Last June, Ann-Marie MacDonald—playwright, actor, CBC host and author of two popular and highly regarded novels—delivered a talk to the Law Society of Upper Canada, an event pegged to Toronto’s upcoming stint as host of 2014 World Pride, the celebration of gay and lesbian life. It’s a remarkable speech: short and sharp, funny and wrenching. It’s about rage—“naked rage without so much as a fig leaf of rectitude, chemical rage directed at myself, directed at my partner”—a rage risen from the depths of repression, triggered by a loving, accepting message from parents who, decades earlier, had responded to her lesbianism with, “I wish you had cancer.” Between that statement, MacDonald continued, and the more recent, “God bless you and Alisa. You are wonderful mothers,” there is a gap, “a Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote-sized canyon,” into which she fell, erupting outward only after she, too, became a parent. Call it adult-onset rage.
This month, she will offer that story again, this time in her third novel, Adult Onset. Mary Rose MacKinnon, like Ann-Marie MacDonald, has a same-sex theatre director spouse, two children, a dog and a home in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. Over the course of a single week, triggered by the same event that sparked her creator’s anger—an email from dad expressing admiration for It Gets Better, the anti-bullying video meant to reassure and encourage LGBT teens—Mary Rose sees her life comes to the point of implosion, in a novel that asks how anyone can both remember and forgive.
In basic factual terms, there is barely a playing card’s width between life and art in an intricate, gripping novel that is also a master class in turning the personal into the universal through art. “I want to make it everybody’s story,” says the 55-year-old author in an interview, “something that belongs to the reader, so that people—some of them not even gay—can say it’s the story of their life.”
MacDonald’s previous novels, Fall on Your Knees (1996) and The Way the Crow Flies (2003), were heavily autobiographical, too. But neither cuts as close to the bone—literally, given the bone cysts that torment Mary Rose in childhood and the way their phantom pain lingers into middle age—as Adult Onset, which focuses less on a child seeing the world and more on her family life.
British novelist Graham Greene once said that writers need to have “a sliver of ice in the heart” that allows them to be harrowingly honest about their characters. MacDonald agrees: “If you’re going to do it, you have to write as though they were dead.” That determination didn’t stop her from warning her parents and siblings of what was coming, or from being pleased that family relationships have survived the experience, or from joking about it: “We have such long-lived parents now; Victorian novelists could just wait for theirs to die.”
But it did make the process far harder than she expected. “The first two novels were Herculean labour. This time, because I had chosen to write about what had actually happened, to cook with what was in the cupboard, I thought it would be easier.” But it was soon apparent MacDonald was working “with a needle I could barely feel and thread I couldn’t feel at all, weaving a gossamer cloth curtain, almost not there at all. But it is there: A story is never unvarnished; even for a one-person play, there’s always a set, always dressing. But Adult Onset was the hardest to write.”
The varnishing—the generational layers of medical history, the adding of her parents’ story to her own, the entire artifice of fictional distancing—became easier when MacDonald realized she was “caught in her own hall of mirrors.” Mary Rose is a bestselling YA fantasy author, whose young heroine visits parallel worlds, and MacKinnon tells the teenager’s story in much the same way MacDonald tells MacKinnon’s. “I was writing about me in a parallel world,” says the novelist (the flesh-and-blood one). “So which one of us was writing about the other?” The story, MacDonald knew then, had already escaped the storyteller, had already moved from the personal to the universal.