Cynthia Macdonald spent eight years as a film and book critic, as well as a reporter and interviewer for a variety of award-winning radio and television programs, most notably TVO’s Imprint and CBC Newsworld’s On the Arts. Prior to that she worked as a print journalist, contributing articles to publications such as enRoute, Time Out and University of Toronto Magazine. As a volunteer, she has worked as a literacy tutor, counsellor and interpreter for recent immigrants, and as an intake worker at a drop-in centre and food bank. She is married with two children and lives in Toronto.
About Cynthia MacDonald
An Interview with Cynthia MacDonald
More About Cynthia MacDonald
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background -- where
you grew up, things you've done?
I was born in Montreal, raised in Edmonton, and have conducted my
adult life in Toronto. I've spent a great deal of time as both a
print and broadcast journalist, chiefly writing and commenting
about books and film, with side trips into interesting miscellany
such as cab safety, Hawaiian volcanoes, and hippies. Over the
years I've also worked as a volunteer in various capacities:
interpreter, food server, counsellor, and tutor. I'm married and
have two daughters.
2. How did you get started as a fiction writer?
What did I want to be when I grew up? An "authoress," and yes,
that is how I put it, until about age fourteen, when my
embarrassed friends told me to knock it off and join the
twentieth century. I come to fiction writing late, I must admit.
And yet I have always been an authoress: of technical manuals,
public relations bumpf, a lauded but tragically unfilmed
screenplay, fringe theatre and radio plays, magazine articles,
shopping lists, emails, and -- most glitteringly fictional of all
-- notes to my children’s teachers.
3. How did you come to write _Alms_? How did it get started?
_Alms_ started life as a very long dossier of notes on altruism.
I wasn't sure what I would do with this weird, obsessional diary.
I called it a novel so as not to appear crazy, though what I
actually had on my hands was several sheaves of aphorisms, enough
to stuff a thousand fortune cookies. Eventually one of these
sparked a scene. Others followed in like manner.
4. What was your process in writing? Did you find yourself
concentrating on one character or one voice at a time, or on one
aspect of the narrative, or did things come together pretty
Every scene started as an idea, which was then played out through
the characters. The book was not written in a linear fashion at
all. Some of the key questions that are dealt with in the book
include: Are charity and love really the same thing? Can you use
charity as therapy for yourself? What place should a
consciousness of poverty have in your life?
You know, when I was a child, poverty was such a simple concept:
it meant you didn’t have things you should have, that you worked
too hard, you suffered too much. The idea made me sniffy with
righteousness up until my early twenties. Eat the rich! But then
I came to see that poverty in modern Toronto was often
inextricably linked to questions of crime and mental illness. I
had to confront my fear of such things if I were to continue my
volunteer work. It was hard at first.
But I found that the best way was to make peace with the sinner,
the depressive, the "other-sider" in me -- the fragile character
underneath the apparently normal woman, the person who could just
as easily end up on the streets as anyone else, even with so much
outside love and support. This voyage inside weakened me. But it
also gave me a connection with people from whom others so readily
Goodness is a topic that has always made me uncomfortable, and I
was interested in exploring why that was so. When I searched the
bookstores, all the books on the subject were written by people
who were obviously much finer than I was (Jean Vanier, Aristotle)
or who at least styled themselves as much finer than I was
(William Bennett, Dr. Laura Schlessinger). I thought it was time
for a book on goodness told from the point of view of a highly
flawed person -- a bad woman, in many respects -- someone who
yearned for decency but couldn't quite achieve it. You never feel
put down by Martine Craythorn. You feel, comparatively, good. And
you probably are.
I also noticed that most of the recent novels dealing with virtue
had been written by men: Richard Price (_Samaritan_), Dave Eggers
(_You Shall Know Our Velocity_), Nick Hornby (_How to Be Good_).
That’s because virtue is a very creepy topic for women to take
on. We fear that to even address it is to be plunged back into
dreary lives of dishwashing, succor, and consecutive pregancies.
It’s a legitimate fear. At the same time, a world without virtue
would be no kind of world at all.
5. Who are some other writers whose work you admire?
Some of my favourite authoresses, with a few authors thrown in
for good measure: Edith Wharton, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever,
John O'Hara, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
Vladimir Nabokov, Mordecai Richler, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov,
and most of the Beats.
_Alms_ was especially influenced by the lives and work of two
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writers: Simone Weil and George Orwell.
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