When Alistair MacLeod showed up at a 1974 gathering of writers in New York City, people looked at his nametag and exclaimed, "Alistair MacLeod! I thought that you died!" "No," he responded, "I just went back to Canada."
MacLeod, now 72, tells this anecdote in Reading Alistair MacLeod, a documentary made by the National Film Board of Canada that will have four screenings during the Burlington Book Festival in advance of his headlining appearance on Saturday evening. Beautifully shot on location at the author's summer home on Cape Breton Island, it's a revealing introduction to a man who, despite international renown, still has little name recognition in this country.
MacLeod's reputation, much like James Joyce's, rests on a handful of unsurpassed short stories and a single masterpiece. His Ulysses is a family saga set on Cape Breton called No Great Mischief, a 13-year effort published in 1999. As the film makes clear, MacLeod - true to his Scottish roots - considers storytelling the highest form of art. He committed each of his sentences to paper only after long deliberation, in a windowless shack perched on the wild island coastline.
The film gains much of its charm from MacLeod himself, a white-haired, ruddy-cheeked grandfather type who downplays his fame by jokingly referring to himself in the third person. "Here is Alistair MacLeod's office," he tells the almost silent documentary crew on entering a book-lined room at the University of Windsor, where he taught literature and creative writing for over 30 years.
The film's prize moments come when, as its title promises, other prominent writers read from their favorite Alistair MacLeod works. Found in his Keene, New York, cabin, Russell Banks looks up from a sentence and exclaims, "The cadences!" Margaret Atwood declares sagely, "That kind of writing is harder to do than you think, without sounding like a Hemingway clone." In one delightful scene, Colm Toibin is filmed at his Dublin apartment getting his first glimpse of the American edition of his novel The Master before describing how he learned about the elusive MacLeod.
Though clearly a writer's writer, MacLeod writes with a listening audience in mind. Watch the film to get a sense of this top Canadian author - then come and be spellbound by his words.