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Light Lifting with Alexander MacLeod

Alexander MacLeod was born in Inverness, Cape Breton and raised in Windsor, Ontario. His award-winning stories have appeared in many of the leading Canadian and American journals and have been selected for The Journey Prize Anthology. He holds degrees from the University of Windsor, the University of Notre Dame, and McGill. He currently lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Recently he spoke with AE's Stephen Patrick Clare about his Giller-nominated short-story collection Light Lifting.

SC: What inspired/motivated you to put this collection together?
AM: The collection took such a long time to pull together that I don’t think there was ever any one over-riding feeling of ‘inspiration’ that could be applied to the whole book. Each story was its own project and each had its own challenges. As far as motivation goes, I was just trying to do the best I could with the material I had at hand. In the end, I think I spent most of my time and energy on the boring technical elements, trying and re-trying to get them to work in the right way.

SC: Did the book come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
AM: It happened in two phases. Some of the stories and scenes in the book are very old and some of them are quite new. The older ones took a lot of time and I had to roll around with them for years and years. Material from the swimming story, for example, has been with me for more than a decade, but I didn’t get it finished until I was almost done the book. I’d estimate that about half the stories were written in the last two years.

SC: What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
AM: Just finding enough space in the schedule to get some good, clear time to work on it. I’m a full-time professor at Saint Mary’s and I had to balance writing time with my teaching responsibilities and my scholarly work and my institutional commitments. SMU has always been a great supporter of creative writing and of the literary life of Halifax so I feel very lucky to have a job at a place that values what I do. However, there are only so many hours in a day and you can’t do two things at once. A person is a member of a family before they are an artist, etc. There’s nothing new about this stuff and no reason to complain about it: every great work of literature that was ever produced had to be pulled out of the author’s available time and energy.

SC: What did you learn during the process?
AM: It’s not surprising, but I think I learned how to write by writing this book. I felt like I improved as I went along and that my skills got better with practice. In general, I tend to like the newer stories in the collection more than the older ones and I found new wrinkles and new ways of doing things as I moved through. The last few months were very scary and exciting, but I definitely learned a lot about how books get made and how they go out into the real world.

SC: Did you go through some sort of mourning or grieving process once you were done?
AM: No. It was much more of a celebration. The book had only been published for one day before it made the Giller prize long list and it’s been a blur since then so there hasn’t really been any time or reason to mourn or grieve.

SC: How did it feel to be nominated for the Giller?
AM: It felt strange and wonderful. I really respected the jury this year and I know how hard and thankless a job it is to read one hundred books in just a couple of months and then make choices that can never please everybody. That being said, I thought the long and short lists they produced were startling and original and even kind of courageous and I felt humbled to be in the company of such great writers. The whole process with all the media hype and the rest of it was crazy, but we had a wonderful group and I’ll always be grateful to the Giller people for introducing me to my fellow nominees: David and Sarah and Kathleen and Johanna. They wrote fine books, but they’re also fine people and it was great to go through the madness with them.

SC: What happens now? Are you working on something new?
AM: Nope, nothing new yet. I just finished the collection in the summer and I’ve been chasing after it ever since. I have some ideas that have been swirling around and I’m actually anxious to get back at it, but there’s nothing coming soon.

SC: What made you want to be a writer?
AM: That’s a tough one and I’m not sure if there’s any way to answer it. I’m a reader first and I’ve always liked good stories so I think I just wanted to try and see if I could make some of them myself.

SC: What makes a good book?
AM: Style and care. As a reader, I like to feel like I’m in the capable hands of somebody who really knows what they’re doing. I like that sense of being right inside of somebody’s vision, their particular way of seeing and responding to the world, and I appreciate watching the way they dole out their specific story in their specific way. Plot and theme and point of view may have certain finite limitations, but stylistic possibilities are endless and I think that’s what keeps bringing us back, again and again, to something as old-fashioned as literature and even art in general. To me, the question of what the artist is doing is completed tied up with how she or he is doing it.

SC: What are your thoughts on the current state of Canadian literature?
AM: I don’t think it’s ever been stronger.

SC: Who are your favourite Canadian authors?
AM: Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro and Elizabeth Bishop

SC: Why do you think that Atlantic Canadians enjoys such a vibrant literary culture?
AM: I don’t know why things are going so well right now, but we certainly have a tight community and I think that helps. In my experience, I’ve found that Atlantic Canadian writers can be supportive and nurturing without demanding any strict code of loyalty or placing any limitations on what should or should not be considered ‘good.’ I teach courses on the region’s literature and I think the variety is amazing. In the last year I’ve read books by Michael Crummey, George Elliot Clarke, Rita Joe, Lynn Coady, Ian Colford, Amy Jones, David Adams Richards, Ryan Turner and Jessica Grant. They’re all Atlantic Canadian writers but their works share almost nothing in common and the worlds they represent are totally unique. To me, that’s a sign of a strong literary community: Lots of different voices saying lots of different things in lots of different ways.

SC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
AM: Not really. Just the basics: work hard at it and try to trust your own material and your own unique way of seeing it. Don’t try to write like somebody else.

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