Interviewby Dr. Dave Jenkinson, Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba @ 2000
As Rod and I could find neither a common time nor place to meet for an interview, we took advantage of modern technology and, via e-mail, leisurely conversed over a three-week period with Rod patiently responding to my questions.(The interview was subsequently published inCanadianReview of MaterialsMagazine.)
CM: What did you read as an adolescent and why?
MacIntyre: When I was in adolescence, I remember reading comic books (the funny kind; I wasn't into the Superheroes - with the exception of Superman), then the "Hardy Boy Mysteries." And I probably would have stopped there, but I went to a "Juvenate," a minor seminary, when Iwas fourteen and there wasn't anything to do. The reason I read was to alleviate boredom - to be entertained. I jumped directly from the "HardyBoys" to historical novels like The Robe and the Chalice. There was no"transition" type of literature for me. However, in this Catholic seminary was a book by A.J. Cronin. It was The Keys to the Kingdom, the bookthat changed my life (doesn't everyone have one of those?), the one that got me going - made me think - a book really about the triumph of love over faith. AndI was deeply, profoundly moved. That became the reason for reading - to be moved. And I have read for the same reason ever since.
CM: When did you first discover YA literature?
MacIntyre: I initially encountered YA lit "after" Ipublished my first novel, Yuletide Blues. It honestly never occurred to me that such a thing existed. Then it was pointed out to me that there was a literature called "Young Adult" and that the voice I use for much of my fiction fits into that categorization. If there was a pattern upon which I based that voice, it was unquestionably,Catcher in the Rye, which I read when I was eighteen. But I'm sure that J.D. Salinger never thought he was writing YA either. I personally don't accept the categorization that has become a "genre" - even though I acknowledge that it exists. What I write are stories that happen to have "young protagonists," although Idon't target my work at a specific young adult audience, despite the fact that it appears to be the obvious market. Now, of course, I find myself in a unique position: I love and respect those who have become my audience, and they (those who make up my primary audience) seem to reciprocate like feeling. However, I still resist writing "for" them, or "to" them, or worse,"at" them. My stories continue to be what I would call, "metaphors of discovery." Metaphor is the stuff of poetry, and I began as a poet. I think (hope) everybody begins as a poet. The word is everything.
CM: As you were growing up, what did you want to be?
MacIntyre: I grew up on the West Side of Saskatoon, on "the hill" as it is called (Pleasant Hill), a working class/immigrant neighbourhood. My dad was a Cape Bretoner with grade eight; my mom a farm girl with grade seven. I was the first of five children. My next brother is five years younger than I - followed by two more brothers and a sister. When I left home at fourteen, my baby sister was three. I've only grown to know my siblings as adults, after I arrived back from the Maritimes in 1982. We are still a"close" family. Books did not abound in our house. In order, I recall wanting to be a fireman, a clarinet player (I sawThe Benny GoodmanStory), a hockey player, then a priest. I actually attended a seminary for a couple of years. But, somehow or other, I became what I am, a sinner. I don'trecall ever wanting to be a writer. It was not a conscious choice. In fact, it wasn't until I was thirty-five that I finally acknowledged that I, indeed, was one. I've always maintained that it takes a special kind of stupidity to be a writer and I've been blessed with lots of that.
CM: Since "author" was not one of your childhood aspirations, how did you come to be one?
MacIntyre: The path that led to me being a writer had more to do with the Beatles and Bob Dylan in the early and mid-sixties than any real literary consciousness. I wrote reams and reams of "bad" poetry, styled against the lyrics of songs I heard in those days. But a man by the name of Robert Weaver came touring the campuses in 1968 looking for poetry from student poets for his program, "CBC Anthology." I had no idea what that was, but I was a student who wrote poetry, and I sent him a handful. I remember one of them.
stands or walks
stand or walk
and if I turn too suddenly
I can see how all those children
had their mothers' eyes.
Lo and behold! he published four, and he sent me a cheque for $38.60. I thought that was a pretty interesting way of making money. When I left university - I think I went for six years and only have a BA to show for it - I moved to PEI where I started "freelancing" for the CBC. I did satirical radio commentaries featuring local political issues and the like. Meanwhile, I got involved in amateur theatre and soon moved to professional theatre where I began writing plays. I had five plays produced (mostly school-tour stuff) before I published Yuletide Blues in 1991.
CM: What is it about the short story form that appeals to you?
MacIntyre: I suffer from the opposite of writer's block. I have too many story ideas, most of which could not sustain a novel. The short story is simply the most efficient way for me to get some of those ideas on to paper. I like the bite-sized diversity that a short story collection offers. However, I also like the luxuriousness afforded by the novel.
CM: If you have "too many story ideas," what are the sources of your stories?
MacIntyre::My stories generally evolve one of two ways: either a character starts yattering in the back of my skull, and I just write down what they say, eventually figuring him or her out, placing them in situations they don't particularly want to be in; or, I start with a situation and build a character around that situation.Yuletide Bluesbegan as a character. The first lines were, "I have this theory that parents are from another planet, someplace long ago and far. The proof is this: look in their eyes. See anythingthere? Etc""Cut"began as a character who said, "Ifyou want to have fun these days, you got to jump up and down on people's heads or go live in somebody's nose. Like, who needs it. You can't even have sex without worrying about your 'thing' falling off." Stories that began as situations are "The Code," "Shadow Dark Night"and"TheCrying Jesus."For me, there is a truism about story, one thing all stories have in common: characters in a situation they don't want to be in. As a writer, there are two ways of approaching this: either you start with a character, who you get to know so well that you are aware of the situation they would most like to avoid, and you put them there, or you start with a situation and you build the character around the situation. For example, about five years ago, there was an item in the newspaper that caught my eye. Apparently, some teenagers had been playing a deadly game of Russian roulette resulting in one of them dying. The article, however, went on to discuss the cop, whose gun they'd used, and how come he didn't keep his bullets separate from his gun. I was so annoyed. Who cares about the goddamn cop! I want to know about the kids- what's the story there? It festered in me for days. Then I suddenly got an idea: "What if (the magic'what if') some kids are playing Russian roulette and they blow off the back of someone's neck, and he lives?" Ah,that's my situation - someone who has survived this deadly game. What's the story? Well now I have to build a character around that situation. Hence"ShadowDark Night".
CM: In high school English curricula, novels appear to be at the top of the pecking order while short stories suffer from the Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome - no respect. Why has that been the case?
MacIntyre: I think short stories in high school lit curricula are buried beneath the heap of everything else. As a literary form, it is decidedly at the bottom. The short story does not have the tradition of the novel, the play or the poem. It is a relatively recent form, and no "canon" has been established for teachers to lean on. It doesn't have "respect"because of its shoddy reputation as mere popular entertainment - its heyday being the era of the Saturday Evening Post. The burden then, of selecting stories, falls on teachers themselves, and, since the majority of teachers -including English teachers - are not readers, the status of the short story is not likely to improve. I think the reason there are so few collections and/or anthologies of so called YA short fiction is because there is no market for individual stories. For example, I've just written one for a competition - but there are no magazines or other publications that use that kind of material unless it has severe content restrictions on it (i.e. some religious magazinesuse "YA", but its purpose is didacticism). However, presses likeThistledown, whose directors are not uncoincidentally teachers, have recognized the dearth of short fiction in school curricula and have almost single-handedly created, then filled, the waiting niche.
CM: Most students only know the short story as something that appears in textbooks with accompanying questions. Consequently, a Pavlovian S-R of short stories = work, not pleasure, is established. What should the appeal of the short story be to adolescents and teachers?
MacIntyre: The appeal of the short story is obviously its brevity. It's how people entertained themselves before TV. You could read two or three a week. It appeared in your weekly magazines. It can be chewed and swallowed in a single sitting. It might take an afternoon to fully digest, but it won't leave your stomach in knots like poetry, nor overstuffed like a novel.
CM: You write in many different literary forms, but when you sit down to write, do you know what literary form is going to come forth?
MacIntyre: I'm not so sure that I consciously write for different audiences, but I know that the form of what will appear is determined entirely by my protagonists. The younger protagonist will likely appear in fiction and will appeal to a younger audience. An older protagonist will likely appear in a play and appeal to an older audience. One of the projects I am currently writing is an adult novel; however, it actually began as an adaptation of an earlier play.
CM: The majority of your YA short stories, plusYuletide Blues, have male central characters. Do you feel more comfortable writing in that voice?
MacIntyre: I most often write in the first person, present tense, using the voice of a young male. I like its "in your face" immediacy and energy. It comes, I think, from having written eight plays. Playwrighting contains the largest body of my work and has little in common with the fiction I write - with the exception that it, too, is first person, present tense (as are most plays). When I occasionally use a female voice, it is slightly more mature, intelligent and poetic (Joyce thought he wrote his best stuff as awoman - so do I).
CM: Given the "importance" of hockey in the lives of somany Canadian adolescents, especially males, surprising few Canadian YA authors have written about the subject in a genuine way, that is, by going behind the on-ice action to examine the real world of juvenile hockey."TheCode"inThe Crying Jesuscertainly revealed another aspect of hockey. How did it come about?
MacIntyre: I play on an old-timers's hockey team named (cleverly), the "Deja Blues", composed mostly of Catholic school teachers. We're all over fifty but love the game as much as we did when we were ten. I'veplayed some sort of organized sport much of my life. I know the smell of the dressing room. I know "the code", recently expressed again by the American Olympic hockey team: "Nobody tells on a team mate." The birth of"The Code" (the story) arose from another newspaper account I found very interesting. It involved a football team, the Saskatoon Hilltops, a team in the western Canadian junior football league. This team had won some championship or other and were out to celebrate. And, like the hockey team in the story, some of the players had been refused entry to a nightclub because they were underage. There is a man in Saskatoon who wanders around with a plate in his skull as a result of being beat up by some members of the team. The interesting thing to me about this whole event is that no single individual was ever brought to justice - at least not to my knowledge. (This speaks so precisely to that whole notion of what male team sports teams are about. I obviously don't know about women's team and am very curious to know if the same reality applies - I hope not. I hope that this is truly one distinguishing characteristic between the sexes.) The "situation" for me was: what if someone wanted to accept responsibility for the act? Build a character around the event. Mike. He wants to tell, wants to "quit" a hockey team. The structure is simply not in place for that to happen. And, as the subtext of that story indicates, the whole of male patriarchy (if I can usea feminist phrase) supports that silence - that code. Having said all that, the real root of the story comes from me trying to quit my studies towards the priesthood. Another kind of team. I could just as easily been wandering around with a white collar around my neck as not. The details of that particular story directly parallel the events in "The Code."
CM: Budge Wilson'sThe Leavingwas the first collection of short stories to win the C.L.A.'s Young Adult Canadian Book Award.Takes was the first time an edited collection of short stories received this award. How did you react?
MacIntyre: I was utterly surprised and totally delighted by the award offeredTakes- mostly because of the history of the collection. I had been a juror for an earlier competition that Thistledown had developed and was surprised by the book that emerged,Notes Across the Aisle,because, in my estimation, many good stories had been omitted. I cajoled the publisher into letting me see if I could assemble something out of the reject pile. And thus the Phoenix rose from the ash.
CM: You've had some of your work "translated" into othermedia, e.g. "The Rink" on TV andYuletide Bluesserialized on CBC's "Morningside." Did you work on the scripts?
MacIntyre: I'm in favour of recycling. I wrote the teleplay that was adapted from "The Rink" as well as the radio-formattedYuletideBlues. The story called "Toy Boat" was, in fact, adapted from a teleplay I wrote in the early '80's. Film exists in time and space - the page, only in space - that's why the two have differing structural requirements. Film also pays a lot better.
CM: Amongst those who write for adolescents, whom do you like?
MacIntyre: My favourite YA writer would have to be Brian Doyle. Doyle's stories are relentlessly Canadian and invariably have a very dark edge that is mitigated by his great sense of humour, often equally as dark and often satirical, like Uncle Jack, the hopeless alcoholic inUp to Lowand the McCooey's inUncle Ronald.
CM: Do you have another YA novel on the way?
MacIntyre: I don't have any immediate plans to write a young protagonist novel, although I've been thinking about Boog (a character inYuletide Blues) a lot lately and wonder what his story is. (Some characters created in one story have made cameo appearances in others."Shane", forexample, in "The Rink, is the same "Shane" in "CursingShane". He's just older now.)
CM: As someone who is an author and an editor, what advice would you give those seeking to write for adolescents?
MacIntyre: I don't know if it is appropriate for me to advise, but I'll happily make some observations that may or may not be true, and then share the advice I give myself. Bear in mind that, as young people have great bullshit detectors, you must strive for honesty. The most interesting protagonists are usually motivated despite their beliefs, not because of them. That's where the tension lies. If you, as a writer, have something to say, then you probably shouldn't be saying it. I am suspicious of any writing that seems to have a predetermined theme or judgement or moral. A story cannot have any of those things before it's begun. A theme is like a fart - it comes after the meal. I assume, as well, that my audience is at least as smart as I am. And it is. I assume that by the age of fifteen, you know it all. I did. I was fully formed, as smart as I was ever going to be. I had pretty much come to terms with all the big ontological questions. The only thing I lacked was experience and vocabulary, neither of which necessarily make you smarter. I recognized that fact when I was twenty-one. It made me realize I was essentially no different from anyone else. That's probably why I'm a writer. As I said earlier, there's a certain kind of stupidity required to be a writer. I've been blessed with lots of that.
So, my bottom line, is to make sure you've somehow experienced what you're writing about. Make sure your protagonists are at least as smart as you are (preferably smarter) and that they act despite their beliefs. If you place your morality onto your protagonists and make them articulate it, they will make a fool of you because they will be lying - although you may be telling the truth. Listen to young people and their music. Learn to love it. Learn to love them. Learn to be stupid - there's wisdom in it.
This interview originally appeared in the special "Young Adult Fiction" issue of Prairie Fire, 13(3), 49-55 (Fall, 1998) under the title,"Metaphors of Discovery: An Interview with Rod MacIntyre.”
Copyright © Dave Jenkinson and the ManitobaLibrary Association.
Published by The Manitoba Library Association
CM: Canadian Review of Materials is copyright © The Manitoba LibraryAssociation.