Alexander MacLeod's debut short story collection, Light Lifting (Biblioasis) would not be best described as "light." A pharmacy delivery boy's life becomes entangled with that of a local invalid and pervert; a late-night leap from a rooftop into a river goes terribly wrong; an aspiring runner faces the end of his career. The stories are taut and have moments of real suspense, but MacLeod also has a tender eye for human relationships, and his descriptive details create images that are very memorable. So memorable, in fact, that Light Lifting has been short-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize.
MacLeod (who is, incidentally, the son of great Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod) was kind enough to answer a few questions by email--some as he travelled by train from Toronto to Montreal, where he will be reading at Drawn & Quarterly on Monday, October 25th.
Matthew Brown: The reader gets the sense that significant parts of the stories in this collection might have come directly from your own experiences. The naturalistic feel of the stories, and the detailed descriptions feel like they come from first-hand knowledge. Have you drawn a lot from your own life or are the stories mainly works of research and imagination?
Alexander MacLeod: The stories are all fictional, and many of the key scenes are purely imaginary, but the raw materials and most of the settings and contexts are definitely drawn from my own experience and I do have first-hand knowledge in many of these areas. I was once a pretty serious long distance runner and I have small kids and I did the interlocking brick job, etc. I built these narratives out of the stuff in my life, and I wanted to try and be honest and treat those forces fairly and directly, but the book isn't the story of my life and though I'm trying to be honest, this isn't the "truth."
MB: At times the stories almost feel like documentaries about the lives of the characters. Do characters take precedence over the plot for you; are they a starting point for the unfolding of the story?
AM: It's funny because the characters are usually my secondary concern when I'm trying to make the story. I normally start with two or three key images -- the girl jumping off the roof, the near drowning and the hard swimming lesson, for example--and then I build around the images and put the characters into the scenes. For me, the characters are going to be shaped by what they do or what happens to them so the structures of the scenes and the key images are more important to me than a character's internal motivations. Don't get me wrong: I want the characters to retain their agency and their autonomy inside the finished narrative, but as a writer, in the process of making the story, I don't start with them.
MB: There is a lot of tension that builds up in these stories, and even moments of danger and violence. Did you intend for this to be a common thread in this collection, and is there a conscious reason why you went in that direction?
AM: Yes, that focus on tense moments, critical instances of decision, was definitely something I wanted to explore in the book. In many of the stories I was trying to look at different kinds of actions and trying to think about how or why these movements could become (or fail to become) significant to the characters. The runners are an obvious example of this -- they train for significant action -- and maybe the swimmer, too, but I think it's still there in the car story and the ones about the delivery boy and the bricks and the parents. In all these cases, you're right: there is a kind of tension and maybe a threat of violence. I was trying to raise the stakes a bit, trying to make it clear that, whatever decision gets made in this plot, whatever course of action is followed, there will be clear consequences for that choice and the world will look different before and after.
MB: You teach at St. Mary's University, in Halifax. How does teaching affect your writing? Do you find yourself working out strategies and problems as you teach, or is teaching pretty removed from your own writing work?
AM: I think teaching has had a very positive effect on my writing. When I give a lecture on a great short story or a really complicated novel, I'm trying to draw the students' attention to how this piece works and what makes it so powerful. I'm trying to puzzle through the narrative technique behind the thing and trying to pay attention to practical matters of construction and craftsmanship. For me, teaching students to be good and careful readers is really just a continual repeating of my own daily struggle to do the same. Having a consistent opportunity to work on those skills and a stable environment in which to practise is a wonderful thing. The normal challenges are always there -- the occasional lazy and/or dishonest student, sloppy rush-job work, insane marking loads, cramped schedules etc -- but I still like the job very much.
MB: You've said that the short story is a form that you want to continue with. Who writes or has written some of your favourite short stories?
AM: I'm definitely influenced by my father's stories and though I know I am close to them in my personal life, I also believe they are truly and objectively excellent. The same goes for Alice Munro. I'm not close to those stories in any personal way, but I think she has a nearly unmatched emotional intelligence and an amazing ability to craft a story. Her latest stories are some of the best she's ever written. I admire Lisa Moore's short fiction and Lynn Coady's Play The Monster Blind and I think Clark Blaise's essential contribution to Canadian writing in books like Tribal Justice and A North American Education has been tragically underestimated.
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