Fiona Robertson joins us at PaperbarkWords to talk about her debut short story collection, If You’re Happy (published by UQP).
She has aptly titled this piece,
‘If You’re Happy to Travel‘
A few early readers of If You’re Happy have remarked on the number of countries depicted in the book. When I checked the contents page, I realised they’re right – eleven of the twenty-four stories are set in overseas locations.
Part of the reason for the variety of settings is that I was born in Canada (to Australian parents), in a small sawmill town in northern British Columbia. I spent my childhood there until the age of nine, so for Christmas Party, I drew on memories of being taken to parties where adults were flirting and drinking, to create a fictional account of an evening gone wrong. There are cheeseballs, pottery plates, bearskin rugs and the Bee Gees. There’s a snowmobile. It’s a 70’s fest in a made-up town.
I also spent two years of my childhood living in Eugene, Oregon, as my teacher parents pursued further study. When I wrote Last Game, I recalled the student housing we lived in, Sunday night Disney TV, and the way kids used to roam around. The murder, the ghost and playing the creepy kids’ game were figments of my imagination.
Boxing Day with its Phuket setting began to revolve in my head a long time before I wrote it. I’d hiked in Thailand and Vietnam with my husband Peter early in our marriage, and at the end of the trip we’d booked three days at an island resort in Thailand, thinking we’d be ready by then for the luxury of hot showers, soft beds and lazing about. Instead, we felt a bit uncomfortable doing nothing much, and having resort staff bring us food and drink. Without spoiling things, there was another element to our visit that struck me a few years down the track. It was only recently that I attempted to explore these emotions and events by writing ‘Boxing Day’ with a very different couple as characters.
The story If You’re Happy, set in Edinburgh, Scotland, was written as a sort of challenge to myself. I’ve been to Edinburgh once, in my early twenties, but don’t remember much about it. So instead I roamed the city using Google Earth, selecting an apartment building for Alistair to live in, and wandering the park where he imagines pushing the baby in a pram. I also read a lot about the city and the Scottish way of speaking, including quirks and idioms. Finally, I sent the story to lovely Twitter pal and brilliant writer Rose McDonagh, who checked the piece for accuracy (thank you Rose!).
Snowfall was the result of a return trip to Canada a few years ago. I visited family friends in Vancouver, and during my visit it snowed for several days. These friends also have an adult daughter living just around the corner. I began to imagine the scenario of a cold snowy night, an old man overhearing his daughter malign him, and the unravelling that might follow.
Tempest arose from a visit to a friend in Texas, and being taken to see a couple’s ranch (which was much smaller and closer to town than the one in Tempest). If I’m being honest, the real jumping-off point for the story was the fact that (according to rumours) the husband rancher expected sex from his wife every day. I began the story with that in mind!
I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but I wanted to write One Sunday Afternoon as my brother has served there. Though I don’t know the details of his two missions (all classified information), I know the work affected him. One Sunday Afternoon traces the experiences of a young Australian man who is stationed in Tarin Kowt. I spent hours watching footage from the conflict in Afghanistan and read countless reports, including those from military inquiries. Then I imagined a scenario that might have happened, a story that explored the kinds of damage that can result from war.
Other stories are set in Iceland (A Shift in the Ice), Harrington, USA (Plume), Christchurch, New Zealand (Aftershock) and Bountiful, Canada (Sweet Bountiful). I’ve never been to these places, so I relied heavily on Google Earth and my own research. I even emailed the town clerk in Harrington to ask what radio stations would have been broadcasting in 1980 (and received a very helpful reply).
Most of the stories unrelated to my own travel experiences were written since Covid hit the world. Many of us are now reluctant to travel, given the recurring waves of new virus strains, potential border closures, and the possibility of loved ones falling ill while we’re away. Perhaps instinctively I wrote to escape, to forget and to transport the reader to another place altogether.
I hope If You’re Happy provides glimpses of new locations, and a window into the human heart, wherever it resides.
BIO: Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor from Brisbane. Her short story collection, If You’re Happy, won the Glendower Award at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards, and was released in February 2022 (UQP).