Even before Alistair MacLeod's first novel, No Great Mischief, was released in Canada, the story of its origins had made its way into the annals of publishing folklore.
According to legend, McClelland & Stewart's publisher, Douglas Gibson--impatient after waiting 13 years for a first novel by MacLeod, an accomplished short story writer--one day grew fed up and sped down the highway from Toronto to Windsor, a small Canadian city across the border from Detroit. He then rushed to the University of Windsor, where MacLeod has been teaching creative writing and 19th-century literature for the past 30 years, and snatched from the professor a manuscript hand-scribbled mostly on exam booklets and loose leaf paper.
MacLeod agrees to the facts of the story, but downplays their implication.
"I don't think the struggle was as mammoth as he [Gibson] makes it sound," MacLeod says with a Cape Breton lilt, admitting that the book was a long time in the writing. "People make it sound like I have been working on this book 10 hours a day for the last 13 years," he chuckles. "It's as if I put down only half a word a year." The book has been poking around in his head for a long time, MacLeod says. He just needed the time to perfect it.
MacLeod has developed a reputation as an exacting writer. He does not commit anything to paper unless it is perfect, since he does not bother with revisions. MacLeod's two short story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986), both published by McClelland & Stewart, each took 10 years to complete. The author has been reading excerpts from No Great Mischief for the last two years, but when asked by his enraptured audiences when they could expect to see the novel on bookshelves, the 64-year-old MacLeod would reply, "Soon, soon."
As critics have agreed, it was well worth the wait. Since its release in Canada, No Great Mischief has remained steadily near the top of Canada's bestseller lists. In the U.S., W.W. Norton will publish the novel, sending MacLeod on a six-city tour to New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis; Seattle; and San Francisco. In the fall, Norton plans to collect all of MacLeod's short stories in a volume titled Island: The Complete Stories.
Around the world, the novel is a bona fide publishing hit, with bidders from here to Israel fighting for the rights. According to Marilyn Bidderman, McClelland & Stewart's rights director, the novel took the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm. U.S. rights were sold to Norton after a three-day auction the week before the fair. By the third day of the fair, M&S had three six-figure offers for No Great Mischief from German publishers, with the highest offer doubling overnight. The novel has been sold in 10 countries to date, including France, Spain and the Netherlands.
Meeting MacLeod at the McDonald's outside the university, it is plain the writer hasn't strayed from his humble roots, despite his international triumphs. He is wearing a plaid cap and weathered, brown leather vest, and as he opens the door to his beat-up car, the strains of a catchy Celtic tune with an escalating tempo fill the air. It's a ditty by Howie MacDonald, a member of the Rankin Family, and the song itself seems to emanate from the pages of No Great Mischief, where everything comes down to roots. Welcome to MacLeod country.
Born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, MacLeod was raised among his extended, Scottish family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia--a rocky, Atlantic coast island well-populated by residents of Scottish descent. Not surprisingly, it is fertile ground for Scottish and Celtic arts. Objects on display in MacLeod's office at the university expose the writer's inner motivations. A magazine on Celtic music rests beside his chair and a photo of his great-grandfather's house in Cape Breton sits center stage on his desk. The house remains empty all winter, but MacLeod and his wife spend summers, as well as his sabbatical years, there. MacLeod and his wife grew up in Inverness, on Cape Breton. Two of his six children were born in the town where his in-laws still live, tying the author even closer to the home of his youth.
The notion of the ties that bind people--to family, to a specific geographic area and to history--resonate in the novel, and with the MacLeod family. Yet MacLeod is quick to add that the novel is not autobiographical.
"I like it when people think my book is autobiographical, because that means that I succeeded in using the technique that I set out to use--that I am a certain person, living in a certain place in a certain time, and I am going to tell you what happened to me. I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it," he explains.
The plot centers around protagonist Alexander MacDonald, who is orphaned as a child when his parents drown in icy waters. MacDonald grows up to become an orthodontist, in stark contrast to his older brothers, who spend their lives at harsher occupations like fishing and mining, drinking hard and struggling to make ends meet. Through his narrator, MacLeod retells the history of the MacDonald clan, or rather, Calum Ruadh (Red Calum's clan), focusing on the importance of loyalty and familial obligation.
The family, and other Scots in this Cape Breton tale, are united by a strong sense of common history. The narrative hearkens back to Scotland in 1745 and the slaughter of Scots at Culloden Moor. Later, it moves to Canada and the 1759 assault on Quebec, where General Wolfe is reported to have said of projected heavy losses of his Scottish troops, "No great mischief if they fall"--lending the novel its title. In modern times, Alexander MacDonald is unable to shed the obligations that come along with the clan's heritage, and the responsibility he feels for his brothers.
MacLeod knows intimately the landscape of the novel, as well as the songs and the people he writes of. "I know the songs, and I know the landscape, and I know how snow works and I know how boats work. All that physical setting I know quite well. What I have done was invent people to put in those physical settings. And I think that is a good way to work."
At heart, MacLeod is a storyteller. And the voice capturing that oral tradition of storytelling in the novel sounds uncannily like MacLeod's own Cape Breton lilt. Not surprisingly, MacLeod reads his sentences aloud as he writes, to ensure they maintain their lyrical qualities and sound as if they were spoken, not written.
Writer's Writer to Bestselling Author
MacLeod's novel has made headlines not only for its accolades but for its scandals. A typo in the mailing room disqualified the novel for one of Canada's top prizes, the Governor General's Award, apparently offering the novel for competition in the year 2000 rather than 1999. MacLeod's publisher contested the prize committee's decision, saying that it was nonsense that a novel would be completed and submitted for a prize over a year in advance. The Canada Council agreed that a mistake had been made and No Great Mischief will compete this year for the award.
Yet MacLeod believes he has lost his chance since works by several top-notch Canadian authors, like Carol Shields and Michael Ondaatje, are being released this year.
"It seemed more horrendous to a lot of people than to me," MacLeod said of the prize fiasco, although he admits that it "would have been nice" to be nominated for a Governor General's Award. With or without the nomination, MacLeod is content that the novel continues to chug along at a comfortable clip on Canada's bestseller lists.
For MacLeod, previously regarded as "a writer's writer," No Great Mischief's success is an exciting development. Although his work has twice been included in the Best American Short Stories series, and the Modern Library last April selected The Lost Salt Gift of Blood as among the best 200 English novels since 1950 (though it is a short story collection), MacLeod has remained relatively unknown.
He used to be a recognized name in the U.S. literary world, but living in Canada and writing at a tortoise's clip took MacLeod out of the publishing limelight. The author recalls attending a literary event in New York several years back and wearing a name tag. Someone approached him and said, "Alistair MacLeod, I thought you died." "No," replied the author. "I didn't die. I just went to Canada."
In his youth, MacLeod completed a master's degree at the University of New Brunswick and then went for his doctorate at the University of Notre Dame, specifically to study under a well-known professor of creative writing, Frank O'Malley. After getting his Ph.D., he was invited to the University of Windsor to teach creative writing--a course that was not given much credence 30 years ago. Not much has changed, according to MacLeod.
"Today there is a division between those who write about literature and those who create it," he says, adding that some universities are even hostile to the creative process. "I, obviously, don't think that should be there," he laughs. "If people aren't creating literature, there would be nothing for people to criticize."
"If you were to go to the library and look at all the books written on Shakespeare, there would be more than those written by Shakespeare. But one must remember that they are 'as a candle is to the sun,'" MacLeod continues, quoting William Blake. "It is a different kind of light they are shedding."
As a teacher of creative writing, MacLeod tries to convey to his students that they should write about what they care most deeply about. "If they don't care passionately about their subject, their writing won't be as good. And I find that you can't give people interest, and you can't give them talent and you can't give them imagination, so people ask, 'How can you teach creative writing?' I see myself as a midwife, or a coach. I take what they have and try to make it better."
MacLeod also tries to convey the difference between what is true and what is real.
"There is a kind of belief among my students that things that are true are interesting. But most things that are true are not interesting. Four pages describing how I got up and brushed my teeth in the morning would kill you. 'Truth will make you free,' they say. Well," MacLeod laughs, "I think the truth is just boring... You don't need autobiographical truth. Just real stories."
Moving from short stories to a novel was a natural progression for MacLeod. Writing short stories was "intense," like "running a 100-meter sprint." Writing a novel felt more like a marathon, he says, joking that he had to pace himself and "save up energy for hill number seven."
But taking a long time to compile short stories differs greatly from taking an even longer time to write a novel, as MacLeod discovered. Colloquialisms change, as do current events. "I found [writing a novel] that the history around you changes. I don't think this should affect you, but it kind of does because you are affected by the world you live in. Things you could say six or seven years ago, you can't say anymore.
"You couldn't write Cold War novels or Uncle Tom's Cabin today. Sure, slavery is bad, but we're all in a historical context whether we like it or not... the fact is that the world around me changed, and I changed myself."
Despite his glacial pace, MacLeod felt compelled to move toward the novel form since his last few short stories were approaching novella length. "I think I needed a bigger canvas, a bus instead of a Volkswagen to put all my people in," he says boisterously, "and send them on a big trip. To Regina instead of Chatham."
Nearing retirement and recovering from his postpublishing euphoria, the writer claims he is resting now and not concentrating on writing anything new. "I see myself as a hockey player at the end of the season. I just want to get the smelly underwear and stinky skates off and say, 'No more for two months.' When I get all this stuff cleaned out," he says, looking at the impenetrable hill of papers in his office, "and a lot of things happen, then I will write again. Right now, I am overwhelmed."