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Alex Manley conducted an email interview with Canadian author Alexander MacLeod for “Short Listing,” published in The Link’s Oct. 19 issue. Here’s the full transcript of that interview, touching on MacLeod’s experiences as both son and father, how being shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize has changed his life, and the process of writing his debut short story collection, Light Lifting.
The Link: Has being shortlisted affected your day-to-day life much? Do you expect that things will subside at some point—in December, in February, by the time the next Gillers roll around? Or do you not have time to think ahead?
Alexander MacLeod: I would have to say that, yes, the Giller news has affected my life. Before the news came down, we were just planning on nursing the book along, one reader and one copy at a time, and hoping, maybe, for some good ‘word of mouth’ reactions to move it on its way. I think we thought, it might take a few months or even more than a year before people really even knew the book existed. Instead, all of that happened in one day. I got the book on a Saturday evening, I read it for the first time on Sunday, and the announcement was made on Monday morning. We’ve been chasing after it ever since and all the outside attention has definitely changed our routine at home. We’ve managed okay, thanks to the generosity of my wife and our adaptable kids, but it’s a good problem to have and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I think this will slow down after the 9th, when it’s all over, but up to that day, the day-to-day activities are pretty intense.
Wayne Gretzky’s son Trevor recently committed to playing baseball in college. You, however, followed in your father’s writerly footsteps. You said in a recent interview with the National Post that you never talked to your father about writing, though. Do you think that made it easier for you to grow into your own as a writer?
My parents raised six kids and I think they had a good strategy for dealing with whatever creative endeavours their children sought to pursue. My mom and dad didn’t purposely ignore my writing and they certainly would have helped me out if I had asked, but they also understood and respected how important it was to give me, or the rest of my brothers and my sister, enough room to do our own work in our own ways. There’s a lot of variety in what we’ve produced and I think that comes from letting each person figure out their own relationship with the material they care about most.
Another thing you discussed in the Post interview was that “life” had delayed the release of the book, which is your first. Did the “big hotshot young guy” writer in you worry about the years slipping by or were you confident that your work would find an audience regardless of when it came out?
No, I didn’t worry about that stuff. I’ve had the stories, most of them, with me for many years, and I knew the first ones weren’t going to change too much in the collection. That being said, pulling the book together during this last year was actually a very strange experience because it was like going back in time and introducing one version of myself, the guy who wrote the early stories, to the guy I am now, the person who wrote the most recent pieces. It was weird because each separate story was completely its own project but it was only when they were pushed up against each other that I saw all the common threads flowing between them, currents of concerns that had been there for more than a decade, running under the surface. It was surprising to me to discover that that the book might come together like that, cohere in a way I never expected it would.
The Giller citation for Light Lifting characterized the stories as being very focused on physical sensation. I found that to be almost overwhelmingly the case. Everywhere your characters are grounded in the physical world through struggles of varying degrees of intensity—checking for lice, learning to swim, training to run, cycling for work, lifting light loads of bricks. Was that an intentional choice for the collection or is that something that occurs naturally in your writing?
It wasn’t intentional but I think it’s just the way that I see things. I was interested in looking at different moments of decision or choice and those moments are usually pretty intense on the emotional, intellectual and even physical levels. I wanted the choices to matter in a fairly substantial way so I think that’s why the physical element is there. With the athletes, it’s obvious that every significant action will be expressed physically – that’s the difference between the 3:36 or the 3:39 1500m – but with the young family or the elderly people in the book, I wanted to explore how their lives, and their decisions, are also governed by those sorts of forces. An old lady who refuses to be institutionalized and won’t give up on her house is backing up her emotional desire with a physical action. Every time she goes out to shovel the sidewalk by herself she’s doing and saying something with that movement; same thing for the young couple who have to change stinky diapers or check for lice or take the kid to the hospital. Their love for their children or their love for each other takes on a physical manifestation. We can see and learn something about the full depth of their emotional commitment by monitoring their actions, the way they move through their worlds.
The stories are very Windsor-centered, perhaps nowhere more so than in the final one, “The Number Three,” which does a great job of making something (the history of GM [sic] minivans) that might otherwise seem mundane into a compelling thread that really enriches a story that is essentially about family ties and post-traumatic emotional survival. Since you grew up in Windsor, did you have to do extensive research about all this car manufacturing jargon or was that something that you were to some degree aware of one way or another before you started writing the story?
Better be careful with that question. It’s the Chrysler mini-van we’re talking about, here. (Ha). Details like that matter in a place like Windsor. Yes, I did some research on the generational changes that the Caravan went through from the 80’ to the present, and I was interested in the way they’ve kept re-designing it and re-engineering it to fit a slightly different segment of the market; but I was mostly interested in trying to puzzle through the relationship between the protagonist and this object he’s worked on for so much of his life. Even the names they put on the van felt significant to me: Grand Caravan, Magic Wagon, Voyager, Town and Country. They seemed almost saturated with meaning. I never worked in that plant, but plenty of my friends and relatives did and continue to. My publisher Dan Wells worked in there for seven years, following in the footsteps of his Dad. The place, that plant, and the thing it produces, that van, matter to almost everybody in Windsor and I was trying to think about how we are all connected to this object whether we work on it directly or not. I drive a 2000 Grand Caravan and I sometimes feel weird just sitting inside it because I know exactly where it comes from and I think I probably know quite a few of the people who made this actual vehicle, though no trace of their effort remains.
It’s remarkable the way you manage to balance having seven narrators (well, 5 and 2 non-narrator protagonists) who all sound and feel just the right amount of different from each other and the right amount of similar to each other. How much did you focus on balancing the stories against each other? Did you have to make sure certain aspects of one didn’t bleed into another?
That was almost completely accidental. I didn’t want to tell the same story seven times and I wanted there to be some real variety inside the book, but other than fiddling with the order of the stories, we didn’t really try to set up that ‘similar but different’ feel –it just happened.
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Carolin Emcke is an author, political theorist and war correspondent with German newsmagazine Die Zeit. She has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Haiti, where she pondered what happens to truth and certainty in wartime. She spoke with The Link in advance of her panel appearance at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. The following is a transcript of that interview.
What kind of censorship have you encountered?
I usually really have to deal with direct, concrete state intervention into my own work, meaning I may not even be allowed to enter a country in order to report on what’s going on. There’s various answers. It has been extremely difficult to travel to Northern Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein; it has been very difficult—actually, impossible—to enter Gaza during last year’s military campaign. So if you had asked me personally, I’m most of all concerned with such forms of direct censorship, I would say there’s also indirect censorship, I would say that the American way of inviting journalists to be embedded [inside a military unit], I would call that an extremely intelligent form of censorship. By just integrating journalists into combat units, I would say had an enormous impact on the kind of writing or filming of the journalists, there have been wonderful, critical, exceptions. But I would say generally it’s extremely difficult to write critical about the people who are also in charge of protecting your life when you travel with them, so these are the forms of censorship that I have to deal mostly with.
I’ve never been embedded, I made the decision not to, just because I have experienced, once that I more or less accidentally ended up with a fighting unit during a particular combat situation in Northern Iraq, actually in 2003, and while lying with a group of people under attack, I was under attack as they were, and I realized that I actually wanted my soldiers to kill the soldiers on the other side. Basically because that meant that they wouldn’t kill me. I don’t think I thought that was because I was a particularly mean person, but I think it’s just the natural thing to do in a moment of existential threat, you rather want your people to win than the other side, and so I think that the whole myth of neutrality is lost in such situation, so I just don’t want to get into those situations. The focus of my work always has been to look at the lives and conditions of life of civilian populations, so I’m not a war reporter in the sense that I, you know, mostly write on armies or the military development.
I write on civilians, refugees, and those who are victims of war and not the ones that are actually in the combat, so you can say that’s an easy way out of that conflict, but it is a way to look at another side of war than by focusing on the weapons.
Has it become more difficult for journalists to do their jobs?
I’m doing this since more than 10 years, and I wouldn’t say it’s become more easy or more difficult, I think one aspect has become much more difficult. In some Arab countries, journalists are not perceived as independent anymore, but are more sort of profiled as belonging to the Western world or white or non-Muslim, and that has been, I mean, for me, personally tremendously disconcerting, a) because I don’t perceive myself that way, but b) because it meant that in certain countries you couldn’t really travel anymore unless you wanted to run a really high risk of getting kidnapped for ransom or getting killed in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
Have you ever felt the need to censor your own work?
I think as a German writer, I think there’s only one area that’s highly sensitive not in the sense that anyone would censor you, but in the sense that you yourself are very, very careful I think about framing just any sentence and any thought, and that is Israel. And, as a young German writer, I think for my generation we’re all driven by, you know, the consciousness of the Shoah, and of the responsibility of the next German society to never, ever have anything like Auschwitz happen again, so I think there’s an enormous, you know, caution as a German to criticize Israeli politics, that’s not censorship, that’s sensibility with historic knowledge, but I think that’s the only real topic where the German public fear one has to be careful.
How do you deal with what you witness?
I think one doesn’t. I think what you see and experience is just overwhelmingly upsetting and you don’t come to terms with it. I could say that there is something else that doesn’t really compensate but that gives you the energy to cope with it. Very, very often, in such areas of death and destruction, it’s particularly beautiful and people are incredibly hospitable and generous, actually particularly in poor countries, people are incredibly generous. So you feel enriched in these areas and you feel honoured by many of the conversations and encounters with normal people that you have, so that doesn’t stop the other experiences from haunting you, but I think it’s a force for joy and gratefulness that I think is what allows you to continue to do it.
Would you consider yourself an advocacy journalist?
We don’t have that term, I [just] heard that for the first time. No, I mean, it seems strange to me. I’m highly critical of concepts such as objectivity and neutrality, but I’m, you know, not an advocate of any group, I’m definitely an advocate of human rights, so I think what I will defend and what I’ll never be neutral about is, you know, the Geneva conventions, international standards of law and human rights. Whoever undermines these I will criticize them, whether that is members of my country or another country, I don’t really care. So in that sense I would say I’m trying to be independent, I’m trying to be self-selective about my own subjectivity, and I’m cautious about terms as neutrality and objectivity.
Is it difficult to get people to open about their experiences, especially in times of war?
It always surprised me, but actually people want you to write about what the experience as injustice. People beg you to tell their stories, not because they were so naïve that they would think that because some unknown German writer writes something that their lives would immediately change, but because they have experienced such long-term structural exclusion that the sheer fact that someone sits down with them, listens, and says, what you’ve experienced is wrong, that already makes a huge difference to them. And I think that is different in regions of natural crises, or natural disaster. I was recently in Haiti, and no one wanted to talk to me there, all they wanted was food or a tent, but this was the first time in my life that that happened. Usually, people really want to share their experience, and I think the difference between a natural disaster and a political disaster is that in a natural disaster, their critique doesn’t have an addresee, I mean there’s nobody to criticize for what’s happened to them.
Carolin Emcke will be speaking at Blue Metropolis’s “Writers in Peril: Censorship” panel on April 23 at 6:30 p.m in the Delta Centre-Ville’s Verrière AB (777 University St.). Admission is $10.
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