Ann-Marie MacDonald: harvesting the personal

Interview by Beverley cooper // from issue 1. Vol. 2

From the very start of her literary career, Ann-Marie MacDonald has been an artist to watch and celebrate. Her first novel, Fall on Your Knees, received extensive praise, awards and a blessing from Oprah. Her second, The Way the Crow Flies, was an international bestseller and finalist for the Giller Prize. Now, a decade later, we have Adult Onset, which places readers directly into the multi-tasking brain of Ann-Marie’s fictitious alter ego, Mary Rose MacKinnon, as she struggles through a week of parental hell. I have been lucky enough to call MacDonald my friend since we were in theatre school together. We met for lunch at Toronto’s Drake Hotel, where we discussed the difficult task of writing the new novel.

BC: Ten years have passed since your last book was published. Did you feel a pressure to produce? Did you suffer from severe writer’s block? Or were you just busy in your other roles, creatively and domestically? 

AM: I did feel a tremendous pressure, because I am lucky to have readers. People did ask me, When is the next one coming out? I have a publisher who would also ask me from time to time, and I’m married to someone who would say, When are you going to start a new book? They all knew it would be good for me to do that. Once my youngest daughter was five years old, in school full days and able, with her sister, to withstand the degree of psychic abandonment necessary for me to go off and write long-form fiction, I could be elsewhere in my psyche. What I tried to do was pour the process of writing this book into the nature of the book itself.

About the blocks: I never really understood the idea of “writer’s block”—I thought of it more as “writer’s blank.” My blocks were more that I was writing about somebody who was processing personal shadows, demons from the past, in order not to pass them on to her child, while also trying to care for her elderly parents as best she can. If you haven’t processed your own past and your own childhood, if there is any kind of unprocessed demon hanging around, there’s nothing like a toddler in your life to bring it springing out. 

It was partly pragmatic that I turned to my own underworld. Not that I haven’t done that in the past—I’ve always done that—but my previous novels have also been encompassed in worlds that have period settings. With this book, I thought, I’m not going to take off and do period research. I don’t have unlimited time, I have to work with what’s at hand. I have to write from what I already know. I thought that would make it easier, but it didn’t. It made it harder because I was still processing my own issues. But, I thought, If I don’t do this now, I never will. So I went right into the block. I didn’t know if I would finish the book or if it would finish me. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 

BC: Adult Onset started as part of a collection of short stories. Why short stories? And why didn’t the novel stay as a short story?

AM: I completed a short story, 65 manuscript pages called “Hello Stranger,” but it turned out to be what I call a donor story—I harvested it and used its organs for Adult Onset. I was also writing other stories around that time, none of which have been published. Then I started writing something else that was turning into a novel. It featured Mary Rose MacKinnon, the same protagonist as “Hello Stranger.” Although the novel was set in another time period, I realized I was writing about her. Somewhere between “Hello Stranger” and this other novel was the story. I had to set about bringing them together, harvesting what was alive in each of them and grafting them together to see what would take, because sometimes you have two good ideas that just don’t go together.

BC: Adult Onset is extremely autobiographical, yet it is, at its core, a work of fiction. Some things are very specifically you, such as the reference to your involvement in the “It Gets Better” campaign. On the other hand, you’ve made Mary Rose a writer of YA novels. Why did you change some elements and not others?

AM: I consider it to be all fiction; however, many aspects of it are recognizable. I think the moment you try to remove a distinctly autobiographical element, other things are going to collapse around it. It’s all interwoven.

What liberated me to finally be able to see it as its own thing was understanding that I’d been playing a little psychic trick on myself all along. My protagonist writes books set in parallel universes about parallel selves, and that’s exactly what I was doing. In this book, there is such a person as Margaret Atwood and the “It Gets Better” campaign, but there is no such person as Ann-Marie MacDonald. She doesn’t exist in that world. Therefore, she’s a parallel self and I’m writing her memoir over one week.

BC: Did you censor yourself at any point? Did you ever think, “I can’t put that in because my family will never speak to me again”? 

AM: I continually censored myself. It was agonizing. I felt like I was in a state of paralysis. I wrote as if I was a prisoner in the former Soviet Union, in a gulag, drugged, strapped to a bed with the ability to blink one eye and move one finger. I would just try to write out everything, and sometimes I thought, Am I only writing this out because I think I shouldn’t? Is it actually valuable? I thought I’d just get it all out and decide later. At a certain point, when I knew I’d be working with material that would be recognizable to people who are close to me, my loved ones, my parents who are so elderly now…I did talk to my parents. I told them what I was working on and said, You may recognize some things. I am drawing on darker aspects of our history together, drawing on my own life to create a universal story that hopefully other people will recognize themselves in. In order to do that, I need to draw on some very personal stuff because that’s my job.

My father responded by saying, And you do your job so well. That said, this book is still not the easiest thing in the world for him.

BC: How did you manage to keep this book from becoming simply a cathartic, therapeutic exercise in self-pity? 

AM: Story. What has happened on this page? Why is this sentence necessary? What has changed? Whether it’s a lyrical passage, a poetic passage or a very concrete getting-the-kid-into-her-snowsuit passage… what has changed in the world because these words are here? Where is the reader going? What has pulled the reader through? Where are we in time and space? All of those questions that you ask when you are trying to communicate, when you have a reader in mind. But I didn’t get to the place where I could ask those questions until I was about halfway through and had all the raw material assembled.

BC: And how has it been to share this very personal story with the world?

AM: It was so difficult for me to keep faith in this book. There were so many times I knew it would be easier to just stop and do something completely different. I also had an overwhelming sense of dread that I really shouldn’t be writing this book because it’s too personal. But I realized that it was an elaborate form of procrastination, because writing is so hard. I had to keep moving, keep going forward. Once it became an advanced reading copy and I knew it was going out in the world very soon, I was really worried that no one would want to read this book. Have I written a book that has the potential to wound my parents that no one will want to read? That was my nightmare. If this was an elaborate form of self-sabotage, I succeeded brilliantly—that was
my fear.

BC: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? How do you start? Do you write in bits and pieces? Do outlines?

AM: I’ve never written an outline for a piece of fiction. I’ve always proceeded from an idea, an image, a feeling…I don’t know where it’s going. I start with a little spot and spread outwards from there. I accumulate writing around it until there’s a character there. I’ll start from something that is alive, and I’ll find out if it’s robust enough to take on a bigger life. I’ve worked from outlines for television writing, theatre writing, so I know I can do that. I’d like to combine the best of both worlds: my ability to structure a story early on, and my ability to stick very close to the authentic core of whatever it is that wants to emerge.

BC: What’s on your creative horizon at the moment? Can you talk about the Hamlet project you are doing with your wife, Alisa Palmer, and Stars musician Torquil Campbell?

AM: It’s a collaborative project that Alisa brought to Stratford, and she was talking to Torquil about it. I jumped in because I didn’t want to be left out. It sounded like so much fun. The point of departure is songs that Stars have already written, but it’s an original story. Right now it’s titled “Hamlet: The Student Matinee”. 

BC: Last question. What roles have mentors played in your career?

AM: My mentors are my colleagues and my contemporaries—Maureen White, Banuta Rubess, and you as well. Back in the day, we all worked together and mentored each other. There are a couple of people who made a crucial difference at a crucial time. With theatre it would have been Clark Rogers and the ever-present Paul Thompson,
people like Linda Griffiths who were just a little bit ahead of us. The writers from whom I’ve learned—Chekhov and Shakespeare are really the main ones, and Northrup Frye, whom I never met. In terms of fiction, Louise Dennys appeared at a crucial moment as my editor and publisher—she was instrumental. And Alisa—she read every single word of this book, thousands of pages. It was extraordinary, her stamina. I really couldn’t believe that she was willing to read that much, basically be a steady person, a witness, saying, You’re not crazy, you’re working, keep going until it’s done. Finish it.


ANN-MARIE MACDONALD is an author, playwright and actor. Best known for her plays, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) and Belle Moral: A Natural History, as well as her novels, Fall On Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies, she also enjoys a career on stage, most recently in Tarragon Theatre’s production of “More Fine Girls”. Her work as a screen actor has earned her a Gemini Award and a Genie Nomination. Ms MacDonald’s writing has been honoured with numerous awards including the Chalmers, the Dora Mavor Moore, the Governor General’s and the Commonwealth Prize. She hosted CBC Television’s Life and Times for seven seasons and currently hosts the flagship documentary series Doc Zone. Ms. MacDonald lives in Toronto with her family.