Ann Marie MacDonald has become a household name in Canadian literature. Recently, we spoke with the scribe about the power of storytelling, the importance of nature, and her latest literary effort.
It is evening. A mother and father are nestled with their daughter – a young Ann Marie MacDonald – and tell her the tale of Mary and Mac. It is a story that the youngster has heard many times, one she often requests as it is one that she holds dear. It is her parents’ love story.
The narrative begins with both characters’ birth on Cape Breton Island. It highlights their ancestral backgrounds – Mac’s being Scottish and Irish, and Mary’s being Lebanese – and follows them as they meet, fall in love, have children, and experience loss.
“I would always wait until that scintillating moment of my arrival because I was entering the story myself,” remembers MacDonald, now 64.
“But the story of why they met was very interesting,” she continues. “It goes into the history of Cape Breton. My mother, coming from a Lebanese family, was not permitted to train as a nurse in her hometown of Sydney, Nova Scotia. She went nine miles down the road to New Waterford, where she was considered ‘white enough’ to train. And that happened to be my father’s hometown.”
MacDonald credits this story – and others like it – as a seed that would soon sprout into her own love for spinning yarns.
“Part of why stories became so very important to me and my family was that we moved around a lot,” she says, noting both her father’s career in the Air Force and Cape Breton’s economic exodus as reasons for their frequent relocation. “They had deep roots in Cape Breton Island, and I grew up with kind of roots by association. But I never put down roots in any one particular place, because we were always moving around. When you don’t have physical roots, what you have are narrative roots.”
MacDonald initially took interest in comedy and theatre. She attended the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS), graduating from the school’s acting program in 1980, and began her career as an actor soon after. During this time, she contributed to several collective creations – including the 1983 play This is For You, Anna – where she both performed and assisted in in the writing process.
“Then I started writing,” she chuckles.
Her first piece of theatrical writing – Goodnight, Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) – debuted in 1988 and remains a career highlights.
“I was on the outside of it,” she explains. “I would be the writer, not the actor. And I would take responsibility for the arcs of all the roles and the narrative arc of the whole. And, you know, all the roles would be of equal importance to me as a writer.”
She was still working as a playwright when one of her projects began to take shape as something else entirely – a novel.
That narrative eventually became Fall On Your Knees, MacDonald’s debut, full-length work which won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1997. She has continued to contribute to theatre, movies, and television in an array of ways over the years, including the penning of three other books: The Way the Crow Flies (2003), Adult Onset (2014), and her newest novel – the recently released Fayne.
The inspiration for Fayne, she notes, began with a simple drawing.
“I often draw a picture before I start working on the book. I drew the surface of what looked like the Atlantic Ocean, with a gentle, regular swell on it. But then, on the horizon, I drew this crumbling sort of stone mansion. So, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not water, that’s land.’ But there was still this sense that the sea was there, and that the land, at any moment, could turn liquid again. And then I drew a figure in the foreground. It was a young person, a kid. I couldn’t tell whether it was a girl or a boy. But this figure had long flowing hair, and kind of romantic masculine garb, late 19th century garb, and then I wrote a caption. And the caption was, ‘I had heard something out on the fen.’ So, then I thought, ‘Who are you?’”
Enter Charlotte Bell, the ever-curious protagonist at the centre of Fayne.
Sitting at 736 pages, Fayne is MacDonald’s largest literary effort to date. Set in the late 19th century, on a large and lonely estate (the titular Fayne) that straddles the border of England and Scotland, the story follows Charlotte, a child kept hidden from society by her father, Lord Henry Bell, because of a mysterious physical condition.
Awash in themes of love, science, magic, nature, and identity, Fayne is an impressive homage to the Gothic literature of the era, employing many common tropes of the genre: large and mysterious houses, curious and thoughtful protagonists, and dark family secrets.
The scribe shares that Victorian literature such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jayne Eyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankestien were large literary inspirations for Fayne.
“I love Victorian literature, and I love any tinge of the Gothic. For me, there is nothing more joyful than having a toy box full of literary devices – which is, ultimately, what the Victorian novel is. It is a marvellous genre, and a wardrobe full of dress-up that I get to play with – all the devices of mystery and secrets and true identities revealed, of skeletons in closets…all of that good stuff. And I knew I could also tell a story that is very contemporary in its passions, and its urgency.”
Fayne is not only MacDonald’s largest book – it is also as her “queerest novel” yet.
In addition to being a writer, she is also a passionate activist of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and was made an officer of the Board of Canada in 2019, both in recognition of her as a writer and also as an activist.
“It is really amazing to be honoured by your country for something that was considered so dishonourable for so long.”
While her other books have included 2SLGBTQIA+ themes, Fayne takes it one step further, with and gender identity and sexuality at the center of the conversations. Throughout the story, Charlotte embarks upon on a journey to discover her own gender identity and sexuality. Fayne also includes representation of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community of the 19th century.
MacDonald says that she dubbed this particular book as her queerest for both literal and metaphorical reasons. On a metaphorical level, Fayne puts emphasis on the importance and “queerness” of nature and our Earth. She describes nature as “promiscuous,” never conforming to the rigid rules and categorization we, as humans, have created, and is instead always turning one thing into another – something, she says, that should also apply to humans.
“We are Earth. Just like everything, and everyone, just like a pebble on the ground. We are all made of the same thing – all parts of one another, and of everything else.”
On a more literal level, she says Fayne brings to attention to queerness that people often forget.
“We queer people have always been here.”