Mining the past with Ann-Marie MacDonald

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest novel revisits painful terrain to find forgiveness
Photo credit: Guntar Kravis
Photo credit: Guntar Kravis

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest novel revisits painful terrain to find forgiveness

Most Canadians know the name Ann-Marie MacDonald, but how depends on your interests. She’s the familiar host of  “Doc Zone” on CBC Television, a respected film actor and an award-winning playwright. She’s most often recognised as the author of Fall on Your Knees (Knopf Canada, 1996), a novel that’s been translated into more than 20 languages and won numerous awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, plus being shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 1996 and being one of the only two Canadian novels ever selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

As her phone rings for our interview, MacDonald is strolling a busy Montreal street. She moved to the city only recently, after spending her customary summer in Fredericton, NB, with her children and wife, National Theatre School artistic director Alisa Palmer. While MacDonald isn’t from Atlantic Canada, she is of it. 

She describes her parents as dyed-in-the-wool Cape Bretoners who were constantly on the move. Her father was a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot stationed in Germany when she was born, and later at RAF Station Centralia, just outside of Exeter, Ont. “When you continue to be on the move the way my parents were, you preserve more of that old country feeling,” she says. “There’s this Cape Breton time capsule inside each of my parents. That meant that my connection to Cape Breton growing up was really to a place that was much older than my generation. I don’t think it was an accident that I turned to it for Fall on Your Knees.” 

Adult OnsetIn her new novel, Adult Onset (Knopf Canada), she mines the past once again to inform her story.

“The way I’ve been thinking of [this book] is like when you haven’t gone grocery shopping, but need to make supper. There’s always pasta. My youngest was five when I started writing this book. I thought okay, I’m going to start writing fiction again, but I’m writing pasta. It’s going to be here-and-now, no sets and costumes,” MacDonald says.  

The novel follows a week in the life of Mary Rose MacKinnon, who like MacDonald is a wife, mother and best-selling author, but the similarities don’t end there. A childhood injury flares up as Mary Rose goes through the chores of daily life, igniting an examination of her childhood traumas, her anger and the consequences it could have for her family. 

Throughout the book Mary Rose relives the pain of coming out to her parents as a lesbian, another detail lifted from MacDonald’s life. “I wish you had cancer,” both mothers said, implying something that could be cured. While both mothers became progressive and accepting parents, the pain of past words lingered within MacDonald and her character long after the apologies. 

In the novel’s present, Mary Rose’s parents buy stacks of her books for friends, acquaintances and occasionally even strangers. Another detail lifted from MacDonald’s life. She says before starting to write Adult Onset, “I told my father, ‘I’m going to draw on my own experience and channel it through fiction. It’s going to be a story, but it may be a little close to the bone. I’m afraid that’s what I do.’ And my father said, ‘You do it so well.’”And Macdonald admits that like Mary Rose’s, her own mother will probably buy 100 copies. 

For all of the acclaim she’s earned with this raw narrative, MacDonald baulks at the suggestion that writing a book that bares so much of herself is brave. “I could have been far too afraid to write this book, which is I guess why people have been saying that it’s brave. I guess so, but I think all writing is brave. It’s very brave to start a piece of writing–,” she pauses to consider. “No. It’s one thing to start a piece of writing, it’s always brave to finish it.”

Written By

Kim Hart Macneill is a journalist and magazine editor whose work has appeared in This Magazine, Canadian Business, and East Coast Living. She divides her time between Halifax and Moncton.

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