There is something terribly ironic about writing about Alistair MacLeod on a deadline. I bet he’d find it funny. I would too if I wasn’t in tears.
I became a writer, in part, because of my grandmother. She gave me books, and read to me, and talked to me about them. When she was in the hospital dying, I read her the last chapter of No Great Mischief. During the final passage, she opened her eyes and smiled at me for the last time.
Alistair was a great writer. Everyone knows that, and they will continue to for years to come. He was also a great man. I kind of wanted him to be my dad. Other people felt this way too: he had a quiet, unconditional warmth to him that drew people in. He was funny but never mean, uncompromising but never confrontational, and he was much more interested in other people than he was in himself.
I met him about a decade ago in the hospitality suite at the Victoria Writers Festival. Someone had dropped off a keg of beer and we were trying to figure out how to tap it. Alistair hung back, leaving the serious business to others. I introduced myself, and he said “Oh yes, I know who you are.” He said that he had liked my book, particularly the Romany folk tales in it. I was so surprised he had registered my existence that my brain deserted me. “Gypsies are neat!” I said back to him. He allowed himself a brief look of surprise and then asked me a question about one of the stories, completely disregarding the fact that I was an idiot. A lot of our future conversations were to follow this pattern.
Recently, over dinner, our discussion turned to Fifty Shades of Grey, as happens in modern life. Alistair had, like me, read it to see what all the fuss was about. I observed that the author used the phrase “cocked” his/her head quite a bit, but never used that word in the context you’d think would be most likely, given the subject matter. “I noticed this as well,” Alistair said, tilting his head to the side. “I wonder what it means?”
Later that week, a group of us went to the Sunshine Coast Writers Festival. I was given the privilege of interviewing him onstage, where he was, as always, a consummate storyteller. At one point, I pressed him on something I’d always wondered about: Alistair, so the legend goes, writes one sentence at a time. Where most of us vomit up a draft and then spend years fixing our mistakes, Alistair writes one perfect sentence, no matter how long it takes, and then moves on to the next.
“Really?” I said. “Really?”
“Really?” (Gypsies are neat!)
“You have to ask yourself, am I building a birdhouse or a deck? Measure twice, cut once.”
The next evening I was in writer Guy Vanderhaeghe’s room attempting to borrow money. Alistair was in the next room and must have heard Guy’s wallet snapping shut. He came to the door, a little sheepish, holding a bottle of good scotch whisky he had packed for the trip. “People bring bottles by the house,” he said, “but we never drink them.”
He sat down and I poured him some in a coffee cup, and some for Guy and myself. After a while our friend Hal Wake showed up and I poured him some, too. The four of us spoke about books and writing, which writers rarely do, and as the kid in the room, I was given all sorts of advice about how to conduct myself in this world. Every so often, Alistair would push his cup over to me, (“just a little, Steven”) and the sun went down and Guy brought out a bottle of Famous Grouse, which Alistair and Hal made fun of him for drinking, though they did not disapprove enough to keep their mugs dry. Eventually. Alistair got up, said goodnight and wobbled back to his room. Hal followed him to make sure he got there okay. It was one of the best nights of my life.
I once told Alistair about my grandmother, about reading his book to her as she died. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t really know what I expect you to say. It was important for me to tell you.”
He smiled and extended his hand for me to shake. “It’s very good you did.”
A group of us will gather here in Vancouver tonight to tell stories, have a drink, and probably cry a bit. I imagine all across our country this will happen. It’s hard to believe that we’ll never again go to a reading and see Alistair there, that we will not hear his voice, that there will be no more stories. Peace to your soul, my friend. You were loved.
Steven Galloway is the author of four novels, most recently The Confabulist. He is the acting chair of the UBC creative writing program.