This week we’re in conversation with award-winning Nova Scotia writer Alexander MacLeod, whose sophomore fiction collection, Animal Person, is out now with McClelland & Stewart.
The collection has been published to rave reviews. The Star says the stories "explode within the reader’s heart and mind” while Kirkus praises their “meticulous prose and unpredictable characters.”
Alexander MacLeod’s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and The O Henry Prize Stories. His first collection, Light Lifting (Biblioasis), was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. In 2021, he and his friend, Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press, were awarded the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award for their collaboration, Lagomorph. Alexander lives in Dartmouth and teaches at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Trevor Corkum: Animal Person is your second short fiction collection, following your critically acclaimed, Giller-nominated debut Light Lifting. Did you feel any pressure writing this collection?
Alexander MacLeod: Not really. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as uncertain as anybody else, and, of course, I want readers to like the book, and for the stories to reward any attention invested in them, but in the end, I think every artist, and probably every practical person, knows that the most serious pressure in any task comes straight from the job itself.
I spent some pretty grindy years pulling this book together, and there were lots of long stretches where I wasn’t making much progress at all. During those moments, it felt like the stories themselves were stubbornly bossing me around and not cooperating at all. There was one very big one, for example—a piece I saw as “central” narrative—that I worked on for probably two years straight, but in the end, I just couldn’t land it right and we had to let it fall to the side. Maybe I will revisit it later, but I think it’s always like that with any project. We imagine we’re the one in charge, or maybe we think it’s the outside world applying the pressure, but in the end, everything becomes a case of “the art of the possible” and the words on the pages clarify all the big decisions on what is and what is not going to happen.
... it felt like the stories themselves were stubbornly bossing me around and not cooperating at all.
TC:What’s it like to have this second book out in the world? How has the publishing landscape changed since your first book?
AM: I’m not an expert on the nuances of publication, but it does feel like things have changed significantly since the last time I went through this process. For Animal Person, for example, I was there right from the beginning and got to help record the audio book. That was a new, “ear-opening” experience for me, and I learned a lot about all the work that goes into those nearly theatrical adaptations of printed narratives. I read two of the stories myself, then consulted with the director and the production team on some of the casting decisions for the other voices and some of the strategies we used to effectively “stage” the more complicated narrative structures.
Obviously, there’s also a lot more social media in the world than there was with Light Lifting. Though I’m not an active participant on those platforms, I can feel them swirling around me all the time and I often worry that I’m not doing enough there to get the word out or reach readers where they are most likely to be found. I much prefer in-person events, and whenever it’s safe to get back out there on the road, I’ll be eager to return to the festivals and the libraries and the schools and the independent bookstores. Those exchanges, when we’re all in the same room for just a little while, and the story has to live as it goes directly through the air from the writer to the reader, are my favourite “public” part of the publication process.
TC:The stories in Animal Person are powerful and devastating. I’m still haunted by “The Closing Date,” about a young family’s brush with a serial killer. Do you have a particular favourite in the collection, or is that too much like asking about your favourite child?
AM: I’m glad you liked that one, or that, even if you didn’t exactly “like” a story about a brush with a serial killer, it still lingered a bit in your imagination. It’s one of my favourites, too, if only because it posed some unique narrative challenges, trying to bring it around slowly enough so that that one critical moment from the past could be experienced as a live action, a realization, and a problematic memory all at the same time. Though they aren’t the same people, I see the family in that story at the end of the book as a kind of foil for the family at the beginning and I like the way “The Closing Date” and “Lagomorph” echo each other in distorted ways.
Like that parallel with “my favourite children,” I guess I see each piece in the book as entirely its own thing and I appreciate each of them for the unique and weird ways they operate. “The Entertainer,” for example, a story about a piano recital told from three different perspectives, and “What Exactly do you Think you’re looking at?”—a story about a billionaire suitcase stealer roaming through an LA airport in the 70s—are nothing like each other, but hopefully, it’s those differences that make their unique contributions to the book work well.
TC:There’s a deep focus in the stories on the intricacies of families, and couples especially, particularly over the course of time. There’s such an undercurrent of the unspoken and unsaid. Can you talk a little more about why you are drawn to the domestic, and why the family offers such rich material for fiction?
AM: The family thematic wasn’t something I chose on purpose, but I know it’s there and I can see now, looking back, how it emerged. I think the book is mostly about relationships and about all the different ways we enter into intimate connections. As you say, there are lots of parents, and siblings and couples in the book, trying to figure out how they fit together, but there are also childhood friends, and co-workers, and strangers and criminals, and bystanders and animals. Reading over it now, I think the family stories fit into this larger thematic because it's usually in families where we first learn about the self and the other and that’s a very dramatic moment. The families in the book are all simultaneously connected and divided, and I wanted to explore the rich ambiguity of the way we sometimes love and hate these people that are closest to us. I also like the ways that families know us in ways we may or may not accept. Other people, outside the family, may think that you and your sibling are the same because you come from the same house, but inside the family, and, importantly, inside the self, you know in minute detail, exactly the ways you are different from your brother and your sister.
Intergenerational connections are also important in the book, and one of my favourite stories, “Once Removed,” explores the intimate forces that may or may not be flowing between a pre-verbal four-month-old baby and her great, great aunt. Nothing too crazy happens in that piece—it’s just a unique older lady spending a lot of time with a unique younger person—but they are almost my favourite couple in the whole book, and there’s a whole lot of “unspoken” drama moving between them.
TC:Another of my favourites is “The Ninth Concession,” a dark tale that looks back at a historical and pivotal relationship between two boys in rural Ontario. Again, so much is happening that comes into sharper focus only when the story is finished—small details that take on outsized importance and re-orient the story on second reading. Can you share a little more about the process of crafting this story?
AM: Thanks for asking about that one. I fear that people kind of shy away from that one because of the subject matter. As the title suggests, that story is obviously about concessions, and about what happens when they pile up: the ninth on top of the eighth on top of the seventh. I wanted to explore what happens when we consciously or unconsciously “concede” to certain practices that we might not really condone, and the temporary foreign workers program has always struck me as an economic policy with social consequences that many people in Canada haven’t really considered as deeply as they could.
There were also a couple of images I really wanted to explore: staring at your own injured body, the edge of the bone inside the muscle, the permanent light pollution reflections coming from the industrial greenhouses around Leamington, the Sears catalogue “Wish Book,” and then that boy standing in the window with his hair perfectly parted, and everything dark outside, but everything in his room illuminated behind him.
I guess the story was another one of those intimate explorations. I wanted to think hard about the inside / outside dynamic that operates in every household and every self. We think we understand our neighbour’s domestic life, and maybe we even make up stories about them, or we imagine what it might be like to live “over there.” But, then, boom, a key truth is revealed, and everything looks different in the morning.
We think we understand our neighbour’s domestic life, and maybe we even make up stories about them, or we imagine what it might be like to live “over there.” But, then, boom, a key truth is revealed, and everything looks different in the morning.
Excerpt from “Lagomorph”
Some nights, when the rabbit and I are both down on the floor playing tug-of-war with his toy carrot, he will suddenly freeze in one position and stop everything, as if a great breakthrough has finally arrived. He’ll look over at me and there will be a shift, his quick glance steadying into a hard stare. I can’t escape when he does this and I have to look back. He has these albino eyes that go from a washed-out bloody pink ring on the outside through a middle layer of slushy grey before they dump you down into this dark, dark red centre. I don’t know, but sometimes when he closes in on me like that and I’m gazing down into those circles inside of circles inside of circles, I lose my way, and I feel like I am falling through an alien solar system of lost orbits rotating around a collapsing, burning sun.
Our rabbit—my rabbit now, I guess—he and I are wrapped up in something I don’t completely understand. Even when I imagine that I am reading him correctly, I know that he is reading me at the same time—and doing a better job of it—picking up on all my subconscious cues and even the faintest signals I do not realize I am sending out. It’s complicated, this back-and-forth. Maybe we have been spending a little too much time together lately. Maybe I have been spending a little too much time thinking about rabbits.
As a species, let me tell you, they are fickle, stubborn creatures, obsessive and moody, quick to anger, utterly unpredictable and mysterious. Unnervingly silent, too. But they make interesting company. You just have to be patient and pay close attention and try hard to find the significance in what very well could be their most insignificant movements. Sometimes it’s obvious. If a rabbit loves you or if it thinks you are the scum of the earth, you will catch that right away, but there is a lot between those extremes—everything else is in between—and you can never be sure where you stand relative to a rabbit. You could be down there looking at an animal in grave distress, a fellow being in pain, or, almost as easily, you might be sharing your life with just another bored thing in the universe, a completely comfortable bunny who would simply prefer if you left the room.
If a rabbit loves you or if it thinks you are the scum of the earth, you will catch that right away, but there is a lot between those extremes ...
Most of the time, none of this matters. We carry on our separate days and our only regular conversations are little grooming sessions during which I give him a good scratch between the ears, deep into that spot he cannot reach by himself, and in return he licks my fingers or the back of my hand or the salt from my face.
But today is different. Today we have crossed over into new, more perilous territory and, for maybe just the next five minutes, we need a better, more reliable connection. For that to happen, he will have to do something he has never done before: move against his own nature and produce at least one clear sound with one clear purpose behind it. I need this rabbit to find words, or whatever might stand in for words. I need him to speak, right now, and tell me exactly what the hell is happening.