Ann-Marie MacDonald reading with Kerri Sakamoto at the Church at Berkeley (315 Queen East), Tuesday (September 30), 7 pm. $5 advance at Nicholas Hoare Books (45 Front East). 416-777-2665.
Ann-Marie Macdonald is making herself a smoothie in her kitchen. We're talking about celebrity. Oprah-fied and lionized since she released her debut novel, Fall On Your Knees, the Toronto novelist and playwright has had to deal with that phenomenon in new ways. She tells me about answering the doorbell to find a courier from the CBC and wondering what the hell was going on. She has an arrangement with the delivery guy not to ring the doorbell so as not to disturb the dogs - and her new baby.
She peers behind him. There's Jan Wong lurking at the side of the house. She's profiling the courier, she says, for an article in the Globe and Mail.
"Whatever you do," MacDonald says to the courier, "don't go out for lunch with her."
But MacDonald was pissed off. Whether Wong just lucked out in winding up on the porch of a local celebrity or planned the whole thing doesn't matter. The Globe eventually called to ask if they could use MacDonald's name in the piece.
"I said no," says MacDonald just as she's about to plunge her hand blender into the bowl. She puts it down. "I don't see why I should let Jan Wong sweeten her article with my name."
She's facing me now, hands on her hips. We've known each other for over 20 years, ever since we were both associated with Nightwood Theatre, and I'm noticing something different.
She's still all wound up and taut - as if 25 ideas could explode at once if only she could finish the complex one she's chewing on. Her intellect is as electric as ever. And her obsession with detail is there in her conversation, in the research for her new book, even in her food prep: for my bowl of berries, she cuts bead-sized raspberries in half.
But something has changed. Is it that she's settling into her 40s? It could be financial independence. Fall On Your Knees sold over 300,000 worldwide. She's not talking numbers when asked about the million-dollar advance for her second book. Whatever it is, she's not as worried about being user-friendly.
The short but safe wispy haircut that used to frame her face and softened everything has been replaced by a tougher cut. Her mouth doesn't quicken as often into a grin; the twinkle that makes her such a charismatic stage performer doesn't flash as often.
Her emotions - especially her anger - are closer to the surface.
"The pixie days are over," she says. "I don't want to say something that's difficult and then have to do a song and dance to make it go down more easily."
She takes me over to a table and shows me all three editions of her new book, The Way The Crow Flies. The American and Canadian versions are a full inch slimmer than the UK edition.
"The American and Canadian publishers used thinner paper because they were worried that the book was too thick," she explains. "The Brits don't mind that. They love fat - look what they eat for breakfast."
OK, the humour isn't gone entirely.
But she is aware that everyone's waiting for this book. She knows all about sophomore slump - second novels, follow-up records, the campaign following a rookie-of-the-year baseball season - and the inevitable media backlash. She can feel it in the attitude of interviewers and reviewers - the Star last weekend, without beginning the book, complained that it's too long.
She's no longer the local up-and-comer who writes great plays (including Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet) and gets nominated for Genie acting awards (I've Heard The Mermaids Singing). She's an international literary star.
Not that she has to worry. As The Crow Flies is a great book (See review this page). It's not as sexy or complex or hallucinatory as her staggering debut, but its story of abuse and murder on a Canadian air force base in the early 60s - an era she evokes in precise detail - and their impact on a stand-up comic in the 80s charges along.
She's mined personal stuff - "ransacked myself," as she puts it - more than ever before. The main character, Madeleine McCarthy, comes out of MacDonald's own experience moving around Canadian bases all her young life as the daughter of a Canadian airman. The case of Steven Truscott, which had a deep effect on her - her dad knew Truscott's dad - is an obvious inspiration for a chunk of the storyline. Probing your personal history is the kind of approach writers usually take in their first novels.
"I do things backwards," she admits. "I get more personal with everything I write. Maybe it's not that it's more personal; I just put it out on the table more. I don't need as elaborate a set. I don't need as many props. I'm not hiding anything."
In the lives of the McCarthy family, on the other hand, there are secrets everywhere. Madeleine's father, Jack, is involved in low-level espionage, and things are going very badly for Madeleine in school. Nobody's talking about any of this, even though everybody knows something isn't quite right.
"The 50s were a time when believing in rhetoric was very reassuring, and you can't see what's in front of your own face. I mean, you're facing global annihilation and all you can say is, 'What would you like on your hamburger, dear?'"
She used to smile after a comment like that, but not this time.
As we talk about sexual abuse - a theme she's been exploring since her first theatre collaboration, 1985's This Is For You, Anna - you can see how easily, even with the wit and the comedy, she's pulled to the darker side.
MacDonald has always said she wasn't abused as a child, but she has profound insight into the experience. We wander on to the topic of whether survivors can ever get closure on their trauma. Her intensity deepens.
"I just don't buy it. I don't buy that you ever get it. Closure, shmosure - it's never OK. The only thing left is to tell. It's not going to make you feel better because you get to tell him to fuck off. Because they don't fuck off. They die in their beds. The priests live in lovely retirement rectories," she says, and encapsulates her relationship to the Catholic Church with the wry comment, "I'm looking into whether I could get myself excommunicated. I'm lapsed - but not enough."
There's a certain synchronicity in the fact that just as she finished a novel that goes back to her own childhood, she suddenly had a child of her own. She and her partner, theatre artist Alisa Palmer, adopted a child last October.
"We started the adoption process early on, thinking, 'Conception can happen like that, but adoption can take forever. '"
Wrong. Not five months after they signed up for an open adoption, they got the call - they'd been chosen. She's counting on her own memories to keep her honest as a mother.
"Every time I hear someone say that the truth hurts or will damage you or you should hide it for the good of the children - the way they hid adoption in the 50s - I think, 'These are people who are cruel and have no interest in children and in what family really means. '"
And she vows never to lose sight of the fact that the sugar and spice business about young girls is a load of crap.
"I have a memory of moving to Ottawa when I was 12. I was watching the girls there playing. I stood at the foot of the driveway and said to myself, 'Don't ever forget that it's terrifying. Don't ever look at a group of kids and say, "How sweet - why don't you join those kids, honey?"
"Because it's brutal, and you don't have any idea what's going on there."