For those who don’t know, you’ve published two novels and ten picture books, as well as an observational memoir, Birds Art Life; would you mind talking a little about your creative journey?Maclear
It has been a very meandering journey motored by curiosity, digression, and probably an inborn restlessness and inability to be content for too long. I started out writing about art—both as a student of art history and as an art critic in Canada. I then ventured into magazine editing and worked in a maverick design studio (designers of Zone Books etc) which put me in touch with a world of creative fence jumpers and renegade interdisciplinarians—i.e. my people. In my late twenties, I had my first child and paid maternal leave allowed me to throw myself into the monastic life of novel writing. Parenting also led me to write my first picture book which in hindsight was maybe inevitable. I feel wonderfully fitted to the form and love the relay between words and pictures. My recent memoir is a compost of all my inclinations, interests, influences to date. It is equal parts nature writing, art essay and life meditation. The themes that have underscored so much of my writing are all in it: creativity, caretaking, roaming, vulnerability.
Recently at the Brisbane Writers Fest you commented that “The book you are writing will curate your life until it’s finished,” which is a wonderful way of exploring a writer’s devotion to the text. In what ways has this manifested for you?Maclear
This probably seems pretty obvious to other artists but it took me a while to really understand that the subject and form you choose will shape and structure your days for the duration of the project and even long after it’s done. For example, writing an historical novel will cultivate your life in particular ways. It will cause you to befriend research stacks and musty archives, possibly make you feel misaligned with the present moment, likely make you terrible or single-minded at dinner parties. In my case, writing novels has always made me feel that I need to work in a soundproof silo, away from the flow of the world. I don’t think its demands of seclusion and interiority are great for people (like me) who have depressive or ruminative tendencies. Or, put another way, I’m not sure I like the person I become or the life that novel writing seems to require of me. I think that’s why I like collaborating on things like picture books. So I can leave the echo chamber of my mind.
It’s also why I chose to write a book about birds (ensuring I left my house and took long walks), a book that was built on a new friendship (a kind of togetherness that made my writing days more social). As a side note, my professorial friends tell me the word curation comes from the Latin root curationem, nominative curatio, meaning “a taking care, attention, management.” In this sense, curation is a form of cure. I suppose the ideal project would have a curative effect on your life or be entrusted, like a parish priest, with the cure of uneasy reader souls.
You previously mentioned that you were “tired of narrative” and likened this to the concept of ma. How has this idea been reflected in your recent creative work? Do you think a younger audience is more open to these things?Maclear
This is an ongoing question for me. I love story but I am also tired of certain forms of narrative, namely those stories rooted in mimetic realism or tied to the idea of an individual achieving hero. I recently read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement which got me thinking about how we introduce environmental subjects in fiction and narrative non-fiction. Conventionally, nature tends to serve as backdrop or get instrumentalized for human dramatic purposes. Literary narrative seems to have difficulty seeing nature as intrinsically worthy of attention. I see greater respect and possibilities for non-human life in film. For example, I love the way Terrence Malick does grass. I love how Hayao Miyazaki does rain. I love the plotless moments when ground overtakes figure and, zooming out, we’re suddenly allowed to see human drama in its proper (minuscule) proportions. This scaling up of the overlooked is a great reminder that we are, in fact, teeny tiny in the cosmic scheme of things, just one part and particle of something big and interdependent. (If only we could remember this for one second, maybe our actions would be less wildly catastrophic.)
Anyway, Miyazaki has this concept of “ma” which comes from the Japanese idea of stillness or ‘the gap.’ He allows for moments in his films when things aren’t propelled by forward momentum and introduces details that aren’t directly ‘useful’ to the story. You see similar moments in the best picture books. I recently met Shaun Tan in Melbourne and he said he’s very conscious of “ma” in his work and I really think that’s why I love his books so much. I also think kids get it. I don’t think kids need to be spoonfed action all the time in order to derive pleasure or meaning from a text. I try to work these non-narrative moments into my work whenever I can. I am aided by the intuition and talent of the illustrators I work with.
You discuss community and belonging in Birds Art Life; how important is belonging to a greater community, be it creative or otherwise?Maclear
Being mongrel and immigrant, I have been mostly wary of community forged along self-same ethnic lines. Of course I understand the beauty and necessity of strategic nationalism in an oppressive and assimilative world. But my ideal community is amoebic and pliable, vigilant of exclusions and castoffs, hospitable towards ‘others’. As for my creative communities—they span geography and genre. I love the filmmakers, visual artists, scholars, hardcore activists in my life. We cross-pollinate.
While writing Birds Art Life, I had moments of communal feeling that really stunned me. I remember standing on a grassy knoll in the west end of Toronto watching a migration of whimbrels with a shambly crew of birders and citizen scientists and feeling almost weepy. It was congregational and fleeting and a lot of us were wearing bad clothes and what bound us in that moment was this sense of awe. The whimbrels had followed the same migratory route since the ice age and we were witness to something ancient. But to answer your question, I think it’s important—particularly at this atomizing, neoliberal, risingly-fascist juncture of history—to grow a sense of social solidarity wherever possible. I’m a loner at heart but I know I benefit when I let go of the fantasy of independence. It’s basic. We need to have each others’ backs.
What does a typical day (if there is such a thing) look like for you?Maclear
Lately my days are atypically busy with events but I can tell you what my ideal working day looks like: swim, write, read, walk, write, read, sleep. Friends, family and food are the connective tissue. They hold me and my days together.
What are you working on at the moment?Maclear
I am really trying to complete a dissertation that takes up some of the narrative challenges posed by climate change. Part of it looks at the role children have played in stories (books, films) of environmental collapse. (I start with Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant.) I am also working on several picture books and my first graphic novel. I always have a few things incubating. Eventually one of these ideas declares itself and I get rolling. I am looking for something that will curate my life beautifully and maybe even joyfully for a while.
Finally, what are you reading at the moment? Who would you recommend?Maclear
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles, Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas (I left it on a plane last week but the first part was great), Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, and Mushrooms at the End of the World by Anna Tsing.
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