Remembering Alistair MacLeod

Alistair and me

I had the pleasure of meeting Alistair MacLeod in 2007 at the Humber School for writers. I attended their summer workshop and I was in a class of eight mentored by Alistair. He was kind and humorous, and gave us insight into his writing process which helped me greatly with mine.

Before writing a short story he would always ask himself ‘what is this about?’ and ‘what am I trying to say?’ He said he liked to write the last line early in the process and when discussing Erica De Vasconcelos’ advice of ‘killing your darlings’ and cutting a story’s first and last line, he held one of his books tight to his chest and gave a mock shudder and cried out ‘nooooo.’ (Imagine cutting out the line ‘All of us are better when we are loved.’?)

In talking about the adaptation of his short story In the Fall, he discussed how the producers got rid of two of the four sons in the story by showing a quick scene of two tombstones suggesting they died in childhood. In giving me advice on my novel he told me to ‘remember the tombstones’ and I ended up combining four minor characters into two.

It was an incredible week, my writing took a quantum leap forward and I received lots of ideas and inspiration for my project going forward. On the last day a woman in our group handed out flyers to the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival and said that Alistair would be there the following year. I had no intention of going to Thunder Bay so I tossed it aside.

A year later I accepted a job in Chile but prior to moving to South America, I had to do a week of training at the company’s head office. In Thunder Bay. I signed up for Alistair’s workshop on the Sunday and I waited for him afterwards. I was introducing myself when he cut me off and said, “I remember exactly who you are, you wrote that piece about the old Mexican farmer who didn’t know that Canada and Peru weren’t a part of Mexico.” I was amazed that he remembered a three-minute reading I gave that was different from the piece I brought to the workshop. I had the pleasure of having lunch with Alistair and Stephen Heighton at the closing luncheon and I left to Chile with renewed focus on my writing.

I last saw Alistair in 2012 at the Eden Mills Writers Festival (which I wrote about here) and he said “I have your letter sitting on my desk and I never wrote you back.” He looked great and was full of life and enthusiasm, drinking a beer while signing books.

See that little gold dot on his lapel? That's his Order of Canada pin. How understatedly Canadian.
At Eden Mills, 2012

He was always warm, kind and supportive. When you spoke to him, he made you feel like he missed you and wished he was able to keep in touch more. It feels strange to say that 77 was ‘too young’ but I thought he would be around for a few years more. It made me think of my own father, who recently turned 71 and how long I have left with him.

I reread As Birds Bring Forth the Sun yesterday and again today. It was the story Alistair read that marked the end of the week at Humber in 2007. It’s a story about family and loss, it is sad, heartbreaking, odd, gross and profound. It is my favourite short story. It made me sad that I couldn’t hear his voice in my head as clearly. But I found a good recording of it online. Alistair had an amazingly simple, yet effective, technique in his public readings. He memorized the opening paragraph of As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and looked out at the audience and recited it like a friend telling a story and then transitioned into the reading (as can be seen here at the 6 minute mark)


 

(also, I can’t believe that only has 28 views).

Although Alistair was not a large man, he was large in heart and I think this quote from As Birds Bring Forth the Sun sums things up nicely: “We have been lucky to have this large and gentle man so deep into our lives.” Rest in peace, Alistair.

 

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