Register Saturday | January 22 | 2022

Talking with Alistair MacLeod

One of Canada’s greatest talents speaks with Managing Editor Meredith Erickson about the roots of Can. Lit. being a “promising geriatric writer” and how to throw a great party

Meredith Erickson. Describe your ideal writing day.

ALISTAIR MACLEOD. Usually I like to start in the morning, ideally from eight to half past eleven. Then after that, I go on with my day like everyone else. I just find that if I want to give my best energies to the writing, the morning goes best for me. I find that I tousle time, you know. I used to be busy and leave writing until ten at night but then I was too depleted to write.

ME. Do you procrastinate a great deal?

AM. Yes. I often read other things instead of doing my own work. Writing is hard work—I find it emotionally draining.

ME. What do you read?

AM. Newspapers and novels. The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens is a recent book that I like very much.

ME. From whom would you plagiarize?

AM. Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights is one of the best novels ever written, so I don’t even think it’s in my capacity to plagiarize from it. The best novels are novels that nobody else could write. I think when you read Wuthering Heights, you don’t think, “Any fool could have written this.”

ME. What is the book that you’re supposed to have read by now but you have just never gotten to?

AM. War and Peace by Tolstoy. But I might die before then.

ME. No!

AM. The other one I keep thinking of is The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. But I haven’t read that. I don’t even pretend to have read that one.

ME. What is the best way to kill a character?

AM. An accident. Because you can kill them really fast with an accident. You know, the car just slides off the road or they get hit by lightning. If they’re going to die from terminal cancer, it’s too long of a struggle—they stay around for too long. So it would be a different kind of novel if you had to lead to that kind of death, but if you just have somebody falling overboard or an icy road…

ME. Ah yes, the ol’ icy road trick…

AM. Yes, the icy road is key; especially in Canada, because every place has them—except for maybe Victoria.

ME. While you’re writing, do you listen to music?

AM. No! I need absolute silence. I find I don’t work at home very well. I become too interested in the phone. So I say to my wife, “I’m going upstairs now, I need to be by myself,” and then the phone rings and I go back down and say, “Who was that on the phone?” I can’t help myself!

I work best from my office at the University of Windsor. In Nova Scotia, I have a little cabin down by the seashore. So I walk down there in the morning from my house and no one can get me as there is no phone, no electricity, and so what else can I do but write?

ME. Cape Breton has obviously had an influence on your writing. What is it about the island?

AM. Well, that’s where all of my graves are for one thing—all the way to my great-great-grandparents. So there is some sort of historical pull to it, some sort of stability to be in the same place for six generations. That’s different than a lot of the lives people live today. It’s my emotional base.

ME. What is the most challenging aspect about writing fiction?

AM. I like to have an emotional quotient in the fiction. I believe that all art begins in emotion rather than in intellect. Of course, a bit of intellect always helps. But I like to strive for an emotion in what I do. In order to put that emotional quotient in there—so that other people can find it—I have to be kind of emotional myself and I find that very grinding. That’s why I couldn’t write eight hours a day, you know; I can only write for three hours a day if I put my heart and soul into it. I find it rewarding when it’s done, but I find if I am going to tackle something, it’s best to tackle it in an emotional way. It’s not just giving facts—it’s not like writing an obituary, like: born and then died and did this and that in between. To really get inside a person’s being, it requires a lot of emotional commitment. Sometimes, when I read my work, I look up and people are weeping and I’m kind of glad at that, but sometimes I find myself weeping and I say, “Jeez, maybe there is too much feeling.”

ME. Because you don’t use email, I’m assuming all of your work is done on a typewriter.

AM. When I type on a computer, it comes up so fast on the screen I think that fairies wrote it. Or leprechauns. Or elves. It scares me. So when I write with a ballpoint pen, I know it’s me.

ME. What are you working on now?

AM. I’m just thinking. I’m not currently writing. I think a lot. I’m a promising geriatric writer.

ME. I grew up in Windsor and your family is known for having fun parties. What is the secret to a great party?

AM. Well, the secret is finding a great mix of people. Different kinds. My wife and I have different sets of friends. And my six kids have different sets of friends. We jump around, sing, dance and eat. The other secret is a stocked liquor cabinet.

ME. If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be and where would you have it?

AM. Well, there is a question I haven’t been asked before! “Hold Fast” is the motto of the MacLeods. I would have that on my biceps!