Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting is a literary heavyweight

The ink was barely dry on Alexander MacLeod's first book when it was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Alexander MacLeod

The ink was barely dry on this author’s first book when it was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

In a matter of a single day, St. Mary’s University Professor Alexander MacLeod went from having his first book published to being on the long list for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Just hours after this interview was conducted, MacLeod learned he was on the shortlist for Canada’s most lucrative literary prize. MacLeod’s pedigree is impressive; his father is Alistair MacLeod, one of this country’s most respected writers. Like his father, his first book, Light Lifting, is also a collection of short stories. Born in Inverness, Nova Scotia, Alexander MacLeod grew up in Windsor, Ontario but now lives in Dartmouth with his family.

ABT: What inspired you to write Light Lifting?

AM: I don’t really know if there was ever any inspiration involved. The stories in there are about people in different stages of life and as I was putting it together, I was just trying to think through those stages and zero in on the major concerns of each character in his or her specific time and place. It’s obvious, of course, that the high-performance runners training to make the Canadian national team have different worries than the young parents with a sick kid or the elderly people who occupy those apartments in the assisted living building, but I wanted to show that even though they were all separated from each other, and their lives were so completely different, it was still possible to draw connections between them.

ABT: Did it come together quickly or was it something that took a lot of time?

AM: It took a lot of time. Some of the stuff in there was written more than fifteen years ago and the first story was published thirteen years ago so it took quite a while to get to this point. In the end, and despite our best intentions, we were still rushing to get it put together correctly in the final weeks, and we had to scramble with the last story, but that was just the last stage of a long process. I guess you could say it was very, very slow for a long, long time and then very, very fast for the last little while.

ABT: What was the most challenging part of writing this?

AM: Just getting the sentences and the paragraphs to sound right. I’d have the ideas and the characters and the plot and everything else in order, but almost all the energy went into the actual making of it, the construction of the story, one sentence at a time. I’d go over it and over it and over it, until I could almost recite the whole story to myself. To me, getting that flow was the most important part. I wanted the stories to move and to have some intensity so the only way I could do that was to put some pressure on the language itself and then try to crank up the tension incrementally through small increases in the way the stories develop.

ABT: What’s the most rewarding aspect?

AM: It’s just nice to see something that was very private and very personal go out into the world and be welcomed instead of rejected or ignored. The book’s only been in print for a couple of weeks, but new readers have already been writing back to me, sending all these nice email messages and encouraging phone calls. Just to see it working the way I imagined it could, seeing that living connection between writers and readers actually operating in the real world: that has definitely been the most rewarding part.

ABT: You get a book published and almost immediately get nominated for the Giller—how has all this affected you?

AM: It’s been pure craziness. While I’m writing this, we don’t know yet if the book will make it through to the short list, but even if it doesn’t go any further than this, the prize has already done its work for me. (Note: Since doing this interview, MacLeod has made the shortlist.) The book came out on September 20th and it was on the Giller long list the next day. In one stroke, that took care of any promotion problems my publisher might have faced and it put the book on the radar of all the big papers and helped forge that link with more interested readers. The prize nomination gave the book a substantial life, just hours after it was born so I’ll always be grateful to the jury members who picked it out of the pile and gave it a chance.

ABT: Do you feel the book accomplishes what you set out to do?

AM: Yes. As I said, it’s what I hoped it would be and I’m very happy with the reaction and reception it has received. The public readings have been incredible and the whole experience has been more than I ever expected.

ABT: Are you planning on writing anything else?

AM: Not right now. It took me a long time to get this one done so I’m going to let it cool down for a while. I can tell you for certain that there won’t be any 1500 page historical novels coming out of me anytime in the near future, but after this settles down, I still have other things I’d like to try, and I think I’ll be back at it eventually.

This article was originally published in the Holiday 2010 issue of Atlantic Books Today

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Elizabeth Patterson is a writer, musician and broadcaster based in Sydney, NS.

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