From scaring herself with her own story to recreating the romantic
landscape of her childhood, Ann-Marie MacDonald shares with us the real
inspiration behind Fall on Your Knees: Cape Breton
Island, Nova Scotia.
Telling a Disturbing Story
"Some people talk about children wanting to be born as though somewhere out there in the collective unconscious there's a spirit, or a thought or an idea that wants to be born. And I sometimes feel that way about stories...that they're there and they want to be told.
Fall on Your Knees is really a story about secrets and family, and the idea that there are some stories or truths that need to be expressed. In terms of the secrets that imbue and underlie Fall on Your Knees, they were as much of a mystery to me as I was creating the story as they are to the readers.
When I was writing this story, I often would be asked the question, 'Whom are you writing for?' For me, it was like there was this reader, this benevolent stranger, whose face I couldn't quite see. And I'd think, You're here. You're waiting. You've come. What am I going to give you? What's going on? Who's watching this? Whose eyes am I behind? What is she holding? It might be harrowing. I might ask you to go places you would never, ever buy a ticket to go. And in a way, I feel that part of my function as a writer is to let the reader know that we're actually going to go to spooky, disturbing places or some places that might morally challenge some people. But I'm going there with you. So that's really how it progressed. And I enjoy spooking myself, too."
The Mythical Pull of Cape Breton Island
"I grew up in a family where the love of stories is very strong. And there's also a love of performance. I think one reason stories were so important in my family was that we moved around a lot. My father was in the Air Force when I was growing up and we moved from place to place. You can't pack up your friends. You don't pack up your house. You don't put down roots. I think that's why stories became so tremendously important to me. My roots were in memories, stories and books.
Because we moved around a lot, I didn't have a hometown. I didn't have authentic roots of my own, but my parents did, and those roots were in Cape Breton Island [Nova Scotia]. We would spend weeks there in the summer. We'd go back to this enchanted place, this God's country, where the best, the brightest, the most interesting, funniest, most talented people on the planet come from...this speck! It was always so exciting to go back there. It really did become a mythical landscape for me.
I think when I first came to write Fall on Your Knees, one of those early images was of this house. And it was almost like, 'I'm a camera, I'm going to pull back from this house. Where is this house? It's in this kind of rugged, rocky, terrain. Oh, and there's a shoreline. It's an island. It's Cape Breton! It's someplace I know.' And it's the real Cape Breton, but it's also the Cape Breton of my imagination. Which is why I think the story wanted to be set in the past, to give that a little more play. It exerted such a mythical pull on my imagination because of my background."
Places that Inspired the Novel
"For me, once something inspires the heart, then the mind has got to get it right. [Cape Breton] isn't just a romantic landscape. This is a real place, where real people live. That's exciting and tremendously rich.
A lot of people don't realize just how incredibly diverse Cape Breton Island is culturally. There are more that 40 identifiable ethnic groups on that island. At one time, you could hear a lot of different languages. People from all over the world came, including my mother's people [from Lebanon] at the turn of the century, and ultimately, they're all Cape Bretoners.
I did have to recreate the New Waterford of that time. In a place that is driven by one industry, it's not like a lot of buildings and places are preserved. In New Waterford, as in many mining towns, there were company houses, A-frames, semi-detached, and that's classic. You can still see some of those old houses.
In communities like [New Waterford], all the beauty, imagination and aesthetic yearning would be expressed by the church. There is no shortage of churches in Cape Breton, especially Catholic churches.
Holy Angels School is a very real place. Members of my family have graduated from Holy Angels. The nuns, in the great tradition of their Order, committed themselves to educating girls.
Number 12 Colliery, the mine, was taken down several years ago, but my father used to tell stories about the disasters and the hard work. That town was like a real boomtown, kind of a wild great place to grow up."
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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