Author spotlight: Alexander MacLeod

Alexander MacLeod is a fiction writer and a professor of English and Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary’s University. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta and The O Henry Prize Stories. His first collection, Light Lifting, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Lagomorph, his collaboration with Andrew Steeves, recently won the 2021 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia’s Masterworks Arts Award. In April, he published Animal Person, a new collection of stories.

Your story “Lagomorph” has had quite the journey in the past few years! Originally published in UK literary magazine Granta in 2017, it went on to win a 2019 O. Henry Prize. Gaspereau Press released a standalone handbound letterpress edition of the story in 2020, and that project received the 2021 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award. Now “Lagomorph” has found its way into your latest book Animal Person. Why do you think so many people connect with this particular story of yours?

It’s so strange the way it all worked with that piece. As you note, it has already lived lots of different lives and, over the years, it has carried me a long way in this chariot pulled exclusively by only one very frail and elderly rabbit.  In its final iteration, I guess “Lagomorph” now anchors, or maybe just introduces this whole collection, and after many false starts, we even decided to draw the title of the book from an almost throw away line at the beginning of that story. Before anything has even happened, the narrator says: “It is important to establish, before this begins, that I never thought of myself as an animal person.”

The story, and then the whole rest of the book, goes on to become an extended meditation on the nature of intimacy itself and the connections we try and forge, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, between our “selves” and “others.” The rabbit’s silence, its big ears, and its albino eye became important touchstones for me, and I kept revisiting that image of the “person” reflected in the “animal’s” eye and the “animal’s” thoughts. I think I saw something tender and brutal in that juxtaposition.  Where is the line between being a self and being an outside thing? And who draws or controls that border?  It sent me tumbling into all kinds of other “reflections” on the nature of relationships, and since all of us are made mostly out of our relationships, that one image provided the book with a common starting point for what eventually became a much broader examination of how “relating” works in many different contexts.

“Lagomorph” was also one of the inaugural titles released for the WFNS Unbound audiobook series. What was it like to work on that recording with the folks at Neptune Theatre?

That was a wonderful experience. As you well know, writing is sometimes a lonely pursuit, so it was unique and special opportunity for me to feel the collaborative energies that came from working with the team at Neptune. We recorded it in the winter, during the peak of the pandemic, when the theatre was almost completely shut down. A lot of the company’s directorial and technical talent was being underutilized, so we slipped into that weird opening, and I think we managed to draw something positive and cool out of conditions that were otherwise very bad.

Jeremy Webb was such an insightful listener and vocal coach, and I just drew on his expertise, and we recorded it in pretty much one take. The sound is very intimate, almost like a monologue, and I know that many listeners liked that feeling of a “live” reading, especially when meeting in person was impossible.

This whole “Unbounded” thing was yet another result of the excellent work done by Marilyn Smulders and the truly remarkable team at WFNS. As you know, there is nothing she won’t try, and I just think we’re so lucky to have this organization, led by such a caring and dynamic leader, supporting the work of the writers of this province. I was, and always will be, so grateful to the federation for all it does for all of us.

Animal Person’s melancholic undercurrent is quite gripping. I sat down and read the whole book in one go. You really put your characters through the wringer with strained relationships, bloody accidents, murder, and more. Is tragedy the essence of a good short story?

I don’t think so. Like all art, I think the exploration of a recognizable truth is the essence of a good story. Sometimes that truth has to be tragic – life is sometimes tragic – or sometimes it can be comic, or kind of abstract or neutral, sometimes a simultaneous mixture of all three modes: as long as it’s recognizable and true, and as long as it gives the reader something to really chew on, then I think it will work.

It’s funny, but most of the time I feel like it’s the characters or the situations that are putting me through the wringer rather than the other way around. I usually just start with a strange image – the reflection in the rabbit’s eye, or that sinister connecting door between motel rooms – and then I follow wherever that leads. Like trying to build a road through a swamp or around a mountain range, most of my energy just goes into trying to make the thing “function” in a very basic way. In this, I think writing fiction is more like making a painting, or a sculpture or a musical composition. Though there is no blueprint to follow, you’re still just doing all you can to find a strategy that will make it come together and “go” in way that feels right.     

Some readers might assume that all writers of short fiction use the genre as a springboard to a future novel, but you’ve had great success releasing two short story collections. As a writer, what attracts you most to this genre?

So far, it’s been the intensity of the story form that has attracted me. I like the very focused relationship a story sets up between the writer and the reader and the text, and I have tried my best to wring what I can out of that strange exclusivity. Everything you “wind up” in the beginning of a work of short fiction has got to spring loose by the end – the writer and the reader both know this – so I love working on that tension, trying to calibrate it and them time the release in ways that are interesting or compelling. The formal limitations are what produces that enlivening pressure, like an Elizabeth Bishop Sestina or a Villanelle, or one of those perfect three-minute pop songs, so I love pushing right up against the borders to see what comes. I’m not against novels, and I am trying to write one now, but it’s a very different kind of project and I don’t see much formal continuity between the two.

Your first book Light Lifting made the Giller Prize shortlist in 2010 and you later served on the prize’s 2015 jury. How did those two experiences compare?

They were very different. Having my debut collection go straight to the Giller list changed everything for me, and I will always be appreciative to the crazy jurors who selected a little, previously unknown book, and then put it onto the big stage in a spot that might otherwise have been reserved for a more well-known writer. They were taking a risk with Light Lifting, but they did it anyway, and when I was on the jury later on, we followed that example, trusting our collective instincts and working as a team to produce a long list and then a short list and a winner that I’m still proud of today. I didn’t get exactly the outcome I wanted for every title, nobody did, but it was so humbling and instructive to read so much, almost a book a day, for the whole year. We went through nearly every text published in Canada and though it was tons of work, it was also very rewarding to catch a quick glimpse Canadian fiction, paused like that, for just one moment in time.

Earlier this spring you spoke at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. Your father’s donation established the program in 2001, and since then we have seen nearly 100 mentorship pairings and several dozen new books on Canada’s shelves. How do you think he would have responded to the lasting impact his gift has had on so many Nova Scotian writers? What has it been like to engage with the program yourself as a mentor?

Again, endless thanks and appreciation need to go to WFNS. As I said at that event, there was, and there is, no better way to honour dad than to name a mentorship program after him. He donated the money to establish the program, but since then it has been a living, breathing entity and every year it keeps doing the real work, bringing like minded people together on the page.

This is appropriate because, at his core, dad was first and foremost a teacher of literature and writing. He spent more than 30 years working in that role, and if you added up the hours – the days, weeks, months and years of his life – it’s not even close. He spent ten times as much time helping others as he did advancing his own craft. The idea that writing is a shared pursuit, a thing we all love, was not lost on him and I think we all have many lasting friendships that rose out of this kind of connection. When I worked as a mentor, I was paired with the astounding Sue Murtagh, an artist I know from before. We just picked up where we’d left off, and we’re still going strong now, checking in on new pieces every time they come up. She’s one of the bravest writers I’ve ever encountered and when her book comes out, I think everyone will see that right away.

In a recent Maclean’s article, novelist Georgia Toews says that she and her mother, the critically acclaimed author Miriam Toews, “really don’t talk about writing . . . other than confirming that yes, it’s hard work, and it’s important work.” What kind of writing relationship did you and your dad share?

Probably pretty much the same. “Hard” and “important” are great words to describe any pursuit that’s worth anything and I think most parents just want their kids to be able to find a life’s vocation that is both challenging and rewarding. My mom and dad raised six kids and all of us are creative in our different ways as musicians or writers or scholars of different sorts. Our parents just supported us all the way, but they never once directed our efforts. I liked that about them, and again, I try to follow that example. They understood that creativity was intimate and personal, and though they never gave guidance or “constructive feedback,” they always showed up when we needed them. My dad’s only counsel was to think of the long game when it comes to art and not to be too trendy or contemporary in your focus. The surface conditions are always changing, but as Mr. Keats recognized with his ancient Grecian Urn, a lot of the best art lasts a long time. “Make it to stand the rain,” was Dad’s only axiom.

Literary magazines may not have the biggest budgets or flashiest marketing, but they still play a crucial role in introducing emerging writers to new audiences. What are some of your favourite Canadian journals showcasing short fiction today?

This is a subject close to my heart and I firmly believe there would be no Canadian Literature without the astounding ecosystem of literary magazines this country has produced and supported over the years. If a person reads only one book a year, it should be the Journey Prize Anthology. No single text pulls together so much excellent work or gives you a better idea of the what’s happening in the journals, and who the essential new voices are going to be in a couple of years.  

Here in Atlantic Canada, we’re lucky to have so many excellent, and historically foundational publications located in our community.  Like so many others, I published my first work in The Antigonish Review, and The Fiddlehead and The Dalhousie Review. I also love QWERTY, and Riddle Fence and The Nashawaak Review, as well as the scholarly journals that work the other side of the equation and provide so many excellent reviews and long form essays. Again, no CanLit without the journals based out of our institutions, publications like Studies in Canadian Literature or The Newfoundland Quarterly.

Beyond our borders, Grain and The New Quarterly have been wonderful to me, and I whenever I flip through, I always find something cool in the latest issues of Prism, Malahat, Event, and Prairie Fire.

Although you’ve also lived in Ontario and Quebec, Nova Scotia seems to be a favoured setting for many of your stories. What is it about this place that inspires you to keep returning here in your writing?

I was born in Inverness, and raised mostly in Windsor, Ontario, then travelled a lot during my early adulthood, and spent a decade in Quebec, but in the purest sense, for good or ill, I think Nova Scotia is where I am “from.”  I understand that this notion of “being from” is a loaded term, and, as a scholar, I’ve worked on questions of literary regionalism for many years, but in the end, I think that sometimes there just is a profound connection between an artist and the complicated social geographies that produced them. It’s not just because I’ve spent the last twenty years slogging away here. Nova Scotia’s influential reach extends beyond my own life. My parents grew up in houses that were located three miles apart in Dunvegan, and there are now eight generations of my family, on both sides, that came through Inverness County, so this place is always going to matter to us differently.

It’s not a perfect straight line and, of course; along the way, usually for economic reasons, we all had to move back and forth to other locales for different stretches of time, but we keep returning and this place and its particular mix of peoples and cultures are structurally important to our shared history and my individual identity. It’s oversimplifying the process, but I don’t think I would make up the stories I make up if I, in turn, wasn’t made up by this unique combination of cultural and geographic forces. People often can’t believe that my dad was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, for example, but then when they think about the Depression and the compromises it required, they begin to understand why my paternal grandfather had to move West for work, and how his son, my father, could “belong” so strongly to a place he was born away from. In this, dad’s early childhood was not unlike the experience of immigrant writers: separate but connected to home in profound ways. Like that, I am never going to be fully separated from Windsor or Montreal or the American and Scottish places I know in different ways, but I feel like Nova Scotia is where my brain lives, and my heart and my imagination too. This province has its serious challenges, of course it does, and its unresolvable mysteries, but at least for me, these are the challenges and mysteries I want to stew in and explore as best I can.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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