A young woman drifts without direction through her days until a dramatic car accident forces her to confront her fears and vow not to stall on making her dreams reality.
It may sound like a fictional cliché, but such is real life for Whitehorse-based author Patricia Robertson.
“I remember lying in my hospital bed — it was June — and looking out the window. It was beautiful out there,” she recalls.
Robertson is the author of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize nominee City of Orphans and of the Metcalf-Rooke Award short-listed collection, The Goldfish Dancer.
The Goldfish Dancer will be officially launched with readings and signings Friday night at Arts Underground on Main Street.
We meet in Robertson’s living room in downtown Whitehorse, which has been commandeered by a rambunctious one-year-old husky-lab mix named Freya.
After licking the hands of all parties in sight, Freya resigns herself to lolling restlessly, half on the couch and half on Robertson’s lap.
Robertson’s typing has slowed of late. She’s nursing a broken left wrist: a gift from Freya, who hasn’t yet learned the finer points of leash protocol.
In the relative calm, Robertson drinks a cup of a white tea blend and describes the catalyst that moved her from the realm of wannabe to actual writer, or someone committed to practising the art and craft of words.
She had been unconscious when the ambulance brought her to the hospital in Vancouver, where she lived at the time.
Though most of the damage came to the tissues and ligaments in her right leg, her brother startled her by describing the remnants of her car.
It looked like an accordion, he said.
With two weeks in the hospital, Robertson had time to reflect, to assess, to take stock. She wasn’t satisfied, and she wasn’t fulfilled.
She had some success with freelance journalism, but she had been drifting away from her own writing, spending most working-hours editing the craft of others.
She had known at a young age that she had the mettle to make it as a writer, but she wasn’t writing or making a name for herself. She was in her late 30s. It was crunch time.
“I thought, ‘either I do this or I die,’” she says.
She had visions of quitting work, and running out of employment insurance cheques, and finding herself homeless on the streets of Vancouver; but the dramatic alternative — spiritual or mental death —was no better for Robertson.
She made a resolution: “I’ll go try this. If I fail I fail, but I can’t get to the end of my life and say, ‘My God, I didn’t try.’”
Newly obsessed with becoming a published writer, Robertson had a writer’s doubt.
She wondered if success in fiction would elude her, and even if she was simply delusional to think that she could be a real writer.
In The Goldfish Dancer, her just-released and latest collection of five short stories and two novellas, Robertson’s characters echo her own struggle with their own life-altering and sanity-challenging obsessions.
One of the stories in the collection, My Hungarian Sister, is a semi-autobiographical account of a young British schoolgirl who becomes obsessed with a newspaper photo of a young Hungarian refugee during the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
The British girl decides to adopt the refugee, and uses creative means to attempt to track down the foreigner.
My Hungarian Sister was published by Maisonneuve in June 2006. The dark-humoured short story has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and has also been selected to appear in the Journey Prize Anthology.
Robertson’s favourite piece is the novella Girl with a Cello, which is set in Manchester in the early 1900s.
“It’s essentially the story of a very young girl, a young servant, in Manchester and she eventually ends up in the household of a prominent cellist in the Halle orchestra,” Robertson explains.
“The seed of that story is autobiographical because my grandmother actually went into service at 11, as this girl does, and ended up being a cook for a cellist called Karl Foulkes who was the principal cellist in the Halle orchestra.”
Having grown up in nearby Lancashire, Robertson was able to visit the house where her grandmother had worked throughout her youth.
Unlike the writer’s grandmother, the young girl in the story becomes romantically involved with a young student of the cellist.
What captured Robertson’s imagination was Manchester’s historical reputation as a centre of radicalism. Karl Marx lived there, and it was essentially the birthplace of England’s trade unionism.
Set before the First World War, Robertson’s account of this young girl’s life as a servant encompasses the increasing anti-German and anti-Jewish sentiment and tension of the time.
“I’ve lost interest in what I would call domestic fiction,” she explains.
“To me, it’s deeper and its more meaningful if the backdrop is historical or socio-political.”
The title novella, The Goldfish Dancer, follows the story of a mixed-race granddaughter of slaves who, as a teenager in 1914, leaves Ontario to seek better prospects in the US.
She finds work with a woman who breeds goldfish, and becomes obsessed herself with conjuring a particular kind of goldfish.
In New York, she starts working as an exotic dancer, integrating goldfish into her act, and earns great acclaim and success onstage.
“I don’t know where that story came from,” Robertson says, shaking her head.
“No idea. I just remember having this image of a woman who used goldfish in her act — either physically wore them, or her costume looked like a goldfish.”
Her stories start with fragments, she says. Either sentence or an image comes to mind, and often ends there.
Many of her ideas never make it outside her head. But some images come back again and again.
If she becomes obsessed with the character, haunted with an image, then she gets to work.
“I do feel very strongly that I’m telling the characters’ stories, that they want their stories told and they’ve chosen me to tell it for whatever reason,” she says.
Writer Audrey Thomas has a fantasy: when she dies and goes to heaven, her characters will be there waiting for her.
With that kind of prospect, a writer of fiction had better be accountable to the worlds she creates, says Robertson.
With The Goldfish Dancer, Robertson manages once more to be true to her characters, while manifesting her own once-imagined reality: “I can’t imagine my life without the writing in it.”
Biblioasis presents the launch of The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and novellas, by Patricia Robertson, Friday from 5 to 8 p.m., at Arts Underground (lower level, The Hougen Centre).
Mac’s Fireweed Books will also be hosting a book signing at a later date.