Robin Riopelle’s brand new book, DEADROADS, is out tomorrow, and she was kind enough to stop by and answer a few of my questions. Also, courtesy of the lovely folks at Night Shade Books, I’ve got 4 copies to give away to 4 lucky winners!
Congrats on the new book, Deadroads! Will you tell us a little about it and what inspired you to write it?
Thanks, it’s been a long strange trip, indeed. I’m interested in challenging myself when I write, so I pick stuff that actually scares me. Luckily, I’m a complete wuss, so there’s plenty of scope. I find cat food commercials terrifying. Honestly, put ghosts and Louisiana bayous together and you have stuff that’s sure to keep me writing, if just to get through it.
That said, it’s really important to me that my stories are character-driven, and I’m a sucker for fractured families, the ones that have to come back together, have to make sense of their intertwined pasts. Deadroads is about a family driven apart, though the now-grown children have mixed understandings of what happened to their parents, why the mother left, taking the daughter with her. Literally, Deadroads is about ghosts. Figuratively, it’s also about ghosts.
There’s an old French folksong called Les trois hommes noirs, or the Three Men in Black. I’ve always loved that song – it’s extremely measured and stately, vaguely sinister. The song describes how a bride is stolen away by three devils on her wedding day and how her new husband has to win her back. It doesn’t end happily. And I started to think: what would the kids be like, of a marriage like that? So Deadroads plays with that idea a little, stretches it out. Gives it room to become a story about the kids, but with its feet planted in the parents’ original trauma.
Will you tell us more about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’m an adopted person who’s in contact with both families—adopted and birth. I have a good relationship with both. Robin Riopelle is my birth name, the one I was born with. My two families are pretty different: I grew up in a literary household of dour Scots on Vancouver Island, where writing and artmaking were valued and encouraged. My birthfamily can trace their roots back to Montréal in the 1650s, and are bright outgoing people, again incredibly artistic and creative, more from a rural, working class background. It’s always interesting to see what parts of my identity come from which family, and what parts are really just me.
I grew up on Vancouver Island, worked in Japan, studied in Toronto, lived in Vancouver, and now I’m back in Ottawa, where I was born. My husband is a criminologist, and I have a slam-poet daughter and a happily eccentric son. I’m a freelancer who develops content and text for museum exhibitions—history, science, art, you name it, I’ve done it.
I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. Never poems or short stories. Always novels. I don’t know how many novels I’ve started. Although my dour Scottish father encouraged the arts, they were never really presented as anything but a hobby; I needed a “bread and butter” job. I rebelled by going into Visual Arts, then got sidetracked with museum work, which I love, and even for a number of years was an adoption reunion intermediary and searcher, which is kind of like a detective-therapist. All these things have contributed to who I am as a writer. I may have come to the publication game later than many, but I can’t say it hasn’t been an interesting trip.
What made you decide to set Deadroads primarily in Louisiana, and what kind of research did you do for the book?
I wanted to play with the idea of exile versus nomad. Those forced to leave, and those that choose to leave. Where “home” actually can be. Although the story is steeped in Louisiana, at its heart it’s about le Grand derangement, when the Acadians were forced out of Nova Scotia and dispersed to places like Louisiana, where they became better known as Cajuns. The Grand derangement is another example of fractured families—families were literally torn apart and shipped to different places around the world. Some deep reading into the mindset of exiles, and their close cousins, nomads, created all sorts of possible narratives for me.
My day job involves developing museum exhibitions, so digging around for the most interesting stories is second nature to me. For Deadroads, I had a few different content areas to explore. I live on the border of French and English Canada, so accessing the language I needed wasn’t too difficult, though I picked the brains of both Acadians and a Cajun reader to make sure I got things as nearly right as I could, language-wise. My main character, Sol, is a paramedic, so I had to make sure I understood more about that culture. Luckily, I have a good friend who is a paramedic and she and her partner didn’t mind sharing stories about their work over a few beers; hell, I could write a whole novel just about EMTs. I also needed someone on the ground in Nebraska and Denver, which is where a lot of the action takes place, and another friend came through there with a veritable photo essay on the areas I was writing about, including Brule, Nebraska.
Of course, I finished Deadroads long before True Detective became a hit for HBO, but that same kind of uneasiness about bayou country, where the land itself shifts and moves, is essentially untrustworthy—well, it’s fertile soil for stories about dislocation and having difficulty finding your way home.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little of both, actually. I usually plot things out using an insane number of coloured pens and descriptive arrows, boxes, and dotted lines. They’re works of art, my initial plots. It comes of having been a cartoonist in my formative years. When I feel I’ve hit critical mass with the plotting and the research, I start to write. This is where pantsing comes in, because from there, anything can happen. I always write sequentially, starting at the beginning and going from scene to scene. But occasionally, a character will speak up, often while I’m in the shower or out walking the dog. The character will let me know they don’t want to die, or they think it might be better if yes, they just got on that bus and never came back, or that indeed, they would rather be especially brave when confronted with that wailing ghost in the next chapter. I usually listen to a character when they’re insistent. Especially if they’re bothering me in the shower.
What are a few authors that have inspired you in life, and in your writing?
After a reading Guy Gavriel Kay did at the University of Toronto in 1990 or so, he was asked what other books he’d suggest someone read if they liked his. He took a pause and said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t just read fantasy. Read as much as you can, and from as broadly as you can.” Up until that point in my life, I had mostly stuck to fantasy, and his words opened up a whole world for me, gave me permission to read and to like as much as I could.
Consequently, I read very broadly, and I’m just as likely to pick up non-fiction as fiction. My favourite authors are dark, violent types like James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy—their sentences are concussive, brutal. Andrew Pyper writes chilling Ontario Gothic, deeply creepy stuff. Joseph Boyden—great, big-hearted guy and my god he can write. He’s the master of the multiple narratives gliding between timeframes. I greatly admire the writers that make non-fiction sing, particularly John Vaillant and Erik Larson. And as for Guy Gavriel Kay? Well, he can do no wrong.
Deadroads seems to defy genre a bit. How would you categorize it (if you had to) and what did you enjoy most about writing it?
A brutalist ghost story? A supernatural family drama? Dark rural fantasy? Yeah, it’s hard. I didn’t think about what genre it was when I wrote it. I just wanted to write about juicy characters caught up in unfortunate circumstances. Any writer will tell you the best part about writing are those days where it’s effortless, where it feels like it’s all right there and all you have to do is type it up. That is what I enjoy most about writing anything—when you’re in the zone.
Particularly with Deadroads, though, I loved writing Sol when he’s with his long-estranged sister, Lutie. I love their conversations, their body language, how fraught and fragile it is. I’ve reunited with lost siblings, and I know how difficult it can be, and how much you want it to be easy, and how much you want it to be different.
There are plenty of terrifying things in Deadroads, but what is something that truly terrifies you?
Aside from cat food commercials? Well, I’ve already copped to being scared of bayous and ghosts. But the idea of being buried alive leaves me wanting to yap like an agitated Yorkiepoo. I recently had an MRI, and I practically had to be sedated.
I am also unreasonably frightened of bears. I grew up on Vancouver Island, and I love hiking, but there are, you know. Bears. There are bears out there. So I always hike with someone I reckon is slower than I am. And the stupid thing is, it’s so unfounded! I’ve never actually had a bad experience with a bear. But you hear stories, and stories have a wonderful way of sneaking in under your more reasonable defenses.
You have a very interesting background, but will you tell us something that not a lot of people know about you?
Let’s play that game. One of these things is not true: I have been in a high-speed car chase with police; I lost a frozen beaver head under a car in a parking lot; I have told several people they had a sibling they knew nothing about; I’ve been accidentally locked in a museum’s collection storage with the lights out; I’ve slept under a blanket that belonged to one of the Group of Seven (this will make sense to your Canadian readers, don’t worry); I’ve painted myself green and farted in front of an adoring group of kids. Oh wait. Yes, those would all be true.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Every single dollar I earn goes toward travel, and I love to plan travel almost as much as I like travelling. So spare time is spent on Tripadvisor and Google maps (particularly Streetview! My god, what a time waster!).
What’s next for you?
Well, the folksong is called Les trois hommes noirs, after all. There’s three of those devils, right? And I left some things untied at the end of Deadroads, didn’t I? So there’s more of that story to tell.
I’m really enjoying getting to know more readers and writers (and bloggers) in the SFF community, and I plan on going to a number of cons in the next while (so say hi, because I really don’t know anyone). I’m writing more or less constantly, so there should be some short fiction coming down the pipe soon.
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The Sarrazins have always stood apart from the rest of their Bayou-born neighbors. Almost as far apart as they prefer to stand from each other. Blessed—or cursed—with the uncanny ability to see beyond the spectral plain, Aurie has raised his children, Sol, Baz, and Lutie, in the tradition of the traiteur, finding wayward spirits and using his special gift to release them along Deadroads into the afterworld. The family, however, fractured by their clashing egos, drifted apart, scattered high and low across the continent.
But tragedy serves to bring them together. When Aurie, while investigating a series of ghastly (and ghostly) murders, is himself killed by a devil, Sol, EMT by day and traiteur by night, Baz, a travelling musician with a truly spiritual voice, and Lutie, combating her eerie visions with antipsychotics, are thrown headlong into a world of gory spirits, brilliant angels, and nefarious demons—small potatoes compared to reconciling their familial differences.
From the Louisiana swamps to the snowfields of the north and everywhere in between, Deadroads summons you onto a mysterious trail of paranormal proportions.
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