Flying High with Anne-Marie MacDonald

by Sara Cassidy

Ann-Marie MacDonald's second novel, The Way the Crow Flies (Random House of Canada, 2003), follows her award-winning Fall On Your Knees, a first novel that sold more than 300,000 copies in Canada and was selected for the Oprah Book-of-the-Month Club.

MacDonald is also a playwright and actor, and the current host of CBC-TV's Life and Times. She spoke with Sara Cassidy in September, over the phone from her "roundy Edwardian" home in Toronto, which she shares with her spouse, Alisa Palmer, and their infant daughter.

Ann-Marie MacDonald's second novel, The Way the Crow Flies (Random House of Canada, 2003), follows her award-winning Fall On Your Knees, a first novel that sold more than 300,000 copies in Canada and was selected for the Oprah Book-of-the-Month Club.

MacDonald is also a playwright and actor, and the current host of CBC-TV's Life and Times. She spoke with Sara Cassidy in September, over the phone from her "roundy Edwardian" home in Toronto, which she shares with her spouse, Alisa Palmer, and their infant daughter.

Herizons: Like Madeleine in The Way the Crow Flies, you were an air force kid. You lived in Germany and all over Ontario, even started kindergarten in Centralia. How did all this moving around lead to you becoming a writer?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I think it really is a sense of being on the inside and on the outside. And of belonging and not belonging. I think that's a point of view which is valuable to a writer. Also, as we moved around, I think I came to understand, comparatively early in life, that group dynamics and people are similar wherever you go.

You could find the common strands.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Exactly. And make connections across culture, and across geography, and across time. We didn't have roots. We had memories. We had stories. And the ability to make those connections, it's like a survival mechanism. It keeps you sane-you say, the world makes sense because somehow what happened five years ago across the ocean has something to do with what's going on in this classroom here in Kingston, Ontario. I'm the same person. And I had to organize my life as a narrative from an early age to make sense of it. My life was a story.

Was it brave of you to begin writing novels when you were already successful as a playwright and actor?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: It felt inevitable because I really did set out to write a play when I started Fall On Your Knees. And then I got terribly stuck. So it decided-it knew what it was before I did. It's like having a child. You thought it was a boy; well, it's a girl.

What do you appreciate about the novel form now that it's found you?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: What strikes me most about it is that it requires so much time. It's not mostly to do with actually writing. It's mostly to do with having the patience to allow the story to express itself. And to try to be faithful to it and try to maintain faith in it is the most difficult thing.

The actual moments when I'm writing and it feels fluid and I'm enjoying myself are few, and I always know that they come with an immense price-again, maintaining a love for it even when it's gone out of control and I've gone in five directions and, God help me, I don't know which is the right one. Also, I need a great deal of time, because obviously I do a lot of direct research but so much comes indirectly. If you allow the time to pass, you are in a position to be open to the gifts when they arrive-the unexpected details or associations.

How long did it take you to write The Way the Crow Flies?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: About the same amount of time it took me to write Fall On Your Knees-about five and a half years. Well, they are both of epic proportions-long, but with amazingly intricate plots.

When you say you get lost, you must have set out with some sense of the main story lines?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: No. In both cases the main story is a process of acceleration. I have no idea of the story when I start.

That's just incredible…

Ann-Marie MacDonald: And then maybe about six months later, I can see the characters running ahead. And maybe a year into it, I can see the story running ahead. And three years into it, it runs all the way to the end. I don't know how I'm going to get there, but I know where this is going, ultimately. But what happens before that is really a sense of the ethos-something that I want to articulate. I don't know what the story is going to be, but I know that I want the story to contain a certain world view, or a certain collection of world views.

And there are quite a few that come through in this book.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: That was the challenge of this book, to articulate those world views through one narrative. In terms of the mechanics of the narrative, I want it to feel inevitable and I also want the reader to have a sense that it's an ordinary day-everything is normal, normal, normal, until it's not, and suddenly the normal buckles under the weight of all that has been denied. It seemed typical of that era. Well, yeah, we're talking post-war, the 60s, with the novel set against the backdrop of the Cold War but also against the emerging awareness of gender possibilities.

What drew you, first of all, to the subject of the Cold War?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Mostly, I think it's my generation. I was in my 20s when I was marching to "Refuse the Cruise" and all of that. And I was very cynical about the Cold War. I just felt, "Ha, it's a business deal-both sides are getting a huge amount out of it, and, well, one side is going to lose at poker-the arms race." And then they did. It always seemed to me that the Cold War and the communist threat-everyone knows this now-was invoked as an excuse to loot vast stretches of the world under the guise of democracy. And what has changed? Nothing! We just have a different movie now. We call it the War on Terrorism. It's the sequel. As in Fall On Your Knees, sexual abuse plays a large part in The Way the Crow Flies.

You've recently said that "abuse is a core narrative." What did you mean by that?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I think I've said that in response to a question which is, basically, why is it that this stuff keeps coming back in novels? Why aren't we tired of it? I think it's the same reason we're not tired of other archetypal stories. We aren't tired of war stories, we aren't tired of murder mysteries. Those are genres, but the core narrative is a struggle, and this is a way of expressing that core narrative of struggle and survival. Of theft.


Ann-Marie MacDonald: I think that child abuse is about theft-theft of the self, theft of a great huge hunk of oneself. And you broaden the story, because you talk about the outfall of sexual abuse-the psychological effects, the disassociation that Madeleine experiences.

I haven't seen that addressed so strongly in a novel before.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: The act of abuse doesn't take very long. It's often a fleeting moment in one's life, but the ripple effects-the water table is poisoned from then on, the food chain is poisoned. We talk about PCBs being concentrated in the fish up North. Well, I think the toxicity becomes concentrated in those little girls in Centralia who had no way of processing it or getting it out.

So for me, it's not about the act itself, it's the political outfall-there are immense consequences. And I wanted to talk about someone who is obviously a survivor, walking around like she's a veteran of a horrible war-every time someone drops a glass, she thinks it's a grenade going off-until she finally has to face it. Madeleine says she doesn't believe in repressed memory.

Is that a political statement of yours?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I think she doesn't want to be classed as one of those women who is 'coming to terms with her sexual abuse.' She doesn't want to be like everyone else. She'd find it embarrassing to be so exemplary of her generation.

Her experience of abuse communicates through psychological dysfunction and in her art as a comedian.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: She is a textbook. She has to own up to that. I've been interested in what people mean by repressed or buried memory-I think there are a lot of ways to describe that-and in some ways, I think it's just memories that we haven't recognized as memory that's encoded. It's always lying around there; we just can't handle it until something makes us handle it.

Well, that's what they say memory is-it's the re-creation of the moment. Your synapses actually have to fire in the same way they did during the first, the original event. Memory is an active thing. It's not something you pick up and put down. It's something you actually do.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Wow… For people who haven't experienced abuse, the silence of victims is confounding. But you show the logic-if you can call it that-behind it beautifully. Poor Madeleine's guilt that someone has touched her dress that her mother has so carefully dressed her in. You really build the case, in a way, for their silence, which is frightening.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: It is frightening, because I think that is the most salient feature of most abuse. I think it happens in silence. I think the victim has a vested interest in never articulating it. Why are you so hard on your characters? Ann-Marie MacDonald: In what sense? You give us these wonderful people, and then they're stricken with abuse, and with the drive to abuse, I suppose, and with sickness…

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Why am I so hard on them? I don't know. I'm sick! (laughter). I suppose it's the same way I wanted to take a good man (Jack) and put him in a terrible moral conundrum. I want to take healthy, happy people and give them a challenge. Maybe it's because I have a political conscience, and a drive to say these things happen across culture, across race, across class, they happen to anyone.

You're a feminist?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Oh yeah.

What made you a feminist?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I was born that way. I have, or I try to express, an inclusive world view, and for me the idea of that not including feminism is really knuckleheaded. I remember a moment in the late 1980s-I wrote a bit about this in the book-when things started to really fragment, with this kind of hyphenated feminist, and that kind of hyphenated feminist, and we were all sort of turning on each other-and I was disenchanted with that. I thought, "I'm never going to explain what it means again, I'm just a feminist, okay? I'm not this, that or the other intolerant, but I'm tolerant of the intolerant (laughter)."

For me, it's make the world bigger, don't make it smaller. Invite more people, don't make the list shorter. And don't forget who your allies really are. (At this point in the interview, a delivery of flowers disrupts the calm of the house.

Ann-Marie's dog barks, the baby wakes and wails. "Oh, the poor thing, she was having such a nice sleep," MacDonald says, adding, of the flowers, "They're really beautiful.")

The Way the Crow Flies has fewer sexy bits than Fall On Your Knees, but at the same time, I think Madeleine is a much more fully drawn lesbian than the oldest Piper sister.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Ah, what a nice observation. Thank you.

How important is it for you to create lesbian characters?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Well, it's inevitable, really. It's like, look at it the opposite way: Would anyone ever even ask another author, "How important is it for you to create heterosexual characters?"

Well, how does it sit with your history of reading?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Actually, the first lesbian moment I created was in Goodnight Desdemona. The lead character, Constance, this academic, goes into the worlds of Romeo and Juliet and Othello, and while she's in the world of Romeo and Juliet, both Romeo and Juliet fall in love with her, and she has hot little kissing scenes with both of them.

And at first I thought, 'Well, how is this going to go down?' Because that was, what, 1987? And that play ended up touring, and all kinds of people enjoy that play. So I thought, okay, it's some kind of alchemical miracle-it's not that they didn't notice the two women kissing, it's that it didn't seem to make them too angry. That was an early lesson for me, and an early confirmation of what I've always suspected, which is that the quote-unquote supposedly ordinary people, out in the burbs or in the hinterlands are ahead of the curve-they're ahead of where a lot of people think they should be.

People are always ready for more than they're given credit for.

Well, Oprah proved that, didn't she?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I have respect for audiences in general. I learned that through theatre, so I have a respect for my readers. But my credo was, from the very beginning, that I want to take people to places they might not choose to go because they might find them offensive, or wrong, or frightening. How can I persuade them? Obviously, I have to commit myself to making a special invitation or to making the journey fun, or at least compelling in some way. Because why should I just come at them with, you know, a tablespoon of cod liver oil?

They never asked me to. I'm going to invite them to a feast, and if I do my job, they'll stay with me. And it was only after I'd finished Fall On Your Knees that I realized I'd been kind of Machiavellian, in that I put all the hot lesbian stuff at the end. So it was too late for anyone to put the book down. If they had come that far, it meant they really needed to get to the end. I think people are more open-hearted than they are usually given credit for being. And it was important for me to create a fully functional, real-life lesbian, and that was also hard.

With Madeleine?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Yes, because she doesn't have the operatic fate. It's not the thing that kills her; it's part and parcel of who she is and who she has been. I'm of the generation that had to still really read between the lines to find lesbian content anywhere. And it became a game. But for me, I just want to say, 'well, of course we're here, and there she is in the book. This is your principal character's point of view-you are actually seeing through the eyes of this lesbian, whether you ever thought you would or not, Dear Reader.'

So you've been happily assured by the acceptance of the books, and by the acceptance of yourself-you've been treated well as a writer?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I've been treated extremely well as a writer. And you know, growing up as someone who thought they had a terrible secret-i.e., I am that horrible thing that I'm not supposed to be-and then to get to the point where we are now-great. We got married and we have a baby. That's a big, long journey. I don't delude myself that it's as easy for everyone else as it is for me. I have fought hard and jubilantly, but it isn't as easy for other people.

Why do you think it might have been easier for you?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Well, I think it's because I'm a fighter. And I also think it's because I really like people, and I like to make them laugh and I like to make them happy. I don't need them to be mad at me. There are some artists who really want the audience to be pissed off. I don't. But by the same token, there's no bloody way that I'm going to pat them on the head and reassure them of all their prejudices. I want to shatter them one by one. You know, they wouldn't normally invite me into their house and let me break all the figurines on the piano with a stick, but that's essentially what I want to do, and that's what I do. It's like the Cat in the Hat! In The Way the Crow Flies, Madeleine's father assures her that being a comedian has great societal worth.

Have you had to convince yourself of your career?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I wanted to address the question that many artists ask of themselves, and that I used to ask of myself when I was Madeleine's age: There are so many burning problems in the world, there are so many things I could be doing to try to directly affect the world in a positive way, and here I am just-just-making people laugh or writing stories. Am I really being useful? That's the artist's insecurity, mingled with the classic female "Am I really a fraud?" I no longer ask those questions of myself because I know the answer: Stories are incredibly important, and always have been, and always will be.

You're married. ..

Ann-Marie MacDonald: We got married in July. We just jumped when the same sex marriage thing came through. I never thought I'd get married. And it's not like I had a burning political need to get married, but I've been around for quite a few years for these struggles for human rights-in many categories, not just the same sex category. And I thought, "Yeah, I'd like to be counted here."

And has it changed you at all, being married?

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I don't think so. Except I was taken by surprise by how beautiful the civil ceremony was. It was very poetic and I was very moved. I think I've always been so much the marrying kind that I was so married before anyway. But I think just expanding the law is a very healthy thing for a society. And I'm very proud, even if it gets rolled back-I'm proud that we're still way ahead of most countries.

Congratulations. Marriage is an adventure!

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Are you married?

We're married, but not legally.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: I also think it should liberate straight people to not get married. I have heterosexual friends who have children and have been together for 25 years who say, "Well, we always said we wouldn't get married until gay people could get married too. And now we just can't be bothered." Freedom flies in many directions.

Thank you for talking with me today. Thank you for another book.

Ann-Marie MacDonald: Good to talk to you, too. Thank you.