by SRB

The SRB Interview: Alistair MacLeod

October 28, 2009 | by SRB

ALISTAIR MACLEOD WAS BORN in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1936 and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where the Scottish ancestors, who inform so much of his work, landed centuries before. To finance his further education, MacLeod worked as a logger, miner and fisherman, all jobs he would write about later. He studied at St Francis Xavier University between 1957 and 1960 and graduated with a BA and B.Ed. During an academic career that has seen him work at Indiana University and the University of Windsor, MacLeod has taught Nineteenth Century British literature and creative writing. He first came to notice with his short story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986), which were later collected into one volume, Island (2000). His sole novel, No Great Mischief (1999), won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001. Although his output consists of only sixteen short stories and one novel, MacLeod’s work is considered amongst the best his country has produced.

Scottish Review of Books : How many generations back do you have to go before we reach your original Scottish ancestors?

Alastair MacLeod : I think six. They came from the isle of Eigg, 1791. It was mainly a matter of economics. They came before the Clearances set in. There was a lot of people on the isle of Eigg; 460 according to the census, and there’s 25 now. An opportunity was given to them to come to Canada and quite a few took it.

SRB: How close do you feel to this first generation? What space do they occupy in your imagination?

AM: We were always aware of them. My grandparents and my great-grandparents made sure we knew where we came from. The family settled in a county in Nova Scotia called Inverness which was settled by Highland people. Their neighbours were neighbours who came from Scotland. Until 1945, they were still Gaelic speaking people and they farmed, so they and their descendants kind of continued as if they never left Scot-land.

SRB: Is your fiction a revisionist project, letting those whom history has silenced speak and be heard?

AM:That’s certainly true. If you don’t speak the mainstream language, you hardly ever get to write history. If you look at Irish writers they have a lot to say on this subject, and have done so historically, though they no longer write in Gaelic. People who are conquered often don’t have the mainstream language. Generally because they lose they don’t sit down and write books, though sometimes closer to today they do, Holocaust survivors for example. I just write about what is interesting to me, and I’m glad the world is interested too. The work has been translated now into seventeen languages.

SRB: All of the short stories collected in Island, except for one, are set in Cape Bre-ton. Is there something about that environment that makes people turn inwards, a turn that manifests itself in an interest in where you come from?

SRB: Cape Breton is still an island although there’s a causeway, and I think people who live on islands are as you say people who are more self-reflective, who turn inwards because they’re left to themselves more. To get off your island, you have to cross water, and a lot of people don’t always do that or want to. If you’re on an island you feel far away and different from people on the mainland, even if it’s only a couple of miles away and you can see it.

AM: Speaking as someone who lives on the island of Britain, that certainly rings true. Your stories suggest this turn inwards can be damaging. Being interested in your past is one thing but your characters are often strangled by their ethnicity, aren’t they?

SRB: Well, obviously no one has any control over their ethnicity. People on islands, if they’re homogenous as we were, you’re a little different than people who come from the mainland wherever that may be. It’s not all good, but I think of it as just the way one is. Would I like to be Persian or Italian? I have to answer – not much chance.

SRB: That reminds me of something you said, about how, “You can’t not know what you do know.”

AM: That’s part of the same thing. You grow up in a certain place and have certain beliefs and a certain language, and if you want to, you can move away, to Texas say, you can change your name and grow a beard. But you will still contain within you what you were no matter how much you gloss over it or resolve not to think about it. If you were walking down the street and heard someone speaking your language, be it Gaelic or Polish or French, you understand it before you realise you’re trying to forget it.

SRB: In your first published story, ‘The Boat’ (1968), the mother dismisses reading as “a colossal waste of time”. Throughout your early stories, there’s a fear of learning. Did you grow up in an environment that registered the same opinion?

AM: Some people read books all day and some didn’t. I thought of that woman as someone who really knew how to live a life. She’s never read anything and she gets along fine. But if you want to pass that onto people who want to live life differently from you, it may not be received well, it may be harmful to others. Not reading a book didn’t harm her. It’s just like professions. If your mother, grandmother and great-grandmothers were nurses, then you have four daughters whom you insist should be nurses and they say they want to be actresses and astronauts, it’s going to lead to disagreement. I have sympathy for that woman though; she knows how to live a life but it’s not the life for everybody. It ties in with a decision I made not to have villains in my writing. I prefer to present characters who are sincere in their beliefs, it’s just that those may not be what every one else believes.

SRB: If you have a villain in a plot, it’s easier to dramatise it as you have an antagonist for the main character to bounce off. How then does an author go about dramatising a story that consciously avoids anything like that?

AM: You just build up the details. You present characters by saying here is a person who sincerely believes this and then you bring on another who sincerely believes something else. You can be a sincere Christian, a sincere Muslim, a sincere Buddhist. There may be nothing wrong with your individual beliefs, it may be only when you come up against another group, then there’s a tension – but it’s not necessarily the case that you’re a villain, though the other group may view you as such. There’s a need for tolerance while recognising people are motivated by differences.

SRB: In the story, ‘The Tuning Of Perfection’, the main character is a man attempting to keep Gaelic musical traditions alive in a changing world that views these traditions as dead or museum pieces. You write at one point, “He felt somehow betrayed by forces he could not control”, which could be said about many of the characters in Island. Are you sceptical about progress?

AM: No. You can’t stand in the way of progress. The character you’re talking about is a very traditional man who is good at singing, aloof in his way. The world around him is changing but what can he do? He can’t do anything. He can refuse to make his music commercial. But at the same time he’s surrounded by television and telephones, birth control, things he can’t understand because they’re not part of his background. Because he’s so much a part of a traditional way of life, with not much impinging on that, he’s lonely and not on the same page as his children. I had sympathy for him but there’s no way you can wind your way back to a time without radios and automobiles. It’s moving though, that he says he’s not going change.

SRB: Yes, but you would agree that there’s a price to pay for progress? To me, that story suggests the only way for his music to survive in any form is to boil it down, to turn it into a cabaret act. In other words, you lose as much as you gain from progress, which made me think you might be sceptical about it.

AM: The Canadian songwriter Joni Mitchell says, “Something’s gained and something’s lost by living everyday.” When you buy milk from a store you lose something you would have gained from milking the cow yourself. Even people who have always believed that they could be self-sufficient, who wanted to grow their own vegetables and catch their own fish, when they realise that’s no longer possible, they have to adapt or become anachronisms.

SRB: You seem ambivalent, especially as expressed in No Great Mischief, about loyalty, seeing it as admirable personal trait that nevertheless led people – through the clan system – into disaster

AM: It does but it’s complicated. That’s why I like the two grandfathers in the novel. One fellow sees his ancestors, the MacDonalds, as heroes. But the other one reminds him they frequently lost or weren’t particularly noble all the time. Not that the other grandfather wants to hear that. I thought about loyalty in the context of always doing what you’re told, about acting in the belief that if you obey you’ll always be alright – and of course that’s not the case. Sometimes you’re betrayed by your leaders or you do the wrong thing. I included a section in that book about an Eastern European woman who’s married to the narrator. Through her I look at the Holocaust where people were told that if they got on a train and if they wore a yellow star they’d be alright. What I was interested in showing in the book was how much of a double-edged sword loyalty can be.

SRB: You speak English and Gaelic. What are the qualities and character of each language? What can one do that the other can’t?

AM: I’m not really a good Gaelic speaker but I think your first language is the language of your heart. Someone said you never forget the language in which your mother loved you. When you learn other languages, they learn nouns first, but I think it is harder to learn to say “I love you”. Languages that you learn later in life are grafted onto you, they’re not as I say the language of the heart. Both of my grandparents spoke Gaelic, as did my parents though their language of preference would have been English. My grandparents preferred Gaelic. When they became elderly, they entirely reverted back to speaking Gaelic, the language of their courtship I imagine.

SRB: Is part of your interest in Scottish history and folklore to do with Canada being a comparatively young country and lacking its own?

AM: I think so. Canadian literature is the literature of a young country born into the old age of the world. It’s about 100, 150 years old, which is young when you compare it to the literature of Britain, or even America.

SRB: Did you find the lack of literary ancesOn being left off the 100 Best Scottish Books Polltors liberating in that there was a lot of virgin territory to make your own? Or was it daunting not having someone who could show you the way?

AM: I don’t know. When I began to write, I thought, I’m just going to do this. I’m just going to write and set it in the place I come from. Why not? I found most literature came from places people came from. If you look at British literature, it doesn’t all come from London. At the time of their writing, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and the Brontes were criticised for basing their action too far north, for being too rural and too strange, but it’s great literature. It can come from any place, and writers explore what they want to explore.

SRB: Where do you see yourself fitting into the stream of Canadian literature? Do you even think in those terms?

AM: I hardly ever think in those terms. You see Canada is 4,725 miles wide with 30 million people. The geography is so vast, and I think geography is very important. If you live in downtown Toronto, it’s far removed from Cape Breton or the north where the Inuit people live, you have such different experiences. DH Lawrence differed from London writers but they were all English.

SRB: If you look at Canadian literature during the span of your career, it’s travelled far. When you began, it was considered boring or worthy and lacking its own character for a long time. Was it difficult to write in those periods when perhaps America or Europe was regarded as more vital?

SRB: It’s been a remarkable transformation. It’s good that now we’re all considered for the IMPAC Prize or the Booker Prize.

AM: Yeah, give some other countries a chance. (Laughing) I don’t think of it as competitively, I think of it as doing what you can. It’s like being in a band.

SRB: Are you au fait with much Scottish literature and has it influenced you?

AM: Oh yes. I lived in Scotland for a year in 1984, and a lot of that older group of writers I considered as friends. People like Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith and George Mackay Brown. Those people are gone now but I got on very well with them when I was here. Today I know A.L. Kennedy and a younger group of people.

SRB: And from the past? Did you read Scott? Stevenson?

AM: Oh yeah, all that. I always read a lot, and when you read a lot you’re leery of influences. I’d never set out to write like Sir Walter Scott or William Faulkner. It was important to me to develop my own fingerprints. That said, when you read a lot, a lot goes into you and you’re not sure how much you’ve been influenced. It becomes something like your vocabulary. It’s like…imagine someone asked you when you learned to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. You wouldn’t know, but it’s part of your make-up. It’s the same for a writer; he would-n’t be able to tell you when he learned how to do some basic things from his reading. I’ve heard people say “Oh, you’re very like so and so.” And I don’t think I am, certainly not consciously.

SRB: Your world has been described as masculine. Men and women inhabit very definite worlds of their own gender. There’s that line in ‘In The Fall’ about “Scotsmen are never good at raising poultry or flowers because they think such tasks are for women and they make a man ashamed.” Was this something you wanted to examine or is it a by-product of other concerns?

AM: The world I grew up in, the men were always outside all the time because of what they did – farming, fishing, mining or log ging. All these men would get up early in the morning to go to work either by themselves or with other men but it was outside. Women would be inside doing domestic tasks. The occupations that the men did were hard, physical tasks that required strength. That’s why you didn’t get a lot of women working in mines or logging camps. A lot of the time, you grew up following in the footsteps of either your mother or father, and a lot of that was given by the landscape, by the occupations available. If you grow up in downtown Toronto or downtown Glasgow, the roles would not be so distinct; any gender can be an accountant. But if you’re going to be a coal miner there’s not a lot of women doing that or would want to. That’s just the way people evolve.

SRB: Most of your stories are first person. Why do you feel so comfortable with that form particularly?

AM: It’s more intense. Most people are interested in their own stories, so I try to create stories in which a character says, I’m going to tell you what happened to me rather than I’m going to tell you what happened to him. Now in some stories such as ‘The Tuning Of Perfection’, you just can’t stay in that one man’s mind as he’s not aware of the world around him, so I used a third person narrator there. But I prefer the intensity of the first person. I like to pretend that I’m someone like the narrator of ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’, a strong narrator who takes you aside. It has its drawbacks, being in the consciousness of only one individual, but it’s a trade-off. It’s the first thing I do when I plan a story, deciding who speaks, who gets the microphone. The reader will generally believe who ever talks directly to them unless the narrator is really strange.

SRB: And this is why you’ve done most of your writing in the short story form? Because it’s an intense burst of one person’s consciousness?

AM: Yeah. I was worried when I was writing No Great Mischief that I wouldn’t be able to sustain that intensity. You can burst for a hundred yard dash but it’s harder to burst for a marathon. But I was fairly satisfied with the novel as I was able to maintain that intensity.

SRB: Characters often die suddenly and brutally through accident. Do you view life as a fragile tissue liable to be ripped through at any moment?

AM:That’s because of what they do, their jobs.

SRB: It’s funny though, as the lives of your characters, like their dying culture, seems so transient, especially when set in contrast with the Nova Scotian landscape that surrounds them and feels timeless and eternal.

AM: In the fall, I was over in Skye. A lot of the people living there now are from Eastern Europe. A lot of the crews on boats are from Poland. The landscape and mountains of Skye are permanent but the people moving across it are different. You look out and think, Here are the Crusaders, here are the Ottoman Turks, here they all come again – and the mountains remain the same. In terms of the violence and the death, people who live in extractive industries die from their work. I spent most of my life as a university professor and I was unlikely to die from my work. None of the characters in my stories are worried about their cholesterol or getting enough exercise. They live in a different world.

SRB: No Great Mischief overturns that idea about how history happens twice, first as tragedy then as comedy. I thought of that in terms of how the fight between the Scottish and French mining crews in No Great Mischief restages 1759’s Battle Of Quebec, the occasion for General Wolfe’s comment about how it would be “no great mischief” if his Highland regiments should fall.

AM: What I was interested in there historically was the ’45 rebellion, which was sponsored by the French to a large extent because the people in the ’45 were Catholic, like the French. So at one time let’s say the French and the Highlanders were on the same page. Then at the Siege Of Quebec, those MacDonalds were Highlanders who lost and went to France and learned the language and came back and fought on the side of Wolfe when fourteen years earlier they’d been fighting against him. Sometimes we fight for a cause, sometimes we fight as mercenaries.

SRB: There’s a spiritual quality to your writing, isn’t there? You don’t make much explicit reference to religion though the communities you write about were, I believe, God fearing. Nevertheless that spiritual quality’s there.

AM: Oh, I hope, I hope. But I’m scared to talk about it much. Whenever you start doing it, if you do it blatantly, you become sort of exclusive. You begin to say, well, all us Muslims are like this, or all us Anglicans are like this, and none of you other people can ever feel this way because you’re not one of us. I did not want to get into that. People who are distinctive but no longer feel themselves distinctive have gotten into my writing. When I go to Europe, and I speak to Italians or Germans or members of various smaller countries, they say to me we have our own distinct ways but maybe in fifty years, because of globalisation, we won’t any longer. We might be richer but we’ll all be wearing the same clothes and eating in MacDonalds. We’re always worried about this in Canada because we get so flooded by American culture which is just across the border. We ask ourselves, should we have our own literature or should we just look at American sitcoms all the time? I know that when I was living in Scotland, there was that feeling about England. If you’re the smaller country living beside a big country, you know all about the big country but it doesn’t know you exist half the time. Then you get annoyed.

SRB: Although it explores Highland history and immigration, No Great Mischief addresses one of the great topics of today, perhaps the great topic, of displaced communities and how they (or don’t) preserve their identities in a world that smoothes over difference increasingly.

AM: I’m very surprised that Israelis really like No Great Mischief. I can see why but I wasn’t thinking about Israelis while writing it. I think if you come from a group that sees itself in danger of being culturally threatened, there’s a resonance with the book. I’m pleased about that. As a writer you’re a solitary creature. Doesn’t mean you’re anti-social but it’s just the nature of the work, to be stuck in a small room with a desk and a chair until you send the finished product out to the wider world. It’s always rewarding when the wider world receives it.

SRB: You‘ve written: “We carry certain things within ourselves. Sometimes there are things within us which we do not know or fully understand and sometimes it’s hard to stamp out what can’t be seen.” Is writing, to you, a mysterious process?

AM: Oh, I don’t know. It’s just a person sitting down with a page. I still write in long hand. I make little marks on a page and I hope it’ll be okay.

SRB: You’ve taught creative writing. What would the author of your latest short story, ‘Clearances’ (1999), have to say to the author of ‘The Boat’?

AM: He wouldn’t have anything to say. They’re probably about the same.

SRB: Keep more sharpened pencils on the desk?

AM: Keep more sharpened pencils on the desk.

Alistair MacLeod appears at Aberdeen University’s Word Festival 06 on Friday 12 May, King’s College Centre (01224-273874)

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