The Three Rs: Alexander MacLeod

June 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Alexander MacLeod’s short story collection Light Lifting was a finalist for the 2010 Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Book Award and the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Story Prize. Light Lifting won an Atlantic Book Award and was named a Book of the Year by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire and Alexander lives in Dartmouth Nova Scotia and teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I’m not sure. Sometimes I can’t really believe that I’ve actually written a real book and it’s out there in the world making its way. It took me more than ten years to come up with the seven stories in my collection, and it wasn’t until very late in the process that we started to think of them as coming together as a coherent whole, so even the basic idea of “the writing life” still feels pretty strange for me. Things are changing, though. I’m definitely keen to start working on this new project I have in mind so if I’m being honest, I guess right around now is the first moment I really realized that I want to write books.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book? 

As a rule, my days contain almost no writing, certainly nothing regular. That’s why it took so long to do just a few stories. I teach full-time at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and I have to do all the research, the lectures, the grading and the committee stuff that comes along with that kind of job. I also have a young family at home so those two major activities gobble up 95% of the time. I’m not complaining about any this. I actually love it, but it means that writing is rarely the main priority of the day. I’m always thinking about what’s going to happen next in the story I’m working on and I always know what I’m going to do as soon as a block of time opens up, but, so far anyway, there’s never been a scheduled routine. As I said, I’m actually starting to move things around right now and trying to follow a more regular plan, so I’m looking forward to finding out what will happen when I hunker down and start grinding through the process.

Do you type or write?

I write notes to myself and I use a pen when I’m working through the basic outlines and the major concerns and characters and images of the story, but when it’s time to get serious, I type the actual sentences.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I read a lot of academic work most of the time: books for the lectures I have to prepare, lots of student papers, theorists, literary criticism, and most of the poetry and fiction coming from Atlantic Canada. For fun, I like to read brand new stuff from younger writers I’ve never heard of. I like that moment, just before you start something, where you’re wondering where it’s going to go and how it’s going to work.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I’ve read great short stories by Michael Christie, The Beggar’s Garden; Deborah Willis, The Vanishing and Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh. I also really liked Jennifer Egan’s story collection / novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Cover art for REFRESH, REFRESH

What are your all-time favourites?

Stories by Alistair MacLeod, William Trevor, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor. I also love The Wire and I think of it as a linked story collection or a 19th century novel played out in 60 episodes of TV.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Ouch. If it came down to that stark choice, I’d definitely have to go with reading. I’d miss the writing, of course, but I think a writer has to love literature more than they love their own contribution to it. It would be tragic to artificially cut yourself off and miss out on the collective work of the world’s imagination. It seems weird to say this, but I think books matter more than writers.

What’s your third R, and why?

My third R is running. When I was in my early twenties, I used to be a pretty serious athlete and I gave many years over to almost full-time training and trying to get faster and faster in the 800m and the 1500m. I competed on the university team and most of my best friends come from that community.  Now, though, it’s more low key and just part of the daily ritual. If I can fit in an hour of running every day then that usually makes everything else easier.


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