Quill and Quire

Ann-Marie MacDonald

« Back to
Author Profiles

Into orbit

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s meteoric success made her second novel all the more difficult to write. No wonder it took seven years

If the author blows a tire on her bike on the way to the interview, then you use that. You say something about her calm demeanour, and how she actually laughs at having had to walk the wounded wheel for the last 10 blocks.

Ann-Marie MacDonaldIf the author asks the waitress for tea with milk, you use that, too, maybe as a detail of wayside colour, or else for subtle contrast with the fierce light in her eyes, the energy as she leans across the table to answer a question.

And if the author is Ann-Marie MacDonald, whose debut as a novelist was 1996’s critically acclaimed and Oprah-fuelled commercial meteor Fall on Your Knees, well, then, the question you start with is the one about the pressures and challenges of following that first novel with a second.

“I’ve never experienced childbirth, but people say you forget the pain,” MacDonald was saying in early July, having just parked her bike outside an east-end Toronto café. That was the case for MacDonald when she sat down in September of 1997 to start writing the book that would become The Way the Crow Flies. And yet, she says (apologizing for the mix of metaphors), it was some time before she was able to get the new book into an orbit of its own. “I couldn’t really convince myself – I couldn’t call up the sense memory of just how diffuse and exploded the process of writing a novel was. I really did feel that Fall on Your Knees was this planet, with its gravitational pull. It took a long time before this new little moon fragment that I was starting to work on was able to break free and start to become something on its own terms.”

As she’d done with the first book, she says she worked in a series of intensive spurts lasting a few months at a time, the most sustained of which lasted from late 2001 until she finished the book earlier this year. For the first book, she says, an average working day might have been five hours of writing yielding three pages. “This one was way more [work],” she says. This time, the process included taking herself away from Toronto. She made use of a friend’s cottage, perching her laptop on a strategically placed volume of a Winston Churchill biography. “I had to very patiently try to coax these disparate, floating bits of cosmic debris into something that would then have the critical mass. I knew I had gone through that, but I couldn’t really convince myself that it had been this hard the first time.”

MacDonald, who’s 44, was already a respected actor (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) and playwright (Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet) when she published Fall on Your Knees in 1996. She has continued both to write and perform for the stage and screen – in 2000, Anything That Moves, the musical she wrote with her partner, Alisa Palmer, and composer Allen Cole, won a Dora Mavor Moore Award. But she confesses that she now thinks of herself as having mostly withdrawn from the theatre into the life of a best-selling literary novelist. By the time Fall on Your Knees won the Canadian and Caribbean regional competition for the Commonwealth Writers best first book award in 1997, it had sold close to 30,000 copies in Canada and a further 12,500 in Britain. Five years later, when Oprah Winfrey chose Fall on Your Knees for her book club, Publishers Weekly reported that the novel, which had already sold 63,000 U.S. copies, was being reprinted to the tune of 25,000 hardcovers and 620,000 trade paperbacks. For its next trick, the unstoppable book is headed for the screen: last year MacDonald sold film rights to Toronto producer Gabriella Martinelli, whose Capri Films recently adapted Nino Ricci’s Lives of the Saints for the screen.

Has life changed for MacDonald? She and Palmer do have a six-month-old daughter now, but that’s about all she’s willing to say about her home life. As for extravagances, MacDonald laughs at the suggestion. “I kept on waiting for the mid-life crisis to come when I’d go out and buy the red Ford Thunderbird. I really tried to muster the energy to do that. But in the end I did extremely boring things like paying off the mortgage. Maybe I’m just getting old.” On the rumours that The Way the Crow Flies attracted an advance of $1-million, she prefers not to comment. “I hear so many different reports, I just think it’s best to leave it. And I just think it’s rude.”

Weighing in at more than 700 pages, the new novel, The Way the Crow Flies, is a coming-of-age story of many layers. It’s about home and memory, about post-war optimism and Cold War fear. It’s about Canada at mid-century, and about secrets and lies and their lasting poisons. It’s also a murder mystery. At the centre of it all is eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy, whose family is newly returned to southwestern Ontario after living in West Germany. The year is 1963, and Madeleine’s father is a wing commander in the RCAF. On the face of it, you’d think that moving his family back close to home would mean a life that’s simpler, safer; but that’s not quite the case.

As it turns out, the classrooms and quiet cornfields in and around the air force base at Centralia, north of London, Ontario, are full of hidden harms waiting in ambush. Jack McCarthy signs up for some low-level intelligence work that soon spins out of his control. For Madeleine, meanwhile, it seems as if nothing in the new world around her is easy or innocent.

Whether she’s writing for the stage or the page, MacDonald finds herself beginning with a collection of images that won’t fade. In this case, one of the images was of Madeleine. “It’s a long shot, of a kid, kind of off-centre, with a pixie cut, just looking at the camera, in a white T-shirt. I can’t really see her face. But there was such an aura of terrible melancholy.” That’s where the writing started, MacDonald says: with the imperative to find out where that melancholy came from. “I needed to create a story, to explain it.”

MacDonald considers the process of writing novels – well, of writing her novels – to be one demanding patience and stamina rather than the channelling of any kind of muse. “I never feel like I’m doing any writing,” she says. “I feel like I’m putting something together. Accumulating. Then it’s rewriting – the distillation, the salvaging. Things fall away. They don’t get thrown away, because that would be far too easy. Because that would mean that you knew what you were doing instead.” She laughs. “When I think of the falling away, the moulting – it’s hundreds, hundreds of pages.”

When the time came for others to see the book-in-progress, she says she turned to several trusted readers, including her father and a friend, Maureen White, the former artistic director of Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre. “She would respond as a first reader, saying ‘I’m dying, what’s going to happen to so-and-so?’ or ‘I feel such compassion for this person over here.’ She’d ask questions which helped to indicate I was on the right track. Or not.”

As with Fall on Your Knees, the editor on the book was Knopf Canada publisher Louise Dennys. “She’s such a workhorse,” says MacDonald. “And I’m so meticulous. I will pick the last piece of rice from between the floorboards.” Was the relationship at all different this time? “We were more experienced as colleagues – and we’d become friends. That was an added bonus. I’m used to working with my friends and having a vigorous and sometimes constructively combative working relationship. I don’t know if it was easier this time. It was more fun. It was quite thrilling. And there was more food involved.”

There will be those who’ll study the novel for the DNA of the author’s own life. They’ll find it, too: MacDonald’s father, for instance, did serve in the RCAF and was based at Centralia.

But for MacDonald, the line between reality and fiction – well, it’s not so much a line at all. “It’s more a matter of, how can you possibly separate the two kinds of tissue? I mean, you can, but you’re going to lose a lot on each side. When you use those little threads, the colours, and mix them with others, they become something totally new – and quite different from their originals. I do think of it as ransacking my life. Making rags of my own experience. But at what point does the life disappear? Where’s the just and noticeable difference, as they say in physics, between blazing light and not-so-blazing light? What’s that one last candle that you light that makes the blaze?”

MacDonald says the new novel demanded more research than Fall on Your Knees, some in archives and libraries, much more of it involving finding the right people to question. “A lot of it was phoning people who told me to phone people who told me to find this retired rear-admiral. Or this guy who’s the Smithsonian specialist in rockets. Someone told me – among other interesting things – one detail about how an RCAF uniform fabric looks in a certain light. Little things like that. You do need to take time, and you do need to let people be generous and tell you what they want to tell you. Because then you’re going to know the right detail when you hear it.”

Her father was another vital source – “a major consultant,” she calls him. “My dad did a similar job to Jack’s,” she says. “So I could ask him, What did you do every day? What building did you go to? I’d just listen to him and ask questions. What was your desk like? What was on the wall? What was that meeting about? These bewildering things. You try to get to the concrete thing of, okay, you walked to what building?” Not that all of it went onto the page: “It’s like a whole bunch of maple trees to get that one drop [of syrup],” she says.

Like Fall on Your Knees, The Way the Crow Flies is full of secrets, official and personal, innocuous and life-threatening. “Secrets are kept for someone’s good,” says MacDonald. “Secrets are also kept to keep one world separate from another – the domestic world from the business world, the political. And the world of women and children from the world of men. The idea being, that’s the way it has to be for the world to continue to turn. But they’re not separate. And it’s unhealthy. It’s like a mind/body split. Or a male/female split. Those are false divisions. I think we have to begin to see the arcs of connection, and the interdependencies, and the narrative ecosystem, in which we live. What we do does have consequences.”

That’s one of the messages in the last part of the novel, a section called “What Remains,” in which the narrative leaps forward from the seismic events of 1963 to the mid-1980s. Madeleine is a young woman now, Jack has retired from the Air Force, time has moved on. And yet both of them are still trying to exorcise the ghosts of Centralia that haunt them still.

“That was hard, the last part,” MacDonald says. “Just talking on the level of craft. There’s a gap in the story of 23 years – and one page. It was like writing two books. Just when you think you’ve done the lion’s share. The second part was going to be shorter, but it was going to be just as difficult. Because what do you leave out? I had gone through everything with Madeleine as a child, but then I had to do it all over again. It took a lot of time to allow her to percolate, to arrive, credibly, adult.”

With the adult Madeleine comes a change in the narrative tone. It’s still in the third person, but compared with the voice in the first part of the novel, it feels angrier – accusing, judgmental. “It is angry,” MacDonald says. Facing up, finally, to the traumas of her childhood (including the part she played in a long-ago murder), Madeleine seems at some points to commandeer the telling of the story. “I think Madeleine starts to channel the narrative voice more. I mean, if anyone’s going to figure out that stuff, she is going to do that. There are all these things that are haunting her, torturing her.”

In turning Madeleine to confront her past, MacDonald says she also felt a need, in the final section, to speak more directly to the reader. “I always want to pull back and say, draw your own conclusions. But I thought, that’s disingenuous after everything that the reader’s gone through. So it was, ‘Make the fucking judgment, the reader’s come this far.’ So, perhaps, the narrative, too, can put some cards on the table.”

As much as anything else, that’s what, for MacDonald, makes for a 21st-century happy ending. Forget the previously star-crossed lovers getting married and the tying-up of all other untied narrative knots. “I always think the happy ending today is when the story comes out,” she says. “When there’s a witness. When you know that the story, in its fullness, will be released and returned to the people who should have had it all along. I think that’s a happy ending. That’s a release.”