Stories are the easy part: Wine, women, and Andrea MacPherson’s new novel

Art, Off The Vine

I knew this wouldn’t be a regular author interview. It couldn’t be. So when I sat down with Andrea MacPherson, a longtime mentor to many of us here at Raspberry, and frequent first reader of most of my own creative fiction, I went for the casual approach. Just a chill conversation between two passionate people about a cool thing one of them did.

There was wine.

MacPherson’s new novel What We Once Believed is a story set in a precarious moment in time. Women are restless with their prescribed roles and are starting to consider different options. They are exploring what it means to choose, and dealing with the consequences. There are protests and growing movements across North America and the word feminism is being tossed around an awful lot.

It’s set in the 1970s.

“I set it during the ‘70s because of all the changes in terms of women in the workplace, birth control, the second wave of feminism, all that stuff — then looking at [how], if I plunked it and positioned it right now, it would be the exact same.” MacPherson explains. “Even though we think things are so much different — and they’re better — ultimately there’s still those very defined parameters for what you’re supposed to do as a woman, as a mother.”

We mull over this idea for a beat.

“I think that’s what surprised me by the end … I thought there’d be bigger differences between 40 years ago and now. And there weren’t any. Sadly it’s the same thing.”

We move on quickly, neither one of us wanting to dwell on the current socio-political landscape for women and feminism. It’s a conversation for a different time.

And more wine.

On characters: we don’t have to love them

The novel centres around an 11-year-old girl named Maybe, whose mother abandons her with her grandmother in a small town off the coast of Vancouver Island. Her mother Camille returns nine years later and catapults Maybe into a muddy world of complex adult relationships and unmet expectations.

“Is Camille supposed to be unlikeable?” I ask.

“She is! See, this is interesting because I’ve had multiple conversations with my publisher and editor about her,” MacPherson chuckles. “They wanted her to be more likeable. And I said, that’s not the point. I don’t want her to be the mom who comes back and has an epiphany and is suddenly Suzie Homemaker and wants to do everything she missed out on. I wanted her to be consistent to what her character was. She left … I didn’t want her to be apologetic about it or to be wishy washy in terms of that.”

This likeability of characters hits a nerve that we both grumble over.

“One of the conversations that drives me crazy in literature is that every female character has to be likeable in order for it to be worthwhile,” she continues. “And I vehemently oppose that. I want to see flawed characters and characters I don’t like, yet they still have value and they still have interest in terms of story and in terms of what they bring to a narrative.”

I cheer. We high-five over the value of flawed characters.

The same goes for men in the novel. For Maybe’s neighbour Robin, the men in her life breed conflict. We meet the husband — a stereotypical product of the times and the lover — the dangerous draw of a life unlived. MacPherson was conscious while writing to avoid including male perspectives — it wasn’t about them. And it pays off when choices are made, and those choices are strictly Robin’s to make, consequences and all.

“Maybe wondered if a story ever really belonged to one person”

MacPherson’s novel is, at its core, a story about stories.

Throughout the novel we get Maybe’s perspective. We are with her as her 11-year-old innocence gives way to something much more complex. But we also get the perspective of all the women in Maybe’s life. While Camille’s attitude suggests each person’s story is their own, Maybe stops to wonder if a woman’s story is only as good as the perspectives that shape it.

At first it was told entirely from Maybe’s perspective, but MacPherson quickly realized there were other stories that needed telling.

“It started out that the first secondary story that appeared was Robin’s, only because I needed some place for Maybe to go that wasn’t her house. So she went to Robin’s house and then [Robin] kind of hijacked the story and said, ‘I have something to say over here.’”

From there, we hear from the new neighbour who chose not to be a mother, who is running from a past life; we hear from Camille, the mother who abandoned motherhood; we spend time with the grandmother who picks up the slack, and the widower who never got to be a mother.

These stories unfold anchored by the setting, where old houses and old social values crash against new renovations and new world views — where the relentless ocean crashes against the quiet suburban island neighbourhood.

“So then each of their stories were individually important but also worked together as a chorus between the people living on the street.”

The Chorus served as the working title throughout the process until it was deemed too common a title. It was inspired by Catherine Barnett’s poem “Chorus” that appears as an epigraph in the final publication.

Why this book? Why now?

MacPherson takes a sip of wine. I check my recording and we opt to share a plate of artichoke dip. She tries to read my notes upside down.

“It’s nothing scary,” I tell her, pointing to her name scrawled across the top of the page. Below it, barely legible, I had reminded myself to ask where the novel came from, and about the process of writing it. Questions about craft and what putting a book together really looks like; questions that come from a place of study and mentorship, not from a place of reportage.

So I ask, why this book.

“It just jumped up and said, this is what you’re writing now, and I said okay. It was probably the fastest book I’ve written.”

She tells me about a exchange with her daughter where the answer to an unrelated question sparked a character.

“I had a conversation with Nora … and I said something and she answered me with ‘Maybe’ and I heard the word ‘maybe’ and I had this idea suddenly of a little girl who was named Maybe and what would happen if you named your child Maybe. It’s the uncertainty behind it and what that would allude to. It started off I was just taking notes and scribbling whatever, and it turned into a book.”

Before getting into Maybe’s story, the first page understandably dedicates the book to Nora. Later in the novel we learn that Camille dedicates her own book to Maybe. I take a moment to consider how to bring up the parallel without suggesting MacPherson and her unlikable character have anything in common.

“Obviously you’re not Camille … but.” A great start.

We both laugh. She knew this wouldn’t be a regular interview either. We dip a couple chips into the appetizer before she tells me about writing the book for Nora.

“I wrote it, ultimately, [so] someday when she reads it to see that she has choices. She doesn’t have to do just one thing, there’s not just one avenue she has to go down. I’m really interested personally in the choices women make and how they’re judged or condemned. So I want her to be really aware that she can do what she wants and there’s consequences, but that you don’t have to follow a prescribed road.”