Atlantic Books Today recently caught up with Linden MacIntyre to find out what he’s been working on since departing the CBC, what he’s been reading, the craft of writing, his greatest literary influence, his favourite character he’s written and more
Linden MacIntyre is a distinguished broadcast journalist who spent 24 years as the co-host of the fifth estate. He has won 10 Gemini awards for his work along with numerous literary awards for his writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, often finding himself on bestseller lists across the country. His novel The Bishop’s Man claimed the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2009. His provocative new novel Punishment (Random House Canada) is “a powerful exploration of justice and vengeance in a small town shaken by a tragic death.”
You recently left the fifth estate. What have you been up to lately?
Trying to adjust to unemployment. People like to use the word retirement. For me it’s self-employment but I guess in any attempt to be self-employed you go through a period of being unemployed. I’m writing, and trying to think a lot about what I want to do with the time that I now have control over. It’s been six weeks since I gave up my career and so I’m sort of in the transitional period but I am trying to jumpstart a new novel.
That leads me to my next question, what’s next on your agenda? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m working on a novel. It’s in the fairly early stages. I am writing it but it’s a work in progress. I’m giving myself a year or two to get something else in the mill and that’s all I’m focused on right now. I’m deeply involved in getting the latest novel [Punishment] out and making people aware of it and having conversations like this and answering questions about it.
Where do you do your writing?
I do most of it in a small room in the house I live in in Toronto. After many years of journalism you learn you have to be able to write anywhere where you have a bit of time. You write on airplanes. I have a house in Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton and I do quite a bit of writing when I’m there. I write in the backseats of cars when someone else is driving. I write in hotel rooms, I write wherever I feel I have enough time to actually engage my brain with the project that I have on the front burner at the time. I can write just about anywhere but I write mostly early, early mornings sitting in a little office that I have in a house in downtown Toronto.
It’s organic. It starts with an idea and I’m all over the idea for a fairly long period of time until it crystallizes into a story structure with characters. The idea will come with characters engaged already. With this latest novel [Punishment] I had this idea but quite promptly the two main characters emerged in my mind and everything began to work together and a narrative structure came out of that process fairly quickly.
I usually start with an idea and develop characters. I have a very rough idea of what the plot is going to be in my head but the actual plot just sort of develops as you write. I can sit down without an idea in my head and 15 minutes later suddenly something springs into consciousness and gets written down. I have no idea where it comes from, I have no idea what generates it, but I know from long experience that it’s just something that happens.
People often ask how do you write? I say well you just write by writing. You have something in your mind that you want to say but the actual words are not going to come until you’ve literally sat down and made it possible for the words to come to your mind and be communicated. It’s just a matter of telling yourself ‘I will go to where I can actually write something down and when I get there, I will write something down. I don’t know what it’s going to be right now but I’m confident that when I get there it will happen.’
Have you had any plot twists that have surprised yourself?
Yes! Without revealing the resolutions of the story in Punishment, I never quite knew how I was going to explain the death of the young woman who was the centerpiece of this story. Until I got to the point where I really had to explain and then it just happened. It just sort of came out of nowhere and I was pleasantly surprised.
I worried long and hard about a moment in the narrative where one of the principal characters is killed and I was never quite sure how that was going to happen and as the writing evolved and hit that point in the narrative where I knew it had to happen, it just happened, almost as if it were preordained.
I know that characters will come out of nowhere. In The Bishop’s Man I realized that at a certain point in the story I needed to have a cut-away character who would share a little time with my main character. Well, it turned out the person that I conjured up just kind of took over that part of the story. He was the person that ended up having a very strong personality and a lot of ideas, a lot to say, and he just moved into the book and instead of just being a cut-away character, he’s a fellow that more or less conveyed one of the principal ideas that I wanted to get out of the book.
So one of the things that makes the process interesting and rewarding is that it is full of surprises. Nobody knows for sure how imagination works or what stimulates it, which is what makes writing from the imagination particularly interesting. Because one is constantly surprising oneself.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished reading a book that took me a while, a big fat book. I read Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, I just literally put it down. Next on my list is going to be Ann-Marie MacDonald’s new book [Adult Onset].
What genre do you prefer to read most?
I like to read literary fiction, which is fiction that provides a strong measure of social and political commentary and original access to insight about human nature, the way the world works, the way societies work. Which is one of the great strengths of Freedom by Franzen. It was an amazingly astute, vivid insight into family life, community life, politics and just interesting personalities. That’s essentially what I look for and that’s what engages me.
What book has had the greatest influence on you?
Back in my early days I got into reading groups of books. I read just about everything that Hemingway wrote and it was very influential. I read just about everything Steinbeck wrote, very influential. I read everything that Somerset Maugham wrote. And I got into a fascination with the existentialist philosophers who wrote novels in the 50s and in the 60s. I read novels by Sartre, I read novels by Camus and was surprised and rewarded by the fact that these weren’t just platforms for preaching, they were really powerful stories that did more to illustrate the detail of their philosophical outlook than any of the heavy-duty philosophical books that certainly Jean Paul Sartre wrote. I guess that period of reading when I was in my twenties was formative and had a deep influence. I was very interested in Russian authors, Solzhenitsyn, the old-timers, Tolstoy, Odoevsky, the short story writers. I guess you put all that together and you have something that was pretty influential but I can’t really put my finger on any one book that really made a particular mark.
What do you think of your first published book, now? (The Long Stretch, 1999)
That’s a very interesting question because every book one hopes is better than the last one but it isn’t always the case. Every book, while it might not be a better book than the last one it’s probably an improvement. The first novel was successful for a first novel, but I learned an awful lot in the process of doing it. I just set out with a thought in my head and wrote a page and then I wrote another page and I found as I was writing it I kept digging myself deeper into problems, the problem of voice and point of view and location for the revelation that the story is supposed to achieve, and I came to understand that in the process of writing something you’re constantly problem solving because everything that you invent creates problems for the next thing you’re going to invent – and this is in the very early stages.
As you become more experienced you think ahead more clearly and you hopefully avoid trapping yourself in certain points of view. You realize, okay maybe this is a story that cannot be properly told in the first person. For example, I wrote a novel that was all about a woman, and her consciousness and her very personal experience. Well I didn’t have the courage to take a first person narrative in which the protagonist was a woman but I learned about and developed the ability to write in what they call third person subjective, which is a third person presentation but from a single point of view. That seemed to work.
I’m trying now to write a story in which the central character is dead and the story is all about somebody trying to find out why he’s dead and really who was he in the first place. So it raises all kinds of challenges about viewpoint and voice. But it’s a fascinating exercise to work it out without actually going to workshops or courses in creative writing or even asking other writers. I prefer to sit alone and figure it out in my own head and learn just by doing it, whether or not it’s going to work.
Who is your favourite character you’ve written?
My favourite character would be Duncan MacAskill, Father Duncan, the priest in The Bishop’s Man. He was the most complex individual. He was an individual that grew in the course of the story that he was a part of. He started out as a fairly narrow guy with a black and white outlook on morality and on people. And by the end of the book he had become a bit more broad and sensitive to people and their character and the kinds of problems that people face and what these problems do. I think in that sense he was for me the most satisfying character to develop and to take account of after the process of his growth was pretty well finished at the end of that book. I thought enough of him to bring him back in a secondary role in the next novel and he had even grown more, was to me, a more interesting human being in that book because he had opened up his emotional life and had taken probably a more relaxed and realistic view of the world that he was living in. So yeah I’d have to say Father Duncan MacAskill.