This autumn, I'm teaching a course at the University of Toronto called Literary Citizenship that features guest speakers from various organizations promoting literary values, culture, and community. This week, our guest was Lindsay Zier-Vogel of The Love Lettering Project, who spoke about her work and engaged us in writing love letters to Toronto. You can read about Lindsay's visit here and about the course here.
A review of two volumes to which I contributed, both on the work of Alice Munro, The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro and Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Runaway, Dear Life, has been published in Canadian Literature. Read the review here.
An excerpt from my new book, War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature, has been published in The Walrus. Read it here.
I'm delighted to announce that August 23, McGill-Queen's University Press will be releasing my book War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature. Click here for more about the book.
Last month, I had the privilege of giving the commencement address to the graduating high school students of Peninsula Shores District School in Wiarton, Ontario, the town where I grew up—and the home of Canada’s most famous groundhog, Wiarton Willie. Here’s what I said.
The writer Flannery O’Connor once said that by the time people reach the end of childhood, they have all the material they need to tell stories for the rest of their lives.
Graduates of 2017: you’ve arrived at the end of childhood, the end of high school, and you’re entering your grown-up years. What stories are you going to tell?
It’s an important question. Who we are, who we understand ourselves and others to be, is largely made up of the stories we tell—and also the stories we don’t tell. *
Ever since I graduated from high school and moved away from Wiarton to attend university, I’ve had to ask myself certain questions when faced with telling stories about who I am.
First of all, should I say I’m from Wiarton? And if I do, should I be the first one to mention Wiarton Willie? Or should I wait for the other person to …
My recommendation of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's novel All the Broken Things has just appeared in 49th Shelf's "The Recommend" column. Read it here.
Last fall, I taught a course called Literary Citizenship that examined organizations promoting literary culture in Toronto. At the end, a number of the students contributed entries to a website we created, literarycitizenshiptoronto.com, that profiles such organizations, describing what they do and how people can get involved. The site will grow with each edition of the course. (As we learned, there are plenty of organizations in the city doing amazing work.) In the meantime, I’m grateful to the students for their own acts of literary citizenship in volunteering to share their research. If you have a moment, please do check out the site.
The Ohio State University Press will be releasing my book The Treacherous Imagination: Intimacy, Ethics, and Autobiographical Fiction in paperback on January 1.
Lindsay Zier-Vogel, creator of The Love Lettering Project, recently visited my Literary Citizenship course at the University of Toronto. We talked about urbanity, affect, and epistolarity, and we also wrote love letters. You can read Lindsay's account of the class -- and see photos of the event -- here.
Tom Smith’s review of my book The Treacherous Imagination: Intimacy, Ethics, and Autobiographical Fiction is now out in a/b: Autobiography Studies. He writes: “McGill is excellent in threading his way through the maze of conflicting claims made by writers defending their right to choose what to write and aggrieved readers who feel unfairly represented, betrayed, or violated. He . . . has carefully examined and thoroughly contextualized an effect of fiction often relegated to literary gossip or scholars’ entertainment.”
Those with institutional access to the journal can read the review here.
Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of giving the grade-eight commencement address at Peninsula Shores District School in Wiarton, Ontario, the town in which I was born and raised. Here are the remarks I offered on the night.
This is actually my second grade-eight graduation speech in Wiarton. The first one was twenty-six years ago. It was the night of my graduation from Wiarton Public School. Here’s a picture of me from that evening. Looking at it, you may think, “Wow, I didn’t know that white jackets were fashionable in 1990.” They weren’t. But I felt like wearing a white jacket, and my level of fashion awareness was very low.
That night, I gave a speech together with my friend Daena, because the two of us were the valedictorians. Here’s a photograph of us on stage. My memory of the evening’s a little hazy, so I can’t te…
Now out: The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro -- a great book with some distinguished contributors (Margaret Atwood! Douglas Glover! Elizabeth Hay! W. H. New! Merilyn Symonds!). And I've snuck in there, too, writing on Munro and personal development.
I've just published an article about teaching Thomas King's wonderful novel Green Grass, Running Water. Those with access to The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry can read the article here.
I was recently interviewed for an article in Metro about Justin Trudeau's background as an English student. Read the article here.
An interview with me about the new Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, and the new Dr Seuss book, What Pet Should I Get?, has just been published. Read it here.
A scholarly article that I've written on teaching Creative Writing has been published in the journal New Writing. The article addresses the ethics of treating student fiction as biographical, whether in workshops or with an eye to warning signs of unwellness. The abstract is available here. People with an institutional subscription to the journal will be able to download the full article.
September 27, I'll be giving a Master Class on "Writing Living Memory" at the Kingston WritersFest. For more information, click here.
Now published: Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature. The book includes an article by me on Douglas Coupland's fiction and the apocalypse that I first published several years ago. I'm grateful to the book's editors for wanting to reprint it and for giving me the chance to revise it for their volume
In the new issue of The Puritan -- an interview with me, Jason Guriel, and Molly Peacock about literature and the Canada-US border. To read it, click here.
May 29, I'll be reading from Once We Had a Country as part of the Department of English Spring Reunion at the University of Toronto. The event takes place at 4 pm in Room 100 of the Jackman Humanities Building (170 St George St). All are welcome.
I'm looking forward to joining Steven Heighton, Lisa Moore, and Aritha Van Herk in a Writers' Appreciations event on May 9, part of The Alice Munro Symposium at the University of Ottawa. There will be plenty of stories to share -- and many more to celebrate. For details, click here.
Now shipping in Canada, the US, and the UK: World Film Locations: Toronto, a lively book discussing Toronto in movies. I contributed two entries to the volume, one on a National Film Board gem, Paddle to the Sea, and one on Atom Egoyan's masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter.
Open Book Toronto has just posted an article revealing the New Year's resolutions of various authors, including me. Read the article here.
The new issue of Literary Review of Canada includes a review of Once We Had a Country that calls it "beautifully crafted" and says that the novel's "unflinching insights into the Canadian immigrant experience, American imperialism, television's soporific mind bath and the nature of martyrdom brilliantly illuminate a crucial turning point in our history." Thanks to reviewer Joyce Kline for the kind words.
Once We Had a Country has made Montreal Gazette reviewer Ian McGillis's best-of-2013 list. Read the article here.
In the National Post, Philip Marchand has included Once We Had a Country on his list of favourite books from 2013, calling it a "note-perfect narrative with challenging themes and sure-handed characterization." For the full article, click here.
A new post on Open Book Ontario features various authors talking about place in fiction. My contribution mentions Google Earth and conversations with my grandmother. Read the post here.
Last month, I read from Once We Had a Country at the Pelham Public Library in a joint event with author Julie Mannell. The library has since posted photos of the night at https://picasaweb.google.com/111484668380240094343/RobertMcGillWithJulieMannell.
Last night was the launch for my book The Treacherous Imagination: Intimacy, Ethics, and Autobiographical Fiction. It was a thrill to share the event with Andrea Most, who launched Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America. Thanks to everyone who came out.
"You can never feel comfortable with a novelist, never be sure that he will not put you into bed one day, quite naked, between the pages of a book." That's Maupassant as quoted in an article I've written about the ethics of fiction, now up on the National Post's website. The piece is adapted from my book The Treacherous Imagination. Read the article here.
My grandmother Lena would have been 99 years old today. To mark the occasion, I’m posting a short essay about her that was broadcast on CBC Radio a few years ago.
One day when my grandmother Lena was in her early seventies, living alone in a cottage on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, she began to feel dizzy. After she lay down, before she passed out, she looked toward the ceiling and saw herself in a green dress, floating above the bed. When she woke up, she discovered that her hand had curled into a claw, and only by staring at each finger in turn did she manage to straighten it. Over the following months, occasionally Lena found herself unable to do certain things she’d always done, like unscrew bottle tops, turn on taps. Each time she had to relearn the task through patience and willpower.It must have been a stroke, but there was no immediate diagnosis because, independent woman that my grandmother is, she didn’t tell anyone what had happened, at least not until a decade later, when she set down the memory in a story. Now, almost ninety, she’s been writing episodes from her life for eleven years, and each time she finishes one, she sends it to my mother, who types it into a word processor and then pas…
This scene, from late in the novel, was cut because it had too much overlap with another scene involving Maggie and a teenager.
This time there are plenty of places to park. It isn’t a surprise, for who besides Maggie would think to visit Niagara Falls on a drizzly weekday morning in the middle of December? Only the desperate and dispossessed stroll the promenade beside the falls—alcoholics, racetrack losers. Sitting on a bench with the camera beside her, she watches a pair of teenagers walk past, the boy a few yards ahead, the girl dragging her feet, her belly’s protrusion impossible to hide. Both of them are without jackets, and neither carries an umbrella. They don’t even gaze at the cataract, as if it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Periodically, the boy turns to check on the girl, and each time she smiles at him. On their own, though, they both look miserable, deep in thought. Maggie’s inclination is to feel sorry for them, but when the girl catches her staring at them from her bench, she stares back with derision, for there’s Maggie without an umbrella, either, and without a baby coming or someone to coax smiles from her and worry over her wellbeing. She wonders if George Ray has ev…
Yesterday, after I talked shop with the delightful Writers' Community of Durham Region, I was given this sketch by artist Georgia Fullerton, and it made my day. (Check her out at www.justgeorgia.ca.)
This scene was a favourite but had to be cut because it was too divorced from the plot.
The next day, in the swelter of the afternoon, Fletcher gets fed up with painting and decides they should all drive down to see Niagara Falls. Maggie doesn’t know why he’s one who gets to say when they can stop work to have fun, but the heat in the farmhouse has turned her brain to bouillabaisse, so she doesn’t complain.
Things aren’t much better in the station wagon, after Brid hands the keys to Fletcher and claims the passenger seat for herself, telling Maggie to play Mommy for a while in the back. Pauline seems no happier than Maggie with this arrangement. She fidgets in her safety seat with her curly-haired doll and calls for her mother, while Brid and Fletcher talk to each other up front, Brid’s thin, freckled arm reaching out to lay a hand on Fletcher’s headrest, her bracelets clinking together like ice in a glass.
She’s taller than I am, thinks Maggie. They’d be a better match. He wouldn’t have to stoop to kiss her. The image of them holding each other, lips against lips, is one she hurries to exile fr…
An interview with me by Tyler Willis has just appeared in The Town Crier. Read the interview here.
In Once We Had a Country, the main character, Maggie, spends a lot of time filming her life with a Super 8 camera. As I wrote the novel, sometimes I thought of myself as similarly creating a film rather than a book. I was the director, cinematographer, set designer, dialect coach, lighting engineer, foley artist, and caterer by turns.
The hardest role might have been editing—especially when it came to cutting scenes. Nowadays, filmmakers faced with the need to trim their movies can at least include a “Deleted Scenes” feature on the DVD version of their films. I’m going to follow their lead by featuring some deleted scenes from Once We Had a Country on this site.
The first, brief scene is below. It features Maggie and Fletcher, her boyfriend of six months, talking in bed after having taken up residence at a cherry farm in 1972. The scene was one of my favourites in early drafts. B…
The Globe and Mail calls Once We Had a Country "an immersive and harrowing tale." Read the full review here.
The Montreal Gazette weighs in on Once We Had a Country: "One of the most original and emotionally affecting Canadian novels of recent years." Read the full review here.
Today I was on Global TV's The Morning Show to talk about Once We Had a Country. Watch the interview here.
Philip Marchand's review of Once We Had a Country is now up on the National Post website. Marchand calls the novel "a wonderfully sustained performance, thought-provoking and emotionally truthful." Read the full review here.
Q: How would you summarize your novel in one sentence?
In 1972, a young American woman moves to the Niagara Peninsula and struggles to remake her life on a commune after becoming estranged from her father, a missionary in Laos.
Q: Why write about 1972?
It was a year of iconic events: Nixon’s re-election, the Munich Olympics, the Watergate break-in, Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, the famous photo of Kim Phuc burned by napalm and running naked down a road. It was the year George Carlin was charged with obscenity for “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” There was Fischer vs. Spassky in Iceland; there was Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon.
In Canada, it was the year of the Summit Series and a federal election that reduced Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals to a minority government. 1972 was the end of a spectacular period in Canadian history that had started with Expo ’67 and the Centennial and that included the October Crisis, as well as the legalization of homosexuality and contraception. The contemporary idea of Canada as a refugee haven and non-militaristic nation comes large…
My new novel, Once We Had a Country, will be published by Knopf Canada on August 6. The opening scene is below. You can find out more about the novel here, and you can order it from Amazon or Indigo.
In the jungle, Gordon tends a fire beside Yia Pao, the young potter whose soul he hopes to save. It is 1972, the rainy season in Laos, and the two of them shouldn’t be here. Nobody should. Although they are barely a mile from the refugee camp, without knowing it they have crossed into a free-strike zone. The lines keep shifting because the Communists keep gaining ground, but the Royal Lao and American generals don’t bother making announcements when the boundaries are redrawn. Instead, they simply order their warplanes to treat anybody on the ground as the enemy. Everyone becomes a target.
Nestled in the fire are three figures, each less tha…
The following piece was first published in Five Dials. You can view the issue here.
The Collected ‘Maxims’: W. G. Sebald on Writing
Recorded by David Lambert and Robert McGill
W. G. Sebald taught his final fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia during the autumn of 2001. In the literary world, he was rapidly gaining renown: there had been the succès d’estime of his first three books and then the publication of Austerlitz earlier that year. In the classroom—where David Lambert and I were two of sixteen students—Sebald was unassuming, almost shy, and asked that we call him Max. When discussing students’ work, he was anecdotal and associative, more storyteller than technician. He had weary eyes that made it tempting to identify him with the melancholy narrators of his books, but he also had a gentle amiability and wry sense of humour. We were in his thrall. He died three days after the final class.
As far as I’m aware, nobody that term recorded Max’s words systematically. However, in the …
Hazlitt has just published my short story "The Stress of Lives." It's about a famous Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist, Hans Selye, being reincarnated as a chimp. You can read it here.
The Toronto Star has included Once We Had a Country on its best-of-summer-reading list: check out the list here.
The Toronto Star has just published a short article by me about falling in love at at summer camp. The story involves the hula, Capture the Flag, and my mother's perfume. Read the story here.
A rave review of Once We Had a Country has appeared on lazyday.ca. Read the review here.
Once We Had a Country was among the recommendations in yesterday’s Montreal Gazette summer fiction preview. Check out the preview here.