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Lab rat

Ann-Marie MacDonald doesn’t pretend that writing her new novel, Adult Onset, was easy. The book, MacDonald’s first novel since 2003, is deeply rooted in her own history, exploring issues of family, child-raising, abuse, sexual orientation, exile and pain, both physical and emotional.

“It was incredibly hard, really, really hard,” she says. “I was my own lab rat. I donated my own tissue. Only there was no anesthesia.”

MacDonald says her two children—with her spouse, theatre director Alisa Palmer—led to the delay in writing, but also contributed to the autobiographical subject matter. “I didn’t even attempt to write any fiction until my youngest daughter was five. I didn’t want to take on the psychic marathon that is writing a novel. On and off, it took me about four years, which is about half the time it took me for the previous one. The lion’s share of my attention was really focussed on my children.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have time to travel for research. That left me with what was in my own kitchen. I said, ‘I guess it’s going to be pasta.’ There’s always pasta in the cupboard. Who knew pasta could be so frightening?”

The book itself, while featuring its share of humour and depictions of domestic bliss, is shot through with darkness, and has pain as an ongoing theme. Protagonist Mary Rose MacKinnon, a successful writer and mother, struggles with a physical, perhaps imaginary, pain in her arm from childhood bone cysts, an ailment she is increasingly convinced stems from possible childhood abuse, abuse she is scared she will visit upon her own two children. That leads to some the book’s most frightening passages:

“She seizes the little arms, ‘STOP IT!’ resisting the impulse to lift her child and slam her back down onto the steps. ‘DON’T DO THAT!’ Resisting the impulse to yank her up, up from the steps and haul her across the kitchen floor by her elbow—instead she rages into the child’s face, ‘DON’T YOU EVER HIT ME!’ She is not doing it, but she can see herself doing it. Up by the elbow like a chicken by the wing, and she does not do this, the harder she squeezes, as though to keep herself from merging with the phantom self that is giving in to lust, sobbing for release, the desire to—Her hands spring open, “I DIDN’T HURT YOU!”

All of it, MacDonald says, is deliberately based on her own experience. “It’s been profound for me. I never thought I would be married, I never thought I would be anybody’s mother. Writing about it, fictionalizing it while I was experiencing it was the hardest. This was the first time I wrote from the here and now. To get enough distance to write about it was challenging.”

But even though the novel paints a frequently disturbing picture of motherhood, MacDonald says she’s not worried about her children reading the book, largely because she doesn’t expect them to pore through it any time soon.

“I will be giving them each a copy, signed. I think one of them has already started. She said, ‘There’s a typo.’ My blood ran cold, although the typo turned out to be deliberate. No, they’re much more interested in reading Percy Jackson.

“I’m actually proud of it. I write from compassion, usually for other people. But I very much wanted to write a witnessing of my own. I did share it with members of my immediate family. I had to proceed with extreme caution, but there will be some interesting conversations.”

Mary Rose, in trying to come to terms with her childhood, also has to come to terms with her aging parents and her own experience of being disowned for her sexual orientation. Some of the things Mary Rose’s parents say to her when they disown her—“You’re saying to the world, ‘I had a terrible mother, I had a terrible father;’” “I’d rather you were burnt at the stake;” “I’d rather you’d never been born;” “If you had a broken leg, we would take you to a doctor. In this case, it is your mind that is broken;”—will be painfully familiar to many gay or lesbian readers.

But MacDonald says she wanted to write about that experience because her own ordeal has indelibly shaped her own life. “I wanted to explore my own experience of exile, of being shunned for my sexuality. Am I guilty of romanticizing oppression? Probably. But when you’ve lived a chunk of your life in exile, your formative years, it forms a number of your habits. As with war veterans, some of the most cherished memories will be from the heart of trauma.

“But you can’t build a life from trauma. You can’t stay there. I’m 55. Youthful truculence and bravado would be pretty unbecoming at this point. However, exile is hard, but returning from exile can be harder. Anyone who was tortured remains tortured.”

MacDonald also writes vividly about how Mary Rose’s troubled childhood and experience of pain continue to permeate her relationship with her wife, Hilary.

“Mary Rose bored her knuckles into her scalp, rigid with anger, furious at herself for being furious. The only way to get unfurious would be to have a huge fight with Hilary, during which Hil would unleash her victimy wrath before becoming rehumanized in Mary Rose’s eyes by crying, after which she would reassuringly resume her pedestal by being coldly critical of Mary Rose, who would silently batter her own head and wind up rocking in the fetal position on the guest room bed so as not to wake the children while she waited for the corrosive tide of neurochemicals to retreat, repenting of everything, most fervently of the fact that she had ever been born. Unless Hil was going to slap her.”

It wasn’t emotionally easy to write about pain, says MacDonald, especially the depictions of physical pain that permeate this novel, both literally and as metaphor. But she says she didn’t have trouble finding the words.

“I was surprised to find I had a lot of words for pain. It’s a poetry that gets under your consciousness and into your body. Then it’s my job as a writer to provide some sort of balm.”

And as for her own balm, like any good Canadian, MacDonald finds it in sports. “I would recommend hockey.

I play in a women’s league, it’s just a cornerstone for me.”

And when it comes to her children, MacDonald jokingly hopes that watching her struggle with the writing of

Adult Onset will deter them from purusing literary careers.

“If I managed to divert my children from my fate, I’ve done my job.”


Others to see at the International Festival of Authors

Emma Donoghue
The Irish-born Donoghue, who now resides in London, Ontario specializes in historical fiction. Her novels include the bestselling Room, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the  Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, as well as Slammerkin, Life Mask and The Sealed Letter. Her new novel, Frog Music, is set in San Francisco in 1876, among a smallpox epidemic, crime and violence. The story is based on the real-life shooting of Jenny Bennet, a cross-dresser who made a living by supplying area restaurants with frog legs.

Colm Tóibín
Tóibín, one of Ireland’s most acclaimed modern writers, is the author of seven acclaimed novels, including The Blackwater Lightship, a finalist for the Booker; The Master, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner; and Brooklyn, which won the Costa Novel Award. His new novel, Nora Webster, set in small-town Ireland in the 1960s, explores the story of a young widow struggling to survive with her four children, while ignoring the pain and grief tearing her family apart, until years later, she finds solace in the beauty of music.

Christos Tsiolkas
The Australian novelist, also a playwright and screenwriter, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, for his novel Slap. His new novel, Barracuda, his fifth, tells the story of a young student and swimmer, struggling with class, race and sexual confusion in Australia. The novel tells a coming-of-age story set against anger, violence and the world of competitive swimming.

Louise Welsh
The British writer of novels including The Cutting Room and The Girl on the Stairs has won the John Creasy Memorial Dagger and the Saltire Society First Book of the Year awards. She has also written short stories and magazine articles, and written for radio and theatre. Her new novel, A Lovely Way to Burn, is the first novel in her Plague Times trilogy. The whodunnit, set amidst a new flu-like pandemic, known as “the sweats,” features her heroine, former journalist Stevie Flint, trying to determine whether her boyfriend is just another victim of the pandemic or of something much more sinister.


Adult Onset. Knopf Canada. 416 pages. $32

International Festival of Authors. Oct 23-Nov 2. Harbourfront Centre. ifoa.org.