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Ann-Marie MacDonald

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Ann-Marie MacDonald’s familial inspirations

Ann-Marie MacDonald returns to the literary spotlight with a new novel mined from her own experiences

Ann-Marie MacDonald (photo: Guntar Kravis)

Ann-Marie MacDonald (photo: Guntar Kravis)

Mary Rose MacKinnon, the harried protagonist in one of this fall’s most keenly anticipated Canadian novels, has set aside her career as a best-selling author to undertake the primary domestic and child-rearing duties in her same-sex marriage, freeing her partner to pursue a career as a theatre director. When she isn’t making meals, shopping for groceries, ferrying two young children to play dates, and so on, Mary Rose is chewing over her inadequacies as a parent, fielding questions from fans about when her next book is coming out, and trying to salve the lingering emotional wounds inflicted by her parents’ initial refusal to accept her sexual orientation.

The novel is Adult Onset. Its story closely mirrors the life of its celebrated author, Ann-Marie MacDonald, who is poised to return to the literary spotlight with her first book in more than a decade.

“Everything I write is autobiographical,” says MacDonald. “I weave narrative out of the poetry of my own experience and perspective. What else can I do?”

In her two previous novels, the multi-faceted author, actor, playwright, and broadcaster refashioned events from her own life. Fall on Your Knees – a multi-generational family saga – drew upon the author’s mixed Cape Breton–Lebanese heritage. Published by Knopf Canada in 1996, the international bestseller received a sales-catapulting endorsement from Oprah Winfrey in 2002, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. The 2003 follow-up, The Way the Crow Flies – loosely based on the infamous case of Steven Truscott, wrongly convicted and jailed for the 1959 murder of a classmate – revisited MacDonald’s upbringing as an “army brat.”

The ingredients for Adult Onset (also published by Knopf Canada) were even closer to hand. MacDonald, who plumbed her interest in Jungian psychology in the Governor General Literary Award–winning stage comedy Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, compares the creation of the new novel to a dinner assembled from staples already “in the pantry.”

“I was at home with the kids,” says MacDonald, whose family includes theatre director Alisa Palmer and the couple’s two young daughters. “I wasn’t able to travel or do far-flung research for the book, so I had to cook with what was in the cupboard. I had to make pasta.”

Even when MacDonald’s novel leaves home, it doesn’t stray far. Adult Onset is littered with references to familiar haunts in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, from the garish facade of bargain emporium Honest Ed’s to the produce aisle of upscale independent grocer Fiesta Farms.

“I thought: I have a readership. I have a profile. I have a certain amount of power. And I am going to go local now,” MacDonald says. “I thought: I’m going to talk about what it’s like to go to Fiesta Farms with a toddler and find out who cares.”

MacDonald hasn’t spent the entire time between novels changing diapers, pushing strollers, and mopping up spills. In addition to the occasional acting gig and her responsibilities as host of the CBC  documentary series Doc Zone, MacDonald also wrote a play, Belle Moral, for the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The last four years were concentrated on Adult Onset.

“I’m lucky enough to have readers who say, ‘Hey, when’s your next book coming out,’” she says. “But I’m always surprised by the perception that I haven’t been doing anything for 10 years.”

Even so, MacDonald’s recent life has been governed by an unanticipated degree of domestic structure and stability. In July, MacDonald and the family packed up for Montreal, where Palmer is artistic director of the English-language section of the National Theatre School.

“I came of age in a world that thought it was absurd for same-sex people to marry one another. It was like that until I was 40. So getting married and having children is the most surprising thing that has happened to me,” says the 55-year-old author. “That was another reason I wanted to write this book. At some point Mary Rose refers to trying to keep up with the world she helped change. The change happened so quickly. It was like the Berlin Wall coming down. Suddenly, the Soviet Union, which the day before seemed monolithic and indestructible, was in pieces. It felt as thorough and huge as that.”

MacDonald views Adult Onset as the conclusion of a trilogy. Although the storylines aren’t linked, all three novels probe themes of family, abuse, and secrets. “The elemental idea for me is that the truth will out,” she says.

MacDonald, who says her creative choices are driven by impulse, has few immediate plans beyond making the rounds this fall to promote the novel. She expects to have a small advisory role on a TV miniseries adaptation of Fall on Your Knees and is continuing her collaboration with Palmer and the indie band Stars on The Hamlet Project for the Stratford Festival. When she does return to fiction, she’s intrigued by the possibility of trying her hand at a detective novel or another form of genre writing that might lend itself to speedier and more playful execution.

“I’m thinking that I could go back to my origins as an entertainer and a theatre writer. I used to write quickly when I was much younger. I loved playing with genre. So maybe I can marshal some of those abilities and have some fun.”