Many writers who live in the Northwest have been turning their backs on the mainstream world. Instead, they're creating new publishing venues that have more in common with the DIY music movement of the '80s and '90s than the New York publishing establishment. Mark Macdonald, the author of Flat, (a novel) and Home (a collection of stories) is one Northwest writer whose work is helping to shape the character of our regional literature. Though currently based in Vancouver, Macdonald has lived all over Canada.
For the past several years, he has worked at Little Sister's Bookstore, and he credits bookstores with providing him a more useful education than high school. As a longtime fan of Macdonald's writing, I was glad to be able to formally ask him about his work.
Is there any way in which you regard yourself as a writer of this place, the Pacific Northwest? (I realize how U.S.-centric that phrase is... sorry....)
A significant part of where I'm coming from as a writer is that I require an amount of solitude, both physically and intellectually. For instance, when I'm in a "writing phase" I can't read other fiction--and vice versa. I feel very attached to Vancouver and to the Left Coast because I was born here, [so] the rain, the ocean, the ravens and eagles, the cedar is in my blood. When I go to the mountains, I can name all the flora and fauna, but the desert scares me. I feel I am in my element here as a person and therefore as an artist.
How about more intimate places?
Both Flat and Home have images of body as building/building as body, an equation of physical space with psychic space.
What's up with that?
I spent my childhood moving about from one province to another, as my mother remarried and moved to Ontario. Later, she was diagnosed with cancer, and we moved to Victoria. When she died, I moved to Edmonton to live with my father, who, true to form, moved us back to Vancouver. By the end of high school, I had attended seven different schools, which makes a kid self-dependent in terms of friends/entertainment/fantasy. But more significantly, after watching my father also die from cancer, [I began to work with] the notion that the breakdown of human cells beyond our control relates strongly to the idea of slowly collapsing architecture. I think this is most obvious in "Walls" [a story from Home], but it directed the flow of Flat as well. I have a fascination with the idea that, as in illness or the entropy of any other physical structure--or in madness--there is a progression and development at the same time as being a slow loss, decay, and regression. In "A Space Called Love" [also in Home], the central figure's work is only finished when he embraces his own decomposition.
Your work also has lots of images of weird inhabitations or disruptions of the human body--a part of a cut-off finger or part of an arm. What's this about?
The reality of cancer is that the body begins to digest itself. We spend our lives trying to understand what happens outside of us, and at the end of many of our lives, we puzzle on the meaning of what's happening inside of us. When you lose a limb, there is nothing to be understood about it. There is only facing the new reality of the situation. How shall I adapt to this new information? With a relatively high experience of cancer, AIDS, madness, and just the disruption of my own life, my writing is informed by new situations and unexpected turns. It is like post-magic realism. The magic is drained away by the banal facts of life and by our desire to simply do the best we can as we are faced with new information.
Are you working on anything now?
I do have another novel in mind, and I'd like to work out a longer piece than I have to date, but one hates to discuss the details publicly.