Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
Lily Iona MacKenzie. It’s too difficult to compute the age that I feel versus my chronological age, so I’ll demur.
Fiona: Where are you from?
I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and raised in Calgary. I lived there until I was 23, when I applied for a job at Bechtel Corporation’s San Francisco main office and was accepted.
Fiona: A little about yourself (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
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 Canadian by birth, 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. 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 160 American and Canadian venues. My novel Fling! was published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, was released on 9/21/17. A third novel, Freefall: A Divine Comedy was published on 1/1/19. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011. I also taught rhetoric at the University of San Francisco and was vice-president of USF’s part-time faculty union for over 30 years. Currently, I’m teaching creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning. When I’m not writing, I paint and travel widely with my husband. also blog at https://lilyionamackenzie.com
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I don’t think I had any choice. Writing is as necessary to me as eating, and if I don’t write each day, I become irritable and unpleasant to live with. Ask my husband!
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 this time, I also started exploring the craft of writing, entering an undergraduate creative writing program.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I entered San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing Program in 1976.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your three novels?
My first published novel Fling! began because I was curious about my mother’s mother, someone I had never met. Early in the 20th C, my grandfather, a former Scottish schoolmaster in Scotland’s highlands, immigrated to Calgary, Canada, hoping to find a better life there for himself and his family. Meanwhile, WWI broke out, and his wife and five kids couldn’t join him for seven years. When they did, my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the brutal winters or to her husband. After being there a year, she moved out, refusing to put up with my grandpa’s verbal and physical abuse, and became a housekeeper for a wealthy family. The story is that her boss became her lover and took her to Mexico with him. She never returned and died there. I wanted to try and recreate what life might have been like for her once she left Canada. That then brought in a number of other characters that inhabit the novel.
While some aspects of Fling! have seeds in my history of growing up in Canada and in family material, those origins shifted from autobiographical into art when I started writing. None of the characters are specifically modelled on people I know, but they may all be, at least partially, based on characteristics of people I have known in Canada and elsewhere. Or they may be totally invented.
CurvaPeligosa, my second published novel, had a very different genesis. The main character is on a quest is for the elixir of life. An outsider, In the process she’s slowly integrated into reality and society. This work didn’t start as my other novels have with characters whose seeds come from my actual life. Instead, it began as an image. I had read in the newspaper about a tornado hitting a small town outside of Calgary, where I grew up, and for some reason, it gripped my imagination. Out of that came a character who has no relationship to anyone I know, living or dead. She’s a little like the goddess Athena being born full blown from her father Zeus’s head. Her name is CurvaPeligrosa, and she was born in Mexico. Over six feet tall, a sharpshooter, possessed of magical powers, adventurous, amorous, sexual, and fecund, she ends up in a fictional Canadian town called Weed and creates a tropical habitat there.
Her larger-than-life presence more or less overturns the town of Weed, whose inhabitants have never seen anything like her. She’s a curiosity and a marvel, a source of light and heat, a magnet. In fact, she’s the physical embodiment of the tornado that hits Weed two years after her arrival, a storm that turns the place upside down and unearths a trove of bones of those who had lived on the land before the Weedites: Native Americans and prehistoric animals.
Freefall: A Divine Comedy is my most recently published novel. The seeds for Freefall came from a two-day visit I had back in 1998 with two of the three friends I’d travelled from Calgary to Toronto with in my late teens. I wondered what would happen if these four women had a reunion. Would the old bonds still be there and what would they discover about themselves and each other from spending time together? Freefall is a result of trying to answer those questions, but, of course, much more entered the narrative as I watched the story unfold. While the surface narrative is about these four females, the sub-narrative focuses on art’s role in our lives (the main character, Tillie Bloom, is an installation artist), female power, death, religion, and sex. Freefall zeroes in on a fundamental truth: We’re all in freefall, and that’s the real divine comedy. No matter how old we are, we’re still trying to “find ourselves” and discover what we want out of life.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
Magical realism pulses at the heart 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 thought. 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. So, I believe it captures a fuller view of what’s going on in our lives than realism 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.
Fiona: To craft your works, do you have to travel? Before or during the process?
I have visited Puerto Vallarta three times. I also went to San Miguel years ago, as well as Guadalahara and Guanauato. I drew on those visits partly, but I hadn’t visited Mexico City until after I’d completed Fling!. Surprisingly, the info I collected from various websites and books allowed me to imagine pretty accurately these locations. When I actually did visit Mexico City in 2008, it didn’t cause me to change much in Fling!
Since CurvaPeligrosa has Mexican roots and I’m from Canada, where the main character ends up, I didn’t need to make any additional trips while writing that novel.
As for Freefall: A Divine Comedy, I had already travelled to both Whistler, B.C., and Venice, Italy, so I already had the settings in mind when working on that novel.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Pen-L Publishing released both Fling! and Freefall.In each case, I was able to give my input. I also found images that in the case of Freefall were incorporated into the final design. Kelsey Rice is Pen-L’s cover artist and she’s done a fine job with both covers. I’m not sure what process she went through in coming up with Fling!’scover, but she captured the overall feeling of the book. The contents are somewhat offbeat and quirky. The cover mirrors those qualities. I also love the way Rice inserted text that hugs the partial sphere: “A madcap journey of an aging mother her adult daughter from cold Protestant Canada into the hallucinatory heart of Mexico’s magic.” I also think the colors capture the feeling I wanted to convey about Mexico, including the mysterious, almost phantasmagoricquality of the country. The black surrounding the sphere has minute flashes of light that suggest the heavens and how we all emerge out of darkness, just as these characters do.
Regal House Publishing released CurvaPeligrosa, and the publisher found the incredible image that captures the novel’s main character Curva.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novels that you want readers to grasp?
I love to invent, and I’m enamoured 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 they all discover in Mexico. It’s what 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.
CurvaPeligrosaexplores 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 two horses. 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.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
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.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
My own determination and persistence were the deciding factors, but my husband also has been extremely supportive of my work. A 19th and 20th Century American Lit scholar, he’s my first and best reader. When I would get discourage about published a book-length work, he would say, “All you need is to publish one book, and the floodgates will open.” And that’s what has happened!
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
All of my novels are extremely cinematic, and I would love to see them on the screen. As far as who I would like to play the lead characters, a good director would have a better sense than I do of who to suggest!
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
Writing is a life-long commitment. Don’t take it lightly as it requires tremendous discipline in order to succeed if by success you mean getting 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.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Over the years, I’ve written a total of four novels. In 2020, Pen-L will publish a follow up to Freefall that features Tillie Bloom, the main character, as a girl. It’s entitledTillie: Portraits of a Canadian Girl in Training and is a coming of age novel.
Prolific Press will release my poetry chapbook later this year entitled No More Kings.
I’m also working on a collection of interlocking stories called The Sinner’s Club. Each character is part of the same church setting and has an intriguing story to tell. The various sections offer a kaleidoscopic view of this religious community and its characters’ foibles.
When I have time, I plan to find a publisher for my short story collection The Line of Vision.
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
Don’t I wish I had more time for dabbling in watercolors and acrylics! Playing with color gives me intense pleasure. I’m not trying to be a visual artist, so that frees me to just enjoy the process and not get hung up on the end product. Our home is filled with my creations. Unfortunately, the business of selling books has stolen my painting and collage time, but I will get back to it. My art table is set up in the study I share with my husband and is ready any time I am.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I’m a great tennis fan, and that’s the most consistent thing I watch on TV other than the news. During baseball season, I also follow our San Francisco Giants if they’re playing well (I’m a fair-weather fan!). The Rachel Maddow show is my companion while I’m cooking dinner. I like the way she takes her viewers deeper inside the surface news of the day.
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
Eat! Read. Listen to audio books. Paint. Go on an archaeological dig. Watch children play in sand boxes.
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
My blog posts are designed for readers and writers, and I publish a new one every Monday. I love visitors, so please join me at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.
Here are other sites where I can be reached: