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Linden MacIntyre: ‘I was advised by a university professor that my creativity was corrupted by sentimentality’

Linden MacIntyre

Joe Passaretti/Joe Passaretti

Linden MacIntyre is an award-winning author and broadcast journalist, having spent almost a quarter-century as co-host of CBC-TV's The Fifth Estate. His books include the memoir Causeway: A Passage from Innocence, as well as the novels The Long Stretch, Why Men Lie, Punishment and The Bishop's Man, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. His latest novel, The Only Café, was recently published by Random House Canada.

Why did you write your new book?

Years ago I was advised by a university professor that my creativity was corrupted by sentimentality and that I might be more suited to journalism where writing is disciplined by objectivity and moderated by editorial oversight. I accepted his advice but eventually concluded that a story sometimes requires analysis of apparent fact and that analysis requires a degree of creativity. This was especially true in the coverage of conflict. Understanding conflict, especially in war, requires an exploration of character, motivation, the unseen circumstances. I have long wanted to report analytically on the Lebanese civil war, which I covered for the CBC, through a creative and analytical work of fiction. Which is what I have tried to achieve in writing The Only Café.

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Which fictional character do you wish you had created?

Sheilagh Fielding in Wayne Johnston's classic, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Fielding, the character, because of her integrity and flaws, becomes a person we have known and joins all the other exemplary people in one's memory. She is unforgettable for who she is or was, and is as real as anybody one has known.

What scares you as a writer?

Leaving a story unfinished on the page when it has been completed in the imagination. At a certain point in the writing process I find that the plot achieves an imaginative critical mass and that the completion of the story is a matter of time and the unanticipated moments of inspiration that make the writing burden bearable. When asked if I enjoy writing, I respond: I enjoy having written. I fear the writing project that will become an effort wasted, an emotional reward denied.

What's the best romance in literature?

The best romance in literature is one that has never, to the best of my knowledge, been fully explored – the love affair between Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens. Even Peter Ackroyd's exhaustive Dickens biography, while factually complete, refrains from exploring the emotional depths of what was probably the author's most intense relationship.

What's your favourite bookstore in the world?

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I admire Circus Books and Music, a second-hand bookstore on the Danforth [in Toronto] and likewise Book City, also on the Danforth. But my favourite bookstore is Ben McNally's on Bay Street. Ben and his family don't just sell books, they advocate for books and publishers and authors and work hard in the community to generate public interest in and demand for books. McNally's is more than a bookstore. It has become a literary institution.

What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?

I think the beginning of a book, certainly for beginning authors and the non-famous, is crucial. A book by an iconic author will be read because of the reasonable expectation that it will be worth the time and the anticipation. Also, an established reputation will usually survive the disappointments of a loyal readership. But for most of us the key to establishing engagement is, very early on, to create the promise that will lead to anticipation and commitment. Without that motivation the brilliant ending doesn't matter because nobody will ever get that far. That said, having created anticipation and lured a reader/buyer into a commitment, the failure of an ending will negate the potential of the next beginning – no matter how clever and seductive. The reader will be wary and instruct the buyer to beware.

Video: Margaret Atwood and other Giller Prize winners' advice for literary success (Globe and Mail Update)
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