A guest post by the author of new novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men.
Confession: for most of my twenties, I wasn’t that much of an Atwood fan. Or, really, of Mordecai Richler. Or Rohinton Mistry. Or Michael Ondaatje. Nor was I, truth be told, all that much in love with Alice Munro, perfect storyteller though she might be. In my late teens and early twenties, I was all about the international read—I wanted books that were about far away. Books that would teach me about the Literature of the World. (Or something. It sounds silly now. It made perfect sense back then.) Books that would open me. Books that would make the world feel so much bigger than my tiny little one-intersection hometown.
Or so I told myself. What I really wanted, I think now, were books that would tell me about magic. Books like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or The Time Traveller’s Wife, or The God of Small Things—different magical books all, and none of them Canadian, but books that I loved so much I took them to the UK and back, multiple times, and who cared about that extra weight in the suitcase. Books like The Night Circus, which I discovered only last year, peeling open its pages with the wonderful thrill of the booklover: oh yes. You. I’ve been waiting forever for you.
I felt this way, I think, because most of the stories and books that we read when I was completing my undergraduate degree in writing were not—with a few exceptions—magical. Don’t get me wrong—they were important, these undergraduate stories and books. Technically perfect, emotionally rich, elegantly plotted. We were encouraged to look at these writers, these Ondaatjes and Cheevers and Atwoods and Carvers and Jacksons, and figure out what they were doing. You learn from the best, after all. That’s what they say.
The trouble for me was that my stories never sounded like the ones we read in class. They were not elegant in the way that these master stories were elegant. They were not able to perfectly capture the crumbling relationship between a woman and her partner as the woman went through cancer treatments. They were weird. Or at least I wanted them to be weird—stories about fairies and angry gods and angels who weren’t remotely angelic. But I wanted to write stories that my teachers would admire, and I didn’t think I could do that while also writing weird, and so for the most part I put the angels away.
They came out, though. Eventually. I finished that undergraduate degree and moved to Scotland and slowly the angels and the magic came back. During the latter part of my Masters program I started working on the novel that would eventually become The Miracles of Ordinary Men—I’d been writing and rewriting (and only occasionally showing to workshop) one specific angel story since I’d been in my teens, and at that point—far from home, and surrounded by all of that “international” literature I’d been droning on and on about for years—I figured I’d best just get down to it. The first draft took two years to finish. By the time it was polished and ready to submit, I’d run out of money and was on my way back to Canada. By dint of coincidence and my determined, plucky agent, so too was my book.
It didn’t go over well, at least at first. The novel got rejected; I couldn’t find a job. I spent days wandering through my parents’ house, feeling like the worst kind of failure. But I also spent a lot of time reading. I read Oryx and Crake, and came away from it wondering how I’d ever not been an Atwood fan. I read The Bishop’s Man, and remembered anew what my teachers had taught me about language. I read Annabel, and thought about how big the world was when I put it down.
Then I read Not Wanted On the Voyage, and rediscovered magic. Magic in the form of the wise and trembling Mottyl, the wavering Mrs. Noyes singing to her sheep, the dastardly Mr. Noyes and his magic tricks for Yahweh. How had I not seen it before? How could I have grouped CanLit together so soundly and forgotten about books le the incandescent Voyage, or Green Grass, Running Water, or The Cure For Death By Lightning, or Life of Pi? How could I have been so blind?
Magic! Here in my homeland—it had been there in the writing all along. I finished Not Wanted on the Voyage in two days and suddenly found myself thinking: well. Maybe writing about fairies and angry gods and angels (who weren’t remotely angelic) wasn’t that bad after all. Maybe it could even be CanLit.
There’s a great deal to unpack in that sentence, of course. What makes something CanLit anyway? For most of my formative writing years it felt like some shadowy kind of club—writing that matters in this country must sound like this, and your writing, young Skywalker, does not sound like this, ergo you’re barred from the door, forever—but it was only after I’d gone away and come home again that I realized how much the term gets misconstrued. And how much I’d been the one doing all that misconstruing. Margaret Atwood, as well I’ve discovered, knows a fair bit about magic. So did Timothy Findley. So too does Michael Ondaatje, and Alice Munro. And all of these other writers that I had no time for years ago, when I was aching to move away from all that was familiar.
Magic, as all wise people know, comes at you when you least expect it. If you’re a writer it can come to you in the way that words are strung together, or in the way that a story about a tiny Labrador town can somehow encompass the entire world. Sometimes it can even come to you in angels who are seven feet tall and have webbed fingers. There is no “right way” to go about it. Those stories that I read years ago in workshop were guideposts, not strict how-to’s. And the journey, there and back again, that I took to finally realize this? The exodus from home, the eventual return, and that unforeseen literary welcome? For me, that has a magic all its own.
Amanda Leduc was born in BC and grew up in Ontario. Her short fiction and essays have been published in ELLE Canada, PRISM International, Prairie Fire, filling Station, Existere Journal, and others. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and the 2012 PRISM International Fiction Contest, and won First Runner Up in PRISM's 2008 Short Fiction Contest. She holds an MLitt in Writing from the University of St. Andrews and a BFA in Creative Writing and Philosophy from the University of Victoria. Her novel, The Miracles of Ordinary Men, is available now from Toronto's ECW Press.
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