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The Globe and Mail

Alistair MacLeod: Remembering the man beyond being one of the best fiction writers on Earth

Alistair Macleod in Five Finger Rapids, Yukon.

Patricia Coates

Alistair MacLeod's great novel, No Great Mischief, was published in 1999, the year I moved to Canada. I settled into the country alongside it. The book nourished my fascination with the Maritimes, especially, the land from which my parents had come. Many years later, while camping on MacLeod's beach in Cape Breton, across the road from Alistair's Dunvegan home, I climbed some rocks and rounded a cliff and saw, high on a gently sloping hill, the shack in which he'd written so many of his brilliant words. To my great surprise, it was unlocked; entering it felt like visiting a shrine. Years later still, I finally met and got to know the man whose books had meant so much to me, and was thrilled to discover his warmth and humour. He became more than a writer; he became a person I admired. Alistair died on Sunday, and this week has brought us beautiful remembrances of his influence on the world's writers. We wanted to remember him as a man, as well. And so here we bring you the memories of people who knew him not just as one of the best fiction writers on Earth, but as a friend, colleague and family member. Rest in peace, Alistair. We miss you already. – Jared Bland

One day in speaking with Alistair in his cluttered office at the University of Windsor, I spotted a book on his bookshelf about the history of nursing in Canada, and asked about it. He smiled and remarked, "You might find that interesting." I smiled, and graciously declined. A few days later, I found the book in my mail slot. It was signed by the author, though the autograph looked curiously like Alistair's own signature. A day later, wearing that cheery look on his face, and cocking his head to one side, he inquired, "Have you read any good books lately?" And so began a tradition that has lasted for at least seven years. From time to time, I would find obscure books left for me, all signed (or forged) by the authors, and sometimes with personal notes. These included Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. Again autographed by Figes himself. Or what about Farming In A Changing Climate: Agricultural Adaptation In Canada, signed by its editors Barry Smit, Ellen Wall and Johanna Wandel? Or Canadian Sports Records by Gary and Poulton? There was also The Limits of Participation that tells the story of the Reform Party from 1987-2000, written by Faron Ellis, a political scientist from Lethbridge. Ellis signed this one for me, "To Marty who keeps his eye on the changes, Best, Faron." These books continued to flow into my office. Oddly enough, I kept each and every one. Then at one point, after spending several weeks in the hospital, I returned to my office to find yet another book awaiting me. There was a tiny note tucked just inside the title page, and scrawled in that unmistakable handwriting with those familiar looping legible letters were these words: "I thought you might like this for your collection." The book was No Great Mischief. Signed, of course, by the author.

– Marty Gervais is Windsor's poet laureate and professor of English at the University of Windsor

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It was Friday afternoon of the week I moved to Windsor, my first week at the university, at my first proper job, when he knocked gingerly on my office door. "Do you have a car, Stephen?" "Not yet," I said. "Well, it might be good, then, if I took you shopping." And he did, spending the afternoon hovering in aisles, gently listening, and asking, for hours. This was the second time I met Alistair. Months earlier, collecting me from a hotel for the job interview, he arrived late in a very large car. I got in, and noticed a fulsome bouquet of cigarette butts, two or three golden, dirty layers deep. After polite greetings, I said little, nervous. A few moments passed, until Alistair, wry, a glance at me, at the bouquet: "Smoke, if you like."

– Stephen Pender had the adjacent office to Alistair Macleod at University of Windsor for 14 years

This is my favourite Alistair MacLeod moment: It was December, 2001, just days before Christmas. I had recently left a job I loved for one I hated; we had no money; I was in a particularly dark and unhealthy period. My wife, Jennifer, and I went out in heavy snow to buy a Christmas tree. We were having trouble finding one so late in the season. I was ready to give up. Nothing seemed right. We were standing in the tree lot that springs up at the Dari DeLite on Howard Avenue at Christmas time, and I was inspecting a small tree, one of the few sad ones left. All I could see were its flaws – the thin patches, the crookedness, its lack of splendour and stateliness. A lone figure came walking stolidly through the swirling snow, hands clasped behind his back, wearing a jaunty cap and an overcoat. (Here, you will have to imagine Alistair's voice): "Hello, Mr. Stewart. And a Merry Christmas to you. Like me it appears you have left buying a tree to the very last." I don't remember what I said, if anything, but I think he could tell I was not happy with the tree in-hand. "That is a fine one," he said, nodding curtly. "It'll do." And then he disappeared into the snow. We bought the tree. I was lucky enough to see Alistair and talk with him many more times over the next 13 years, but that day on the tree lot, for some reason, made a big difference.

– Robert Earl Stewart was former student of Alistair MacLeod

I cannot think of the English Department, or, for that matter, the west side of Windsor without Alistair as part of my thoughts. I can still remember his lectures and his frequent, almost rhetorical question when discussing a work of literature we were studying in class: "and what does this mean?" I still ask that question when approaching art – whether it's my own work or that of others – and his words hang in the air, a useful and fruitful question. Bless you, Alistair.

– Christopher McNamara, former student of Alistair MacLeod.

At home in Cape Breton, one of the questions we always asked was if the Alistairs had arrived – we called the family Alistairs in the plural. Because when Alistairs came, summer had begun. By the same token, it would be a sign that summer had ended when Alistairs had packed up and headed back on the long drive back to Windsor. But they came every summer and that's what was important. And when they came, they didn't come as summer visitors. They came as Dunveganers and they stepped right back into the life in Dunvegan.

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We all know that the number one most important thing in Alistair's life was his family and I think this story depicts it so well: Alistair had one daughter, Marion, and when she was a little girl, she had a sleepover at one of her aunt's homes, so it was away from Dunvegan. She got homesick and called home and asked her father if he would come pick her up. Alistair responded, "Will I pick you up? Marion, I'll be there with bells on!" And then, on his way to pick her up, Alistair came up to my parents' house. My father had had bells for the horse and sleigh. My sister says she can still see Alistair leaving the house, shaking the bells above his head, saying, "I'm going to pick up my dauuugh-ter! I'm going to pick up my dauuugh-ter!" in a singing, lyrical, happy voice.

– Christene Marie MacLeod was a cousin of Alistair MacLeod

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