Alexander MacLeod's short story collection Animal Person explores love, compromise and the idea of self
Alexander MacLeod is a short story writer and academic from Cape Breton and raised in Windsor, Ont. His debut short story collection Light Lifting won the Atlantic Book Award, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the Commonwealth Prize. In 2019, he won an O. Henry Award for his short story Lagomorph. He currently lives in Dartmouth, N.S.
His latest book Animal Person is his second collection of painstakingly built short stories. In it, we encounter long married couples, angsty adolescents, fiercely independent senior citizens, a serial killer — and even a shark. MacLeod makes the reader think about our shared humanity that underpins all our lives — in sometimes unsettling ways.
Alexander MacLeod spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the stories in Animal Person.
Love as compromise
"In Lagomorph, I was interested in the way that love operates — that love sometimes is a choice, and then sometimes a responsibility. I was interested in the way that sometimes our responsibilities slowly become our choices.
"In this story, the guy is viciously allergic to rabbits. I think that some of us have that experience where we have cats that we're allergic to, or our partner has a cat and we live in a state of profound compromise. So I liked the way that love might be seen as a profound compromise."
"In one story, the characters David and his wife Sarah don't dislike each other. They just can no longer be together. Certain aspects of their individual lives are intersecting with their shared life. So one of my favourite lines in that story is when the parents are breaking up and the kids say, 'We just want you to be happy.' As if that's an easy thing.
"And the narrator hears it and says, 'I thought that's what I was supposed to say to you. I thought that parents are supposed to say to their kids, I just want you to be happy.' But the way the children look at the parents and say, 'Why don't you just be happy?' And that turns out to be a little more challenging than the simplicity the statement might suggest."
"I think many people who live in cities sometimes discover that grisly crimes were committed not far from where they live. So that's the first sentence of this story. The person says, 'This all happened not far from where we are now.'
"And so that did happen in in Dartmouth, where I live. There was a crime that was revealed to have happened in a place not far from my own home. And then I wanted to use that idea of the interconnecting door in motel rooms, the one that connects to two rooms that could be shared but can also be perceived as separate.
I was interested in the way that a lot of the time we kind of embrace the notion of privacy, when in fact we know that our privacy is public — especially in the Internet age.
"I was interested in the way that a lot of the time we kind of embrace the notion of privacy, when in fact we know that our privacy is public — especially in the Internet age. And so The Closing Date was about the kind of fragility of maintaining a domestic performance, I suppose.
"We're trying to perform this, but we know what happened just over there. And what happened just over there is not rated G."
The idea of self
"I think that one of the recurrent questions that I'm interested in addressing in Animal Person, is that the border between the self and everything else obviously can only be policed by the self — but the self is obviously wrong most of the time, right? The self says, 'Well, this is where I stop and the world begins.' And then the world always intrudes upon our fragile architecture that we build around ourselves.
I wanted to look at the way that we all are engaged in this practice of self-creation or self-fashioning.
"I wanted to look at the way that we all are engaged in this practice of self-creation or self-fashioning.
"But we don't really have much control over what the world is going to say about us or how the world is going to act on such a border."
Alexander MacLeod's comments have been edited for length and clarity.