Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Gregor Robinson

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Gregor Robinson

Just in time for summer, we are chatting with fiction writer and playwright Gregor Robinson about his new book Providence Island (Dundurn), a novel set in cottage country. He talks to Open Book about fictional towns, cottage politics and great summer reads.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new novel, Providence Island.

Gregor Robinson:

Providence Island is about Ray Carrier, who returns to the resort community of Merrick Bay, where he spent his summers as a boy, to bury his father. As a boy, Ray had been enchanted, even obsessed with the wealthy Miller family on Providence Island, and particularly with Quentin Miller, a beautiful accomplished girl two years older than he. He had also been friends with some boys and girls from the local farm families; because of the location of his family’s place, he had had a foot in both communities. He has been carrying memories from two particular summers in Merrick Bay, memories about things that are unresolved and that come back to him in disturbing visions, and for which, at last, he finds resolution while looking into the strange circumstances of his father’s death. I think it’s a love story — but a quite dark one.

OB:

Providence Island takes place in Merrick Bay, a fictional town in Ontario's cottage country. Why did you decide to set your novel in a fictional setting rather than in actual town?

GR:

I chose a fictional town for several reasons. With a fictional town, you can move things around; you’re not bound by the maps and geography of a real place. This was particularly important in Providence Island because the story is built around the interaction among various communities, which I could arrange as I wanted for the purposes of the story.

Second, while I think setting is crucial and I wanted readers to be in a place they could see and feel and smell, I did not want them to come to the novel thinking it was a story about a town in Muskoka, which it is not. It is any resort town — in northern Ontario, in New England, in New York state — where there are these different communities living side-by-side. I hope the plot and themes have some elements of universality that could happen anywhere.

OB:

What is it about cottage country that makes it a rich setting for a novel? Do you have a particular connection to Ontario's northern lakes yourself?

GR:

A major theme of the novel is the interaction between rich and poor, between the wealthy families of the summer resort community and the relatively modest year-round community, descendants of the farmers that originally settled the land but a community that is now largely dependent on the summer people. It’s in some ways like the tension between town and gown in a university town, between workers and managers in industrial towns, and between the landed gentry, the working people and the rustics in some English novels. These communities make for rich settings, particularly when the story is about romance and intrigue.

My family had a cottage in Muskoka for many years; other than I have no particular connection to the northern lakes,

OB:

Tell us about developing the character of Ray Carrier, the narrator and protagonist. Did he emerge in your imagination fully formed, or did he continue to evolve as you worked on the novel?

GR:

Ray Carrier definitely continued to emerge as I wrote the story. He became more actor than acted upon, more of a participant and less an observer and teller of the story. He also became more perceptive: he at last sees his father’s true character, and also the character of Quentin Miller, and Marjorie Appleton, local girls to whom he had first been attracted.

OB:

What was the most challenging aspect of writing Providence Island?

GR:

The main event of the story takes place when Ray Carrier is about 40 (in the 1980s) and in two summers of his youth, in the 1960s. There are also a couple of scenes when he’s in his 20s. The hardest part of the writing was juggling these different time periods. I tried it several ways, eventually settling on dividing the book into sections, each in its own time period. There are also occasional flashbacks within flashback. And I also had to make sure that all the times and times of year fit with what was actually happening in the story.

OB:

You have published a book of short stories as well as several plays and the novel Hotel Paradiso. How does your writing process differ depending on the genre?

GR:

I used to love writing love stories because I love the genre and because they fitted in well with the business of earning a living. I could sometimes write a whole story relatively quickly and then spend weeks or months polishing it. In a story, every word has to be perfect.

For a novel, I like to have a long period – six months or so – when I can write several hours every day until I get a first draft completely finished. I find that it’s much harder to keep a whole novel in your head without that kind of concentrated effort. After that, I begin the process of rewriting, then polishing and editing. With both Providence Island and the novel I’m currently working on, I’ve put the book aside for several months after the first or second draft in order to get a fresh take and renewed energy.

The plays were really fun because you get to work with other people. All the plays I’ve done were adapted from stories, so I had the basics to start. I worked with some really excellent people — a dramaturge, directors, actors — revising and revising. In some ways, play writing is easier because it’s all dialogue. Also, if you are working with actors as you go along, you get to see what works and what doesn’t right away.

OB:

What do you do when you are trying to avoid writing, as writers are often known to do?

GR:

Anything and everything. Check on how the investments in my RRSP are doing. Make the room I’m working in absolutely spotless. Make some more coffee. Read The New Yorker. Play computer solitaire. Pay bills, or do some other work at my desk on the computer that must be done, so that the decks are all clear before I turn my mind to the business of writing. But the decks are never all clear, alas.

OB:

What writers would you say have had the greatest influence on your work?

GR:

Among my favourite writers in recent years have been Richard Ford (especially The Lay of the Land), Scott Spenser (especially A Ship Made of Paper), William Boyd, Francine Prose (Blue Angel), Ian McEwan, William Trevor, Michael Frayn (Spies). I used to read a lot of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse, Graham Greene. I also like Robert B. Parker and Alan Furst.

OB:

Have you read any other good cottage-country novels that you can recommend to us as we head into summer?

GR:

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart and The Great Gatsby are both set in the seaside communities of Long Island. A great non-fiction book about an old summer house in Maine is The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt. I often read mysteries in the summer. I have some great summer novels set in the Hudson River Valley, New England and Nova Scotia — but they’re packed away with my summer things so I can’t give you the titles!

OB:

What is your next project?

GR:

I’ve completed the second draft of a new novel, and am in the very slow process of making some major structural changes. The main character is a 12-year old girl, and it’s told mainly from her point of view. There are strange goings-on.

Gregor Robinson previously published a short story collection (The Dream King) and a novel (Hotel Paradiso) and has had plays produced at the Toronto Fringe in 2006 and 2009. He has been nominated for the Journey Prize three times and has had mystery stories nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Arthur Ellis Award, and the National Magazine Award. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about Providence Island please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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