Alistair MacLeod: Remembering one of Canada’s great writers

MacLeod speaking about his friend Alice Munro at IFOA 2013

This past weekend, we lost one of Canada’s greatest short story writers. Beloved 77-year-old author Alistair MacLeod passed away on Sunday in Windsor, Ontario. Alistair was the author of two internationally acclaimed collections of stories and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awardwinning novel No Great Mischief. In 2008, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for his commitment to Canadian literature and influence on Canadian authors.

MacLeod signing a book for a fan following the Tribute to Alice Munro

Before his retirement, Alistair taught literature and creative writing at the University of Windsor. Each summer, he would return to Inverness County, where he wrote in a cabin that looked towards Prince Edward Island.

Alistair was a frequent guest at the IFOA. During our 2013 Festival, he appeared onstage for our Journey Prize Celebration and our special tribute to Alice Munro, eliciting great applause and laughter from the audience. This wonderful man will be greatly missed by all of us here at IFOA and by the rest of the literary community.

Alistair’s funeral will be held on Saturday at St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Broad Cove.


A Tribute to Alice Munro

By Janet Somerville

The Fleck Dance Theatre was packed to the gills on Saturday, November 2, and the evening’s warm-hearted playfulness was established with IFOA Director Geoffrey Taylor quipping, “through the magic of prerecorded voiceover, I just got to introduce myself.” He celebrated Alice Munro as this year’s Harbourfront Festival Prize recipient, “who has made a substantial contribution to Canadian letters,” noting how delighted he was “that the Nobel Foundation agreed with us about a month after our announcement.” Avie Bennett, former Chair of IFOA and President of McClelland & Stewart, accepted the prize on Munro’s behalf and said, “Please settle for my assurances that I’ll convey both the cheque and your good wishes to Alice.”

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime editor, who made her feel “that short stories were worthy fiction” decades ago, hosted the evening. About the Nobel nod this year, Gibson recounted how he sat by the phone for the past five years, awaiting THE call in the wee hours of the morning. This year, as soon as the news spread, he was invited to do several “interviews of exaltation” that went like this: “How great is it?” “It’s really, really, really great!” Well, it IS. Since a video of the evening was being sent to Alice, Gibson encouraged the audience to show its appreciation for her work, and we roared to our feet, cheering and clapping, absolutely chuffed for her.

Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart

The first to pay tribute was Alice’s longtime friend Jane Urquhart, who claimed Alice’s stories, grounded as they are in small town life, “gave me permission to play with the notion of writing myself.” She unfurled the tale of their first meeting in 1987, when Urquhart retrieved Munro from the bus depot in New Hamburg, “practically incoherent with excitement.” In her diary at the time, Urquhart mused about the number of exclamation marks: “Yesterday I spent the day with Alice Munro!!!! She sat in precisely the right chair at the kitchen table!!!!! She told me about her father’s book and she cried.” Urquhart then read an excerpt from Robert Laidlaw’s book and from Alice’s story “Working for a Living,” collected in The View From Castle Rock. She concluded with another piece from her own diary, where she recorded, “Alice told me that the Clinton librarian had been captured by Albanian bandits. She wondered if she could write a story about it. I hope she does!!!!!!!”

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, who Gibson noted, “grew up in the shadow of Alice and found the shade not depressing, but inspiring,” spoke next. Toews remembered that when she was twelve, her sister went away to university and told her to “stay out of my room,” a plea she ignored and therein found a copy of Lives of Girls and Women on the bookshelf, its cover image “like looking out my window.” Between its pages she began her “own course of study on life with Del Jordan. Serious. Badass. Hardcore adult literature.” And, after reading an excerpt from that coming-of-age collection, she noted, “Alice Munro initiated me into the world of literature and I am grateful for her exquisite company.”

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Novelist Colum McCann took the stage after Toews, noting “literature is an intimate form of admiration. The short story is an imploding universe, a white star with hot language and beautifully defined singularities. I see Alice Munro as the absolute antidote to despair.” And, then he read a heartbreaking, exquisite excerpt from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the piece that Sarah Polley adapted into her Oscar-nominated screenplay Away from Her.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod

Celebrated short story writer and fellow IMPAC winner Alistair MacLeod waxed on about how “Alice notices everything and that is one of her great strengths.” Consider the details of the washing on the line, the Rhode Island red hens, the velvet paintings of Niagara Falls in the kitchen and other bits of what might be observed in Jubilee: “deep caves paved with linoleum.” With his rumbling East Coast cadence, MacLeod read from “Passion,” one of the stories in Runaway.

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble

As Gibson introduced the final speaker, Margaret Drabble, he noted she had “a grandparent called Bloor and loves to return to Toronto where there is a subway line named after her family.” Who knew? Drabble began by delighting in carrying Munro’s complete work on her Kindle and her thrill in re-reading Alice, which is equally rewarding to discovering her for the first time. “She is a virtuoso, but with none of the self-conscious showmanship. She writes with insight, sympathy and great wit. Her stories turn ‘round on themselves, and come back to where they began. When I think of her work, I think of landscape and long journeys. Settings are described with poetic precision. Alice has such a powerful sense of the way landscape shapes our lives.”

Alice Munro’s stories reflect the narratives in our own lives. What, in fiction, is more powerful than that?

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

The Journey Prize: Celebrating 25 Years of Canada’s New Writers, with Yann Martel

By Grace O’Connell

If short fiction ever feels comparatively overlooked beside its novel brethren, I can only hope it was in attendance last night at the Journey Prize 25th anniversary celebration, because the event was a fabulous short fiction love-in.

Eight writers who got an early leg-up from appearing in The Journey Prize Stories (including several prize winners) spoke on the theme of “beginnings.” The event itself began with a video created by McClelland & Stewart Senior Editor Anita Chong, followed by an introduction from M&S SVP and Fiction Publisher Ellen Seligman. Thanks were offered to prize patron James Michener and erstwhile M&S president Avi Bennett (who was in attendance), who partnered with Michener to found the prize a quarter century ago.Martel

Booker Prize winner Yann Martel served as host and one of the participating authors, and opened the evening by speaking about his experience winning the prize for his third published story, “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios” (which originally appeared in BC’s The Malahat Review and was submitted to the prize by none other than the late Constance Rooke).

Speaking to this year’s jacket image of a lit match, Martel said of emerging writers, “Your flame can easily be blown out—you need people who will blow on it very gently and make it burn brighter.” And the evening’s writers are now burning very brightly indeed, with the Journey Prize as an early and important bellows.

After Martel’s intro, Miranda Hill spoke on beginnings, hers and otherwise (memorable quote: “Genesis is basically one long press release”). She then read a story called “The Idea of Kentucky” which garnered enthusiastic applause.

Steven Galloway took the stage next, and started by wryly warning the packed house, “It’s Halloween and as we speak, your houses are being egged by unhappy children.” He related a story about how his widely acclaimed novel The Cellist of Sarajevo began with a photo he saw in a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, capturing that magical moment of an idea’s first spark.

Pasha Malla kept his opening topical, asking the audience to shout out any updates on the Rob Ford scandal, saying “Everyone wants to know” (no news broke during the event, sadly). For his take on “beginnings,” Malla projected an image of his first “published” story—a piece called “The Magic Mittens,” which his third grade teacher typeset for him due to his woeful handwriting. He spoke of looking at past writing as a way of knowing himself: “I’m writing stories partly to leave a kind of breadcrumb trail for my future self.”

The final speaker before the intermission was Elizabeth Hay, who spoke of where her stories and books begin. “Personal stories rooted in the past, set in places that shape character,” she said, speaking to what attracts her. Sharing a story of a cross-country bus trip, she commented on the transformational process of writing and reading. “You’re taken both into and out of yourself.”

After the audience gulped down some wine, they were treated to the final four speakers, starting with the venerable Alistair MacLeod, who served as a judge for the very first Journey Prize. He pointed out that his son, Alexander MacLeod, has also appeared in the collection, as have several of the younger MacLeod’s writing students. “Which makes me something of a grandfather of the Journey Prize,” said MacLeod. After a short speech that got ton of laughs, MacLeod finished with the sentiment of the evening: “We should be grateful for the Journey prize… long may it thrive and make a contribution to Canadian literature and beyond.”

Lisa Moore kept the laughs going, telling a story of the hectic time during which her first book was written, when a false fire call resulted in a fire chief telling her that her house had apparently been ransacked. It turned out that this was just the state of the house Moore shared with her husband, sister-in-law and their combined three children, where writing was prioritized over mundane domesticity. “I think it was a pretty good way to start,” said Moore, whose multiple Giller Prize nominations likely agree.

Alissa York told a different sort of “beginning” story, relating a funny and tender tale of meeting her husband, who gave her this great early writing advice when she first thought she might have a story to tell, late one night. “Then you better get up and write it,” he said. “It might not be there tomorrow. You’ve got to get up and write it.”

Martel returned to close the evening. He spoke of his own literary beginnings, how he first became fascinated by language itself. He admitted to an early attempt at playwriting: “It was a play about a young man in love with a door. It was supposed to be a tragedy.” Even though the play was less than perfect, there was a joy in the writing. “I slowly got better,” he said. “I just kept at it.”

After comparing writing to Crossfit (it was worth attending just to find out that Yann Martel does Crossfit), Martel got serious and closed with the following thought: “Corporations and governments and time—these things don’t care about you. A God though cares about you—and it’s the same thing with art. Because without you it cannot be. A book needs a reader… art is the last bastion of the individual.”

It was an evening full of such wisdom and enthusiasm. The Journey Prize’s fine pedigree was celebrated, but moreover the atmosphere was full of the genuine love the guest authors still hold for the prize. Alyssa York summed up the support and confidence the prize has provided, saying “It felt like I had opened a giant fortune cookie and the fortune inside read: You are a writer.”

Grace O’Connell holds an MFA in creative writing. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Walrus, Taddle Creek, Quill & Quire and EYE Weekly. She has taught creative writing at George Brown College and now works as a freelance writer and editor in Toronto. She is the author of the national bestseller Magnified World.