'The soul of Cape Breton writing has burnt out' - author Alistair MacLeod dies at age 77

Laura Jean Grant ljgrant@cbpost.com
Published on April 21, 2014

Alistair MacLeod spoke in Wolfville in 2013 at a conference on Atlantic Canadian literature. 

©Wendy Elliott - Kingscountynews.ca


An unassuming man who captured the world's attention with his stories about Cape Breton, Alistair MacLeod is being remembered as "literary genius" whose words will live on for generations to come. 

MacLeod's death in Windsor, Ont., at the age of 77 was confirmed Sunday by his former publisher, Doug Gibson, who noted that MacLeod had been in hospital ever since suffering a stroke in January.

Born in North Battleford, Sask., MacLeod moved to Dunvegan, Inverness County, at the age of 10. Later, with his own family — wife Anita and six children — MacLeod divided his time between Windsor, Ont., and Dunvegan, spending summers on the island, where he did much of his writing in a cliff-top cabin.

In 1999, MacLeod's first novel, No Great Mischief, was published to great critical acclaim and won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, then worth C$172,000. It was on national bestseller lists for more than a year and won a number of other honours, including the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction, and the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award.

Prior to that, MacLeod had published two internationally renowned collections of short stories, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood in 1976 and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun in 1986. In 2000, those two collections, accompanied by two new stories, were published in Island, a single-volume edition of his stories. Just last year, his short story Remembrance was published by McClelland & Stewart as an ebook.

As news of his death spread Sunday morning, tributes began to pour in from fans around the globe, as well as his many friends in Cape Breton.

"It's a loss to literature but it's a loss to Inverness County, particularly, and Cape Breton, generally, and the area," friend and fellow writer Frank Macdonald said Sunday.

The now-retired longtime publisher of the Inverness Oran, Macdonald knew MacLeod for close to 40 years.

"His first collection of short stories came out just about the time the Inverness Oran started publishing, and so our paths began crossing around that particular period and it grew into a friendship," he said.

Macdonald — the author behind novels A Forest for Calum and A Possible Madness, both longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin — said MacLeod was "very much a mentor" to him. He said he's long admired MacLeod's ability to write stories with universal appeal that also capture the soul of Cape Breton.

"He didn't create from outside of himself, it was from within the life he lived, and he was the most unassuming person that you could meet, and if you talked to him on the street there was nothing to tell you that this is one of the greatest living writers in the world," he said. "The body of work that he created through maybe 15 or 16 short stories and one novel is a collection of work by a literary genius."

Macdonald said MacLeod was a good friend and an active member of the local community.

"Their household in Windsor and in Dunvegan was one of the most hospitable households that you can imagine and he was very involved in the community, in the church, in the parish work, in the community work. He'd sell tickets or collect tickets at the Broad Cove concert," recalled Macdonald. "He would do whatever was asked of him as a volunteer in the community."

Beatrice MacNeil, also an award-winning Cape Breton author, has been friends with MacLeod for more than 20 years, having first met him when their stories were published in the same anthology.

"The soul of Cape Breton writing has burnt out," she said Sunday. "He was a genius. I remember going to a writing workshop he put on and the man was incredible. He didn't have an equal."

MacNeil, who has written a number of renowned books, including Where White Horses Gallop and The Moonlight Skater, said MacLeod was a master of the written word, a trusted mentor and an incredibly kind man. She said she would often visit MacLeod and his wife at their Dunvegan home, which was always full of music and laughter.

"It was such a beautiful place to visit," she recalled. "When you got there, they made you part of their family, that's the way they were."

Gary Walsh, one of the founders of the Cabot Trail Writers Festival, said they were looking forward to MacLeod making an appearance on opening night of the 2014 edition of their event this fall, and were shocked to learn of his death.

"It's very sad. He was a great figure in literature but he was a great person representing the culture here. His writing was so exemplary and so wonderful that he really painted a glowing and, I think, very accurate picture of life here," said Walsh. "He's a world-class writer. Alistair MacLeod was admired throughout the world as one of the greatest short story writers in history, so it's a huge loss, not only for us, but for all writers everywhere."

Walsh noted the festival will now make plans to pay tribute to MacLeod at this year's event.

MacLeod taught English and creative writing at the University of Windsor before retiring in 2000. He also edited the University of Windsor Review and was a teacher to generations of writers at the Banff Centre. In 2008, he was named an officer of the Order of Canada.

In his published works, he wrote predominantly about Cape Breton.

In a panel discussion at Cape Breton University in March 2012, to mark the opening of an art exhibit titled Sense of Place, MacLeod said he's always simply written what he knows.

"I believe that all literature comes from some place and it comes from some region in the world," he said at the time. "I decided many years ago to set my work in Cape Breton and I never changed that. Whether this is a strength or weakness, I don't know, but if someone said to me 'Why don't you write a story set in Los Angeles,' I'd say I'm never going to write a story set in Los Angeles because I don't know enough about it."

Macdonald said it was announced at church Sunday that the funeral service for MacLeod will be held Saturday morning in Broad Cove.

Alistair MacLeod

• Born: July 20, 1936, in North Battleford, Sask.

• Moved at age 10 to Dunvegan, Inverness County

• Resided: Windsor, Ont., Dunvegan,

• Published works include: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, No Great Mischief and Island

• Awards: the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for No Great Mischief, recipient of Order of Canada in 2008