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Books How Alistair MacLeod delivered a custom-made short story for the Vancouver Writers Fest

With the deadline looming, MacLeod – who writes in longhand – struggled over the story’s last paragraph.

Marking its 25th anniversary this week, the Vancouver International Writers Festival has a new name – it's now the Vancouver Writers Fest – and, quite literally, a new story. Artistic director Hal Wake has commissioned an anniversary gift to mark the event: an original short story by celebrated Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod.

"I think he's one of the finest writers the country has ever produced," says Wake.

But there was no new book or story by MacLeod to present. So just over a year ago, Wake picked up the phone. With the festival since 2005, Wake calls a lot of authors in his line of work; this time, however, he was nervous. "I was worried about rejection; I was worried that he would say no," he says. "We chatted about the weather, as one does, for the first two-and-a-half minutes, and then I explained the idea. And Alistair said, 'When's the festival?' And I said, 'It's always the third week of October, so it's more than a year away.' And he said, 'Oh, I think I could write a story in a year.'"

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Born in North Battleford, Sask., MacLeod was raised in Cape Breton, and the island has provided rich fodder for his writing. While his body of work consists mostly of short stories, his one novel, No Great Mischief (published in 1999 when MacLeod was 64), was breathtaking, and won a slew of prizes, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Given his relatively modest literary output, as Wake puts it, the request may have seemed like a long shot. MacLeod proved him wrong.

"Because I like him and because I like the Vancouver International Festival and because I've been there a number of times, I agreed to do that," said MacLeod over the telephone last week from the University of Windsor, where he still keeps an office, despite retiring as a professor of English 12 years ago. (He splits his time between Windsor and Cape Breton.) He was happy, he says, to sink his teeth into something beyond writing letters of recommendation for former students and fielding requests for dust-jacket blurbs for other writers, sometimes "nice people who don't write very well."

There were no restrictions in terms of subject matter or length. But still, the pressure was on: MacLeod had no specific ideas initially and, as Wake puts it, "His whole methodology of writing is a mystery to almost everybody. I don't think anybody knows what really goes on when Alistair goes into his writing room and closes the door."

Earlier this year, a couple of months before the deadline, MacLeod – who doesn't do e-mail – sent Wake a letter, reassuring him that the story was coming along just fine; it even had a title, Remembrance.

Coming from MacLeod, the story, an understated tale of three generations of Cape Bretoners, is no surprise. In this case, it is set against the horrors of the Second World War – not just on the battlefield, but at home, and its echoes into the future. "I like the idea of the Second World War as it recedes, as there are very few people any more who experienced it," says MacLeod, who was particularly interested in "the way it wounded people who were not in it, those who were left behind, and the way it changed things forever both for people like the Dutch who were under siege, and for people like Canadians who went over there … and Canadian families who were left behind."

In Remembrance, being issued as a limited-edition chapbook and sold at the festival, David MacDonald prepares for what's likely his final Remembrance Day parade by remembering a series of events: his decision to go to war in 1942, driven largely by his need to support his pregnant wife and young daughter; the horrors of the front; the dwindling number of letters from his wife. When he does return, it's to a surprise – one that has the potential to darken his life, but winds up being his great light.

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He sees it, says MacLeod, "almost as a story of salvation. A lot of people in the story are saved by accident or by people going to the wrong address or having the wrong pages in the scribbler, or not getting in the car. … People who are allowed to live, I wouldn't say fulfilling lives, but are allowed to live lives which might not have happened had the gun been loaded otherwise or had the letter arrived on another day."

MacLeod, born in 1936, has few memories of the war, but vividly recalls being at the movies when it ended. "I wondered why everyone was so excited," he says.

His grandfather's brother, a medical doctor, had been killed by anthrax poisoning in the First World War. MacLeod's father, as well, was in the armed forces during the Great War, but he never made it overseas; the armistice was signed before he could be sent off. "So that's kind of an interesting idea," says Macleod. "If he was shipped … maybe I wouldn't be alive."

MacLeod – who writes in longhand – had some trouble finishing the story. With the deadline looming, the last paragraph was giving him grief. He finally completed it during a stint at the Banff Centre in Alberta this spring. In two sentences, it encapsulates the essence of the story, with the image of a car on a gravel road – the gravel no doubt flying this way and that, depending on how and where the wheels hit it – but driving, ultimately, toward the light.

Alistair MacLeod will be interviewed by Hal Wake at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Oct. 20 at 8 p.m.

Fest best bets

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Tuesday

An evening with Gordon Pinsent, author of the new autobiography Next; hosted by Vicki Gabereau.

8 p.m., Waterfront Theatre

Wednesday

An intimate evening with Junot Diaz, whose first novel won the Pulitzer Prize. His short-story collection, This is How You Lose Her, was nominated this week for the National Book Award in the U.S.

6 p.m., Performance Works

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Thursday

Crime writer Anne Perry – who for years concealed her identity as one of two teenagers involved in an infamous New Zealand murder – and her biographer, Joanne Drayton.

8 p.m., Performance Works

Friday

Music meets literature with authors M.A.C. Farrant, Patrick Friesen, Linden MacIntyre, Anakana Schofield, Susan Swan and Seán Virgo.

8 p.m., Performance Works

Saturday

Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, Louise Dennys, Graeme Gibson and others discuss the Canadian literary scene, 40 years after Atwood's seminal take on it, Survival.

10:30 a.m., Granville Island Stage

Sunday

Tea and tales from authors Lorna Crozier, Bill Gaston, Steven Heighton, J. Jill Robinson, Rebecca Rosenblum and Linda Svendsen.

3:30 p.m., Performance Works

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