Books·Magic 8 Q&A

J.B. MacKinnon on his authorial spirit animal

The 2014 RBC Taylor Prize finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
J.B. MacKinnon is the author of The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be. (

J.B. MacKinnon was a finalist for the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize for his book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be

Below, J.B. MacKinnon answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "How do you know when your book is finished?"

Books are never finished. There's just a point where the possibilities for improvement are either so overwhelming (throw it all out, start again) or so underwhelming (spend an hour deciding whether to replace 'and' with 'but') that a return to ordinary life is the only choice you can stand.

2. Cordelia Strube asks, "What keeps you writing?"

Writing is the way I examine my own life.

3. Charlotte Gill asks, "What is your Kryptonite?" 

If I examine my life through writing, that means I have to have a life to examine. My Kryptonite is any opportunity in a day that seems more alive than sitting at a desk, thinking and poking at a keyboard; luckily, I consider thinking and poking at a keyboard to be living pretty fully. My other Kryptonite is an unshakeable feeling of financial insecurity, which makes me say yes to too many projects.

4. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What are you so terrified of?"

I am terrified that the universe is not as empathetic as I think it is.

5. Timothy Taylor asks, "No seriously: how important have your other work choices — i.e. the things you've done to make money — been to your writing?"

I've done some editing, a little teaching, but really, I have lived off of writing since I was 21 years old. Obviously, I have not acquired a taste for five-star hotels or the newer cocktail bars. I still think of myself more as a journalist than a "writer" — much of what I do is reported in the field, which keeps my life from feeling too deskbound or inward looking. As I often say about writing: it's a good life, but not a good living.

6. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low  point? Can you tell us about that, if you feel comfortable doing so? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"

I am going to dive at that escape clause. I guess it's not so much that I don't feel comfortable talking about this, but it feels like all of this would take too much explaining, and I feel certain that I would bore myself, at the very least.

7. Lorna Crozier asks, "What makes you dare to be a writer, to think you have something to say to me?"

This has honestly never occurred to me. I've always felt free to write on the understanding that it is only the act of being read that gives my writing meaning. It isn't just the number of readers that counts, either, but the way they read my work, the things they take away. I have never understood writers who say they write "for themselves."

8. Lynn Coady asks, "Is there a poet, philosopher, musician, painter or any other type of artist outside the world of writing who has inspired your work in a concrete way at some point or another? If so, who?"

You mean besides the usual young man's over-appreciation of Hunter S. Thompson? This doesn't quite stick to the question, but I've felt strangely indebted to tortoises over the past five years. They seemed to be haunting my readings for The Once and Future World, and I had a few encounters with living ones as well. There is something inspiring about the way they seem so totally out of synch with our high-speed, experience-consuming, utterly un-self-contained global culture, and yet they've been around for 200 million years longer than human beings. I guess they're not poets, but they're rebels.


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