Canadian author and playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald's latest novel Adult Onset was released on Sept. 30. She has previously won the Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. MacDonald is in conversation with CBC's Mark Forsythe as the final event at the Whistler Writers Festival on Sunday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12.
Pique: Adult Onset just came out. How long have you been talking about it?
Ann-Marie MacDonald: Hours! Days! I haven't stopped.
Pique: Sounds very busy. How has it been going?
AMM: There's been quite a bit of media. Now it's very intense. I am lucky enough to have a lot of media lined up. You know, it's great. It's like having a show that has finally opened. I worked on it for a few years and now I am just really eager to have strangers read it. Then it will really exist.
Pique: How many years did you work on the book?
AMM: Four years. On and off.
Pique: Is this fairly typical for something this size?
AMM: It's typical for me, I suppose. Each of my previous books took seven years, on and off. This one took just over half that time and is just over half that length. It's a much more tight focus in scope. It's a week in the life; it's not an era.
It is very personal. My children were still quite young when I started writing it and I thought that I can't actually being doing a great deal of researching, running around, leaving the country or leaving town. I couldn't go very far afield, either psychically or physically, because they are so young.
So I decided to write something that comes just from my head. Whatever is between my ears and in my chest is going to end up in the book.
Pique: Did you find yourself, because you were drawing so much on your personal experience, taking your own life and translating it into a novelist's style? With dramatic arc and plot points at key moments?
AMM: Of course, I live as chaotic a life as everybody does on an ordinary basis, in terms of real life it doesn't have a neat arc. Or it does, but it's only discernable from a bird's-eye view. Certainly, life with toddlers feels like a blur.
This is why I availed myself of the week-in-the-life (concept). That's a decision I came to, it would be seven days with portals to the past and to her work as an author.
Pique: Canadian writers are so good at being introspective, I find. It's one of our things.
AMM: Yes, I guess it is, and I'd never really gone for it before. I had major period sets, costumes, lights, you know. And Adult Onset is kind of my bare-stage, one-woman-show kind of thing.
One the other hand, when I look at my last three books (Fall On Your Knees, The Way the Crow Flies), I understood probably only in the last couple of months, it registered that I'd probably only written the third in my own trilogy. I think this book really is the third. I was surprised to realize what we had done in that Fall On Your Knees goes from 1899 and concludes with an epilogue in the early 1960s. The Way the Crow Flies begins in the early 1960s and ends in the first decade of the 21st century, which is where Adult Onset begins.
So I thought I was clearly sneaking up on myself. Somehow I've taken this great stride, epochal, era-sized strides, to the present moment. Epic strides to get to a very unepic moment, so that stylistically, in terms of the accoutrements, the books are very different. But thematically, they are very much of a piece.
Pique: Does the publicity process you are going through right now give you an added dimension of reflection? Do you learn more things about the book and yourself?
AMM: Absolutely. I learned a great deal about myself by writing this book. Yes, it does put it in perspective. The lead question with regard to Adult Onset has been 'How personal is this? How autobiographical?'
Pique: Yes. I've been trying not to be the last one of the day to ask that.
AMM: I know. I could hear you not asking that. (Laughs) But the simple and most truthful answer is how can a work of art not be autobiographical? I am the portal. I am the filter. My experience is brought to bear on everything I observe and render. It depends on whether I am spinning into a story set in another time and place, or a story set at my own kitchen table.
You know that whole Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland trope — 'I've got a barn! We could put on a show!' I'm going to work with what I have. 'I can't go grocery shopping, so I guess we're having pasta.' I realized that there isn't very much between this story and me, and I was going to write something very close to home.
And that's what I did. It was really hard. And I thought I was perversely prone to taking up difficult challenges. I thought surely there was something easier I could have written. Then I thought, 'No. I don't do easy. Maybe once I'm 60.' I'll find that out.
Pique: Did you find that you were grabbing some kind of freedom for yourself by writing it?
AMM: I knew I had to write it. It did not feel like freedom. It felt very frightening. I was very, very frightened that I was going to injure people I love and who love me. That I was going to injure my parents, I was going to drag loved ones through my personal underworld and expose everybody.
Then I thought, 'Whoa. Wait a second. I'm certainly not the first writer to face that terror. Am I going to let it stop me in my tracks here while I'm going through this underworld? Or do I carry on?' And I wondered if this was simply a highly sophisticated form of procrastination. There are always lots of good reasons not to write. There are loads of good reasons not to finish the thing that you start. Finishing anything requires a great deal of stamina and this, for me, required a great deal of good faith, I was going to come out the other side of what I was doing with a story. But I had to go into the raw material first, and it did not feel very good.
It was hard. A couple of years ago, when I realized the kind of material I was working with, I did tell my parents what I was doing. I told them it may not feel good, they may not want to read it. I'm writing about stuff that we went through. I'm writing about hard things and sometimes that's what a writer does. I'm going to do my job.
They were very kind and gracious about it.
Pique: That's great. I am happy for you, because it isn't easy.
AMM: No, it isn't easy, even though I had come clean and told them this was what I was doing, I didn't put them in the awkward position of having to ask them permission. I told them I was doing it. It felt worse, if anything. Look at these wonderful people! They're my parents, so they still love me no matter what. I thought, 'Why should I use as raw material some of the painful aspects of their lives as well? What right have I got to do that?' Then I thought, 'Ann-Marie, you have the right. You're taking that.' You've got to do it.
Here is my credo now: If you love someone, write as if they're dead already.
Pique: It's distance, right?
AMM: It is, and that's what I'm cultivating right now because this is the first week of publication and it's very close to me. Once I get a critical mass of other psyches filtering this book through their own brains, it will no longer be mine. It will be a living thing that is out there. It will belong to other people.
Pique: It must be fascinating to watch that transition.
AMM: I'm lucky enough that it has been a transition. I have readers; I'm very lucky that way. I'm asking them to take this journey and make it their own. As a writer, you go through your personal underworld in search of your authentic self and your ability to self authorize. Otherwise, you're lost.
Pique: How did Alisa fit into it in terms of helping you through it?
AMM: Alisa (Palmer, Macdonald's partner, a playwright and theatre director) has read every draft. She's read more drafts than anyone on the planet, and I don't know how she stood it, frankly (she laughs). She has read every version of absolutely every draft, even back when it didn't exist as a book but it existed as short story and one third as a novel that was set in the 1970s. I generate hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages that never go anywhere.
Pique: Is that how you tend to write?
AMM: It's how I've written so far and it is arresting for me, when I go back to my office to clean up after each of the books. I've gone back and seen the number of drafts and I've gasped at how much work goes into it. I can easily forget. One almost wants to forget, because to begin another piece of fiction and think that something is page one of the 500 pages that I will write before a single paragraph is illuminated.
Maybe it will be different next time. But I tend to write my way in.
Pique: Are you much of an outliner or not really?
AMM: When I've written for television I've written outlines. I've written two outlines. But with fiction and with my plays I've tended to work from image and to work outward from an image and find the story from it or from the idea. Or a feeling. It's a difficult way to work, very intuitive.
Now I'm thinking I might want to draw on my structural abilities a little bit earlier and see how that will go. What I've always tried to do so far is err on the side of authenticity. Never to impose a structure or an outline or a 'great idea.' I want to allow it to show it to me in its raw state. Then I will hew the wood and draw the water and make it into something structured.
I could maybe trust that I could bring the two things together sooner next time.
Pique: You are capturing a very female story. You're capturing a very modern story about a family headed by two women. Is that something you thought much about? The encouragement you will be giving to other families?
AMM: Once I actually had a structure and a story, I thought, yeah, I am writing about something really timeless but in a new package. Especially with people 25 years younger than I am (MacDonald is 54), whether they're in same sex or heterosexual relationships — however they're making their families — marriage is marriage, a family is a family. They are going to come up against the same challenges, regardless. In a much more gendered world, things might seem simpler on the surface and guarded. But things are much more up for negotiation in the world now than they used to be.
Divorce will also become more prevalent among same sex people. Because people are people. We will find out what is in the structure of marriage that needs to be looked at, because we seem to be liberated or queer or young and heterosexual and we are coming up against the same problems.
That's why I wanted to write something that was timeless in that many people will recognize a whole lot of traditional aspects of marriage in it, while looking at what is in fact, for most of the world, still a radical idea.
Whistler hosts the 2014 Writers Festival from Oct. 17 to 19. For information and tickets: www.whistlerwritersfest.com.