“Feeling just a little down? Feeling just a little blue?
Try lunch with Edmonton writer Margaret Macpherson, the deliriously happy author of Perilous Departures, a collection of short stories that marks her debut as a writer of fiction. She’s so happy her book is out, she’s a tonic for whatever ails you.
“But please don’t call the stories ‘sunny’,” the decidedly sunny Macpherson says over a lunch interview. “They’re not sunny.”
She prefers to call them quietly optimistic, most of them anyway, and she’s right. They tell stories of survival, understanding and compassion. They’re accessible but multi-layered, sometimes subtly funny, and always honest and true.
Many of the stories hinge on those moments of realization that many of us have which can suddenly change the whole course of a life.
“Everything in life is a perilous departure,” says Macpherson, “because every life is a journey, even if you stay at home.”
She’s published non-fiction before, most notably a recent and well-received biography entitled Nellie McClung: A Voice for the Voiceless. But chatting with Macpherson gives you the distinct sense that Perilous Departures is the book that counts the most. Other works include Outlaws of the Canadian West, Outlaws and Laymen of the West and Silk, Spices, and Glory: In Search of the Northwest Passage.
“Of course, the non-fiction is very important to me and always will be because it taught me the craft and discipline of writing. But this . . . this is different.”
She’s been a reporter for CBC, worked on a number of newspapers and recalls her first assignment as a 22-year old campus freelancer for the Fredericton Daily Gleaner when she attended the University of New Brunswick.
“My first assignment was interviewing Mavis Gallant. Good lord, Mavis Gallant. The great short story writer from Paris. And she read a story that I didn’t quite understand. I was such a kid.”
The 15 stories in the book are definitely not autobiographical, Macpherson says, although her past does provide much of the background for them.
She’s lived on the Prairies, both coasts and the Caribbean and was brought up in Yellowknife, where her father, N.J. Macpherson was a highly respected and fondly remembered school principal and administrator. There are, not surprisingly then, stories that take on the various hues of the places she’s been and lived.
“I guess everything a writer writes is autobiographical in a way, but I wouldn’t say that everything in here is taken from my past.”
Still, she says, she feels that she has left herself wide open.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve just abandoned 15 kittens on a freeway and they’re going to be hit by a semi in the next minute or so.
“Like any writer, though, I think I have created characters that are made up a little bit of me, a little bit of people I’ve met and a little bit from the situations I’ve faced.”
A frequent contributor to The Journal’s books pages, Macpherson says it’s important that the stories be accessible and meaningful to readers. They can then take from them whatever they want.
“I hope they can be read on a number of levels. I think they have a spiritual component, an intellectual component and a strong narrative component too.”
With the publication of Perilous Departures, Macpherson says she feels as if her career is just beginning.
“I’m having the time of my life with this book,” she admits. She even wrote a song that was sung at her recent book launch, and received a standing ovation after her reading. The post-launch party saw the sinking of a case of champagne by family and friends.
“I really do love the book and what it says, and I think it’s worthwhile. The photographer said he’d like to read the book, and I offered him a free copy.
“I gotta stop doing that.”