The son of author Alistair MacLeod, Alexander MacLeod’s debut story collection, Light Lifting, was published by Biblioasis in 2010, though it wasn’t released in the United States until 2011. A sharp, poignant volume of wonder and nostalgia, the book went on to collect a laundry list of accolades. It was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Frank O’Connor award, and was named “Book of the Year” by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, Quill and Quire, The Coast, and Amazon.ca.
I’ve been a fan of MacLeod’s since first reading his story, “Miracle Mile,” which follows two elite runners as they compete for a spot on the Canadian national team. Being a runner myself, the story felt real, alive, almost as if MacLeod was reporting rather than conjuring. I reviewed Light Lifting for Rain Taxi Review of Books, and now feel fortunate to have spent some time talking with such a gifted young writer.
We spoke via Skype on a lazy Sunday afternoon in mid-January. I was home in Connecticut, while Alexander, fresh from constructing a Lego ghost ship with his children, checked in from Nova Scotia.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard (BW): I want to start by asking you to speak about the physicality found in your writing. Most of the stories in Light Lifting involve either athletics or some sort of corporeal task, from bicycle delivery to bricklaying to walking long distances down the highway. Was this a conscious decision on your part when constructing the collection?
Alexander MacLeod (AM): I was very interested in the stories I was trying not to write. So I didn’t want a story that could take place in an entirely psychological way, something that could just be how events were interpreted internally. I wanted to see a story—both in terms of the characters and the narrative—that could actually work in a presentation of physical scenes, scenes that had a physical dimension, so readers could come up to a moment where there would be a physical juxtaposition.
One that I always think of from a narrative point of view is the boy [in “The Loop”] who comes up to the threshold of the house and has to step across and perform mouth to mouth. There is a whole sequence of events that unfold here that would be different if he stays on the other side. I was interested in seeing not just character decisions, but narrative decisions taking on a physical dimension, so that if an action took place, then the action was going to be unambiguous: you were either on this side or that side.
Sometimes physicality is an alternative to ambiguity, sort of a clarifying function. For the runners [in “Miracle Mile”], that’s very clear—for runners it’s very clear that [a time of] 3:36 is different than 3:39. So I wanted to have the psychological stuff going on, all those good internal emotions, but I also wanted to have physical manifestations so that, when those emotions arrived, they wouldn’t be ambiguous.
BW: As a reader, it feels as if research is a vital part of your storytelling, as all of your narratives are filled with intricate facts. I’m thinking of caravan engine construction in “The Number Three” and head lice in “Wonder About Parents.” What kind of role does research play when you write? And how do you create balance so that your research doesn’t overtake the creativity of the narrative?
AM: I actually didn’t do very much research at all, and I’m kind of strategic about not knowing things on purpose. I try to see the research in “Wonder About Parents” as totally embedded in the character. The character reads that book, and the character doesn’t know anything about lice, he just picks up this absurd book. And the absurdity of the book was very shocking to me when I read it. I thought, “Wow, this book is itself a kind of stunning.” It would be classified under epidemiology. Hans Zinsser wrote that book.
The other stuff wasn’t really researched. It was just things in the air. The caravan in “The Number Three,” yeah, I did ask some guys who work in the van plant. I have cousins who work in that plant, so I was interested in those different chassis. And it turns out I was more interested in it than lots of readers. They always find that stuff boring.
I did want to be right on those details because I thought that, though literary people don’t care about it, I knew that people would be reading the story who did know what was right and wrong. I had to have the horsepower right. You couldn’t say that the problem with the Dodge caravan was that it had no guts and that they gave it some guts. I didn’t want to be totally wrong as far as they were concerned. So I was definitely thinking about those people. I don’t know if that’s research as much as it is peer pressure.
BW: I want to follow up by asking you about your use of layering in the collection. You often inject asides in your narratives, little tidbits that provide contextual information about your protagonists: “Wonder About Parents” contains a scene where characters talk about basketball nicknames; “The Loop” features all those small scenes between the delivery boy and his elderly customers. I’m curious if these tiny moments are things you’ve collected over the years for this purpose of fleshing out a character’s history, or if they organically grow from the narrative as you’re writing?
AM: Anne Enright has a great line about description, where she says description is not passive, it’s active; it’s your stance on the world. When you’re describing something, you’re taking the world in and kind of spinning it back out. So there are lots of scenes that people think are descriptive, those side moments that aren’t really essential to the plot, or they’re not critical scenes. But to me, when I’m building this story, they are essential. Like that scene with the Pistons: I was really keen to get Vinnie Johnson into that story, because they called him “The Microwave” because he’d heat up in a hurry. I found those Pistons interesting; they fit into my story well.
And the old ladies fit in completely the same way. I often come back to those old ladies in “The Loop” as, perhaps, the most physical people in the whole book. Everybody thinks it’s about the runners or the guys laying bricks or the kid riding the bike, but the old ladies who are shoveling the snow, who have made that decision, are interesting. When you’re 76 and your children are going to try to boot you out of the house, your physical being takes on this really important level of significance. So I wanted to make every aside part of the center. Those old ladies who might seem peripheral were essential to how you think about the story. If you had them in a scene, the old lady who just peeks through the cracks of her door, or the lady who always carves the pumpkins, those are two different ways to be in the world, and I was trying to bring them closer to bigger concerns of the whole book.
BW: How do you construct your stories? Do they start with an image, or do you come up with a broad concept and try to build from there?
AM: I try to approach them like poems, a little bit. I’m interested in images, and I try to imagine an image that will hold the whole story. So in “Adult Beginner I,” I pictured that girl jumping off the Holiday Inn in the dark, and I saw her body in the black sky, with the black water underneath. And then I thought the whole story would answer, “How did she get there, and what are the consequences of that action?”
If you can just plant the image in the reader, even if they can’t remember the name of the character or the consequences, if they just have that image, then the whole story is sitting there. Same with the runners or, again, the kid stepping across the threshold. When I build them, I might have 2 or 3 images that I really want to get right. I want to put the image in a scene. Kind of build a scene from an image and then build a story out of four or five of those. Something happens, or you imagine how something happens, in an image, then a scene, and then a story. That’s how I work.
BW: You’re a runner, right?
BW: Does running help facilitate your writing?
AM: Definitely. I’m kind of hurt right now. I have a bad Achilles tendon right now. And I find that when I can’t get out and can’t be alone like that for an hour or an hour and a half every day—is it freezing in Connecticut?
BW: No, actually it’s warm right now. I was running this morning in just a shirt and pants. We’re in a heat wave in the middle of January.
AM: Well, we have these Halifax cycles, where we get 40 cm of snow, then this horrible melt/freeze combo, so when you get a horrible footing, there’s no place you can go. And I was running in that and I screwed up my Achilles, and it has been a week of compromise.
I like whatever it is about running, or “old man running,” I suppose: just putting in time and committing to a process with no idea of what it’s worth. It’s not really worth anything anymore. It’s very personal. I think that running and writing have an awful lot in common. You kind of have to give yourself over to it and you have to think it matters before anyone else will think it matters, and you have to kind of be doing it in a way that’s separate from yourself.
If you watch running, you say, “Well, what is it this David Rudisha doing?” Well, this is a guy who’s going to go to the Olympics and he’s going to win the 800mm. To me, there’s something very pure and outside of subjectivity when you get to that level of talent. I always say I’m more interested in good writing than I am in good writers. When you judge a contest, all the names are gone and you don’t know who this person is, where they come from. You just read paragraph, paragraph, paragraph. And it’s amazing how writing can get beyond the person and just be the thing itself, like running. I don’t know. It could just be that I’m a runner who writes. There are lots of us out there.
BW: While on the subject of running, the story “Miracle Mile” features the following passage about balance: “You have to make choices: you can’t run and be an astronaut. Can’t run and have a full-time job. Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run. When I stopped going to church or coming home for the holidays, my mother used to worry that I was losing my balance, but I never met a balanced guy who ever got anything done … You have to sign the same deal if you want to be good—I mean truly good—at anything.” This philosophy seems to fit into what you’re saying about the writing life.
AM: It’s this idea that every activity is kind of artistic. I do believe that and I was trying to hit on this in the book, with the guys who put down the brick [in “Light Lifting”], or the guys who work on the line. Everybody sorts his or her life out according to a principle. And to be really good at anything requires something from you more than it does something from the thing that is out there.
I have friends who are neurosurgeons. They try to get grants for cancer research and whatever it is they work on. And we maybe all go out on a Thursday, and when they talk about whatever the big thing is for them, I can sense from their emotion what they’re saying is a big deal, but I don’t really speak their language. In the same way, they don’t speak my language about 3:34 or 3:36. So I’m interested in how any great achievement has to really become, not antisocial, but something that can’t be shared with everybody.
Eventually, we do get down to the algorithm, or eventually we do get down to just some gene, and that’s not something you can talk to your Aunt Frida about. It requires so much knowledge just to get to the point of significance that a person would need to know a lot before they can see the importance of the little. And that’s what I guess the “Miracle Mile” characters are interested in. If you’ve ever gone to watch a big marathon, there are all kinds of heartily disappointed 2:11 runners. Tons of people come across the line at 2:11 and they’re weeping and angry and cursing. Someone’s trying to hug them and they’re pushing them away. And then they’re all kinds of people coming in at 4:20 with looks of pure (he thrusts his arms in the air and laughs).
AM: And they’re looking for the camera and they’re posing. So I was interested very much in how something like that shows you the personal index of success and failure versus this other thing. And the other thing is, you know, whatever is happening to those 2:05 runners. I have a friend who was a 2:20 marathoner. He was at a party and someone said, “Oh, you run marathons. What’s your best time?” “Oh, 2:20.” And they were shocked. “I’ve never seen anybody who can run 2:20!” And he said, “Well, I’ll be the fastest person you’ll ever meet, because people who run 2:11 can’t go to parties.” I’m interested in people who sign over their own signifying power, who say, “This is what’s going to matter to me.” Either if it’s model cars, or stamp collecting, or vinyl collections. I’m interested in how they’re doing this more than what they’re doing.
BW: There was a big hoopla here in the US this past election concerning Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s phantom marathon time.
AM: He underestimated how much people have to put in to run a 3-hour marathon. He said, “around 3 hours.” He thought that that might work for the general public-
BW: Which it probably did, but not with the running community.
AM: Well, not even the serious running community. There are people who, in their offices, their whole personality and healthy lifestyle are wrapped up in being “a marathoner.” So when this guy says he runs around 3 hours, they want that confirmed. And when it’s not, it is, to them, very revealing of character.
BW: As a writer who is also a runner, do people read a story like “Miracle Mile” and assume it comes from real experiences, that you really ran the train tunnels?
AM: They always ask. The thing with the tunnel is that people can’t believe that it’s really there. It really is just like that. I find the tunnel is something that’s more interesting to them than the running. And the tunnel is amazing, because, like so many things, it is this totally threatening thing only if you choose to see it as a threatening thing. Otherwise, it’s just banal, something that has sat there forever. But it is there and there’s no fence around it, and you can still go and run into it today. So, I think the reader is shocked both by the story of it and by the fact that it is real. It seems like it should be more threatening than it really is, I guess.
BW: Could you talk about how do you approach scenes of action and tension? You seem to have a gift for slowing time in these situations to great effect. I’m thinking of Mikey and Burner’s race, Stace’s near drowning in “Adult Beginner I,” or even the very brief shark encounter in “Everything Underneath,” which you wrote for the Canada Writes series.
AM: That’s the first time anyone’s asked me that. I’m interested in slow reflection on fast happenings. The happenings are fast, but their significances are slow, and I’m interested in how they would be registered and reported to the reader. Probably when you’re panicked, you’re not thinking like that. When you’re running, everyone thinks it’s super-physical, but your brain is the problem when you’re running. Little significances are coming through you all the time. You can feel a little tight somewhere, and then your brain makes it much worse. Swimming is like that, and I was interested in that [in “Everything Underneath”]: a quick thing happening that fires your whole brain, where your brain realizes this fast thing may be the most significant thing to ever happen to you.
We spend all our time thinking out plots in which we are the main character, or that we’re in control of these actions, and then, boom, the real significant event comes from over here. You don’t have any way to prepare for it; all you can do is respond. And things do slow down when you are responding to an acute event that comes out of nowhere.
BW: “Everything Underneath” came out this past summer. What other writing are you currently working on?
AM: I wrote one story last year that isn’t quite done, but I also have another one coming along that, I don’t know, my stories are always long and this is one of those things that’s on the border of something. I’m definitely not working on a giant project. I don’t know if I’m working on a novel right now (chuckles). I have this story and it may be bigger than I thought it was. But I’ve only written, in the past year, a story and a half and then this monster. That’s what I’m doing right now.
I’m not locked into anybody, which was the same thing that happened with the stories before. I just start working on them, and then when I feel good enough about them, or feel like they’re ready to go, I’ll show them to someone. But I’m not tied into anybody, where they say they need 260 pages by May 1. I haven’t ever done that, and I don’t know if that’s wise or stupid.
BW: How long does it take you to complete a story?
AM: Sometimes that come really quick, and sometimes it takes a while. But never really that long when I know exactly what I’m doing. I spend probably 90% of the time thinking it through, trying to see what the images are—what the first one, middle one, and end one are. I don’t write drafts. Pretty much by the time I get to the end, then I’m 90% done that first time through.
If I was doing it full time, I could probably finish a story in a month, but it’s never full time. I work very quickly when I’m on them, but sometimes there’s older stuff that you just need time away from. That’s what sort of happened with “The Number Three.” That was one that I had to get away from and come back to a couple times. I had that last image of the guy walking, but I didn’t know what the daughter’s role was in that. It took me a while to figure out how to use her. I knew the image better than the characters. So sometimes you need time away to fix things like that.
BW: We’ll finish up with a couple of lighter questions. What are you reading now?
AM: Right now I’m reading Pélagie-la-Charrette, an Acadian book by Antonine Maillet. It’s one of the great, great works of Canadian literature, but hardly anybody knows about it, or they don’t pay attention to it. It’s written in Acadian French and is an amazing book.
As is often the case with my job, sometimes I’m teaching a course and I get to reread stuff in order to teach it or to write about it for an article. I often go back to older stuff. I’m not totally caught up in what the latest thing is, not too much 2012.
BW: What or who inspires you as a writer?
AM: I’m definitely inspired by my dad, mostly for the way he took care of his craft and the way he fit his craft around our lives. I was totally impressed, and still am, at how Dad just does his work. He doesn’t really care, or doesn’t concern himself, with whatever happens to it afterwards. And so I try to do that. I try to keep up with the Lego, keep up with the running. I don’t do much literati stuff. But when I go to work on the literati stuff, I try to go at it like you probably do with your running: absolutely no one cares how fast your Ks are being done except for you. So I do try to be sincere. I know that I have whatever limitations everyone else has, so I try to be sincere. It’s not ironic. I try to be honest with myself when I write, so that I can actually hand it out there and say, “That’s about as good as I can be. I did what I could with it, and that’s what I could do.” So I find my dad really inspiring.
I also find the kids really inspiring. It’s a great privilege to hang out with my kids and their friends and get to that pure moment when people aren’t really self-aware yet. My kids are still young enough, but I can see it dawning on them: who’s the nerd and who’s cool and who’s pretty. But I do really enjoy trying to keep that sincerity. They’re not too hip yet.
— Alexander MacLeod & Benjamin Woodard
Alexander MacLeod lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and teaches at Saint Mary’s University. His first book, a collection of stories called Light Lifting was published in 2010 by Biblioasis. It was named a “Book of the Year” by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, Quill and Quire, The Coast, and Amazon.ca.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.