Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

D.R. MacDonald

Homing instinct

D.R. MacDonald grew up American, but Cape Breton has a hold on his fiction

By Karen Rawlines

There’s a refurbished red barn in Boularderie, in Cape Breton, that David MacDonald calls home. At least, part of the time.

Boularderie is an island within an island (it sits in Bras d’Or Lake), which is an appropriate setting for a writer like MacDonald. For although he’s in some ways a quintessential Cape Breton writer – he writes exclusively about the region, he’s been summering here for more than 30 years, and he was born just two houses down the road from the red barn – he still feels like an outsider. For MacDonald was raised in the U.S., and even now he spends most of his year in Palo Alto, California, where he teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His American status, he says, “puts me in a ‘no-slot,’ a kind of demilitarized zone.”

At the same time, he admits, “my most sympathetic readers, and publishers, are in Canada.” MacDonald may not have the commercial profile of his good friend Alistair MacLeod, another chronicler of Cape Breton, but his books are well reviewed here.  His most recent two were published with Doubleday Canada – the novel Cape Breton Road and the short-story collection All the Men Are Sleeping – and his new novel, Lauchlin of the Bad Heart, appears this fall.

With the new book, MacDonald also has a new publisher: the Phyllis Bruce Books imprint at HarperCollins Canada. John Pearce, who had been his editor at Doubleday, left that firm in 2003 and is now MacDonald’s agent under the Westwood Creative Artists umbrella. Doubleday still had an option on Lauchlin, but after Pearce’s departure the firm passed. MacDonald was baffled, and Pearce says only, “At the heart of it all, it has to do with passion for the book. That’s what you look for most of all.” And for her part, Doubleday publisher Maya Mavjee doesn’t dispute that Bruce was the right choice. “While none of us felt this necessary connection to the novel, it is great to see what can happen when the right book falls into the hands of the right editor at just the right time,” Mavjee said in an e-mail to Q&Q.

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MacDonald’s Cape Breton home is all original hand-hewn beams and quiet atmosphere. There are quilts draped over nearly every wall, and accumulations of small sepia-toned family photographs in frames. MacDonald, 67, is a soft-spoken presence in a dark shirt and jeans, a silver Celtic knot buckling his belt and a knife hooked at his hip. He wears dark sunglasses and his moustache is trim; a brimmed hat shields a smooth pate and a neat fringe of white hair. He and his wife, Sheila, are about midway through their summer here. Inside the house, he cannot take his eyes off the view from his window.

With Lauchlin now finished, this is the first summer in seven or eight years that MacDonald is not embroiled in serious work at the desk that’s parked in what used to be a hayloft. The new book is the story of a middle-aged Cape Breton man who gave up his passion for boxing in his early years due to a heart condition. But if it’s the story of a defeated heart, it’s also an homage to the history of Cape Breton boxing, once a serious endeavour among the young men of the island. MacDonald used to want to box seriously himself, but never did. He wrote Lauchlin, in part, to try to “get it out of my system.”

There’s no Cape Breton accent in MacDonald’s speech, but his work has small mouthfuls of the Gaelic that still clings here. It is the language his grandparents would use when they didn’t want the youngsters to understand what was being said. MacDonald moved to Ohio with his parents as a small boy, but Cape Breton “was always there in the family, reinforced by visiting relatives, by friends of my parents who passed through town.”

MacDonald began returning to Cape Breton regularly when he bought the family land in 1971. And when he began writing fiction, his homeland was the natural choice for the setting.  “I had, on the one hand, an access to Cape Breton through extended family there, through their own lives and histories intertwined with mine,” MacDonald said in an e-mail, “while on the other hand, I had an outsider’s perspective that made me want to know more, in a sense, than might a native who is more likely to take certain things for granted, its myths and conflicts and challenges.”

His connection to the Cape has deepened year by year, through friendships and time spent roaming the landscape.  In talking about Lauchlin, MacDonald gestures to the nearby Kelly’s Mountain, and to Bras d’Or, and he mentions a blind woman and her husband who live just down the road, whose situation helped spark his new book.

Lauchlin began as a short story, but it became too big for that. “I thought there was so much more to it,” MacDonald says. “This is more than a story. I dug into it, deeper. Lauchlin grew.” He himself actually started out as a short-story writer: his first book, 1988’s Eyestone, was a collection, and he won a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Award for early stories. But he finds short fiction to be a thankless pursuit, garnering little interest outside small literary magazines and niche publications; All the Men Are Sleeping garnered only two reviews in the U.S., says MacDonald. “The short story is seen as literary, not popular…. You do want something back from [writing]. You’re not writing for yourself. You want something to come back to you for your work.” MacDonald invests a lot of work in each story, and he says the lack of public appetite is disheartening. “I’m not a masochist.”

Lauchlin is only MacDonald’s second novel; with it, he feels that he’s catching his stride, that he is becoming more confident in the form. He works slowly, he admits – there was a 13-year gap between Eyestone and his second book, Cape Breton Road. But he’s also been busy. He’s been teaching at Stanford since 1970, when he first got a fellowship there after completing a graduate degree in English literature at Ohio State University.

Each fall, MacDonald returns to California: there he has work and his daughter and his two grandchildren, who live on the American West Coast. But although Cape Breton is always “in my heart,” he says, he doesn’t want to be seen as a regionalist. So many times he has been asked whether he is “still writing about Cape Breton,” as if it’s a phase he is going through. “Some people do think the real stories are in the big cities and the flash of urban life,” he says. “That to me is irrelevant. I think one of the difficulties is people think there is only one way to look at Cape Breton. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have a dozen writers.”