Success in the literary world comes with great prestige, but the prizes and acclaim sought by writers are subject to ardent competition. A trip to the top of the literary ranks requires a lifetime of work and devotion. A story often cited is of Canadian author Margaret Atwood deciding at the age of ten or twelve she would become one of the world's great writers, and then spending the rest of her life achieving the acclaim she has now.
Alistair MacLeod is another Canadian writer receiving great international recognition. His debut novel, No Great Mischief, received nominations for all major Canadian literary awards and awarded the Dublin IMPAC award, the world's largest and most internationally recognized literary prize. In addition, he's touted as the greatest living Canadian author by the Globe and Mail, and picked as one of the Modern Library's greatest writers since 1950.
Yet, for all his success, MacLeod's isn't a story of toiling for the top. Publishing No Great Mischief at the age of 63, MacLeod achieves success at his own pace.
"I think you just do the best you can, and then if it turns out as well as this has, then you're satisfied," MacLeod says lounging in his condo in Calgary. "You just go out, do the best you can, and you hope for the best. And not everybody wins the Stanley Cup or anything like that, you don't have your eye on it since you're 12 or anything, although some people might. I think you just go and do your best. It's very rewarding when it turns out as well as it has for me."
No Great Mischief chronicles the story of a Scottish family from their emigration to Cape Breton in 1779 to the 21st century. MacLeod, himself a Scotsman, spent most of his youth in Cape Breton and part of his motivation for writing the novel was to capture the Scottish influx that shaped the culture of Cape Breton, and to record the lives of those Scottish families who shared a similar thread with his own.
"There's a phrase that, 'sometimes the writer is seen as a witness,'" muses MacLeod. "The late American writer Raymond Carver said 'it is the job of the writer to bring the news.' And by that he meant, I think, to bring the news of what it is like to live in a certain place, at a certain time, in certain conditions. I think to some extent I was thinking of something like that for No Great Mischief."
In his novel, designed to incorporate broader themes relavent to all of humanity, the international success of No Great Mischief is probably derived from his ability to aptly describe the human species.
"I don't believe that human nature changes very much. I believe people are basically, pretty much the same," explains MacLeod. "They're just faced with different obstacles, in different landscapes, and at different times in history. So most people, all through time, want to protect their children, and they all yearn for love, and they don't want to be murdered in their beds, and so on. This is true whether you're in Scotland or Albania or Calgary, wherever you may be.
"Some of the ideas that are expressed in No Great Mischief are ideas that will last a long time, such as loyalty, belief and commitment to one another. And issue of that kind are with all people all over the world, so it's enduring I hope."
The novel took ten years to write and MacLeod says he's simply glad to have No Great Mischief finished before he died. Now retired from his teaching post at the University of Windsor, MacLeod has more time for writing. One would think with the success of No Great Mischief he would be chomping at the bit to get another one finished, but he is simply enjoying life as it comes to him. Perhaps he'll attempt to write another before he dies, but perhaps he won't.
"I'm just appreciating all these nice days in Calgary. One sunny day at a time," says MacLeod. "I'm satisfied. I've always been satisfied."