Born in Ottawa and raised on Canada’s west coast, Robin Riopelle’s life has been marked by adoption, separation, and reunion. Like many of her characters, she has a muddy past and a foot in (at least) two different worlds. She’s always had interesting work in museums and social service agencies. Some things she has done while collecting a paycheque:
- told people the whereabouts of a long-lost family member,
- go-go danced in front of 700 people,
- traipsed across a wind-whipped hospital rooftop with a nun,
- and lost a frozen beaver head under a parked car.
Robin Riopelle is the author’s birthname. She currently lives on the border between French and English Canada with her criminologist husband, two seemingly delightful children, and an obstreperous spaniel. She is a great supporter of the Oxford comma.
In addition to writing fiction for adults, Riopelle also illustrates children’s books (as Elizabeth Todd Doyle).
SF Signal: Thank-you very much for the interview. We’re very grateful to have this chance to speak with you.
Robin Riopelle: You really deserve a medal for waiting so long for my response—and I ought to be walloped upside the head for dicking about. Vacations have a way for whisking one off to irresponsibility-land. Plus, you told me to “take my time” which is, obviously, the WRONG THING TO SAY TO ME.
SF Signal: Right off the bat, let me tell you that I’ve read an enormous number of debut novels for the purpose of interviews and reviews over the years, and this is the first time that I’ve ever had difficulty believing that what I was reading had been written by a debut author. The whole book had the polished feel of someone who’s been doing this for while. Did you do a lot of writing prior to Deadroads?
RR: You can’t see me, so you don’t know how hard I’m blushing. Really. Deadroads is my first published novel. But there are another dozen gathering virtual dust on my external hard drive. Deadroads felt like the first piece of work that was finished enough, had enough polish, something I wanted out there.
Also, I write for a living, except I’m mostly producing exhibition texts for museums. What that often entails is taking a whack-load of dense material (usually, a curator’s lifework in a topic of intense personal interest to them) and winnowing it down to a digestible artifact label. My job is, essentially, to make curators weep and (with luck and practice), to delight and engage kids and the despicable parents that drag them to the museum on a Saturday afternoon.
SF Signal: What impressed me the most about Deadroads was the immense amount of milieu and background detail you packed into the novel. Your story involves paramedics, musicians, police, rail riding homeless, and quiet a bit of French, to boot. How much of that did you draw from your own experiences, and how much came about through research?
RR: Although I’ve had an interesting enough life so far, none of it has included being a rail-riding, fiddle-playing francophone paramedic. So I’ve had to rely on a large group of people to tell me what’s what. I live on the border of French and English Canada in that hotbed of linguistic politics, Ottawa. I’m not a native French-speaker myself, so I needed to throw myself on the mercy of my francophone family and friends to tweak my horrendous franglais.
I became rather obsessed with paramedics, and am fortunate to have friends who are EMTs. It’s not all that unusual for a rig to pull up to my house (the neighbours are always intrigued) while one of my friends is between calls. They put up with my incessant questions such as “what does that button do?” and “if I had a piece of rebar sticking in my side like this, what would you worry about most?”
Being in the historical interpretation game as a profession, I’d be at an enormous deficit if I didn’t like research. In fact, I love it. And research often leads me to integral plot developments.
SF Signal: I read in an earlier interview with The Qwillery that you based the story of Deadroads on the old French folksong, “Les trois hommes noirs.” Was it the song that initially inspired you to write this book?
RR: When I’m gearing up to writing something long, something that will consume me for a number of months and even years, I usually look for a sweet vector—I need a number of research areas to overlap and come together. I wait for the magical confluence. For Deadroads, one strand in the vector was that song (which is about a number of devils stealing away a bride on her wedding day, and the bridegroom striking a deal with the devil to get her—at least temporarily—back). A second strand was the history and practice of railriding, of “catching out”, that urge to leave everything behind and take to the road. I wanted to get underneath that, somehow, explore the underbelly of it. I’m a homebody now, but I wasn’t always, and the tension between those two points (deftly put by none other than S.E. Hinton in Tex as “those that stay and those that go away”) was interesting to me.
Finally, and always, it’s about character. And I really wanted to write about a completely fucked-up family with issues. Big, messy, deep issues. Dislocation, abandonment, reconciliation. It’s all there, in the song. I just had to drag it out into the light.
RR: Man, it’s been a long, strange road. Which is probably fitting, given the big themes of the novel. The writing itself didn’t take too long once I had all the research there. Maybe five months. But the rest? I have been really fortunate to have Sandy Lu as a really strong proponent of the novel. If your agent doesn’t fall in love with your characters, with your story, you’re not going to go very far.
It was great to get someone as tenacious as Sandy, because from there on in, it was a rocky ride. We thought that we’d struck pay dirt when Night Shade signed me up, way back in 2012. It was a house with a discerning eye, known for taking chances with new voices. I was thrilled. Things soon went sideways, though. Night Shade at that time was in a world of financial trouble. As the publication date for Deadroads loomed, Night Shade’s problems became more pronounced.
And then, there was silence.
Pretty much on the day when Deadroads was supposed to hit the shelves, instead we found ourselves facing the prospect of the novel being caught up in bankruptcy proceedings. Then a last-ditch offer from Skyhorse. A counter offer. The drama of needing a percentage of authors to give the deal a nod. It was bonkers.
After the dust cleared, Deadroads was dangling between the original publication date (and advance copies had gone out for review) and the actual publication date, which was a year later. Ooofh. Still, the hard-working team at the newly formed Night Shade Books was super-supportive and wonderful to work with. Deadroads came out in April 2014 and it looks wonderful. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hold your own book in your/my grubby hands.
SF Signal: In April, when you joined us for a Mind Meld, you named Lord of the Flies as the book that had a profound effect on you, but were there any books that specifically inspired Deadroads? Are there any particular authors that you consider to be the gold standard of your genre?
RR: Deadroads itself has literary DNA stretching back to On the Road and more recently, Jon Krakhauer’s wonderful Into the Wild. But really, if you’re asking me for a gold standard, a writer whose work I truly admire, it’s got to be Guy Gavriel Kay. I don’t know anyone else who combines research, intellect, drama, and emotional insight with such wonderfully poetic language. His work is stunning.
SF Signal: What are you currently reading?
RR: I always read a fiction and non-fiction at the same time. At the moment, I’m reading Celine Kiernan’s gutting and lively Into the Grey. I’ve known Celine for a number of years, but I finally met her for the first time when I was recently in Ireland. She gave me a copy of Into the Grey, and it’s just what I’ve come to expect from her: witty, with a ton of amazing voice, and creepy as shit. She can spin a tale.
For non-fiction, I’m with Charlie LeDuff and his (also gutting, but in a different way) Detroit: An American Autopsy. A photographer friend of mine, from Detroit, said that the pornification of “urban decay” in cities like hers made her uncomfortable, so I wanted to get a handle on where she was coming from. And you never know when stories like that start to worm their way into my next research obsession.
SF Signal: Has the experience of writing your own novel affected the way you read or what you read in your free time?
RR: You know, I worked as a waitress and for a time it practically ruined going out to restaurants for me. But now I acknowledge good service (especially when the whole restaurant is in the weeds), and have zero tolerance for indifferent service. It’s not so different with books. I admire the wonderful books I read, and try not to dissect stuff so much that I can’t enjoy it. I love a drop-dead gorgeous sentence, I’ll stop to savour a great turn of phrase and try to learn from it. I think I enjoy books more, not less.
As a kid and as a young adult, I read little but fantasy. But in my 20s, I turned away from “genre” fiction, and read exclusively from the non-fiction and “literature” shelves. It wasn’t a mistake, but when it came to my writing, I always wrote dark fantasy fiction. I seem to be incapable of writing anything else. So now I’m playing catch-up with genre fiction titles. It’s such a thrill to discover a bunch of authors I’d been missing. To sink into a really wonderfully written and plotted fantasy. And to meet such a creative and whip-smart group of writers (honestly, Ottawa is a hotbed of gifted sci-fi and fantasy/horror writers).
SF Signal: If you could “play” (write) in another author’s universe, which author and which series would you choose?
RR: Such a hard question. But I have quite a massive, unseemly crush on Locke Lamora. I do. So I’d do all sorts of dreadful things to the thief. Plus, that damn Scott Lynch has marvelous voice. I’d love to slavishly copy his style.
SF Signal: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
RR: Nothing that’s not been said before. Keep at it. Write what you love. Keep your eyes open and let magic seep in when it can. Don’t let criticism wither you. Keep trusted readers close and be prepared to listen to what they have to say.
SF Signal: Finally, when can we expect to see more of your work hit shelves?
RR: I have a short story coming out in Postscripts to Darkness, Volume 6 (out later this year). Anybody who knows me, knows about my abiding interest in treeplanters and treeplanting culture (yet another research interest). So this is a little foray into that world. Except with, you know, horror elements (and no, not just mosquitoes and blackflies).
As for longer work (where my writer’s heart truly lives)…well, I don’t know about a Deadroads sequel, but I have a couple of other irons in the fire (remember those dozen or more novels I wrote before Deadroads?). As I recently heard another writer say, sometimes you need to leave stuff at the back of the fridge and see what mould it develops. So, some of these pieces have grown some really interesting bacteria. Like the kind that turns into penicillin or yogurt, right? The good kind of mould.