Ann-Marie MacDonald Interview

The Way the Crow FliesAn Interview with Ann-Marie MacDonald, author of The Way the Crow Flies (January 2004)

Book Passage: Your N.Y. Times best-selling novel Fall on your Knees was very popular with book clubs. What themes in your new book The Way the Crow Flies will provoke interesting discussions?

MacDonald: The theme of diversity runs through all my work. Diversity of all kinds: racial, geographic, religious, cultural, sexual, and on and on. I like to invite as many people to the table as possible, entice them with familiar dishes and then offer them tastes that they might otherwise shun. I think it's my job as an artist to invite the reader on a journey with the assurance that I'll be there as a guide. If you invite people into an experience in the right way-with respect and the assumption of complicity-they will go places that they might otherwise never dare to or choose to, and in the process their world-their mind and heart-may crack open and expand. I try to make connections-sometimes, at first glance, unlikely connections-across time, space, gender, culture and (perhaps one day) species-in order to reveal what Darwin called "the inextricable web of affinities." I believe that we are all interconnected, all responsible. The old feminist rallying cry, "the personal is the political," is another way of saying the same thing. So is "whatsoever you do unto the least of my brothers...," so is the concept of "the butterfly effect".

Northrop Frye said, "there is only one story: the quest for identity." I think there is a lot of truth to that. Certainly my stories tap into older mythological undercurrents that have to do with exile, loss, and the quest for self "rediscovery."

B.P.: Your story is set mostly in the late fifties and sixties, after WW1I and before Vietnam -a time of peace. You do such an amazing job of putting the reader back in that time frame-all your references to the lyrics in songs-but are you telling us "not everything is what it seems?" Are you saying watch out for the Ozzie and Harriet family?

MacDonald: The fifties and early sixties were a time of great optimism and not without good reason: a "good" war had just been won, there was an unprecedented, and since unequalled, economic boom that the broad masses of lower to upper middle classes shared in. People moved from farms into suburbs, an historic number of people went to university and joined the ranks of the white-collar "man in the gray flannel suit." People could afford their own houses, cars and a middle-class style and standard of living for themselves and their children-something unimaginable during the Depression. There was geographical and class mobility like never before.
The full time "housewife" was invented. Families became "nuclear," often living miles away from extended family. There was a degree of isolation that no number of "space age," time-saving, modern conveniences could make up for. There was pressure on both husbands and wives to stay in their newly appointed roles, and conformity was expected and socially enforced. A new constellation of pressures was brought to bear on those who actually did want to conform, and an even more punishing degree of pressure was exerted on those who did not.
In the midst of all this optimism and striving for normalcy, there was the brand new spectre of nuclear annihilation-a reality that was both kept at bay, and fearfully enacted in the building of innumerable backyard bomb shelters. The fifties and sixties also saw the flourishing of shadowy "national security" organizations that sometimes operated outside the laws they were sworn to enforce, often targeting their own citizens. It seemed two stark realities co-existed side by side: the aspiring "Ozzie and Harriet" one, and the more sinister one that had to do with the Cold War. A good deal of well-intentioned denial was probably felt by many people who dearly wanted to believe in a future for their children.

B.P.: The McCarthys are a military family, Canadian, stationed near the American border; they seem so happy and normal. Is it events that change them or were there character flaws from the beginning? Don't most military families learn to "fake it" and tough it out, putting their true emotions aside?

MacDonald: Classically speaking, tragedy results from a combination of divine agenda (ie "gods" then, "events/environment" now) and a fatal flaw known as "hamartia" on the part of the hero. Modern stories like this one tend to be more diffuse and ambiguous, but it might be interesting to explore the classical underpinnings.

B.P.: Did your choice of the last name McCarthy have anything to do with Joseph McCarthy?

MacDonald: " McCarthy" resonated for me despite-or because of-the fact that it rang bells. I tried to back off the name, but nothing else worked as well. So I decided not to be coy and just went for it. Clearly, Jack is anything but a "McCarthyite." Perhaps that's part of the irony inherent in the story in light of the decision he makes.

B.P.: The fear of communism manifested itself in this country in some pretty ugly ways. We have different kinds of threats today. What similarities do you see?

MacDonald: Today we have Orwellian terms like "Homeland Security." It seems that some older political and economic agendas are now being pursued under the name of democracy and national security. In the same way, the fear of communism was used during the long Cold War to justify a good deal of profiteering and interfering with other nations. In both cases, dissent-the cornerstone of democracy-is discouraged as "unpatriotic" or "unAmerican."

B.P.: You give your characters an "out". It's hard to blame almost anybody for what they do or don't do. I find your ability to do this impressive and thorough-you don't forget a thing-no thread is left to dangle. You must have been a spy yourself in a former life!

MacDonald: I wanted to be a spy when I was a kid.

B.P.: The murder of Claire- this is the toughest part of the book. I don't want to spoil the story for our readers, but how can this be? Are you trying to say something about evil even in the young?

MacDonald: Evil comes from within, not from some supernatural place. It ripples out and spreads like contagion. Hitler was not solely responsible for the Second World War. Nothing, not even terrible crimes, are ever committed in a social, historical, or political vacuum.

B.P.: In the end does Madeline's sense of guilt, that she has lived with for such a long time, and has molded her character, fold into something healthy? Her fear is that she will lose her edge at being a successful comedian. Will she? Is that a risk?

MacDonald: In keeping with Northrop Frye's analysis, self-discovery-the ongoing fruits of the "examined life"-can only enrich ourselves and the world. Every birth implies a death; that's just part of being alive.

B.P.: Madeline's father, Jack McCarthy, thinks he has worked behind the scenes to protect, when, in fact, he has endangered. His escape and demise into TV/ newspaper-addicted-la-la-land must have infuriated his wife, Mimi. I don't get a sense of her fury? Why?

MacDonald: Mimi: that's a good question. I would like to hear the discussion that might ensue from it. Some might think that she is indeed hopping mad.

B.P.: Could a Mr. March get away with it today?

MacDonald: He does, every day. That said, I don't know that he could get away with it in the very same way. More children in our society these days are more savvy, not having been taught blind blanket respect for adults.

B.P.: One of my favorite lines in the book is; "German is such a beautiful language-like a woman in a man's shirt". Is there anything behind that line that is an intrinsic part of the book, perhaps seductiveness?

MacDonald: It's truly a personal assessment. Possibly to do with the fact that it, and English, were the first languages I heard. For me, the TV Nazis really had nothing to do with the beautiful language that I heard as a child, and later studied in school.

B.P.: Madeline's favorite toy, growing up, is her Bugs Bunny. "Madeline has always admired Bugs' ability to escape down convenient rabbit holes and traverse the earth underground". Did your choice of a rabbit have anything to do with "Dora" the Nazi missile base buried deep inside a mountain in Germany during WW ll?

MacDonald: Not consciously. That is one of the rewards in trusting to the power of story. Things link up metaphorically. "Unlikely connections." There's our book-end.