Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why 'normal' people make short story writer Alison MacLeod wary

The author of All The Beloved Ghosts answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Alison MacLeod is the author of the short story collection All The Beloved Ghosts. (Kate MacLeod)

All The Beloved Ghosts, Alison MacLeod's second collection of short stories is a captivating and intricate interweaving of biography, fiction and memoir that explores themes of ghosts (both historical and familial), loss and love. The book is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Below, Alison MacLeod answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. André Alexis asks, "Are you conscious of the rhythm that paragraphs have, their length, when you're writing? Or is that something you work on as a form of sculpture afterwards?"

For me, rhythm and meaning are inextricable. I'm fascinated by that relationship on the page. I can't begin a story or a novel without a close sense of both. The sound of the prose of any story is a score for the voice; it holds the meaning in a way that is both visceral and intangible. It breathes where the storyteller breathes. It resonates after a sentence is finished, like good crystal tapped with a spoon. It can seduce like a spell or deliver stark, monotone truths. Its speed or elegance or bounce is the story's orchestration, and it gives us meaning, from ear to brain to heart, even before the linguistic meaning kicks in. When a wrong word or phrase hits my ear, I re-read it like a bad note and I probably wince or frown.

Handled at its best, rhythm is, I think, incantatory: it brings characters to life. The breath and rhythm of the prose breathes life into them. Their voices become part of a wider orchestration. Though people often assume the plot comes first, plot, for me, is mostly something to be discovered — just as a reader discovers it — as I write. Firstly, there's that very physical thing to do — to douse for the sound of the story I want to tell.

2. Xue Yiwei asks, "How much, according to your experience, does a writer's fame rely on luck instead of diligence?"

Every writer's story seems to have its own trajectory. Some, like Raymond Carver, come to fame against every odd. He worked every bad job out there. His diligence — and above all, his desire to write — was off-the-scale. But he was also lucky to meet the writer John Gardner. That was a turning point, and who knows what would — or wouldn't — have happened had they not met? I believe it took Angela Carter, a favourite writer of mine, seven brilliant books before the public paid attention. Other writers seem to get lucky with their first book at the age of 21 and to be loved by the media forever after. It's as mysterious as life itself, I suppose. Which means that a writer can only write onward, for the sheer love of writing, through setbacks, lucky breaks, hard-won success and periods of obscurity. More than diligence — after all, most writers want to write — I think the writing life takes resilience, or even a kind of core faith.

3. Gregory Scofield asks, "If you could change one thing about anything you've written, what would it be? And why?"

I'm not really someone who looks back at older work. I'll have done my utmost with every book or story at the time, and once it's gone into the world, it's gone. The person who wrote that particular book or story was a different writer than the writer I am today. She could do certain things I can't or wouldn't do now, and I'm capable of other things, probably more things — the luck of ageing for a writer. My first novel's chapter structure was too episodic, for example. I didn't know then how to create momentum, in which one chapter seems to give rise naturally or inexorably to the next chapter. My writing possibly had a big youthful verve to it — and that seemed to make up for certain technical weaknesses.

4. Madeleine Thien asks, "When does talking to oneself become a problem? Or, when does not talking to oneself become a problem?"

Like most writers, I'm very happy (perhaps too happy!) in my own company. I have a full inner life — unless I've just finished a book and am feeling spent. I often read aloud and I am in dialogue with myself; also, I chide myself as I write. In these intense phases, I suppose I do catch myself muttering to myself in public places — usually as I try to work out a problem, artistic or otherwise. I'm happy to be this sort of oddball. I am slightly wary of people who seem endlessly "normal" or "homogeneous" or "controlled", though they can make excellent characters, once you find the contradiction.

5. Michael Christie asks, "Was there a book you actually wanted to live inside as a child?"

Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books. I wanted to be in Anne's Story Club — so I imposed my own Story Club on my poor sister and a friend. In the suburbs of Montreal and Halifax, I wanted to smell all that spring blossom and to live on a red earthen lane. I used to imagine that Lucy Maud Montgomery spoke to me at night before I went to sleep. Gilbert Blythe was my first love — before Rochester. When Anne married him, so did I.

6. Alison Pick asks, "How would you most like to be remembered?"

Simply as a writer. For me that's both an ordinary and an extraordinary thing.

7. Claire Holden Rothman asks, "Why do you write?"

I suppose I want to make things that are strong, beautiful in their way, and true. The labour can be massive, but at its best, when "life" surges into a particular story, it feels like magic.

8. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "Do you think the portrayal of certain character types are beyond you? Can you name a character in a novel, whose personality/point of view/ character traits etc you know you could never write?"

I think most characters are possible, and I suppose I'm known for writing characters who are very different from me. The difficult thing is the work, commitment and energy it requires to get to the heart of who that person is. You can't make assumptions. You can't go on received ideas or stereotypes. It takes careful attention. It might take research. It requires a form of love. I wouldn't want to write a psychopath or sociopath, simply because too much of what makes them human has been eroded or damaged or never was there. There wouldn't be a way "in". Otherwise, not many characters would seem off-limits. I begin very simply, with the most human of questions: What do they want? What do they fear? Who do they, or did they, love?


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