One of the world’s great writers reflects on his art—and his life
‘IT’S LIKE BEING IN LOVE’
One of the world’s great writers reflects on his art—and his life
FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS, Alistair MacLeod’s reputation as an all-but-anonymous literary master was built around two slim short-story collections about his beloved Cape Breton. But his first novel, No Great Mischief, published in 1999 when he was 64, changed all that. Critics swooned over the work, which is also about the island where MacLeod grew up and the beauty, pathos and despair of the people who live there. The book has been translated into 14 languages and has won a host of awards, including the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the richest prize in literature. He spoke to Maclean’s Atlantic Bureau Chief John DeMont from his office at the University of Windsor, which he has kept since his retirement in 2001 as a professor of creative writing and English literature.
McClelland & Stewart president and publisher Douglas Gibson has said that were it not for his persistence and a bottle of single malt Scotch No Great Mischief would never have seen the light of day. Is that true?
[Laughs] It’s partially true. Doug was just taking it more seriously than I was. I had a sabbatical that year and I had been promising the novel to him for seven or eight years or longer. And he said we would have it for the fall. My understanding was I would complete it for the fall. He understood it to mean that he could have it on the bookshelves in the fall. The famous story is that he kept calling up. He hadn’t seen it and he was getting more and more nervous. We’d worked together for a long time. So I guess he had faith. But eventually he did come down to Windsor with this bottle of whisky which I never drank. I had all the manuscript in various typefaces and a lot of it was still in longhand. I said, “What should I do with this?” He said, “Just give it to me.” So I just gave him what I had. We had quite a breathless race in mid-July. I would write 12 pages or so longhand and then courier it to him.
If he hadn’t been so persistent it would have been even longer getting done. So I owe him a debt of gratitude. The fact that the book has done so well is due to his Scottish perseverance and my Scottish dilly-dallying. It just shows there is room for all kinds of Scots in the world.
Would you still be holding on to the manuscript today had he not showed up?
Oh no, I’m very glad it’s over. I’d had 10 years of carting it around in my briefcase. I’m slow but I’m not that slow. I had to work the writing in around raising six children and going to kids’ basketball games and my full-time responsibilities at the university. Usually I’d work at it during the summer in Cape Breton and then take it out at Christmas again. I’ve tried to write for two hours a day no matter what. But that’s so hard to do. I told my wife it’s one thing to fall asleep reading a book, another to fall asleep writing one.
I was very satisfied with it. If sometimes it takes a long time to do things, that doesn’t matter as long as you don’t die in the middle of it. They don’t ask how long it took to write Wuthering Heights.
Has the novel’s success surprised you?
Well, I started writing the short stories 40 years ago. So I’ve been out there. When Michael Ondaatje and I read at Stanford University a couple of springs ago, he introduced me by saying that for a long time the readers of Alistair MacLeod were like Druids worshipping a tree. I guess now I’ve become a more contemporary religion.
The book tours can be hard work. But I don’t mind them. In high schools, if you’re a writer they tend to blend you in with the Bible and Shakespeare. So if people want to come out and talk to the author then it’s nice there are a few of us alive and walking around. Now and then someone calls me Alistair MacLean, author of No Little Mischief but for the most part it has been very positive.
What do you think people respond to in the book?
It’s gone over well in France and Germany and Spain and on and on in Europe. Scottish readers have been very good to me. French Canadians seem to like the fact that it’s about a certain type of people who have been in a landscape for a long time. What I tried to do was write about certain people in a certain place. I am not an autobiographical writer—I don’t write about my neighbours or literal grandparents. But you try to make things as realistic as you can. If you do your best in trying to create art, hopefully it does reach out to people.
People find different things in it. In Memphis, a woman said to me it was the best description she’d ever read about what it’s like to be an orphan. Some people seem very interested in the immigrant experience. In Europe they like it because deep in their hearts they are afraid of globalization. It’s like a lot of Cape Bretoners, who are driven by economic reasons to go to places even though this may not be where their hearts are. Maybe for the Italians to have all that history and art, then just to be globalized and lumped together with everyone else, watching CNN and eating at McDonald’s, is not what they want.
Why is sense of place so important to you as a writer?
All literature is regional. The Bible is regional in that it deals with sheep and goats and the Sea of Galilee. All literature comes from someplace, and people will understand that. When I was sitting down writing in my little cabin in Cape Breton, I wasn’t saying, I bet the Albanians will love this, or, this sentence is for the Turks. You hope that it works in the same way that if you write beautiful music people will respond to it. This is the way most writers are. They have their own place and material. Mordecai Richler had those few streets in Montreal. Alice Munro has southwestern Ontario. Guy Van-
derhaeghe works with the Prairies. It’s like being in love: you say, this is the material with which I want to spend my time.
Do you ever think you should have been writing novels and short stories instead of all those years teaching?
No, I’ve always enjoyed the teaching. One year my writing royalties were $11.1 have no regrets at all. I’m not formally teaching now. But I still have an office at the university; it’s a good place to work. I think they let me stay here because it’s so messy they’re worried I’ll never clean it up.
What are your work habits like now?
I like to get up in the morning and work for 2V2 or three hours. That’s when I do my best work. After a couple of hours I just can’t bear to do it any more. I guess I find it emotionally wrenching. I write until I can’t stand it any more, then I go away. When I’m in Cape Breton I write in a little cabin near our home in Dunvegan. I just sit on my little chair with my pad and pen. I write longhand on those legal pads on every second line. Sometimes I use exam books from the university. If I was to write it on a computer it would feel as if the fairies wrote it.
When I press my ballpoint pen into the legal pad, I know it’s me.
You’ve spent 34 years in Windsor. Is Cape Breton still an important part of your life?
We have the house in Cape Breton, in Dunvegan, and a daughter teaching music nearby in Belle Côte. My wife and I are both from the same community. There are lots of family connections.
What are you writing now?
I’m just thinking about some short stories. Don’t tell Doug Gibson. li1!
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