Register Tuesday | March 21 | 2023

Interview with Colin McAdam

A lunch conversation in which our hero orders a soup and sandwich combo and talks about monkeys.

A diplomat’s kid, Colin McAdam was born in Hong Kong and grew up everywhere from  Denmark to England and Barbados, as well as in several cities in Canada. He studied English and Classics at McGill University and the University of Toronto, and earned a PhD in English Literature from CaMBridge University in England.

Colin McAdam’s first novel,
Some Great Thing (2005), is the story of a contractor named Jerry who builds housing developments in and around Ottawa, and it’s about land laws and families and possession and loss. It’s a grand saga of a family drama and a tour de force of voice. The book was received with great acclaim, winning the Books in Canada / First Novel Award. Some Great Thing was also shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Best First Book), and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK.

His second novel, Fall, was published in 2009. Fall takes place in the close quarters of a boarding school outside of Ottawa. The story of a girl’s disappearance is sandwiched between two distinct rhythms of narrative: one point of view, that of Julius, the school’s senior star is all postmodern deconstructed and thrust close into experience. The other, the voice of Noel, his roommate, is precise, self-aware, cold. Fall has been nominated for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller prize

Colin McAdam has appeared in
Harper's Magazine and The Walrus. He’s currently at work on a novel about chimpanzees.

Colin McAdam lives in Montreal. He likes his digs.


Colin McAdam: So. This is the serious part? 

Melissa Bull: Yeah, this is the serious part when you stop talking to me about chimpanzees.
Colin McAdam: That’s the thing I’m interested in this whole project. I’ve had to propose it plainly, you know, write out in a serious way what it’s about. It is serious to me. People’s reactions are always, Oh, it’s going to be a satire.

MB: Ever read The White Bone?

CM: No.

MB: It’s by Barbara Gowdy. It’s about elephants – told from the perspective of an elephant.

CM: Yeah, this is the other thing. Whenever people write animal stories they always write about animals that are furthest from us, genetically. Chimps have 98 percent of our DNA.

MB: So you must have an interest in language and communication, if you’re writing a book from the point of view of a chimpanzee.

CM: That’s what part of the story is about – there are three parts to the story. Just outside of Montreal, there are these big enclosures for chimps that used to be tested on. The chimps have family lives, buddies, mates. They go in for language tests. They’ve developed pictograms, you know, this sort of thing.

MB: So they hang out with the humans when they want and then go back to their chimp families.

CM: The more humane these places become, the more [voluntary] the process is for the chimps. They’re the most formidable things you’ll ever see – not those pale-faced creatures you associate with clowns. When you see them you get a sense of their individuality, as you would with any human being. Some will look you in the eyes, some will be interested in you; others won’t. They’re so huge and vital and similar. And so not – there’s no mistaking a human for a chimp.

MB: Biomedical testing isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I once worked at Ogilvy’s, and one Friday night this woman came in all depressed. I asked her what was wrong and it turned out that her job was to make mice smoke cigarettes. I asked her what brand. She told me everyone asked her that.

CM: I guess she must be a smoker.

MB: I think even routine mouse killing is hard on people. Have you talked to anyone who worked at the biomedical labs?

CM: The thing with the people who’ve tested on chimps is they’ve been sworn to secrecy by their biomed companies. A lot of them really want to talk, but they’re hard to track down. A lot of them are ruined; they’re drunks. We consider it humane that eventually we’ll cure Aids but we do it with devastating results. That in itself is a very ape-like arrogance. But the apes… the things they’ve suffered. It’s horrible. And their hands still reach out to you.

MB: That engagement seems like a real sign of choice.

CM: You get a sense of where will comes from. We tend to think of choice as an intellectual thing.

MB: You think of will as innate, like the will to live?

CM: I do. I think these are things that come naturally to apes. And we are apes. A lot of what we assume comes from culture and socialization is really intrinsic. Aside from the huge discrepancy in intelligence, the one thing that divides us from chimps is largely physiological; it’s language – we have these throats. Language essentially comes from the same part of the brain as tool use, so I’m thinking about language as a tool, and about why we use it. One of the things that bothers me about literary fiction is that it’s so fetishized that it can be used to conceal communication. We communicate to get what we want.

MB: That’s something that I found true in Noel’s narrative voice, in Fall. Noel’s neatly-told, conventional language conceals truth as much it reveals. Julius’ synchopated narrative is totally different; it’s more visceral. But it doesn’t seem as though there’s any way of bridging the gaps between their characters. There’s something static, or fated in that. There’s something of the Classical myth there.

CM: We have an immense capacity to change ourselves. I would never call it destiny or fate. I am who I am, and I am going to struggle against that all my life, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It’s biology. The myth thing was definitely in my head. It was there all the time. I was just asked by The National Post to recommend books to high school students. I recommended The Golden Ass. I definitely had that book in mind when I was writing Some Great Thing. It’s a picaresque story and in the middle is a myth.

MB: Oh, that’s the one Simon talks about, the one he wants to read to Kwyet.

CM: So that stuff was all playing in my head.

MB: It’s as if there are only two kinds of people, those who build and those who break.

CM: I guess there are individuals who want to express themselves in any way, whether it’s building a house or connecting with a girlfriend or writing. Those are the people where actual vitality comes from. I think I am instinctively drawn to people who are creative in any imaginable way. I find less compelling those people who feed off that.

MB: In Fall Noel mentions reading Levianthan… and I thought about how that’s such a rant about people who lock themselves up in libraries and become detached from their peers don’t get any exercise, become all moany melancholic.

CM: I didn’t think of that.

MB: Well, not Auster’s Leviathan…  I was wondering who Simon’s narrator is.

CM: Oh that’s himself. When I think what makes sense to me, you know, who uses that sort of language – he’s so detached from himself. It definitely carried over into Noel. I think Simon in the first book is Noel in the second.

MB: I thought of that. And they’re both civil servants…

CM: I’m trying to exorcise that character from my head. Which is why I’m excited about the chimps.

MB: They’re not civil servant chimps?

CM: No. It’s very fun to try to describe it. And it’s what I was trying to do with Julius to a certain extent. If you think about our lives, about 95 percent [of our experience] is non-linguistic. It’s really hard to try to make a world of movement exciting without using a certain sort of language. It was hard to write the character of Julius. It seems so simple; you’d think all he’d have to do is talk about his cock all the time. I had to try to find respect and complicity for the banality of the things you’d get excited about as an 18 year-old.

MB: And to let those preoccupations demonstrate his verve, especially in contrast to what happens to him, at the end.

CM: Oh, he’s fine.

MB: Good. I worried. Where did you pull Jerry’s voice out of? Like Julius’ voice in Fall, it’s such an important part of the book.

CM: I just came up with it. When I’m dealing with dialogue or character specifically, I try to make it seem realistic, but something else happens, I seem to think about rhythm.

MB: You can feel that. Your characters are often aware of there being an audience. Jerry uses the "you" freely, even offering up gifts – “I’ll make you a cassette,” he says. Or he invites you into his truck for a drive around his developments.

CM: I missed writing more like that, actually. I tried to write a bunch of other novels. Every single one of them had that.

MB: I guess sometimes it can feel like a shtick, like some sort of burlesque theatre performance.

CM: Or something too postmodern.

MB: I sort of wondered who it was going around in Jerry’s truck. I wasn’t sure it could just be the reader, or if it was, was it was the reader as a character.

CM: I thought of it as the reader. I think there’s something – you must feel this when you write – it’s as if an imagined audience creeps in. There’s something between that space what you write and the imaginary and that space the writer has with his or her own life. I think I’ve been trying to get at that space.

MB: In Fall I kept thinking about this strange space adults try to shape for teenagers. I think of the school as a willfully created Eden.

CM: Every school is like that. Any building that you create has some level ideal behind it. Then you put a bunch of apes in it and it doesn’t work. Or at least some of it will fail and some of it will work. And a lot of that was just exactly the school that I went to.

MB: While both of your novels are set in Canada, I think they’re primarily concerned with the boundaries of home. In Some Great Thing you say: “Houses swell and breathe like bellies, don’t they, always shifting and fluid inside, goddamn it.”

CM: I think I’m curious about where that comes from. What does a sense of home mean? Or with Fall, particularly, someone’s sense of nation? It’s funny, I thought Fall would be a fable about public relations. But that sort of fell into the background… I believe in our society’s being an inescapable collection of individuals having this ability to sympathize. What it comes down to is what is in each individual. That’s where I feel like there’s the most promise for a story or a novel.

MB: Why Fall? Fall’s the girl in the eponymous book. And in Some Great Thing everyone falls out of the sky all the time. What’s with that?

CM: I like your questions. When I started Fall, it’s like what you were saying with your novel, you know, I thought this is a girl I’m writing, not a guy. The story would have been similar, but from Fall’s point of view.  Her name, I was just wandering around Sydney at the time, and I saw one of these hairdresser places where there was one of those ridiculous, beautiful women. Her name was something like Fallon Fitzgerald DeStindt. It was the most ridiculous name I’d ever heard. So I named her after a hairdresser. Catastrophes, I don’t know.

MB: Women seem both foreign and odd to your protagonists. The dudes do some creeping around.

CM: Yeah, it’s true for sure. It was definitely at play. I don’t know why.

MB: Were girls allowed at your boarding school?

CM: Oh, same thing as the book. Some.

MB: What about the chimps? How does that go with the chimps?

CM: Much healthier. They’re getting laid all the time.

MB: Even though they’re not bonobos?

CM: Actually I started a novel about bonobos. They’re so charming to read about. I guess you know about bonobos. But I thought that especially as talking about apes is hard enough as it is, it would make much more sense to have apes who settle things through conflict rather than apes who settle things through sex.

MB: I think we idealise the bonobos. I had this anthropology class once where our teacher was mourning our genetic deviation from them and the fact that we’ve became sedentary. She thought we’d be a much more peaceful society if we’d kept with the nomadic bonobos. But we’d be all full of lice.

CM: Yeah and we’d still have herpes. (…) So what is this piece going to be, anyway?

MB: A two thousand word something. I’m not sure yet. I’m probably going to have to ask you about how it feels to have Fall nominated for the Giller. Following the slew of nominations for your first book.

CM: I’m excited. There – you’ve done it and I’ve said it. I’m surprised. You have to make a real effort not to think about these things if you want to write something honest. You have to block it out. I was able to, eventually. It’s absurd. I hate the way the whole structure works, relying on this lottery of the taste of a few individuals. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to do it. I don’t think it’s wrong, and I think people have a natural inclination to see what other people think before they try. But it’s good knowing that strangers are reading and liking a book.

MB: I like the line, in Fall, that Noel says about the greyhounds chasing the mechanical bunny. “Some people don’t know their words and some writers deliberately lie. I believe in the effort of words chasing thoughts: the spectacle of it, the truth of that alone. Words chasing thoughts are like greyhounds chasing the mechanical bunny. What’s interesting is not the bunny but the dogs: the sinew, the energy and movement. I know my words. I write policy papers and memos. There is never disappointment.” 

CM: Someone else said that. Sometimes those parts where Noel’s talking, where he has all these opinions on humanity, it’s me. I think I crept in.


Melissa Bull is a graduate of Concordia's creative writing program. Her first collection of fiction, Eating Out, was recently published by WithWords. Melissa works in Montreal as a writer, editor and translator.