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  From the
  Alistair MacLeod and the Cape Breton thing
Should I mention the footprint on the back of his jacket?
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

[Photo: John Glenn Lowson,
National Post]

"You have to encourage the reader to turn the page, otherwise he goes out for a cheese sandwich," says Alistair MacLeod, who is in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors.

'There's a false belief, particularly among young people, that if things are true, they are interesting," fiction writer Alistair MacLeod tells me over breakfast at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel, where he is staying through the International Festival of Authors. MacLeod is a pleasant-looking, bashful sort, so I don't tell him there is what appears to be a footprint on the back of his suit jacket. He's a popular enough fellow that I assume it's his own tread, not that of an agitated reader or editor. "But that's not the case," MacLeod continues. "Put a tape recorder at the checkout of Wal-Mart for 20 hours and you'll get 20 hours of 'Thank you so much for shopping at Wal-Mart, your change is $2.10.' "

MacLeod, a professor at the University of Windsor for 30 years (he retired two years ago), says this was an issue he had with students over the years. "They would say about their writing, 'But it's all true,' and I would tell them, 'Even if it's all true, it's not interesting.' The truth may set you free," MacLeod goes on to say, "but it's not necessarily captivating." He insists all of his characters are purely fictional. "I make them up," he tells me, adding that the only thing real about his stories is that he sets them in the Maritimes, in Cape Breton, to be specific. "I set them in the Maritimes because that's what I care about," he says.

"I'm from Cape Breton, too," I tell MacLeod, expecting oohs, ahhs and you don't says. He doesn't seem impressed (so much for camaraderie).

The restaurant is offering a buffet-style breakfast. "It's expensive," MacLeod warns me. "I've already eaten here."

"Don't worry," I tell him. "National Post is paying." He looks relieved.

While he's having his photo taken, I wander over to have a look at the buffet.

"If you see anything wild, bring it back," MacLeod tells me. Since there's something about a buffet that makes me want to get even, I get right to it and return with bacon, eggs, French toast, fresh fruit, breakfast rolls, granola, and a chef to help carry it all. MacLeod is happy with my choices.

"The bottom line in writing," he tell me, "is that you have something interesting to say. I think that emotion, or strong feelings, is at the heart of all good literature. You have to encourage the reader to turn the page, otherwise he goes out for a cheese sandwich." Ah, the cheese sandwich, with chocolate milk, of course -- I've left books on many occasions for that very thing.

The 67-year-old world-renowned short-story writer, who won the acclaimed International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his 1999 novel No Great Mischief, tells me, "I always wanted to write, even in high school and university, but I never thought I'd make a living at it." And a living he is making. The IMPAC Award, the world's richest literary prize, put exactly $172,000 in his pocket.

"How many copies of the book have been sold?" I ask.

"I have no idea," he tells me, adding that the book has been translated into 14 languages. "There were six judges from around the world," he says. "If the book speaks to people all over the world, then it's done what I've set out to do."

"Do you make a lot of money?" I ask MacLeod, thinking of his $172,000 prize.

"Not an awful lot," he adds. When I push him a bit more, he says, sarcastically, "Bill Gates isn't trembling in his shoes that I'm going to be the world's next richest man."

MacLeod, who received a PhD from Notre Dame, says that because he was making his money as a professor in Windsor for most of his life, he didn't have to worry about deadlines or bills. He says about his stories, "I write them very carefully. I don't do drafts, I change them sentence by sentence. You have to be very certain what you're doing. I write the conclusion partway through. It keeps me focused -- I think about what I want to say."

I mention that his wife, Anita (who, by the way, is a dead ringer for former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall), confided that he likes to write in a cabin, out back of their summer home in Dunvegan, Cape Breton. The couple, who have six children, five sons and one daughter, drive there every year in either their 1988 Ford Crown Victoria or their newer 1990 Ford Crown Victoria. (Somehow I can't picture Bill Gates doing that.)

"What's a perfect writer's day for you?" I ask.

"If I had the freedom to do what I wanted," he tells me, "I'd write from 8 till 11 in the morning, and that's it. I was at a point where I'd start writing at 10 p.m., and I was so darn tired I'd have to get coffee and splash water on my face. I couldn't get the words right."

I recount to fiction expert MacLeod an experience I had with a literary agent when I passed him a piece of work that was fictional. "This isn't fictional, it's fact," the agent told me. "But it's not true," I replied. "Yes it is," argued the agent, "it must be true because it doesn't read like fiction."

"Get a new agent," MacLeod advises. "There are a lot of attitudes about fiction and music," he tells me, adding, "there are no rules. Be careful of people who impose rigid rules upon you." MacLeod says, "W.O. Mitchell called fiction 'the magic lie.' When you read fiction, you're supposed to believe it's true. Just like when you watch a movie, you don't say, 'There's Harrison Ford pretending he's a fugitive.' Good actors are like good fiction writers, they convey the truth when they're writing, but it's not the truth."

Breakfast is over and the buffet has long been removed from our grasp. MacLeod and I ate well (it's a Cape Breton thing). He's laughing a lot more now -- maybe he's become comfortable with me (also a Cape Breton thing).

"Are you sure that's not Barbara Hall you have up there in your room, I ask?"

"No, no," he laughs. Wife Anita, a pastoral minister, has already left, he tells me, gone home to Windsor to work.

As I leave MacLeod I'm glad I ate heartily, mainly because I'm in the middle of one of his books, which means I won't be having cheese sandwiches for a while. If you've read Alistair MacLeod, you know what I mean.

  Last update: May 6, 2009
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