Novelist and dramatist Ann-Marie MacDonald is the author of the internationally bestselling and award-winning novel Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies. She is also the playwright of Goodnight Desdemona, (Good Morning Juliet), which won the Governor General's Award for Drama. She lives in Toronto.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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In our interview, MacDonald shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself with us: :
"The only actual skill I possess is the ability to type. And yet, the only job I was ever fired from was office temp -- I lasted three hours. I waitressed years ago when I was starting out as an actor. I once spilled three Tequila Sunrises in a row on the same customer. Unaccountably, I was never fired from a waitressing job. I like to cook. My mother is Lebanese so my tastes lean toward the Mediterranean. I have beautiful partner, a baby, two dogs and a garden. After the "sturm und drang" of my early youth and art, I find domestic bliss to be the most conducive to articulating the inner storms that make for good fiction. I'm a homebody who travels a lot."
"I think good art, including good books, make the world bigger, one heart, one mind at a time. I craft stories that are meant to work on many levels, and not every reader needs to read on all those levels in order to be deeply rewarded. I respect the reader, and I empathize with their hope that, when they crack open the pages, they will be taken away. I try to reach a broad audience and invite readers to empathize across time, space, culture, race, gender -- the works."
"I believe people are capable of more empathy and insight than the nightly news would have us think. I believe we crave to see -- really see -- through one another's eyes, even when that might be frightening."
"My first love is comedy, and like most comedians, I derive my material from the dark. My job as a writer is to craft the invitation to the reader to undertake a journey, just as Virgil beckoned Dante into The Inferno and beyond. My pledge to the reader is the assurance that we will take this journey together. Hell, purgatory, heaven...a divine comedy indeed. As E. M. Forster said in Howard's End, ‘Only connect.'"
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What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Reading was such a formative part of my childhood (along with Loony Tunes), that it is difficult to pin point the most influential book. But, under an interrogation light I would probably have to say Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte.
I still savour the opening sentence: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." So what does nine-year-old orphan Jane Eyre do? She gets a book from the library shelf, finds a curtained alcove in which to curl up with it, only to have her delicious and solitary reverie shattered by her brutal cousin who, never having voluntarily opened a book in his life, beats her up for the crime of reading.
My favourite scene was when Jane, still a child, is locked in the haunted "red room" and hallucinates the ghost of her dead uncle. She practically dies of fright. The illustrations in my old edition of this book were elongated -- all noses, fingers and flowing draperies. I savoured them almost as much as the words. Jane braves it all -- death, disease, cruelty, the elements, the harsh class system -- and insists that she, a penniless, not even particularly attractive female, is as deserving of respect as any king. It was in the pages of this book that I first encountered mysterious period complaints such as "chilblains" and equally mysterious period comfort foods such as "blanc mange". I was eight when I first read it and, so deeply moved was I that I tried to make over my bedroom into a replica of Jane's. I hung a toilet lid cover on my wall for a tapestry and got a chipped china pitcher as well as an enamel basin from the basement, and swore never to use running water again to "perform my ablutions." My older sister put an end to this by lounging in the doorway of my room and, with withering insight, saying, "You're being Jane Eyre, aren't you?"
I read it eleven more times, right into my twenties, and found that it is a novel that can grow with one. It was rich and intoxicating when I was eight, and it was profound and erotically subversive once I hit high school. I think the best fiction speaks to a broad audience on numerous levels; it combines compelling characters and narrative pull -- the "page-turner" effect -- with layers of thematic, poetic and political meaning.
An important aspect of Jane Eyre is the fact that Charlotte, like her sisters Emily and Anne, wrote under a man's name. When it came to light that the author of the new runaway best-seller was actually a woman, the critics savaged her for a host of literary and moral crimes, all which came down to: "not very ladylike, is she?"
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Jane Eyre -- See above.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan -- This book is so painful, yet beautifully written that it acts as a salve to the wound it inflicts. Layers of meaning and perception are at play here all threaded through a compelling narrative of a father in search of a missing child. It's a book that combines naked, basic emotion with a sophisticated intellectual and spiritual quest, and thus works on the multiple levels that I relish as a reader, and that I think are at play in life all the time.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy -- So deliciously and unhurriedly oppressive in its depiction of a young man in the late nineteenth century whose flicker of potential is slowly smothered, that reading it is like biting down on a chronically, but not acutely, painful tooth. The scene with the pig's ear is my favourite. Again, reading and self-betterment figures strongly here, as do the basic emotional food groups: love, jealousy, desire, etc. Like the best books, it illuminates its social, historical and political context, which is why it continues to speak to our own. "Nothing is not political" is my grammatically challenged motto. No one and nothing operates in an historical void.
Howard's End by E.M. Forster -- This too is a page-turner: will she marry the "wrong" man or -- perhaps worse -- fail to marry him? Will her sister ever find out what was really in the will? More compelling though, is the sense that runs like a premonition through this book, that the world is about to explode -- Forster is writing just before the outbreak of the First World War. We see a microcosm of European relations within the Schlegel family and among their friends. The book also operates as a snapshot of the British class system and old-style patriarchy before it crumbled like so many Berlin Walls.
Middlemarch by George Elliot -- A narrative feast. Jane Eyre grows up. A portrait of an era wrought with details as fine as the stitches used in those medieval hunting tapestries at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like Charlotte Bronte, Maryanne Evans wrote under a man's name, and her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, navigates the political and moral perils of her time.
Harriett the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh -- The first thing I ever wanted to be was a comedian. The second thing was a spy. I think I have somehow managed an approximation of both. Harriett and her friend Sport lived lives that were far outside my experience of family -- divorced parents, nanny, urban environment -- but they rang so true that I was transported. These kids were kids on kids' own terms, not literary inventions to flatter grown-ups' ideas of what children are about.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- This was the most influential book of my early adulthood in terms pure literary thrill. "Magical realism" is a term coined for Márquez and the Latin American school of authors of which he is a stellar example. It describes the liberties with physical reality that Márquez takes and offers to us as part of just another ordinary day. The scope and narrative daring, the passion and political intelligence are soaring.
Fifth Business -- by Robertson Davies -- Davies combined magic, Jungian psychology and mystery with very real-world quests, often set in an academic or artistic world. Fifth Business is among his best. What I call "fate lines" run just under the surface of the narrative, causing ordinary events to resonate with the power of myths that are as old as the oldest civilizations. Davies also gives us the choice between opting for concrete explanations of extraordinary events, or blatantly miraculous ones. In Fifth Business, he poses the question, "What is a saint?" And a few other choice ones too: are we (or at least some of us) governed by fate? Is it possible to outrun the past?
Northrop Frye on Shakespeare -- The late Professor Frye was an internationally renowned academic and literary critic. Most of all, he was a lover of stories, of poetry and language. That love was infectious, and to read him is be illuminated by the knowledge that all stories are at once very very old, and pregnant with undreamt-of possibilities. I love many of his books but this is my favourite because he goes through a cross-section of Shakespeare's plays and really shows how they are built, and what they are made of (naturally, they are made of stuff older than themselves.) Shakespeare performed the alchemy of transforming the familiar into the unforeseen, thus treating his audiences to that delicious combination of surprise and recognition -- the chief ingredients of comedy, drama, romance, tragedy, the gamut.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene -- Again, this is an author whose work I love. I pick this book because it continues to be timely. Set in Vietnam before American combat involvement, it tells the story of what happens when national security agendas subvert democracy in the name of promoting it. The quiet American of the title is a young idealistic CIA agent, undercover in Vietnam. He hooks up with a seasoned, somewhat jaded, British journalist. The two become bound up in a lethal and unpredictable world of shifting alliances. The journalist reminds me of a more sophisticated Rick from the movie, Casablanca. Neither character would be the first to idealistically salute any flag, but they are bitingly honest and end up doing more for democracy than most flag-wavers ever do.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love movies so I'll just mention a few vintages greats that I still watch:
The Apartment -- Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLean, Fred MacMurray along with a great supporting cast. This is a beautiful mature movie about seeing right through to the back of someone and loving them for it and in spite of it. Both funny and dark, the story of a couple of faces-in-the-crowd who make one another into the most special people in the world. The dialogue is witty in the tradition of the golden age of American film, and the plot is structured beautifully. My favourite moment is when Jack Lemmon strains spaghetti with a tennis racket.
It's a Wonderful Life -- Jimmy Stewart and a gorgeous cast. I watch this movie once a year. I think it's a companion piece to The Apartment. Deceptively innocent and definitely magical, this movie also has an honest dark side. Like The Apartment, a foiled suicide attempt is at its core, as is the theme of "I'm nobody. What difference can I make in the world?" Both also involve heroes who are struggling in the shadow of huge corporations. In It's a Wonderful Life, the villain is a local tycoon who is buying up the town and creating a one-man "vertically integrated" monopoly. Again, a theme that speaks to us, as does the central passion in this movie: it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round. (Think Horton Hears a Who). We get the sense that there is room for everyone in Jimmy Stewart's town and that everyone has a unique contribution to make, regardless of race, sex, class etc. If there was a same-sex couple being locked out by a local innkeeper, one imagines that Jimmy and his wife and his uncle and all the townspeople would open that door and welcome them around the Christmas tree.
Laura Film noir at its finest. A riddle within an enigma within a mystery. The eponymous "late" Laura is known to our hero only through her ravishing portrait that hangs in her elegant apartment. Clifton Webb, Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. My favourite noir lines of all time (paraphrased): She: "I hate you, you have no heart." He: "That's not true. A dame in Cleveland once got a fox fur out of me."
Double Indemnity -- More noir. Check out the supermarket scene where Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (in inconspicuous dark glasses) have a clandestine conversation across the shelves of canned goods.
And just about anything starring Clint Eastwood.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like a broad range of music, but here are a few things I listened to over and over again while writing The Way the Crow Flies: Lotte Lenya's recording of songs by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. A wonderful CD of French music hall songs of the thirties and forties. Eric Burden and The Animals' Greatest Hits. Blondie. Joan Jett. Doris Day. The Four Aces. Miles Davis, Dvorak, Chopin, and Fred Hersch.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
If I had a book club we'd be reading I Don't Know How She Does It? by Allison Pearson. It's about a working mother running the gauntlet of career and families. It's very funny and very painful, and written with that wonderful British deftness. It stirs up a lot of muck that we, as women and men, would like to think we've risen above. Another book club selection would be the nonfiction work Scattered Minds by Dr Gabor Maté. Whatever you think about ADD (and even if you never think about it) you will be surprised and utterly engaged. It's a fascinating, deeply humane book, both clinical and personal. With so many kids on medication nowadays, this is kind of a must-read.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to get dictionaries and reference books -- big, heavy compendia of knowledge. When I don't get them from other people, I buy them for myself as gifts. I recently treated myself to The Oxford Companion to English Literature. When it comes to giving, that depends entirely on the recipient. I try to key into what will both surprise and engage them.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have one writing ritual: force myself through the door of my office at phantom gunpoint. Sit at desk. Keep sitting. Stay there. Stay. Do you think you've earned a snack? Okay, you can get up. For a minute. On my desk? An archaeological stratification of important notes that may never be found again, and humus-forming research materials that I also can't seem to find. Thank God for the dog.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I started my career as an actor, then morphed into a playwright who accidentally became a novelist with my first book Fall On Your Knees. I thought I was working on a new play, and for the first time in my writing life I was really stuck. I couldn't understand why I was writing all these really long stage- directions. When I realized it was fiction, I was equal-parts exhilarated and horrified. Horrified because I didn't know how to write a novel, exhilarated because I didn't know how to write a novel. I still act for theatre, film, and TV (I wrote a whole lot of TV scripts to fund the writing of my first novel), and I still write for theatre, so this progression is cumulative, not linear. I grew up moving around because my Dad was in the Air Force -- I think this has carried over into my work in that I like to hop around from one medium to another.
I was fortunate when it came to Fall On Your Knees because I didn't have to send it out as an unsolicited manuscript. I had already "paid my dues" in theatre here so I was not an unknown quantity. The best anecdote I have concerns when I got the call from Oprah for Fall On Your Knees The book had already done very well internationally and I really wasn't expecting any further "bump" in the works. When Oprah's producer called, she was extremely polite. She asked me if I would mind waiting five or ten minutes for Oprah to call me personally -- a rhetorical question if ever there was one. The whole Oprah experience was a delight. You can tell a lot about a person by the people who work for them. Everyone connected with this amazing woman was smart, friendly and on-the-ball. They must have a good boss.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
There is a poet whose work I love. Her name is Deanna Young, and her book is called and her book is called The Drunkard's Path published by Gaspereau Press. Like Carol Shields, she takes the minutiae of life and builds something lyrical, moving and profound.
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