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Author Alistair MacLeod on influence: ‘I don’t think you can write like anybody else. Nobody has your literary fingerprints’

Alistair MacLeod

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

Alistair MacLeod is one of Canada's most beloved storytellers. He rose to prominence in 1976 with the publication of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, a collection of short fiction that brought MacLeod's home, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, wonderfully to life. He followed it a decade later with another book of stories, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun. His first and only novel, No Great Mischief, was published in 1999. It went on to win the International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and has become one of contemporary CanLit's true classics. Last fall, he published a new story, Remembrance Day, which was made available as an eBook. Here, he reflects on the influences that shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

I always liked to read, and when I started writing seriously, I was in the United States, and I was doing a dissertation on 19th-century British novels, on Thomas Hardy. And two or three things happened there: I liked 19th-century British work, and I liked Thomas Hardy, and I liked D.H. Lawrence, and I liked Emily Brontë. And I liked the fact that they were not from fashionable places: They were not from London. Emily Brontë was too far north, Thomas Hardy was too far south. And so I came to the conclusion that great literature comes from anywhere, that it does not come from big cities, which everybody likes to believe, you know. There's still no great Toronto novel that I can think of. People go to Toronto and they go to New York and they go to Los Angeles because that's where the big festivals and things like that are. So I began to think that these people were knockout writers, and that in America a lot of the knockout writers were from the South. Well, what I learned from that is just write about your own place and the issues that are involved with that place. So I did that. Write about what you know, and see what happens. And it's turned out great! Now my work is translated into 27 languages. And it's very nice at my age to know that work set in Cape Breton can travel.

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Did you imitate those writers?

No, I don't think you can write like anybody else. Nobody has your literary fingerprints. No, I didn't try and write like them, but what I liked about them is that those novels at that time couldn't come from anywhere else in the country. Wuthering Heights couldn't be set in London.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

One of the things I like is using the first person. I've always used the first person. A novel I read many years ago by a man named Robert Penn Warren, a book called All the King's Men. It was a very good book, and he used the first person all the way through: I'm going to tell you what happened, here it was. You hear people today saying not to use the first person, but when I read that, I thought, "You can use the first person! And sustain it for 300 pages!" And I use it a lot, because I figure people are interested in their stories. You know when Snoopy is writing his stories on the dog house? He knows this. "It was a dark and stormy night when he set out …" doesn't work as well as "It was a dark and stormy night when I set out …"

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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