Books·How I Wrote It

Why journalist Linden MacIntyre channeled the violence he saw in Lebanon into his fiction

MacIntyre travelled to Lebanon several times in the 1980s to report on a civil war that lasted over a decade. His new book, The Only Café, draws from his experiences there.
Linden MacIntyre, former host of CBC's fifth estate, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2009 for The Bishop's Man. The Only Café is his fifth novel. (CBC/Random House Canada)

As a foreign correspondent and the host of CBC's fifth estateLinden MacIntyre's award-winning journalism was anchored in bringing truth to the public. He retired in 2014, but his new novel The Only Café continues this tradition of truth-telling, this time through the lens of fiction.

Drawing upon the violence he witnessed while reporting in Beirut in the 1980s, MacIntyre tells two stories: one of Pierre, a high-powered Toronto lawyer traumatized by his past in Lebanon, and his son Cyril, who struggles to learn more about his distant father. 

In his own words, MacIntyre explains why events he reported on three decades ago have stayed with him and eventually inspired him to write The Only Café.

A witness to tragedy

"The first notion I had for this book came in the late 1980s. As a reporter for the CBC, I covered aspects of a civil war in Lebanon that went on for 20 years or more. I mean it's clichéd and banal to say, but the inhumanity of people towards other humans has always been something I've had a hard time figuring out. When you get right up close to it and see how quickly and how simply and how casually life gets taken away from people, it's stunning. Somebody going about his business doesn't exist anymore. This was happening all the time to thousands and thousands of people — young people, old people, girls and boys and children.

"I can remember being in a hospital there once. The crew was shooting around the place, getting visuals. It was a hot day and I noticed that sitting near the reception desk was this little girl. She couldn't have been any more than four and she was sitting there with beads of sweat all over her face, completely wrapped up in a blanket. There was nobody around, so I decided to open the blanket to get a little air in because she was dehydrating. All of a sudden, when I opened the blanket, her legs were gone. I was stunned. I almost threw up.

"A nurse came by and I asked, 'Who is she?' She had the look of someone who was from a good, healthy family. The nurse said, 'We have no idea who she is. She was found sitting on a pile of rubble that had once been, we believe, where she lived. And she was the only survivor.'

"When you consider the fact that it's happening all the time to thousands of people, and that it has been happening throughout the 20th century to millions of people, your head kind of changes. Maybe I just wasn't cut out for that kind of work because I know people who dealt with an awful lot more than that who are healthy folks and never really had to write novels or poetry to exorcise the demons, but I guess I did."

The truthfulness in fiction

"Writing allows you to fill blanks in and it allows you to connect things that require subjective judgements, subjective invention. You can't do that in journalism. In journalism you take at face value what you can see, and then you push the envelope as much as you can to interpret, but always hedging as you go. This interpretation might be right, it might be wrong. Here's the other side of the possibility. Journalism requires a lot of for the sake of preserving the integrity and the credibility of journalism.

"Fiction, on the other hand, is: 'I'm going to tell you a story, and it is a true story, but it's not entirely factual.' It's based on facts, it's based on people, it's based on events. These are things that happen all the time. I'm going to present it to you in a format that will enable you to understand what's happening or what has happened better than I can do by just giving you the top layer off the reality that the journalist has to deal with. I found, in writing fiction, there is a license to invent, but there is a responsibility to be truthful. The invention has to be truthful. That's the fundamental rule of writing the kind of fiction that interests me."

Linden MacIntyre's comments have been edited and condensed.


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