If you can’t play the fiddle, you have to tell a story

Linden MacIntrye shared with ABT's editor his thoughts on Atlantic Canada's storytelling, and writing about home.

On being home…
That’s a complicated and complex question. I live in Toronto, where I have all kinds of friends and feel at home. But in Toronto, family is who I share blood with, so I’m more at home in Cape Breton because the whole island, really, is family. People are interested in who your grandfather is, and not just my generation. I met a young woman recently, hardly more than 18, and asked if she was from around here. She said, yes, but her family only moved here 100 years ago.

Big versus small…
Large, complex societies are more guarded. No one knows each other well enough to let it all hang out—you either trust people enough or you don’t. There’s a number of things about growing up in a small place, and not just in Cape Breton, where people are conscious of being either unique or marginal, whether ethnic or social, and that makes you very aware of needing people and interested in knowing your neighbours.

Knowing thy neighbours…
Small places impose a certain kind of civility. You weigh in a little more not to be gratuitously critical or alienate people because you never know who a person might be related to. My wife, not from here, asks why that’s important. It’s because someday, when you need someone, if you’ve insulted their third cousin, you might be out of luck. It also means you know a lot about people and what makes them tick which naturally lends itself to storytelling or music.

What comes with a civil society…
There’s no higher form of civility than to entertain. Every kid grows up wanting the favourable attention of an adult, and the best way to get that is to play the fiddle. If you can’t play the fiddle, you have to tell a story. So there’s an oral tradition, passed between generations, embedded in stories from simple, ordinary lives. Turning that into something that holds attention puts a high premium on clever speech and humour. You learn to embellish anecdotes from daily living and make them entertaining enough that people remember you.

Telling stories of Atlantic Canada…
Fiction writing is huge in Atlantic Canada, and I’d be burned at the stake if I didn’t acknowledge that. Yet, I’m always surprised when people outside the Atlantic region ask—why do your stories focus on people down that way? No one questions an Irish writer why Ireland is a character in a story. Canadian literature has a lot of pressure to get in other area codes and wedge in other references. Books that could be purely about one place and still win national respectability are overshadowed by the books from people and places that we don’t even know.

It’s all about the place…
Place has a huge impact on what makes people who they are and the stories they tell. In Cape Breton, a mother’s belief in a life spent in the coal mine shapes a man’s life, and he carries that narrative instinct from a deep place he probably couldn’t even articulate. But he has a story of universal truth to tell and a point to make and place makes it memorable. It’s a crucial character in every story, no matter where, including Cape Breton.

When it comes down to it…
Sometimes, no matter how sophisticated our literary output, either we remain marginal to the world or there’s this expectation we must be eccentric. In some ways, we’re okay with that. The Atlantic region has a wide range of writers who may never get a Giller, but if they make a splash at an Atlantic anything, that’s big. If they go on to national recognition, that’s fine for financial security, but what every creative Atlantic person most cares about is Atlantic Canadians—the people who matter to them and who they matter to. ■

LINDEN MacINTYRE’sbook, The Wake, was published this fall. He’s currently working on another project and mentioned working on The Wake “until the day they took it out of my hands.”

Written By

Karalee Clerk is a writer and Managing Editor of Atlantic Books Today magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Now Atlantic, Vanity Fair and other on and off-line magazines. She has a book of her own in the works and writes a popular blog about life as a runaway, karaleeofnofixedaddress.com.

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