Author Interview: Lily MacKenzie

Get inspired with Lily MacKenzie as she shares with us her journey and writing process for her three published books featuring older women!

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your published book (s)
I don’t have hayseed clinging to my trousers, but growing up on a Canadian farm gave me a unique foundation as a writer. I sprouted under cumulous clouds that bloomed everywhere in Alberta’s big sky. They were my first creative writing instructors, scudding across the heavenly blue, constantly changing shape: one minute an elephant, bruised and brooding. The next morphing into a rabbit or a castle. These billowing masses gave me a unique view of life on earth.

As a girl, I prowled the land, talking to chickens and pigs and lambs, creating scenarios for them. I also tried to make perfume from the wild Alberta roses and captured caterpillars, watching with wonder when they transformed themselves into butterflies. Everything around me seemed infused by nature spirits waiting to be released.

I soon realized that all objects are in motion, waiting for stories to illuminate them. The clouds’ shifting form also schooled me in the various possibilities open to me as a writer. So did Jack Frost’s enchanted creations that enlivened the windows in wintertime, forcing me to view my surroundings as if through a bewitching prism.

These early experiences helped me to envision multi-dimensional characters. No wonder magical realism pulses at the heart of my narratives, and my work celebrates the imagination. As an adult, I continue to seek instruction from clouds. Just as they provide the earth with much-needed water, I believe that stories have a similar function, preparing the mind to receive new ideas. Also, conditions inside a cloud are not static—water droplets are constantly forming and re-evaporating. Stories, too, change, depending on who is reading them, each one giving life to its readers.

A high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (I was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got my legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in Creative writing and one in the Humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 165 American and Canadian venues. Pen-L Publishing published my “debut” novel Fling! in 2015 and Freefall: A Divine Comedy in 2019. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, was released in 2017 by Regal House Publishing. 

My poetry collection All This was published in 2011. No More Kings, a poetry chapbook, came out on March 26, 2020. Currently, I’m teaching creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning. I also blog about reading and writing at https://lilyionamackenzie.com

Tell us about the genre you like to write, and how is it similar / different from other women fiction genres?
As I’ve mentioned, magical realism informs most of my narratives. Reality is both magical and “real,” if by real we mean something that isn’t imagined. Language by its very nature is magical, transforming our everyday reality in multiple ways, carrying us aloft on the wings of imagination. 

When I call on magical realism in my fiction, I do it because it opens me up to a fuller understanding of our world, both internally and externally. I believe it captures a more complete view of what’s going on in our lives than realism alone can do.

The shape shifting that often happens in such novels seems psychologically true to me. For example, in Fling!, when my grandmother’s ashes resurrect and she appears after being dead for 70 years, it couldn’t be true literally. Though most Christians would disagree, and perhaps those who believe in reincarnation, the dead don’t come back to life. However, the dead are constantly appearing in our dreams, in our thoughts, in our inherited behavior. So, while the thing being described may not exist in our physical sense of reality, it does when it’s viewed as a metaphor. It’s as if people can return from the dead. I also like to write magical realism because it allows my imagination to explore images and ideas that aren’t confined to everyday life. While I love most everything about our commonplace world, I also have a strong sense that other realities exist simultaneously. This genre helps me to investigate that possibility.

Also, my view of the world is pantheistic. Everything seems alive with what some people might call the divine, though I find that term too limiting. I think magic actually comes closer to what I mean in the sense that, as children, we view the world as an enchanted place. In most developed countries, especially, we are taught to dismiss such beliefs and become more “realistic” as adults. I’ll give a personal example. I grew up in Calgary where the winters were very cold. One of the beauties of that weather, though, was that Jack Frost visited and left amazing designs on the windows. But when I was five, my Scottish schoolmaster grandpa told me there was no such thing as Jack Frost (or Santa Claus). Of course, I didn’t believe him. I still don’t! But I think magical realism retains elements of this enchantment with our world, and those who write it are trying to recapture for their readers that dimension. It’s a way of viewing life through a different lens than what realism offers. Different rules exist, allowing the writer to break out of realism’s limitations. Finally, magical realism allows me a playful way of treating darker material.

It's difficult to compare the magic realism genre to other women’s fiction categories because they are so varied. Some also write in the magical realism mode. Others adhere to realism. It’s a matter of choice and what best fits an individual writer’s oeuvre.

What are some of the biggest challenges authors of older protagonists face today?
Americans, and I suppose Canadians, too, worship youth. Older female adults, but I think aren’t considered “sexy.” Most readers or movie goers consider older men as still being “in life” (i.e., they’re still attractive to younger women—or men). I’m thinking of the older James Bond, but there are many other male characters who exemplify this attitude. Unfortunately, many people don’t usually feel similarly about older female characters. In my novels, older women are still very much in life, as I am at almost 80! 

When did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a writer?
When I was thirteen, I started keeping a diary that I wrote in a coded language I invented so anyone who read it wouldn’t be able to enter my world. I have no idea what happened to that first attempt to keep a journal, but I’m sure it was my writing self trying to emerge. That part of me was buried though, along with the diary, until my mid-twenties when I experienced a deep depression. At that time, I started keeping a journal again. I also went into therapy, the first step in recovering my writing self.

The journal writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I wrote daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling, but I also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel that keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination. At the same time, I also started exploring the craft of writing, entering an undergraduate creative writing program.

Now I don’t have any choice but to write. It’s as necessary to me as eating. If I don’t write each day, I become irritable and unpleasant to live with. Ask my husband!

Do you have a day job other than being a writer?
Since only about five percent of writers are able to support themselves from their craft, most of us need to do other kind of work in order to support our creative selves. Consequently, I both teach writing and also do freelance editing. And I’m fortunate to be married to a man who is the main breadwinner.

What are some things that inspire you to write?
I might read something unusual in the newspaper that makes me want to explore what may have led to a certain situation or what the consequences might be. My published short story, “Priscilla the Python,” started in this way. I read about a snake showing up in someone’s toilet bowl. It triggered my neurons, and I had to find out what happened after the snake’s appearance.

Similarly, my novel Curva Peligrosa began with a tornado I read about that happened in a small town in Alberta. The narrative starts with a tornado that uproots Curva Peligrosa’s outhouse from her farm on the prairies and plants it in the center of Weed, a fictional Alberta town. The rest of the novel explores Curva’s amazing impact on the community.

What is your typical writing routine like?
When I first took myself seriously as a writer, after I’d earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, as well as a masters in the humanities and another masters in creative writing, I was also teaching and helping to raise my stepchildren. I discovered that if I committed to one hour a day, I could produce the first draft of a novel in a year, in addition to taking side trips into poetry, short fiction, and essays. I have more time now to write, but I still find myself not wanting to spend much more than an hour or two a day on the writing part of being a published author. Marketing has also become an essential part of my routine.

What kind of message do your book (s) convey to readers?
I love to invent, and I’m enamored of the imagination and how it expands our tiny universes. Fling!, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what all the characters discover in Mexico. It’s what ninety year-old Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does. Fling! also demonstrates that it’s never too late to address the origins of our psychological conflicts or concerns. In the novel, three generations of women have suffered from early abandonments. The narrative shows that these wounds can give us less trouble if we bring them to the surface of consciousness and face them head on.

Curva Peligrosa explores the inscrutable connection between life and art, fiction and fact. It also features an adventurous, powerful woman, over six-foot-tall, who defies convention and travels from Mexico to Canada on horseback with her two parrots, a dog, and a second horse. She crosses not only geographical boundaries but also cultural ones, defying the traditional notion of what comprises a woman.

In Freefall: A Divine Comedy, four old friends reunite to contemplate their sixtieth birthdays. Their reunion turns into a marvellous, magical mystery tour with plenty of surprises and laughs along the way. It’s an enchanting exploration of aging, art, philosophy, feminism, and motherhood. Readers take away from this narrative that life is a black hole and everyone is in freefall, though most people don’t recognize it. Or else they deny it. That’s the real divine comedy, but the novel conveys this with a big dose of humour.

Who are some of your favorite authors and why?
Certain novels have had a profound effect on me at different stages of my life for various reasons. When I was working on my BA in English, I took a Modern American Novel class that did exactly what Lionel Trilling said such books should do: they read me as much as I read them. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and his Light in August. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And many more. Each book made me aware of elements of myself that were also manifested in the characters inhabiting the books.

Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude found me at a time when I needed a model for the magical realism approach that seems natural to me and inhabits much of my work. I LOVE that book and return to it often for inspiration.

In another mode, Roberto Bolano, a Chilean writer, has also inspired me. He diverges from the more familiar magical realist vein and creates his own genre. I’ve read most of his books now, and they create a world that seems like a parallel universe to ours. He also steps beyond the usual fiction boundaries, violating our expectations of how a novel should unfold or end. I’m always entranced by his work. 

And I haven’t mentioned W.G. Sebald yet, another writer who died far too young. He’s another writer who invented a new genre, a hybrid novel form. Again, I’ve read all of his work, and I’m stunned by it.

I’m sorry that all of these authors are men when there are so many female authors I love as well, including the Irish writer Anne Enright. I’ll read anything she writes because of her sharp wit and illuminations of contemporary life. And, of course, Alice Munro is just the best.

Any advice you’d like to give for aspiring writers over 40?
Writing is a life-long commitment, so my advice applies to writers of all ages. Don’t take writing lightly as it requires tremendous discipline in order to succeed at being published. But while publishing is most writers’ ultimate goal, you also must write because it’s an essential part of your being. You have to do it! Writing well also requires a life-long apprenticeship. Read everything you can by writers you admire and also by the ones you don’t respect. Sometimes the latter can be your best teachers as they will show you what not to do. Finally, learn from everyone and everything. Be attentive not only to your inner world but also to your surroundings. Explore the world in as many ways as you can so your imagination has plenty of material to work with.

Find more of her books here!

✪Lily Iona MacKenzie, author of Curva Peligrosa, Fling!Freefall: A Divine Comedyand All This

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