Books·In Conversation

'It belongs to readers now:' Ann-Marie MacDonald on the legacy of Fall on Your Knees and her impressive career

The celebrated Canadian author of books Fall on Your Knees and Fayne spoke with CBC Books about her extensive writing career and why she's thrilled that her work is being adapted to stage in 2023.

'The quest for patterns, meaning, identity and authenticity... these are things which run strong in my work'

Ann-Marie MacDonald is a Canadian playwright, author, actress and broadcast host. (Lora MacDonald-Palmer)

For writer, broadcaster and playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald, the play's the thing. Rooted in theatrical and performance traditions and background, MacDonald's literary novels crackle with live energy as they use her own lived experience and perspective to illustrate themes of gender, sex, identity and family secrets.

MacDonald, born in Germany, now lives between Toronto and Montreal. She's the author of several bestselling novels. In addition to writing, she was the host of CBC's Doc Zone for eight years.

In 1996, MacDonald released her debut novel Fall on Your Knees and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. The book won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book and it was a finalist for Canada Reads in 2010, when it was defended by track star Perdita Felicien.

Her work includes the 2003 novel The Way the Crow Flies, another Giller Prize finalist, and the 2014 novel Adult Onset.

Her 2022 novel Fayne, her first in eight years, is about Charlotte Bell, a young woman growing up in the 19th century in a vast and lonely estate straddling the border between England and Scotland. The work explores gender, sex and loyalty and betrayal within love and friendship.

Fall on Your Knees still resonates with Canadian readers and is now being adapted to stage in 2023 — essentially bringing things full circle in terms of her designs on art, performance and literature.

MacDonald spoke with CBC Books about Fayne, the legacy of Fall on Your Knees and her literary life and career.

The response to Fayne, your first novel in years, was strong, it was a bestseller. How does that make you feel?

I don't write for myself. I don't write so that my words can remain in splendid, resonant isolation. I write for the readers — just as if I'm writing a play. I'm writing for the audience. 

This has so much to do with my background versus a performer who then began writing for the theatre, who then morphed into a novelist. I still do all of these things. It's just a question of how I apportion my energy at any given period. Obviously novels take so much time — they take me time anyway! But still, my first love, which is of being in front of a live audience personally, really does inform everything I do.

I am writing in order to craft an immersive experience for the reader. That's my goal.

I am writing in order to craft an immersive experience for the reader. That's my goal. I put everything into that. It's like, I've made all this food and I'm inviting everyone to the party. I want people to come.

LISTEN | Ann-Marie MacDonald on writing her 'queerest book yet:'

Bestselling author Ann Marie Macdonald is in New Brunswick touring her new book, Fayne. She describes the Victorian-era doorstopper novel as the perfect read for these November days.

Why is Fayne a novel, and not a play, in this regard?

Fayne needs to be a novel. It's written according to the Victorian Gothic genre. The Victorians invented miniseries. They didn't have the audiovisual technology that we do, but often their books were published in serialized form. This "miniseries" of a novel follows that shape.

I've always loved Victorian fiction. I came of age with the Brontës, and I'll never forget when my sister put Jane Eyre in my hands.

It takes place over a sweep of secrets and time and place. It does not lend itself to the stage. And to create that immersive experience, my metier is words, is a book. It needed to be a book just because of the narrative scope and just the feeling of being on that incredible 12,000 acre estate between Scotland and England and then the streets of Edinburgh and the late 19th century. Those are pictures and places that I wanted to create for the reader. 

I knew that it belonged in prose fiction as opposed to theatre. 

The language is clearly Brontë-esque in scope. What did the research and world-building process look like for Fayne?

I've always loved Victorian fiction. I came of age with the Brontës, and I'll never forget when my sister put Jane Eyre into my hands. It completed the triangle that has really shaped my life — three points of that triangle being Bugs Bunny, The Beatles and the Brontës.

I exist within that triangulation. Oddly, they're all Bs. I'm not sure why that is.

My research is immersive: I traveled and I spent time in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I spent months at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University, delving into original documents, the history of medicine, especially the history of women and queer people and anyone whose gender is non-normative, gender nonconforming, bodily nonconforming people who are caught in the medical gaze. That holds true now very urgently as well.

In many ways, I've been able to tackle some very contemporary issues by putting them into the Victorian Gothic genre. Especially when you talk about gender nonconformity, queerness, women. The history of women in particular, caught in the medical gaze, is a harrowing one, and it's one of abiding interest to me. 

In order to create that immersive experience for the reader, so that they are that hopefully they feel, hopefully they forget that anyone wrote this book, hopefully they forget that they're reading a book, they're just taking this journey, they are present, as it unfolds. 

LISTEN | Ann-Marie MacDonald on CBC Radio's Q:

Ann-Marie MacDonald is one of Canada's most celebrated writers. Her debut novel, Fall on Your Knees, was a runaway hit when it came out in 1996, taking the literary world by storm. MacDonald brings that same sharp writing to her latest novel, Fayne, which is set in the late 19th century at a crumbling estate that straddles the border between England and Scotland. She sat down with Tom Power to tell us more.

Would it be fair to say that with Fayne that you find yourself returning to tropes such as the hardships of life, agency, repression (being denied on the basis of sex) just through the journey of Charlotte Bell?

Sure. Those are all very powerful themes. The quest for patterns and meaning and identity and authenticity — these are things which absolutely run strongly through all my work. The tropes that you're referring to are specifically Victorian in this case, and I love them. They're like a toy box full of literary tropes: secrets, skeletons in the closet, family secrets, secrets of identity, mysterious paintings.

Creepy old mansions. And severe spinster aunts. Lies, redemption, sex, clothes, all of that. And because it's Victorian, I had to learn a great deal about what it does, what does it feel like to walk into that doctor's office? What does it feel like to walk into this sumptuous drawing room? What does it feel like to sit in this tavern? What am I eating? What am I drinking? Who am I looking at? What the world smells like and how does it advance the story all the time? How does it advance the plot? 

The quest for patterns: meaning and identity and authenticity — these are things which absolutely run strongly through all my work.

Those are my rules and they come from theatre. I don't think in terms of chapters as much as I think in terms of scenes. What is different at the end of this scene? Where did we begin this scene? Where did we end it? How does that propel the plot forward? So, my themes are impassioned and very serious.

How much does your heritage define or inform your work? Your father is of old Scottish stock, your mother is of Lebanese heritage. Your grandparents spoke Gaelic. How overt are you thinking of stuff like this? 

How does one even describe oneself at this point? "White-presenting, with a name that also is the name of a highway." 

My mother was not considered white. Her parents spoke Arabic. My father's parents spoke Gaelic. I grew up eating all the 'weird food' that is now common and even cool and just ordinary. But it was bizarre back then when I was a kid. We also moved around a lot too. So we are always having to represent ourselves and reintegrate.

My parents both came from Cape Breton Island, so they shared something culturally — and yet it was considered a mixed marriage at the time. They were both Catholic. So that trumped everything, right? My mother was denied entry into nursing training in her hometown of Sydney, Nova Scotia as the colour bar was invoked against her. So she went nine miles down the road to my father's Nova Scotia hometown of New Waterford, where she was apparently white enough to enter training. That's how they met. They met because she couldn't train in her own hometown. 

My parents both came from Cape Breton Island, so they shared something culturally — and yet it was considered a mixed marriage at the time.

This is all to say that we are all the products of so much. So much violence and joy and love, collision and calamity. There's no one alive today who's not a product of or a mix of all of that and some of us more acutely and more recently than others. 

I think it helped forge my own perspective as an artist because I was on the inside and the outside at the same time — and then also being a lesbian and knowing from the very beginning that I was the "wrong kind of girl." Coming out as early as I did, at a time where it was even less OK than it is now. All of these experiences have that kind of multiplicity,  of good fortune and struggle and injuries that I've sustained. It has made me more sensitive to the struggles of others and to making connections among us. 

I didn't have any basis for expectation for Fall on Your Knees. It's my first novel that began as a play. I thought I was writing a play. It's when I finally had to face the fact that the stage directions had grown out of control, that it was in fact, prose fiction. 

I had no idea what to expect, as naive, I suppose, as it was. People said, "Oh, were you shocked by the powerful reception and how many people wanted to read this story?" My honest answer is no. This is an immigrant value and it is immigrant zeal that still operates in me. I get it directly from my mother — which is you don't sing in an empty room. If you're doing something, as my mother put it, but God has given you a gift so you must share it, right? And it's not that I think in those terms in particular, but I realize I have this immense assumption. And now I look back on it and I go, wow, that was a huge assumption.

I don't know whether that's a breathtaking degree of naivete, confidence, delusion or conviction. I don't know what it was, but I thought, well, of course people want to engage with this story! That's why I worked so hard to make sure it could get into the world. Because it's bigger than me. I'm responsible for sharing something. In a polarized world, one that we find ourselves in at the moment, I think that's never been more urgent as a project [that explores] the making of connections among supposedly different groups.

That's my life in a nutshell. There it is. 

WATCH | The trailer for Fall on Your Knees:

Fall on Your Knees has now been adapted for a theatrical production in 2023. How does that make you feel?

I'm moved by that. It belongs to readers now. It is claimed and cherished and it lives and breathes among people to whom it belongs. That's the thing, right? Fayne no longer belongs to me; it belongs to the people who are reading and who claim it, and it becomes something that's greater than the sum of its parts. 

That said, with regard to Fall on Your Knees, there's something particularly gratifying about seeing it come to fruition as a piece of theatre, considering that's how I originally conceived it.

Now it is an image, music, movement, story driven, piece of three-dimensional amazement in two parts and it's very cool.

Your website bio says your work has always been "funny, narrative, feminist, welcoming and queer." What does queerness mean in 2023 that it did or didn't back in the 1990s when Fall on Your Knees was published?

I know that "queer" is as problematic as any other term. In fact, I was in Halifax and a gay friend was saying they didn't like the word queer because it means that there's something wrong or askew right? And then I thought there's also power in reclaiming. "Queer" is reclaiming something that is perceived through a heteronormative lens.

There is obvious queerness in Fayne in terms of characters and for one character in particular, right? Yeah, but nature is queer. Nature abhors a straight line. Nature does not deal in binaries. Nature deals in blurred lines, margins and transformation. 

Queer is reclaiming something that is perceived through a heteronormative lens.

We didn't need Einstein to tell us about the "dual" or the simultaneous nature of reality and quantum physics, but it helps to have the imprimatur of science on it. But this is old wisdom that tells us that we're not one thing or another.

Nature is always transforming and that's why the image of the bog and the moor is so powerful and abiding and important for me. There's so much going on there.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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