Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Alexander MacLeod

In books, fiction, short stories, writing on May 31, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Alexander MacLeod

Alexander MacLeod. Photo by Heather Crosby.

An introduction to Alexander MacLeod, author of the debut story collection Light Lifting (Biblioasis, 2010). MacLeod holds degrees from the University of Windsor, the University of Notre Dame, and McGill. He teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A national bestseller in Canada, Light Lifting was released in the US in April 2011.

Quick Facts on Alexander Macleod

  • Alexander MacLeod’s author webpage for Biblioasis
  • Home: Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on the East coast of Canada.
  • Comfort food: I like anything Mexican.
  • Top reads: Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, Don DeLillo, Anne Enright, Elizabeth Bishop
  • Current reads: Yesterday’s Weather by Anne Enright

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on some new stories right now, but I feel like I just finished Light Lifting so I haven’t really started envisioning a new book project.

When you’re having trouble getting started on a story, where do you look for inspiration?

“Most of my stories are constructed

around a central image or a scene.”

Most of my stories are constructed around a central image or a scene. I want that image or scene to be strong enough to be able to hold the story together, so that’s where everything usually begins and ends. I don’t ever really go looking for those images; they usually find me, and if they stick around in my head for a couple of months or years, I start to wonder about them, and I think, “Maybe there is a story in this thing.” For example, a couple of days ago, I was riding my bike home from work and a nice old lady nearly ran me over. She was innocent, and she definitely wasn’t trying to wipe me out, but she wasn’t paying attention, and she probably shouldn’t be driving any more. She clipped my back wheel as she pulled out, and she sent me down onto the pavement and sidewalk. Then she just drove off without noticing what had happened or could have happened if there’d been a two-second change in the timing. I was banged up, cut, and furious, but as I watched her rolling away, oblivious to our connection and the significance of that moment, I thought, “Mmmm. This might be something.”

What do you hope readers will take away from Light Lifting?

I don’t know if there’s anything to ‘take away.’ The stories turn on moments of decision, and I hope readers will feel some of the uncertainty I was trying to explore, and that they’ll find something in each piece that might reward their attention. I think writers need to appreciate the effort that readers put in, so I’m thankful to anybody who wants to give their time to my book.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I hope that almost anyone will be able to get something out of the book, and that the book can work for different readers in different ways.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I don’t have any set place or time. I work full-time and I have small kids, so I just fit it in where and whenever I can. That’s why it took me such a long time to make the book. It was knitted together out of chance openings in the schedule. In general, quiet time in the morning is better for me than the harried hours of late afternoon, but I’ve had good late-night sessions as well, so there’s no hard and fast rule for me.

Where would you most want to live and write?

I’m pretty happy right where I am.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

No. Quiet is the best thing for me.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

“Each story is its own thing.”

No. Each story is its own thing, and I’ve found that the material usually dictates how the thing will be written, what it should sound like, and the rhythm, pacing etc. That means I’m changing all the time, and trying to resist anything too formulaic.

How do you balance content with form?

I read everything aloud, and I keep reciting each story again and again, paragraph to paragraph, until I think it sounds right, and I feel like what is being presented (the content) is fused pretty tightly to how it’s being presented (the form).

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

Leonard Cohen: “I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I just tell my students to work hard, and to trust their own material and their own voices. I think the signature perspective and style of an individual writer is what we value most, so it’s probably not a good idea to try and write like anybody else, or to try and steal their material. I also try to stand up for the rights of readers. I ask the students: what do you think a reader is going to get out of this? Writers often have great plans and complex schemes, and they are often utterly convinced by their own genius, but I always say, don’t forget about the reader. The reader is the essential player—they complete the circuit and, at the end of the day, it’s the reader who will decide what is good and worthy of attention.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Trust your stuff, and always keep the reader in mind.

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

Not really. There are lots of crazy scenes in the collection, and people want to know if I actually did race the trains through the tunnel or if I really did jump off the roof of the hotel into the Detroit River, but I always try to come back to stories as fiction. I try to talk about how we have to build narrative out of the stuff at hand, and the experiences we can access through the imagination.

“We have to build narrative

out of the stuff at hand, and the experiences

we can access through the imagination.”

What do you find most challenging about writing?

I find it hard to schedule it so that I have good clear time and good clear energy at the same time. Usually, when I’m feeling good, I can’t get to it, and when I can get to it, I’m not feeling good. Bringing those two together is the real trick.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I’m a dad with three young kids, so I like to hang around with my wife and kids, and play as much as possible. I’m also a long distance runner, and I like to get out five or six days a week, or as often as I can. My running and writing are pretty closely tied so I usually need to have both of them going well in order to be at my best.

About Alexander MacLeod

Alexander MacLeod was born in Inverness, Cape Breton, and raised in Windsor, Ontario. His first collection of stories, Light Lifting, was named a 2010 Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire,, and The Chronicle Herald. It was a finalist for both the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and was shortlisted for two Atlantic Book Awards. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and he teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Alexander MacLeod.” Words With Writers (May 31, 2011),

Light Lifting

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis, 2010).

  1. Maybe
    not maybe…
    for sure I’m late…!

    but…better then never, I would like to say congratulations to Alexander MacLeod…as writer
    and as the son of well-known and respected Alistair MacLeod…

    I have been lucky to translate his “No Great Mischief” into Albanian language!

    Faruk Myrtaj

  2. […] A Words With Writers interview with Alexander Macleod […]

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