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Linden MacIntyre: mining fact for fiction

Linden MacIntyre’s just-published second novel centres on sex scandals in the Roman Catholic church.

Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

Rather than let the world glimpse the megalomania of their secret dreams, authors will often modestly proclaim that their greatest ambition is simply "telling stories." But Linden MacIntyre really means it.

"Stories were everything where I grew up," the veteran journalist-turned-novelist says. "Next to the priest, the person with the greatest status in the community was the person who could hold your attention with a good yarn."

The son of "a hard-rock miner who never went to school a day in his life," living an isolated existence in Cape Breton half a century ago, MacIntyre learned the art as a boy – eavesdropping on conversations in the kitchen beneath his bedroom through a hole in the floor that let the heat up.

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What I hope is that I don't come off as sympathetic with the bishop, because his was a failure of leadership.

"I'd sneak over by the hole and just listen to these people tell their stories," he says. "You'd see the rapt attention they got. So from very early I had this admiration for the telling of stories and the craft of telling a story."

Since then, MacIntyre has told thousands of stories. A mainstay of CBC television, beginning with The Journal in 1982 and continuing today with the fifth estate, he applied the lessons learned through a hole in the floor to public-affairs programming. Now, as a novelist, MacIntyre has returned to the same Cape Breton kitchens that served as the yarn-spinning academies of his youth.

There is little that is folkloric about the results, however. First in The Long Stretch and most recently in The Bishop's Man , a novel published last month that centres on sex scandals in the Roman Catholic church, MacIntyre deals with big issues in contemporary settings. The modern world has fully arrived in his Cape Breton, and this roving reporter has returned to bear witness to the impact.

But readers expecting a searing journalistic indictment of a corrupt institution will be surprised by The Bishop's Man . Nor will they encounter "a salacious tale of men diddling boys," the author is quick to point out. "The dirty details don't matter," he insists. Journalists and commissions have covered that terrain more than well enough. As a novelist, MacIntyre is more interested in the internal lives of the characters who lived through the scandals, and the choices they made.

Nobody wears horns in this terrain. The novel's one true villain – a bishop who abets abuse by protecting miscreants and procuring their victims – is a richly human character. Its hero is the highly fallible priest who does his bidding. Both are "motivated by what they thought were the best interests of everybody," according to MacIntyre. Determined to protect the church at all costs, they wreak havoc in the communities they pretend to serve.

"I think that's a greater scandal than whatever happened in darkened rectories," MacIntyre says. When it comes to sexual morality, he adds, Catholic priests are more trustworthy than "most old hack reporters." He is surprisingly forgiving of the perpetrators. "What I hope," he says, "is that I don't come off as sympathetic with the bishop, because his was a failure of leadership."

That scandal still continues, according to the author. The same officials who hoped to suppress the sex abuse "now feel satisfied that they've put it behind them," he says. "They think it's over. Well, it's not over."

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Indefensible dogma insisting on celibacy and banning women priests are two "fundamental problems" the modern church refuses to address, MacIntyre says.

"Would they have been able to weed out a lot of bad guys if they also were taking in good women?" he asks. "These were issues they don't want to talk about. They closed the book on this whole thing, but there are all these questions still outstanding, and we're moving further away from an inclination to answer them."

Journalism is little help in that regard, according to MacIntyre, a past master who views contemporary practice with lofty disdain. "Journalism is becoming more cautious and conservative, the space available is becoming limited and the perception of management is that public interest in issues is shallower than it used to be," he says. His late-blooming career as a novelist grew from a desire to dig deeper than the news wants to go.

"I do believe that the very best of fiction is based on fact," he says, "and an awful lot of the factual situations I've been involved with just scream out for creative elaboration."

MacIntyre the journalist has an abundance of factual situations to draw upon for his fiction, including the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in 1982, which he covered for the CBC. That sort of grisly political violence, this time from Latin America, figures strongly in The Bishop's Man . At least it seems that way: The one saintly priest he does permit in the narrative appears to die a martyr, assassinated by a right-wing death squad in San Salvador. Or he could have been a hapless victim of mistaken identity.

"I decided to leave it ambiguous," MacIntyre says. "It could have been that, it could have been both." No omniscient narrator – or reporter or church official – sorts truth from falsehood in this world. "I decided life is confusing."

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Now 66, married since 2000 to fellow CBC journalist Carol Off, MacIntyre returned to his native Cape Breton 20 years ago as a summer resident – bought an old farmhouse, then an old lobster boat, then another, all the while resisting neighbours who urged him to expose the treachery of the fisheries department on national television. "Now I'm just a fellow who comes home in the summertime and has a boat on the shore and usually has a problem they've got to help me fix."

Being home among innumerable country cousins is balm for the old warrior's soul. "The social fabric is getting kind of tattered in most places and I'm pleased to be part of one that's intact," he says. "It just gives me a sense that there is a place in the world where there is stability. And the stability is attributable to the fact that people go out of their way to be decent to each other, to avoid insult and to stick together. I treasure that."

Not much news happens north of Canso, N.S., and MacIntyre is fine with that. "But it doesn't mean I'm not going to be a storyteller," he adds. "As long as I've got a mouth, it's probably going to be employed at telling stories of some kind."

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