Interview: Ann-Marie MacDonald on landscape, love, curiosity, and Victorian ghost stories

(A transcript of an interview on the Oct. 17 episode of The AM on CJSW)

Peter Hemminger Ann Marie MacDonald is an award-winning novelist, a playwright, actor and broadcast host who in 2019 was made an officer of the Order of Canada in recognition for contribution to the arts and her LGBTIQ2SI+ activism. Her writing for the stage includes the plays Goodnight, Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, and this year’s Hamlet 911, while her novels include Fall on Your Knees, The Way the Crow Flies, Adult Onset and the brand new release Fayne, a tale of science, magic, love and identity set at the border of England and Scotland in the late 19th century.

She’s going to be joining WordFest on October 28th for a conversation there, but she is also joining us this morning for The AM. Ann-Marie MacDonald, thank you so much for calling in. 

Ann-Marie MacDonald Thank you, Peter. I’m delighted to be here, and I can’t wait to be in Calgary. 

PH Have you done a WordFest appearance before? 

AM Oh yeah, yeah. A few years back with Adult Onset, and I did, at that time I did what was called like the High Speed… Oh, hi something rodeo, what was that? 

PH Oh, the High Performance Rodio. With One Yellow Rabbit. 

AM Thank you—High Performance Rodeo, for which I was decorated with a medal. 

PH What was the medal they gave you for that? 

AM It was, I don’t know, with some kind of fun game show format thing and it was completely undeserved. Actually, I think I like someone broke a tie and it really belonged to Michael Crummey. But we’ve made-up since then. It’s OK between us. 

PH No long-lasting grudges from that. 

AM It felt really OK. And I know sometimes that’s how juries work, right? I was the recipient of that flawed process, and this time it went my way. 

PH So you’re going to be coming this just next week, I guess a little over two weeks to talk about your new novel Fayne, which—I know that it’s difficult to describe a 700 page work in a minute or two, but for folks who aren’t familiar with that it, can you give just the high-level summary? 

AM Sure, sure, sure. Remote, windswept, moor. Spooky, crumbling mansion. Mysterious widowed barron. Ultra-charming, brilliant young daughter upon whom he dotes. She has mysterious condition. There are secrets in the house and in the past, many of which are kind of pulsating in this great oil painting portrait that dominates the great sweeping marble staircase. So there is this portrait hangs on the landing and it’s of this gorgeous Irish American heiress, who was Charlotte’s mother, Charlotte being the brilliant 12-year-old. So that’s her gorgeous Irish American mother, who was really rich. And it also depicts Charlotte’s baby brother. And both of these people are dead of course, ’cause it’s a Victorian novel, so the portrait on the stairs has to feature gorgeous, important dead people. 

PH Of course. 

AM And then we find out what became of them and what will become of Charlotte. And there are major questions of identity. 

PH Yeah, and I’m only about five chapters into the work right now, but it very much has the feel of a classic Gothic novel. And you’re a writer who has worked in so many different mediums, written for so many different time periods, has played with metafiction. And I mean Hamlet 911—I didn’t have a chance to see it but the descriptions of that is a piece that plays with a play within a play and commentary on the festival that it’s taking part in—with that kind of breadth of areas that you’ve tackled, how did you land on this? What was it about the Gothic novel that appealed to you? 

AM Well, the Gothic novel is really, for me, foundational. It’s where I began to read as a kid, right?  

I was about 10 years old when I read Jane Eyre for the first time. I was also steeped in Bugs Bunny and The Beatles, and those continued to be like a triumvirate. Those are my triangular points of reference and everything, it can be kind of found within that. 

But I loved the size, and the sweep and the passion and the language. I loved that everything is ultimately connected. That no matter how vast and disperate this world seems to be, everything is intimately connected.  

And that really appeals to me also, I suppose, at a spiritual and political level and at an urgent environmental level. We are connected. All of us, animate and inanimate, right? I think they’re all part of earth and we’re all part of Earth’s consciousness, and that it matters. Everything we do matters. 

There’s also an urgent environmental cri de cœur running through the book, because of course, the moor, the supposedly useless barren moor upon which this story unfolds, is a peat bog, right? And now we understand that peat bogs really are the most important and critical carbon sink in the world as well. They harbor so much about life, and how life burgeons at the margins of the indefinable, soupy primordial margins.  

And that’s what these kinds of landscapes are full of. They’re full of stuff that we haven’t discovered. Stuff that people called magic not too long ago, which we call science now, which we might call magic again tomorrow, you know, and that intersection of—what is magic? What is science? What is spiritual, what is physical, and how are all these things simply a continuum, right? And I feel the same way about identity.  

And then that gets us into the other, you know, I call it my queerest book because it really does take on compulsory heteronormativity, gender, enforced gender norms, and the Victorian era. I mean that was the era of categorization and definition. We’re going to name every species and subspecies, and we’re going to define absolutely everything. And that’s when sex roles become really ironclad, and that’s when class, wealth and class has always been a factor, but certainly gender roles and sex roles become incredibly distinct around that time, too. 

PH One contrast, and I do want to talk about the gender roles that come into the novel, but even just still talking about the landscape that you talk about, that being the era of trying to classify everything, but there’s also been, if you look at the language that used to be used to describe the Moors, I think Robert McFarlane has talked about this wealth of landscape terms for incredibly tiny distinctions of different kinds of land that have been lost over the years and reduced to… I mean windswept moor is a great phrase, but it’s always “windswept moor.” There’s so much specificity that you come to in your language. When you were developing the language to speak about the land, does that affect the way that you’re seeing the world around you? 

AM Oh, absolutely. I mean, that sense of urgency has been with me, I can’t remember when it wasn’t with me, but now I feel it’s it in this book. It’s really impassioned. I feel like the Earth speaks. The Earth is a character. The mud, the very mud is a character in this book. And when I think of that landscape and especially when land turns liquid, almost imperceptibly, when does land become liquid? You know, when does one thing transform into another, and I think of it as a liquid library. You know. Just the richness and the generosity today of our Earth and how she is endlessly—how she-they-he as I make it in the book, which kind of ends with a prayer in that way, really, of gratitude to this entity which continually regenerates and continually escapes our attempts to pin it down. You know, and that’s why I think of it as a liquid library, that mud puddle, you know, we don’t even know what’s in there. Not really, actually. 

PH Yeah, I haven’t really thought of the land in those terms. But I feel like—again, I’m only about five chapters into this book—but there’s so many themes that are already tying together. It’s set in a manor house that exists on the border between England and Scotland, so it’s not really in either. It’s a between place, and the moors themselves are a between place. The time that it’s set in is the emergence of science from a more classical education in some cases, or more folklore based. At what point did you realize that you were writing a work that was set so much, that was so much to do with transitional periods or transitional spaces? 

AM Well, that’s really the key word, isn’t it, transitional? Transitional and transformative.  

I think I intuitively knew that from before the beginning. I wrote a play called Belle Moral back in the 90s, and I became obsessed with transitional species at that point. And then I apply that to everything else, right? Because I think that truth is found in dynamism. We are constantly changing, right? And there are many ways of describing that, whether it’s the second law of thermodynamics or God knows what else, right? But transition is our state. Dynamism is our state. Balance is anything but static. It’s the opposite of static, and that implies uncertainty. But uncertainty can make people feel. It can lead to fear, and fear, of course, is the enemy of thought, is the enemy of curiosity. It’s the enemy of life. It’s the opposite of love. And I think of, really, when I think of it, I think of love as being probably the greatest, most fearsome force that’s going on. Because that’s… Somewhere, Earth is regenerating, constantly, and I I choose to think of that as love. And incredibly powerful. 

PH That curiosity that you speak of… I’m going to bring it back now to talking about the character of Charlotte, and I think this is going to be the last bit that we have a chance to talk about, but she is such an insatiable learner, a person with this, not just a curiosity, I mean curiosity is absolutely what drives her, but this incredible memory as well. She’s well versed in Greek classics. She’s devouring the new cutting-edge science of the late 19th century. How do you keep up with that character’s curiosity as you’re writing them? 

AM Well that just was an excuse to immerse myself and learn. You know, I’m pretty passionate about learning as well, myself.  

She’s way smarter than I am. Luckily, all I had to do was capture and follow her thoughts and back them up with the research that I did, and then get them all together between the pages of a book where they can be on record and experienced by other people. But don’t ever ask me to speak like Charlotte, ’cause I just don’t have her intelligence. I don’t have her audiographic memory, which I really, really had so much fun with.  

I love her passion for learning. I love what kind of a geek she is in that she has to learn how to have a sense of humor, and just her joy and her insatiable curiosity. Yes, I share that, and I have gone very passionately into all the various questions from whether or not—and this is all in my quest to immerse the reader in a world that becomes theirs, such that they forget they’re reading, and they forget that anyone wrote this. That this belongs to them, but they know they’re going to be guided through this story.  

And I love Victorian tropes because we’re familiar with them. And yet they provide a structure for endless surprises, right? What is the mystery behind that big portrait on the stairs? Well, this is a Victorian novel. We know that’s going to be important. And moreover, you as the reader know that this book will fulfill your curiosity and take you somewhere, right? So for me, those are readerly delights. 

Those are the delights that the audience hopes for in the theater, and that’s also why I write. I love to welcome people into a story. I wanted to write the kind of book I would have fun reading, you know, so… And that turned out to be a pretty tall order because I did have to immerse myself into the time and place. But there’s enough that’s very recognizable, and then enough that’s very, very strange, I think, to keep people on the journey. 

PH I’m very much looking forward to taking that journey myself. And for listeners who are eager to learn more about the process of writing this book, there’s so much conversation that can be had around this, and that’s going to be taking place October 28th, 7:00 PM at Memorial Park Library thanks to WordFest, so anyone who wants to check that out can head to to find out the details. Ann-Marie, thank you so much for joining this morning. 

AM Thank you so much Peter. I look forward to it, and all best.