Our fifth anthology drops in October. In anticipation, we are rolling out a series of interviews with each of the ten stellar emerging authors whose stories Amy Hempel selected for publication. First up: Eliza Robertson, whose story “The Pirates of Penance” is set in England, Poland, and Switzerland. It delves deep into the often-veiled nature of hostility in female relationships. The narrator, after a recent split with her husband, is invited home for Christmas by a female colleague whom she had, until then, politely despised.
“So while men compete in the open, in fun or with fists, women do so silently, our hostility spreading like green mold over shoes at the back of a closet.”
We always like to ask our authors: what inspired the idea for your story and how long did it take to develop? Did you outline first, go through many drafts, etc.?
I had been thinking a lot about female hostility: the general phenomenon of it, as well as how it’s manifested in my own life. So I pushed a scenario to the extreme, where the character recognizes the absurdity of her resentment and her feelings begin to turn in on themselves. I’m a fan of absurdity in stories for this reason. It pulls all the curtains down.
I’d say it took a few weeks for the idea to develop. The material facts of the story became clear after a visit to Poland in November. Then I started gathering details and writing them down. I didn’t outline though. I never outline! Sometimes to my detriment.
“The Pirates of Penance” is set all over Europe: London, England; Łódź, Poland; Interlaken, Switzerland. It displays an intimate knowledge of the geography and cultures of these three places (as shown through the eyes of our narrator, an American woman). I wondered: how did you do research for this story, or do some of these details come from your own travels?
This time, the cities did come from my own travels. They don’t always. I’ve been living in the UK for a few years, so London is pretty familiar. I visited my friend last summer in Switzerland. (She was there for work.) Last November, my boyfriend read at a poetry festival in Łódź, and I tagged along. Since coming here for grad school, I have been militantly seeing as much of Europe as possible.
What is your writing process like? (Do you write at a specific time of day / in a particular setting / on the computer or by hand, etc.)
I typically write in the morning, from home, on a laptop. If I know an important scene is coming, and I am not sure how to get it right, I draft on paper, then transcribe it to the document. Sometimes I light mood candles or incense.
What are some of your favorite stories?
“City of Boys” by Beth Nugent is one of my all-time supreme favorites. “Cocktail Party” in the same collection is also great.
Really anything by Lorrie Moore, but “People Like that are the Only People Here,” gets me every time. So does Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried”—her wit and timing are superhuman. I read that she used to regularly watch stand-up.
Your debut collection Wallflowers came out about two years ago from Bloomsbury to wide acclaim! Is “The Pirates of Penance” part of another collection that is in the works? If so, how is it similar to (/different from) you first?
I’m working on a novel right now, so that will be next. But every now and then I’ve had some downtime between drafts, and I’ve been accumulating a few stories. I haven’t thought about how they might fit together yet, but I didn’t with Wallflowers either. Not at first. I do think with Wallflowers I was aggressively exploring language and form. Which isn’t to say I am not still exploring, but the experiments may be less obvious.
Are there any other fun facts you would like us to know about “The Pirates of Penance”?
Hmmmmmm. I can’t think of any facts about the story, but it may amuse you to know that on dining out in Łódź, after wine, with encouragement from Sophie Collins, a poet whose first collection is coming out with Penguin next year, I stole a water glass from a restaurant because I admired the look of it. It was designed to look like a crumpled cup. I’m not proud, but I left a big tip.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser
Eliza Robertson was born in Vancouver and grew up on Vancouver Island. She attended the creative writing programs at the University of Victoria and the University of East Anglia, where she received the 2011 Man Booker Scholarship. In 2013, she co-won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her first collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award, the Danuta Gleed Short Story Prize, the East Anglia Book Award, and selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice. In 2015, she was named by Joseph Boyden as one of five emerging writers for the Writers’ Trust Five x Five program. She lives in England.