Register Tuesday | April 16 | 2024

Dispatches from History

Patricia Robertson reflects on obsession, selflessness and her short story, “My Hungarian Sister”

Patricia Robertson is a writer of extremes. Her work probes the differences between the Old and New Worlds, revealing—as all great fiction does—how diametrically different, yet eerily similar we all are. Even her life is a practice of extremes. She divides her time between huge cities and the Far North and doesn’t shy away from experimenting with different written forms—from poetry to novels to screenplays. Her short story “My Hungarian Sister” reveals both the lengths that children will go to for their desires and how crafty we all become when our minds are set on one goal (whatever its feasibility). The story appears in Issue 20 of Maisonneuve and will be part of her second collection of short fiction, The Goldfish Dancer, set to be released by Biblioasis in the autumn.

Did you grow up in England around the same time as Catherine, the protagonist of “My Hungarian Sister”? If so, could you describe the attitude in Britain toward the takeover of Hungary?
Yes, I grew up in England during the Hungarian Revolution, but I was too young to know much about what was going on. Unlike Catherine's father, mine wasn't a journalist and I don't remember any dinner-table discussions. From what I've read since, Britain verbally opposed the Soviet occupation but provided no other support, despite the appeals of the Hungarian people.

When did you come to Canada? Where did you settle?
We emigrated when I was nine and settled in Kitimat, on the coast of northern BC, where my father worked for the aluminum smelter. I lived there until I was seventeen, when I went to university in Vancouver.

“My Hungarian Sister” is one of the stories from your new collection, due out this autumn. Could you tell me more about the collection itself and if the themes in this story are played out elsewhere in the book?
My new collection, The Goldfish Dancer, includes five stories and two novellas that vary widely in time and place, so there are no obvious links among them. However, several of the central characters, like Catherine in “My Hungarian Sister,” are preoccupied with obsessions. In the title story, an exotic dancer in New York in 1914 is obsessed with breeding goldfish for reasons that become clear in the story. In another, a young servant girl in early twentieth-century England is obsessed with the music of her employer, a famous cellist. But then there are other stories in which the characters find themselves in situations not of their own making that they must deal with.

Obsession has fuelled some great literature—Lolita, Madame Bovary—and seems to be a lot more common than any of us would like to think. Do you think it’s something we all experience? What are your obsessions, if I may be so bold?
Yes. Romantic love—the fixation on the other—is obviously the great, common obsession, but there are many others. My own obsession, obviously, is writing (and reading). I seem to be fascinated with exile and borders, with people who are never fully rooted where they are. Perhaps that's because I have a triple identity myself—Scots through my father, English through my mother and Canadian by immigration. I also lived for three years in Spain and find the connections and reinventions between the Old World and the New endlessly absorbing. Other passions (is that the same thing as obsessions?) include food, travel and dogs. My partner and I are adopting a golden retriever puppy this summer.

Your story certainly taps into the very selfish side of childhood, particularly the navigating the difference between selflessness and acts of selflessness. Do you believe that many children have the same feelings as Catherine?
Yes, I think we learn selflessness.

Is there an example from your own life that you can share?
I just visited friends whose three-year-old announced very clearly that he didn't want to share his pear with his father! Catherine is not merely selfish but self-deluded—she thinks she's being selfless and the adults around her interpret her behaviour that way.

How did you end up in Whitehorse? Do you find the northern environment a good one for writing?
I originally came to Whitehorse as writer-in-residence with Yukon Public Libraries and Archives. I joke now that I'm the writer-in-residence who never left! I find the silence here, and the distance from literary clamour, great for writing. The Yukon is also an amazingly nurturing environment for artists; per-capita support here is the highest in the country. But I love extremes—both the wilderness and the big city—so I try to get “Outside,” as Yukoners say, as often as I can.

Where do you go, when you go “Outside”? And why?
Oh, big cities—the bigger the better! I also visit family and friends in Vancouver and Victoria. I love Seattle, Montreal, Paris. And I'm hoping to visit Spain again next year.

Your book is published by an exciting new press in Windsor, Ontario—Bibloasis. How has it been working with such a young, edgy publisher?
Biblioasis, so far, has been a wonderful press to work with—enthusiastic, committed and innovative. In a time when publishing seems increasingly driven by the bottom line, and when literature feels increasingly marginalized, it's exciting that they're committed to publishing work they believe in.

This is your second collection of short fiction to be published. Do you have a particular affinity for the form? What about it do you find most attractive?
For me, I've written both poetry and stories since childhood, and short fiction combines both the pleasure of the narrative and the economy and density of poetry. I'm amazed that books of short stories aren't more popular—they seem perfect for this time-crunched era.

As a short-story writer myself, I’m inclined to agree. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of time. Many people have told me that they don’t like short stories because they find them unsatisfying. I guess some people are looking to have the elements of fiction more exposed—or at least more extensively explained. Do you have any plans to work on something longer? What about other forms of writing, like non-fiction or drama?
Yes, I'm beginning work on a new novel (actually my second) which is partly set in Montreal. I've also finished a feature-length screenplay based on one of my stories. I regularly write articles and reviews. And I'll continue to write stories and poems.

Matthew Fox is an associate editor at Maisonneuve and the author of a collection of short stories, Cities of Weather.