Author Interview with the talented author Lily Iona MacKenzie!
Hi, Lily Iona MacKenzie, welcome to the Indie Publishing Group website! Introduce yourself to us. Tell everyone who you are, where you’re from, what you enjoy doing, your hobbies and interests.
I don’t have hayseed clinging to my trousers but growing up on a Canadian farm gave me a unique foundation as a writer. I sprouted under cumulous clouds that bloomed everywhere in Alberta’s big sky. They were my first creative writing instructors, scudding across the heavenly blue, constantly changing shape: one minute an elephant, bruised and brooding. The next morphing into a rabbit or a castle. These billowing masses gave me a unique view of life on earth.
As a girl, I prowled the land, talking to chickens and pigs and lambs, creating scenarios for them. I also tried to make perfume from the wild Alberta roses and captured caterpillars, watching with wonder when they transformed themselves into butterflies. Everything around me seemed infused by nature spirits waiting to be released.
I soon realized that all objects are in motion, waiting for stories to illuminate them. The clouds’ shifting form also schooled me in the various possibilities open to me as a writer. So did Jack Frost’s enchanted creations that enlivened the windows in wintertime, forcing me to view my surroundings as if through a bewitching prism. These early experiences helped me to envision multi-dimensional characters. No wonder magical realism pulses at the heart of my narratives, and my work celebrates the imagination.
As an adult, I continue to seek instruction from clouds. Just as they provide the earth with much-needed water, I believe that stories have a similar function, preparing the mind to receive new ideas. Also, conditions inside a cloud are not static—water droplets are constantly forming and re-evaporating. Stories, too, change, depending on who is reading them, each one giving life to its readers.
When did you start writing and why?
When I was 13, I started a diary, but I was afraid someone would see what I had written. I do recall using a coded language that I can’t remember. I would love to see those pages again so I would have a better sense of my writing self at that age. I was a high school dropout and left home at fifteen, traveling from Calgary to Vancouver in search of my mother who had left my younger brothers and me with my stepfather.
I didn’t start keeping a diary again until I was in my mid-20s and going through a deep depression. The writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I began then to journal daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling, but I also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel that keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination.
At this time, I also I somehow knew I was a writer, but, a single parent, I wasn’t able to return to school until my early thirties. My heart was in the humanities, and that decision led me to major in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing. Later, I earned two masters, one in Creative Writing and the other in the Humanities. I’ve been writing in multiple genres ever since. But it wasn’t so much deciding that I wanted to write as much as not having any choice. Writing is as necessary to me as eating.
Which is your favorite book you have written and what gave you the idea for it?
This question is like asking which is your favorite child! I love each of the three novels I’ve published for different reasons, because each one is distinctive.
Fling! my first published novel, began because I was curious about my mother’s mother, someone I had never met. Early in the 20th C, my grandfather, a former Scottish schoolmaster, had immigrated to Calgary, Canada, hoping to find a better life there for himself and his family. Meanwhile, WWI broke out, and his wife and four kids couldn’t join him for seven years. When they did, my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the brutal winters or to her abusive husband. After being there a year, she moved out, refusing to put up with my grandpa’s meanness. She became a housekeeper for a wealthy family and became lovers with her boss. He took her to Mexico City with him. She never returned. I wanted to try and recreate what life might have been like for her once she left Canada, and that then brought in a number of other characters that inhabit the novel.
Curva Peligosa had a very different genesis. The main character is on a quest is for the elixir of life. An outsider, In the process she’s slowly integrated into reality and society. This work didn’t start as my other novels have with characters whose seeds come from my actual life. Instead, it began as an image. I had read in the newspaper about a tornado hitting a small town outside of Calgary, where I grew up, and for some reason, it gripped my imagination. Out of that came a character who has no relationship to anyone I know, living or dead. She’s a little like the goddess Athena being born full blown from her father Zeus’s head. Her name is Curva Peligrosa, and she was born in Mexico. Over six feet tall, a sharpshooter, possessed of magical powers, adventurous, amorous, sexual, and fecund, she ends up in a fictional Canadian town called Weed and creates a tropical habitat there.
Her larger-than-life presence more or less overturns the town of Weed, whose inhabitants have never seen anything like her. She’s a curiosity and a marvel, a source of light and heat, a magnet. In fact, she’s the physical embodiment of the tornado that hits Weed two years after her arrival, a storm that turns the place upside down and unearths a trove of bones of those who had lived on the land before the Weedites: Native Americans and prehistoric animals.
Freefall: A Divine Comedy is my most recently published novel. The seeds for Freefall came from a two-day visit I had back in 1998 with two of the three friends I’d travelled from Calgary to Toronto with in my late teens. I wondered what would happen if these four women had a reunion. Would the old bonds still be there and what would they discover about themselves and each other from spending time together? Freefall is a result of trying to answer those questions, but, of course, much more entered the narrative as I watched the story unfold. While the surface narrative is about these four females, the sub-narrative focuses on art’s role in our lives (the main character, Tillie Bloom, is an installation artist), female power, death, religion, and sex. Freefall zeroes in on a fundamental truth: We’re all in freefall, and that’s the real divine comedy. No matter how old we are, we’re still trying to “find ourselves” and discover what we want out of life.
What’s your process when you sit down and decide to start writing a book and do you have a system?
My system is no system. As I’ve indicated, my novels start in various ways, but usually there is a question or questions I’m hoping to answer. I have no interest in knowing where the narrative will lead me before I start out since for me much of the pleasure (and anxiety!) of writing comes from taking this journey into my imagination and seeing where it will lead me. So, each day, I re-enter the narrative dream and try to keep up with the direction it takes.
I try to write a minimum of one hour per day. I usually can fit in that amount of time, and I’ve produced an amazing amount of material over the years as a result: three poetry collections, one of which is published; four+ novels, three of which have been published; a short story collection; travel articles; reviews; memoir; and much more.
What are some of your favorite books?
Certain novels had a profound effect on me at different stages of my life for various reasons. When I was working on my BA in English, I took a Modern American Novel class that did exactly what Lionel Trilling said such books should do: they read me as much as I read them. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and his Light in August. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And many more. Each book made me aware of elements of myself that were also manifested in the characters inhabiting the books.
Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude found me at a time when I needed a model for the magical realism approach that seems natural to me and inhabits much of my work. I LOVE that book and return to it often for inspiration.
In another mode, Roberto Bolano, a Chilean writer, has also inspired me. He diverges from the more familiar magical realist vein and creates his own genre. I’ve read most of his books now, and they create a world that seems like a parallel universe to ours. He also steps beyond the usual fiction boundaries, violating our expectations of how a novel should unfold or end. I’m always entranced by his work.
And I haven’t mentioned W.G. Sebald yet, another writer who died far too young. He also invented a new genre, a hybrid novel form. Again, I’ve read all of his work, and I’m stunned by it.
I’m sorry that all of these authors are men when there are so many female authors I love as well, including Anne Enright. I’ll read anything she writes because of her sharp wit and illuminations of contemporary life. And of course, fellow Canadian authors Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood.
Have you got anything you’re working on now?
Since Freefall’s publication, I’ve been working on a second novel that features a much younger version of Freefall’s main character, Tillie, an aging installation artist. The title of the new novel is Tillie: Portraits of a Canadian Girl in Training, a work that will probably be released in 2020 by the same publisher of Freefall. Like her older self, the young Tillie is quirky, precocious, and loves to wander.
And why do I have “a Canadian Girl in Training” in the title? This passage from the novel should explain its irony:
Tillie not only didn’t succeed in school, but she also wasn’t flourishing as a Canadian Girl in Training—CGIT. She didn’t do good deeds or take care of the elderly. She didn’t salute the flag or memorize the national anthem or like the Queen that much. All those evenings attending CGIT sessions in the basements of churches—wearing a white middy and navy pleated skirt—did little to improve her. She didn’t give a hoot about Jesus or his wasted life. Nor did making Christmas candles and tree decorations enthuse her.
She did occasionally think about what CGIT was supposed to teach her—being more godly and pure. But she wasn’t interested in its lessons. Being a Canadian Girl in Training had a different meaning to her. It gave Tillie and her friends a chance to be out on the streets at night before and after meetings. All of them girls in training, the uniform was a cover for the more exciting things lurking in their hearts.
Of course, as this passage shows, attending CGIT meetings was an excuse to get out of the house at night. But the real training happened on her way to and from the church where the girls gathered. They smoked all the way there and back. They played white rabbit, a “game” that involved ringing doorbells over and over and then disappearing. They raided gardens. And they also visited the local park where the boys were hanging out. Tillie learns many useful things during those excursions.
And I’ve learned a lot from writing this novel. It can take years for a character and a story to emerge. It’s not unlike raising a child: there are developmental stages, and each one is important. So though at times I despaired that the work would ever cohere, it did. And it was worth waiting for.
Where do you hope to be in 5 years’ time?
Still alive in this wonderful Bay Area and writing new work!
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