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Writer to watch

Writer to watch: Alison MacLeod

GG-winner Kate Pullinger wrote a winter tale for us. She also recommended Alison MacLeod as a writer to watch. Read what Alison has to say about what inspires her to write.

"I first discovered Alison MacLeod when I read her story The Thaw, set in Cape Breton in the 1920s. It's beautifully structured and full of wonderful writing. She's written several books and been on the shortlist for the prestigious BBC National Short Story Competition. She deserves to be better known by Canadian readers!"

- Kate Pullinger

by Alison MacLeod

Great books surprise us with the truth of what it is to be human.They don't say the things that everyone can say; they say the things most people can't. But they're not a tract, a speech or a message. Instead, they reveal. They allow us to see ourselves.  And, odd as it may sound, books themselves have to be "alive" to do that. Giving them life is hard. It's a relentless labour, one that often feels surprisingly physical. I write because I have always wanted to feel that force of life moving through my core and down my fingertips.   

Twenty-five years ago, the "life" of my first good story left me breathless. As I wrote, a day passed like an hour. The story seemed to know more than I did.  It was the first time I felt like a writer, and it's partly for that ineffable sense of absorption that I still write. 

My ability to dowse for the voice of a story or novel, to hear it and trust in it, feels like a gift. Literary craft and technique are vital. Research is often crucial. But the voice of a story is its essence or spirit. I'm its conduit. I'm both less and more myself as I write. At its most powerful, a story, like a fire, eats up all the air in the room. Its life is perhaps the thing that makes me feel alive.

It's not all thrills though, God knows. A lot of the time, it won't let me rest, literally. It keeps me up at night.  I get bags under my eyes.  It has me biting my nails and next, my glue-on nails.  Worry gives way to despair - fairly often. But when a story is mine, it won't put me down, and I don't want it to. It's like falling in love.   

There's a social responsibility too, I feel, for any good writer to stay alert, pay attention and not look away from the truth of things, even when one might prefer to.  If I have managed that, through all the dogged labour it takes to write well and honestly, my life somehow, temporarily, feels complete.  

Then, madly, I want to do it again. I can hardly believe I do - after perhaps a three-year pregnancy and a lonely, difficult labour - but I do. That sense of being connected to something bigger than I am - whatever it may be - is, for me, the peculiar joy of writing.  


Alison MacLeod grew up in Montreal and Halifax and lives in Brighton, England. Her books include the novel The Wave Theory of Angels and the collection of stories Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction. She is currently completing her second short story collection. Her next novel will be published by Penguin in September 2012.

Photo credit / Alison MacLeod: Halifax Headshots Photography
Photo credit / Kate Pullinger: Jonathan Bean

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