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Jane Eyre in a Cape Breton Attic - Eva Tihanyi speaks with Ann-Marie MacDonald
by Eva Tihanyi

Ann-Marie MacDonald was born in West Germany in 1958, spent her childhood summers in Cape Breton, and has lived in Toronto since 1980. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada and the author of the acclaimed play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), for which, in 1990, she won the Governor General's Award for Drama, the Chalmers Award for Outstanding Play, and the Canadian Author's Association Award for Drama. MacDonald has also written television scripts and acted in many plays, television series, and films. She received a Gemini Award for her role in I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987). Currently, she is enjoying success with her impressive debut novel, Fall on Your Knees (Knopf Canada, 1996).
Throughout our meeting, which took place at the Knopf offices in Toronto, MacDonald spoke quickly and unpretentiously. She was gracious, charming, funny, and often delightfully mischievous.

ET: You are an accomplished actor, playwright, scriptwriter. Why the switch to the novel genre?
AM: I don't feel like I've made big switches. For me, it's all about telling stories, whether I'm doing it as an actor or writing a libretto or a TV half hour or writing a book. But the short answer to why I started this book was that my friend told me to. I have a really close friend and colleague named Maureen White, who now lives in Dublin. She's one of the founding members of Nightwood Theatre. I worked with her in theatre over the years. She commissioned Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) in much the same way; she said, "I think it's time you wrote something on your own." Not only that, she said, "And here's the money," which was wonderful. (Boy, those were the early eighties; it doesn't happen like that any more!) The wonderful thing was that that really sealed the bargain. It was because a friend and a colleague for whom I have the deepest respect decided that she knew something I didn't, which was that I was ready to make the next creative leap. And I loved writing Goodnight Desdemona, which was the first time I'd written anything on my own-I had come out of a collective background in theatre.
About six years ago I was in Maureen's kitchen. I had just finished my second play-actually I was over there in Dublin researching it-and she said, "OK, it's all very well, you've written your plays, but when am I going to read your book? when am I going to read your novel?"-as though it were something that had already been written and I had just been tardy in sending it to her. I said, "What are you talking about? That's not something I'll do till I'm past fifty." And she said, "Nonsense, start now. Maybe it'll take you that long. Don't get all coy about how you're not ready. Just write it because I want to read it." It really did get my mind working, and I knew that actually that's something that I'd been heading toward all my life because stories have always been where I've lived. So for me it's a natural progression, in arriving at, I guess, the grandmummy of narrative forms.
ET: How long did Fall on Your Knees actually take you to write from the original idea to the final draft?
AM: Five years. I was able to cobble together about six months a year to work on the novel.
ET: For whom do you write? In Fall on Your Knees you start out with pictures, you have a particular narrative voice. You address a "you" in the opening lines. Who are you talking to?
AM: I'm talking to a reader who would have this in common with me: that they are longing to be engaged in a story and to feel they can really cut loose and just travel through that story. I guess I'm talking in fairly traditional terms about narrative satisfaction, the satisfaction of following a character.
ET: In some ways Fall on Your Knees is a very traditional novel, wouldn't you say?
AM: I would say so, yeah. In terms of content though, obviously you're not going to find the lesbian love story in the nineteenth century. I tend to work that way. I tend to use classical or more traditional forms and then turn them to my own purposes. But for me there are some things that never change, and that is the quality of enjoyment the reader experiences, and that has to do with feeling that they're in the hands of someone who really cares that they're going to get a fulfilling story, that the story is going to play itself out. There's going to be no cheating, and it's not going to be a postmodern joke in the end. There's all kinds of other literature, but that's the kind I do.
I do picture my reader. I'm accustomed to feeling my audience as an immediate presence because of my work on stage and my work for the stage. It reminds me that there's somebody who made time, who paid their money, and who's sitting there. Don't torture them! Give them something! (Laughter) It's not necessarily going to be everybody's cup of tea, what you have to offer. But think about your reader. I always picture someone in the privacy of their own lap, my book there, and they can close it at any time. And I have a lot of compassion for somebody who's put themselves out, who's spent the money, who's longing to be taken somewhere. I don't want to disappoint that person who is the person who loves to read, who is the person who loves stories.
ET: You've said that Jane Eyre was a book that you loved and that you'd read a number of times. What drew you about that book so intensely?
AM: It was the first really grown-up book that I read. I think I read it for the first time when I was twelve. It belonged to my sisters. They had read it, and I felt I was being initiated into a world, into a sphere that approached their own exalted older-sister sphere. And I just identified with the much-abused heroine who keeps at it. She may be frail but, my God, she's walking those moors, she's eating pig slop, and it all works out in the end! She's just so brave. And it's very interesting for me to find out now that the critics were really affronted. They thought, This is a lovely book, but why does the heroine have to be so angry? That mars the book, that makes her ugly. She shouldn't be angry. But that's it, that's why the book lasts. Because the woman is enraged, and she's going to live her own life. And it's all within the strictures of the time and place. It's incredible that she can be so radical and so traditional at the same time.
ET: Fall on Your Knees has a lot of gothic elements too. It seems as though the Jane Eyre presence is there.
AM: Jane is in the attic! Jane is in the building! (Laughter)
ET: In Fall on Your Knees all the characters are greatly affected by family history. Is everyone at the mercy of family history, or is it possible for us to "invent" ourselves to some degree?
AM: Well, that's the question, isn't it? And the fatal imperative that runs through the book like a bad smell from Thomas Hardy. It comes up against the desire, especially the twentieth-century desire, to invent ourselves. It's almost like we think it's our birthright to invent ourselves. We take this for granted. It's so much a given that we all invent ourselves, but do we really? I don't think we do as much as we try to. In the book, Kathleen is poised to invent herself like a good twentieth-century young woman, and she has almost enough rocket fuel to leave the atmosphere of family, but not quite. She gets sucked back into the orbit when she least expects it, and I think many of us are familiar with that, especially in our generation when we're so unprepared to be sucked back into it. No-one told us. We sort of figured it was all going to be according to our own plan, and it can't be, it never is.
ET: There are a number of passages in the novel about truth and falsehood, the power of secrets. Is this one of your central concerns?
AM: I love secrets, I love mysteries. I'm not sure where that comes from. Part of it would have to come from my background as a Roman Catholic. I was brought up in a very, very Roman Catholic household, and mystery is what it's all about. I would ask my mother certain deep childlike questions, and she would pause and say, "It's a mystery," which is a very good Catholic answer. The other answer is, "Have faith." (Laughter) In the novel, Frances is always speaking a falsehood but telling a truth at the same time. Her lies are more true than other people's factual statements about what's really going on.
ET: When Kathleen comes home pregnant, the town basically goes along with the notion that this is her parents' child, not her own. I saw this as a type of communal fiction, and it seems to serve a purpose. Does it?
AM: We've got this twentieth-century worship of empirical facts, empirical science, and that is not the whole truth. Just because someone states the facts, they can be stating the facts from a motive about which you know nothing. Frances is the biggest liar in the book, but her lies are really attempts to get at the truth. So when she gives a bizarre and horrific account of Lily's birth, she's actually giving Lily more of the truth than she can get anywhere else. What Lily is getting elsewhere is a sanitized version. For me-and this is part of my love of stories-nothing is ever completely what it seems. You have to keep peeling back and peeling back. Perhaps the person who has been considered an incorrigible liar has been giving you a message all along, and the persons who are above reproach in that respect have been lying to you. They want to keep you ignorant of something, and they're trying to confuse you with mere facts.
ET: So in a sense then would it be fair to say that this is the role of the novelist? Telling stories, which are maybe more true than newspaper accounts?
AM: In some sense I hope so. I hope that's what a good novel does, strikes a chord of truth that we can recognize, something that can be applied to the newspaper account, maybe.
ET: Sex is also a powerful force in Fall on Your Knees. Many of the characters seem driven in some sense by their sexuality; their fates seem intertwined with it. How much of a role does sex play in people's lives?
AM: It's pretty undeniable that sex is a powerful force, and the desire to control sexuality is pretty big-time, too. It's all part and parcel of the oppression of women or any other group. You can control women's sexuality to keep them on side so that our society stays stable. We're looking at that right now, obviously, the control of female sexuality and also control of male sexuality. It's like a powder keg. It certainly is a driving force for a lot of the characters in the book. Certainly in terms of my little lesbian sub-plot. (Laughter)
ET: Did you get lots of flak on that yet? (Laughter)
AM: You know, what's interesting is that I've found that I did something which turns out to have been rather advantageous. I didn't do this on purpose, but if I had, it would have been really Machiavellian of me: I buried it toward the end. It's there, it's hot, it's real, and it's far too late to put down the book at that point because you're hooked. (Laughter) I think by then the reader is either sympathetic and engaged, or they're not. And if I can have a reader whose sympathies would not normally be engaged by such an aspect of the story-for them to find themselves sympathizing as they would with any other human being-I think that's wonderful.
ET: It certainly makes for a plot twist. A surprise ending. But it's not really a surprise in a way.
AM: That's what I want: for people to have, to feel, to experience that surprise but recognition at that same time. Which is "I think I knew that. Did I know that?" That kind of sense of "Of course it had to be this way."
ET: Is writing in an erotic way different from writing in a sexual way? You do the former, which I would think is more difficult.
AM: That was definitely the most difficult part to write because I felt I didn't have any examples. There's no body of work or tradition of erotic writing that I could look to and say, Oh well, I can draw from that but do it my own way too. I felt like I was confronted with a complete void. There's porn and then there's talking around it. How can you put the reader right there? I wanted the reader close up, I wanted the reader to feel that they were one or both of those characters making love at that time. It had to be charged and very sexual and very erotic. And I wanted not to back off from that.
ET: Or get clichéd.
AM: Or get clichéd. But what do you call someone's genitalia? What do you call it when they do this or that or the other thing to each other? How do you express that without getting into "Her back arched and she shuddered"? How do you get away from the clichés of that kind of hot romance writing, number one? Number two, pornography? Number three, something that is so removed that God knows where we are? I want the reader to know where her hand is, where her mouth is. But how do you say that in a way that is beautiful, that is hot, and that preserves the first-timeness of it? Because that's also very key in the scene I think you're talking about, which is very much a first time love scene. How do you make it really sexy and really fresh and innocent but not sanitized? Innocent but sexually real.
ET: That's a tough challenge you set for yourself.
AM: Very hard. That took a long time, and I'd have to say it was my biggest challenge from a literary point of view, from a craft point of view.
ET: You said in one interview that you don't like writing about the clothing styles of your characters. (Laughter)
AM: Oh, yeah! That was one thing, Louise Dennys, my editor, insisted on. I felt like she was dragging me kicking and screaming into the room and dressing me up in a really scratchy, uncomfortable dress, and I was saying, "But Louise, I want to wear my pants!" And she was saying, "No, you have to wear your dress."
ET: You've said that everything you've written is "about the fight to make the world larger, not smaller, to welcome what is, not what we'd prefer." Do you see writing as a political act?
AM: I don't think in those terms. Someone might want to read my work and assess it that way and write about it in those terms, but that's not how my mind works. I write stories, and I am not divorced from my social-political-economic-historical place and time. I take a passionate interest in where I'm writing from. Actually, I read a lot of history.
A novelist doesn't write in a vacuum. A scientist does not work in a research lab in a vacuum either. What you're seeing through the microscope is impacted, believe it or not, by the times in which you live. When I sit down to write, all of that comes to bear. But I'm not an academic, and I'm not a critic, so I don't think in those terms. I would never think, "I'm sitting down at ten this morning and I'm about to commit a political act by spending five hours writing." (Laughter)
ET: People keep referring to the archetypal resonances in Fall on Your Knees. How do you feel about this kind of academic approach?
AM: "Archetypal". I'm hoping that that's not such an academic term any more. People on the street actually use that word, and-especially in our therapy culture-everybody seems to know what that type of thing is. It's not too rarefied. And it's true because archetypes do work very strongly in the book.
ET: How deliberate was your use of them?
AM: I don't go shopping around for archetypes. I actually believe I'm one of those weird people who are haunted by archetypes all the time and therefore must write stories. I think it's part and parcel of my background. I had a very tight-knit family. We were all cast in different roles, and we didn't fit in anywhere. We were always on the move. My parents told stories, Cape Breton stories. When you grow up in an atmosphere of stories, very much an oral tradition, you think about characters at a very organic level. It's not because I was being plied with great literature and being encouraged to excel. It's more that once upon a time there were three sisters. The oldest one was the strongest but was foolhardy. The middle one was very handsome but lazy. The youngest one, no-one expected anything from that princess, but she went out into the world and sought her fortune. Now that is as old as the hills, that's in everybody's tissues.
ET: Was there a particular moment in your life when you realized you wanted to work with language? AM: Not that I wanted to work with language per se. For me the earliest epiphany was, I want to tell stories, and I did that in a lot of different ways. Actually, if you really want to know the truth, when I was five, I decided that I wanted to be a stand-up comic.
ET: How about "black humour"? You have quite a sense of humour but sometimes it's dark humour.
AM: Gallows humour.
ET: Yes. Do you feel that's an important element in your writing?
AM: It's very, very important. I think it has everything to do with my own secondhand roots in Cape Breton Island. Something that comes from my father's background is a very Celtic sense of gallows humour. The inevitability of disaster. And disaster is often seen to be absurd, and it's recorded in a one-liner that sounds like a punch-line. There's a pause, a poker face, and then a big laugh. It's a very old cultural thing. In Cape Breton Island, people-if they're anything like my father's family-are most at ease when they're listening to a song about murder and mayhem in a gentle, minor key.
ET: In Goodnight Desdemona Constance says to Juliet-and I realize the danger of quoting out of context-
AM: Oh, go wild!
ET: -"So love is tragic or it isn't love." Would you agree that true love is, by nature, tragic?
AM: I don't personally agree, but it makes for a good story, doesn't it? Makes for good drama. (Laughter) For example, the characters commit to love one another unconditionally. And with unconditional love, it's usually inevitable that it's going to include tragedy and loss because you're not walking away. Maybe the ending would be uniformly happy if people just abandoned one another. Then they wouldn't have to bleed for one another.
ET: I'm going to quote you one last time-
AM: You're merciless!
ET: "No matter what I'm writing about there is always some kind of search for wholeness. There is always something missing and being searched for." What did you find in the course of writing Fall on Your Knees?
AM: I think the search-for-wholeness quote goes with the idea of making the world larger, not smaller, and the reconciliation of opposites, which goes back to all that archetypal stuff. Certainly the characters are being driven whether they know it or not. And sometimes they know it and sometimes they don't. I guess this is sort of a fatal thing. I mentioned Hardy before-off the cuff-but it's actually true that they are striving to put something back together again, something that should never have been dismantled in the first place. Something that's missing, a part of the truth, part of themselves. The way I think about the book is that something is trying to be born. And the story can't end until it gets born. There's a whole powerful force in the book, of resistance. For example, it's played out in racial terms where these racial groups are trying to stay apart. And then there are other forces that are making them come together. I guess what the book says is that you can try to resist reconciliation-at your peril. But it's going to happen, something's going to be born. Something's going to come together.
ET: Have you gotten any response from Cape Bretoners?
AM: Yeah. The first stop on the book tour was in Halifax, and it was great, absolutely great. I still have tons of family down there, tons of Cape Bretoners as well as people who've moved to the mainland, to Halifax. I was nervous because I didn't know if I was going to get the seal of approval. A lot of women, sort of sixty-something tough little women from Cape Breton Island, came up and said, "God bless you, dear." And I thought: I'm fine. They've blessed me, and they're the toughest critics. Also, I remember, I got one girl who came up to me who grew up in Edmonton. Her parents were from Cape Breton, and she'd read something I'd said in an interview about feeling like all authentic things happened in Cape Breton and I had no authentic past of my own. And she said: "That's how I felt." There's something about an island that exerts a powerful hold over people who come from there. My mother's parents came from Lebanon, my father-his family had been in Cape Breton for a couple of hundred years. What did they have in common, the Lebanese and the Scottish kid? Plenty, because they came from Cape Breton Island.
ET: You've opened up a can of worms with that comment! An odd coincidence, the way you've set this up in Fall on Your Knees that the mother is Lebanese and your own background parallels this-
AM: I allowed the richness of those aspects of my background to inspire me because for me they are the stuff of drama. The two different racial groups, the island mentality. My God. I'd hate for anyone to think the rest was autobiographical! My usual answer to that is that if it were, I don't think I would be mentally or emotionally equipped to write about it because I'd have been finished long before now.
ET: Would you say you started with the setting for this novel?
AM: That's one of the things that came to me very early on. I knew it would be set in Cape Breton Island, but I really started much smaller than that. I started with an image of a room in a house and the name of a character and a face. I lived for a long time with those very small components until I was allowed to leave one room of the house and see that there was an attic-of course there's got to be an attic! It was a long time before I was allowed to leave the house and find out where we were, which was in Cape Breton. So yeah, the richness of my parents' heritage has been really inspiring.
ET: And they haven't disowned you yet? (Laughter)
AM: God knows, quite the opposite. I thought that was going to be it for me, but they're delighted. I've immortalized their hometowns.


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