been said, of Homer, that he made “gods of men and men of gods.” In my own small way, I wanted to attempt something similar. The age of reason provided crucial developments in western science, of course, but it also erased some magic. If I have one goal as a writer it’s to reclaim wonder – to enable re-enchantment.
How does landscape inform your writing?
Speaking of enchantment, there’s so much power in our natural world. I notice this especially where I am from. Google Image Haida Gwaii. Seriously. Google it. Tell me that’s not spiritual. (I should say, I’m not from Haida Gwaii. My island is south of there. But the whole coast is supernatural. Literally that’s the slogan for the province.) To be honest, I never intend to describe landscapes. The details seep in.
Does Demi-Gods present realistic challenges for blended families?
I can’t say my main “fidelity” is to realism. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying to access truth. (I don’t feel the two are co-equal, necessarily.) Certainly the challenges are true for this family. But they come from personal challenges each character is dealing with – such as unidentified, and thus untreated, mental health issues – rather than the fact of the two families coming together. You might say characters in both families enable each other’s more “challenging” qualities.
Tell us about the dynamic of the sisters Willa and Joan.
Joan is the brassy, blonde older sister. Willa, the narrator, is quiet and watchful. As her sister shines toward the attention of boys, Willa hangs back. There is a line in the novel that describes the sisters as trees growing from the same soil. They have stretched in different directions, but between them remains a basic, almost bodily, intimacy.
Your story is set in the 1950s and 1960s but it isn’t overburdened with nostalgia. Was that a conscious decision, and why?
Yes. The last thing I wanted to do was write a nostalgic or sentimental portrayal of that time. Post-war American TV and film suggest a “return to innocence,” a sort of goofy sterility in morals and nuclear families. I’m thinking of programmes like Leave it to Beaver. With this novel, I wanted to expose the loucheness and grit under that Hollywood veneer.
Willa finds herself in a degrading sexual dynamic that she then tries to reverse. Was her attempt hopeless pre-women’s lib, or would it still be hopeless today?
Oh, there’s no doubt we are battling the same challenges today. In many ways, this book is about consent and rape culture and the power dynamics between men and women when men and women (or boys and girls) are alone. The Weinstein scandal and #metoo stories prove we have a long way to go.
Do our early sexual encounters shape our futures?
Of course. Early experiences of any kind shape our futures. Our first sexual encounters certainly inform our sexual lives as adults – and for many adults, that is how we connect with each other and form our most intimate and defining relationships – which eventually form new families. In Willa’s case, her experiences with Patrick are not the only factor in how she develops – but they have their impact.