As a grade three misfit, Ann-Marie MacDonald had a choice. Her teacher had asked the students to share with the class a list of their favourite foods. MacDonald knew that her odds of being accepted were higher if she wrote down fried chicken and orange Fanta—which were, in fact, her favourites and the kinds of things that everyone at her large Catholic school in Hamilton, Ontario, were familiar with. But she was aware that the exercise itself was unjust—what she came to see as a way of reinforcing conformity and social hierarchy. “There was one boy, with blonde hair and blue eyes,” she says. “And he was a perfectly nice kid, but I knew he was the favourite, and I somehow knew it wasn’t fair.” And though MacDonald’s last name blended in with those of her white classmates, at home, her Lebanese mother prepared dishes that the classmates had likely never heard of in the 1960s. Rather than hide that invisible side of her family, she felt compelled to stand up for it. “I wrote down all the weirdest-sounding Lebanese things I could think of. And the teacher read my paper out loud and asked, ‘What is kibbeh nayeh?’” MacDonald remembers. “I said, ‘It’s raw meat. And we eat it!’”

More than fifty years later, the sixty-three-year-old MacDonald—a Governor General’s Award–winning playwright and acclaimed novelist living in Montreal—tells this as a funny anecdote, in the sonorous and expressive voice of a trained stage actor. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to drive a stake right into the heart of my academic career,’” she says. “It was an exercise in mortification, but I’m proud I did it.” Better suffer as an outcast than go along passively with an injustice. “Even though I would have given anything to have a white bread sandwich in my childhood,” she adds longingly. But the act of defiance was a formative lesson: tragedy can be a kind of triumph as long as you’re in control of the story.

MacDonald began her career as an actor in the 1980s, on the Toronto theatre circuit as well as garnering roles in Canadian films and TV shows, before writing her first solo-authored play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), produced in 1988. Since then, she has written or co-created several more plays—often in collaboration with her wife, the director Alisa Palmer—and four novels. In July, her latest play, Hamlet-911, premiered at the Stratford Festival, and her new book, Fayne, published this October. But she is perhaps best known for her debut novel, Fall on Your Knees, which is being adapted for the theatre and will make its stage debut in early 2023.

Since its release, in 1996, Fall on Your Knees has reigned as one of CanLit’s all-time top tear-jerkers. “They’re all dead now,” the novel begins, promisingly. Over nearly 600 pages, four generations of the Piper family endure war, abuse, rape, betrayal, and polio, one tragic event after another, right up until the ending, which reveals an incestuous family secret and casts an even darker shadow over the preceding chapters. The Toronto Star called the novel “stunning,” and the Montreal Gazette deemed MacDonald “a master of exciting story-telling.” The hardcover edition spent fifty-seven weeks on the Globe and Mail ’s national bestseller list, and the novel has sold almost half a million copies in Canada alone. Oprah anointed it as a book club selection in 2002, calling it “a narrative feast of racial strife, miracles, terrible secrets and a passionate, enduring love.”

Like Shakespeare, one of MacDonald’s enduring influences, she understands that readers yearn for the emotional catharsis of an utterly devastating tale. “One of the aphorisms in the theatre is less is more,” she says. “But I often joke that, actually, more is more. That’s really my credo.” More sumptuous details, more lively dialogue, and more cruel twists of fate. Fayne, her fourth novel, opens at the twilight of the Victorian era and is as richly and minutely detailed as a dollhouse. Beneath the surface, it is also a subtle meditation on gender identity and environmental degradation that feels precisely attuned to the present.

MacDonald’s work has always featured outcasts, and Fayne is her celebration of every marvellous living thing that flourishes on the margins, refusing to be categorized or controlled. To this day, she holds on tight to the lesson she learned in grade three: there’s victory in transmuting misfortune into narrative. “I always feel that my books do have happy endings,” she insists, “insofar as there is someone left to tell the tale.”

MacDonald was born in 1958 in the Black Forest, a mountainous region in West Germany, where her father was stationed on a Royal Canadian Air Force base near the city of Baden-Baden. Her parents were born on Cape Breton Island, a Maritime setting that MacDonald would later borrow for Fall on Your Knees and render in sumptuous, evocative detail: “The night is bright with the moon. Look down over Water Street. On the lonely stretch between where the houses end and where the sea bites into the land, a tree casts a network of shadow that stirs and bloats in one spot, as though putting forth dark fruit that droops, then drops from the bough.”

MacDonald and her two older sisters and younger brother spent their childhoods shuffling across Ontario, from one military posting to another; she was acutely aware that her family, ethnically and culturally mixed, stood out everywhere they went. “No one knew where Cape Breton was, and they’d never heard of anything Lebanese, and they thought it was weird,” she recalls. “Like, how can you possibly eat that? And, your mother’s not white, is she? That was a funny thing growing up.”

She moved schools regularly, struggling both academically and socially. “I never knew what was going on. I didn’t know where to look or what to listen to. It was just a series of bewilderments,” she says. “I remember bringing in Bugs Bunny one day, just so I’d have someone to talk to.” At a very young age, she realized she was gay and simultaneously understood that she would have to hide her sexuality from her Catholic parents. Creativity was an escape and a solace. She found that doodling in class helped her focus and began writing comic strips to amuse her mother. “I wanted to be a stand-up comedian,” MacDonald says of her earliest career ambition. “I didn’t know that term, but I knew I wanted to be on a stage, making people laugh.”

She came close, attending the National Theatre School of Canada after high school and becoming an actor. After graduating, she worked steadily on the stage as well as in the Canadian film and TV industry and found that storytelling made space for the identities she had concealed in her youth. She starred in the 1987 lesbian romantic comedy I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, as a young painter caught in a love triangle, and won a Gemini Award for her role as a sympathetic residential school teacher in the 1989 film Where the Spirit Lives. But there were only so many roles available that spoke to MacDonald, as a queer feminist coming into her political consciousness. “I understood that I was going to have to change myself if I wanted to work consistently,” she says. “And there was stuff I wanted to say that wasn’t going to be available to me as an actor.” So she began writing those stories herself.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), her first solo-written play, contains the embryonic DNA of all her future novels: queerness, subversive feminism, sly humour, the permeable membrane between tragedy and comedy, a preoccupation with Shakespearean dramas, an obsessive degree of historical research. The protagonist, Constance Ledbelly, a dreamy, distracted doctoral student, finds herself transported into the worlds of the plays she is analyzing for her thesis, making out with Juliet and knocking sense into Desdemona. To MacDonald’s knowledge, there had never been a lesbian kiss on stage in Canada. “But I knew people would come,” she says. “I knew they would take the journey. I pushed and pushed to get that play produced. And you know what? I was right.” Goodnight Desdemona received a slew of accolades, including the Governor General’s Award in 1990, and has since been staged hundreds of times worldwide.

Becoming a novelist with Fall on Your Knees happened by accident, with her thinking the story was another play until she realized “the stage direction had gotten out of control,” she says. And, like all her novels, it retains a theatrical quality: MacDonald never fails to set a scene with painterly precision or bring her characters together without a revealing exchange of dialogue. Somewhat obscured by the book’s formidable death toll is the fact that Fall on Your Knees is also a story of queer love, between the beautiful, ambitious Kathleen Piper and the gender-fluid pianist Rose, a blossoming romance destroyed by Kathleen’s jealous father, James. All of MacDonald’s novels feature a queer female protagonist, and it’s a testament to her masterful storytelling that her work attracts broad audiences without being pigeonholed. “I’m always trying to have something for everyone,” she says. “I feel like that goes back to my Lebanese mother. There would always be many, many dishes on her table, and if you left hungry, that was on you.”

As with Fall on Your Knees, MacDonald wove elements of her own life and experience into her subsequent novels, smudging the boundaries between life and art. The Way the Crow Flies is a murder mystery loosely based on the 1959 rape and murder of twelve-year-old Lynne Harper on an Ontario military base. For the setting, MacDonald drew on her father’s experience in the air force, and to the book’s protagonist, MacDonald lent her own childhood dream of becoming a comedian. More than a decade later, in 2014, she published her third and most autobiographical novel, Adult Onset, written in the bleary haze of early parenthood. It follows a Toronto novelist named Mary Rose MacKinnon, who has a theatre director wife and two perfect, maddening young children as she begins tugging on the thread of a suppressed childhood memory, subsequently unravelling it over an ordinary week of domestic caregiving.

Each novel is rooted in a different genre—historical fiction, murder mystery, domestic drama, Gothic ghost story—which, in the hands of a lesser author, would be a stretch, but MacDonald’s attention to detail and command of language ensure that each has an absorbing, distinctive atmosphere that feels wholly authentic for the story. The suffocating, jittery mid-life crisis that propels Mary Rose in Adult Onset couldn’t be further from the tense, controlled burn of The Way the Crow Flies. But MacDonald’s first heartbreak resurfaces again and again in the narratives like the ache of a phantom limb: the childhood realization that her queerness represented an irrevocable break from her parents. But, by writing and rewriting the tale, she is nudging it forward from the depths of despair toward a more hopeful resolution each time. In Fall on Your Knees, Kathleen’s obsessive father, James, ultimately destroys her. But, in Adult Onset, Mary Rose’s parents come to accept her sexuality, though their initial rejection leaves lingering scars. And, in Fayne, the storyteller finally outruns their pain, allowing MacDonald to offer her reader something new: a genuinely happy ending.

Fayne takes its title from the novel’s setting, a vast, boggy estate that straddles the border of England and Scotland, belonging to neither country and thus existing in a state of suspended, perpetual dispute. Fayne is the treasured home and family seat of the protagonist, Charlotte Bell, who spends her days tromping across the moor, fishing for trout, and riding astride a pig. But, by night, Charlotte is tortured by visions of her dead brother, Charles, and by guilt over her mother, who perished giving birth to her. A mysterious medical condition has necessitated her cloistered existence, and her only company is an indulgent, bird-obsessed father, Lord Henry Bell, and a household of loyal servants.

But solitude must be disrupted, just as girls must grow up, and as Charlotte learns about the world beyond Fayne, she also begins to perceive the secrets and ghosts that envelop her. The novel is simultaneously a Gothic romance, a queer bildungsroman, and a comedy of manners set amid the decaying nobility of nineteenth-century British society and its endless, terrible dinner parties, linked together by a propulsive, surprising plot that is equal parts Huckleberry Finn and Rebecca: an adventurous scamp in a haunted house. “I’m beginning to return to the things that excited me as a child,” MacDonald says. “I’ve always loved adventure. In school, when the teacher would say, ‘Write what you know,’ I was crestfallen. I wanted to write what I could imagine.”

Though she is known for her immaculate plotting (the Guardian called The Way the Crow Flies “as tightly wrought and formal as a Hitchcock storyboard”), MacDonald writes intuitively, without a plan at all. Her stories begin as visions—a windswept moor, a melancholy girl with a pixie cut—and she tunnels her way into them, one scene at a time. “When the story starts to reveal itself to me, that’s when I understand the kind of structure that it craves,” she says. With Fayne, that structure was inspired by Shakespearean romance; in everything she’s written, she says, there’s a little bit of The Tempest, another story of a father and daughter in exile, laden with magic and family secrets. Creating that world is a physical process for MacDonald, who retains the actor’s instinct to fully inhabit a story: “I realized a couple years ago that after a day working on the novel, my voice would be hoarse, as if I had been singing into the wind all day.”

MacDonald spent seven years working on Fayne, rambling around the Scottish Highlands with a van full of retired geologists and poring over the terrifying illustrations of historic medical textbooks. “I’m qualified as a late-nineteenth-century gynecologist now,” she jokes. Despite the classic Gothic trappings—a crumbling manor, ghostly apparitions, creepy aristocrats—Fayne is attuned to contemporary anxieties about gender and animated by MacDonald’s perpetual interest in the ways female ambition and queer sexuality are pathologized and controlled, often under the guise of love and protection. It’s an idea that’s captivated her since she was ten, when she picked up her older sister’s copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and became obsessed with the eponymous heroine. “There was no turning back,” MacDonald says, “I loved her journey. I loved that she was unquenchable, so passionate. It’s like, you can kill or crush me, but I will get through this, I will have love, I will tell my story.”

One might argue that the difference between a tragic tale and a happy one is all a matter of where the story ends—or, rather, where the storyteller chooses to end it. After all, MacDonald points out, disaster is a necessary element of romantic tales too. “Take Prospero, on his island,” she says of The Tempest. “Sure, he’s exiled, but he’s got a pretty good life.” But then all hell breaks loose, and the world crashes in. “It seems like he’s going to lose everything—and he does, temporarily,” she says. “But, at the end, everything is restored, and it’s better than it was at the beginning.”

Like Prospero, or a young Ann-Marie MacDonald, they might be cast out and forced to hide who they are. But, in the loneliness of exile and rejection, there is a kind of freedom to create one’s own world, limited only by imagination. On the page, pain can be transmuted into meaning; a tragic event can be understood, in time, as a triumph. As long as you are alive, you can bend the arc of your story toward happiness. “Where is the proof that I am mortal? I have not yet died,” says Charlotte Bell, in Fayne’s epigraph. “And if you are reading this, neither have you.”

“Life is full of irresolution, we all know that,” MacDonald says. “But fiction is going to raise the spectre of all the irresolutions and then lead you somewhere where all of those threads can come together, and for a moment, you can see the whole.”

Michelle Cyca
Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer for The Walrus.