Sitting in front of a bowl of rapidly cooling oatmeal in the plush restaurant of Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle on an early morning in late October, Ami McKay doesn’t come across as a capital-A author. She says she’s “starstruck” by the big-name writers in whose company she will appear at the International Festival of Authors, and she seems genuinely delighted by the travel and interview demands relating to her first novel, The Birth House. McKay, 38, has come from her home in tiny Scots Bay, Nova Scotia (pop. 250), to be here, and it would be easy to see her as a wide-eyed, smalltown Canadian writer who got lucky. “It’s incredible,” she says, “because I feel that I’m so new at this and I’m seeing all these writers that I love and adore.”
But wide eyes aside, the profile doesn’t quite fit. McKay was born in Indiana and taught music in an inner-city Chicago high school before moving to Nova Scotia in 2000. And with the runaway success of The Birth House, McKay has become a star author very quickly. Published by the Random House imprint Knopf Canada last Valentine’s Day, the novel has been a mainstay on the Q&Q/BookNet Canada bestseller list for much of the year (and is named one of Q&Q’s Books of the Year in this issue). “It’s gone through 11 printings, which is very unusual, especially in hardcover,” says McKay’s editor, Angelika Glover. Foreign rights have been sold to publishers in the U.S., the U.K., Holland, and Germany.
The Birth House follows the travails of an early 20th-century Scots Bay midwife, Dora, and her mystical Acadian mentor, Miss Babineau. As a profit-minded doctor discredits her trade and a drunken husband assaults her body, Dora struggles to provide sanctuary and self-determination for the women of her village. Vivid with accounts of childbirth and cures brought on by herbs, prayers, and folklore, the book also works in some of the era’s more memorable events and phenomena. The First World War, the Halifax Explosion, the U.S. suffragette movement, the influenza epidemic, and even the craze for treating “hysteria” with vibrators are all seen through Dora’s eyes.
Reaction to the novel was unexpectedly vigorous and instantaneous: lineups outside the launch party in Wolfville, Nova Scotia; an onslaught of letters and e-mails from readers; an upswell of support from the midwife community in Canada and abroad. “It’s word of mouth,” says bookseller Tricia Siemens of Words Worth Books in Waterloo, Ontario. And while everyone at Random House had high hopes for the book, which had an initial print run of 6,500 copies, they were still taken aback by the scale of its success. “It was a very passionate and very personal response,” Glover says. “We had to pinch ourselves; it kind of felt like a dream.”
But just as The Birth House mingles the otherworldly and the domestic, the dreamlike success of Ami McKay can also be seen as an almost natural outcome. The youngest of four children born to an engineer and a housewife, McKay has a history of seizing opportunities. As a young single mom (her son Ian is now 13), she finished a graduate degree in musicology and began teaching. Then a serious car accident and a month’s recuperation got her thinking about her direction in life – and talking more intimately with an old friend, Ian McKay. (As a schoolgirl, she had vowed to marry a man who would recite Byron. The first time she heard McKay speak, he was declaiming, “She walks in beauty like the night” – his contribution to a conversation about the best lines for picking up women. She was dating someone else at the time and told Ian to shut up.) Ami and Ian, who is originally from Toronto, later married and moved from Chicago to Nova Scotia.
Soon after her move, acting on a New Year’s resolution to share her writing – “I was just a closet writer, I was just sticking it under the bed,” says McKay – she sent a letter to Oprah Winfrey. McKay thanked Winfrey for featuring author Gary Zukav, whose book The Seat of the Soul had helped her during her recuperation from the accident. Forty-eight hours later an Oprah producer called, and soon McKay was talking about her recovery on the show.
Back in Scots Bay, she took a workshop on producing radio documentaries and promptly set about building a new career, doing several documentaries for CBC Radio. One of them explored the life of a legendary Scots Bay midwife who had practised her craft in McKay’s own farmhouse in the mid-1900s. There was rich material there for a book, but, says McKay, “the prospect of writing a novel was terrifying.” So she set about interviewing midwives (one of whom delivered McKay’s son Jonah, who is now five) and collecting oral histories, old articles, and photographs, all in preparation for a work of non-fiction. “But then this voice of Dora interrupted all of that,” McKay says.
Sending a 30-page submission to the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia mentorship program, she vowed to write the book if her application succeeded. She was accepted, and novelist Richard Cumyn offered encouragement and advice as McKay wrote her first draft over nine months. On her days off from writing, she visited the Box of Delights Bookstore in Wolfville and stared at the shelf where she wanted her book to appear. Money was tight, so she queried only agents who accepted submissions via e-mail.
One of those agents, Toronto-based Helen Heller, said she’d love to take on the book – if McKay would ditch the novel’s parallel narrative about a modern woman living in the midwife’s old house. “She could not stand the other character, which was hard for me because it was basically an incarnation of myself,” says McKay wryly. The revision meant cutting about 50% of the manuscript and starting over, but by fall 2004, McKay had a deal in place with Knopf Canada. The publisher selected her as the sole author in this year’s New Face of Fiction program, which was a launching pad for such novelists as Ann-Marie MacDonald and Gail Anderson-Dargatz; this is the first time the campaign has been devoted to a single book.
McKay chronicled her entire journey to publication online, starting with a blog about her writing process and her search for an agent. “I felt kind of isolated and lonely and I figured other writers might feel the same way, especially if they’re just setting out,” she says. Today, with the help of her husband, who now works as a freelance web designer, McKay maintains two extensive websites, a blog, and an online forum with more than 600 registered users. Her site for The Birth House includes an interactive virtual scrapbook, a reading guide, downloadable bookplates, and The Hysteria Quiz, which gives a mock diagnosis of the user’s need for “vibratory treatment.” She has created an online community for her readers, and in return, they shower her with letters praising her work and sharing their own stories.
It was those letters, more than the bestseller lists, that convinced McKay that the novel she had fantasized about seeing in bookstores was in fact flying off the shelves. “Even when I sent all the clippings to my parents, who live in the States, it still felt insubstantial and bizarre,” McKay recalls. “[I was] working through a lot of stuff of my own and hoping that one day, just one person will connect with it. To have all these people connecting with it and being so verbal and generous with their feelings about it and with their own personal stories – wow, that makes it real.”
At times, that fan loyalty can seem a bit too real. Readers often show up outside McKay’s home to photograph her house and other Scots Bay landmarks mentioned in the book. Once a couple from the Netherlands came to the door, Dutch translations in hand. “Of course I had to give them tea,” she says. McKay kindly chalks up the intrusions to the presence of a construction crew renovating the exterior of her farmhouse. “I think people saw that as a license to approach the house,” she says. The renovations, though, are among the few visible changes to McKay’s lifestyle. “I travel a lot more,” she says. But “at home, the laundry is still there.”
Future visitors may not get tea. McKay will soon be back in the barn behind her house working on two new projects. Her first play, based on the true story of a mute amputee taken in by an Acadian community, is slated for production by the Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company in Canning, Nova Scotia, in 2008. And then there’s the next novel, which I ask about just as her publicist, Random House’s Nadia de Freitas, arrives to escort McKay to her Q&Q photo shoot. “I guess I can announce it, right?” asks McKay, pausing for de Freitas’s nod. “We’re going to do it with Knopf again, and I’m so excited.” Slated for a fall 2008 publication, the book is set in the 1870s, and will be loosely based on the life of McKay’s great-great-grandmother, one of the first female physicians in New York City. “It’s like Dickens and the Grimm Brothers meet Grey’s Anatomy,” says McKay, as she gets up from the breakfast table to continue a day of publicity, readings, and book signings.
A festival-worthy author who admits not only to watching television, but to using a hit show as a literary model? That’s wide-eyed – and her readers like her that way.