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Robert McGill on his new novel, Once We Had a Country

by Barrett Hooper — Friday, Sep 13, 2013

Robert McGill on his new novel, Once We Had a Country

Photo by Lisa Sakulensky.

Robert McGill loves a good mystery. His first novel, appropriately titled The Mysteries, told the Rashomonesque tale of small-town murder and was named one of 2004’s top five Canadian fiction books by Quill & Quire. The professor of creative writing and Canadian literature’s follow-up, Once We Had a Country, is set in 1972 and tells the story of a young school teacher who flees the United States for Canada with her draft-dodging boyfriend. Of course, there’s also a mystery to be solved involving the teacher’s missing father.

What’s your new novel about?

It’s about a young woman named Maggie, who moves from Boston to Canada in 1972 to settle with her boyfriend on a cherry farm near Niagara Falls with the idea of starting a commune there. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that things don’t go entirely well. Meanwhile, Maggie’s father has gone off to Laos, which is in the middle of a war, to work as a missionary. Things don’t go so well for him, either. But both Maggie and her father are trying to remake their lives, and both of them want to do it by trying to change the world, even if they have very different ways of going about it. I’m fascinated by people who have that kind of impulse to throw in their lives and surrender themselves to some greater good.

What was the inspiration for the book?

My parents came of age during the Vietnam War, and it always seemed to me like an incredible time to have been a young person: the protests, Woodstock, the race to the moon. But my parents never told me any stories that seemed to connect them to the big historical events of the era. I used to think that they’d missed everything because they were Canadian. Except it was also an incredible time in Canadian history, with things like Trudeaumania, Expo ’67 and the Summit Series. And it was a time when up to 100,000 U.S. draft-dodgers moved to Canada. So I wanted to imagine what it was like for some of those people—Americans who came to Canada to escape the war, to escape history, and yet who were very much bound up with history.

What is your fascination with draft-dodgers?

Vietnam War draft-dodgers still play a key part in the U.S. understanding of Canada and in Canadians’ understanding of their own country. When Canada gets mentioned on American shows like The Simpsons, often jokes about draft-dodgers still get made. In Canada, people still tend to point to the draft-dodgers when they describe Canada as a peaceful nation or as a sanctuary for refugees.

But almost all of the cultural references are to the men who came up. There’s very little recognition of the women who came along with them. And, in fact, some very prominent women came—women like Jane Jacobs, Diane Francis and Joyce Carol Oates. It seems to me remarkable that a person would uproot her whole life and risk being called a traitor by leaving the United States to live in exile with a loved one like that. So I wrote about what it must have been like for such a person to do that.

Your novel is also a mystery. Can you tell us a little about it (without giving too much away, of course)?

The big mystery in the novel—there are some other, smaller ones, too—is about what happens to Maggie’s father in Laos. He gets mixed up with the wrong people and disappears, and because he’s halfway around the world in a war-torn country, Maggie gets only bits and pieces of news about him. I was drawn to writing about Laos partly because North Americans went unaware of the whole war there for many years. The U.S. conducted an enormous bombing campaign in Laos virtually in secret because there was no media coverage. So in the novel, Maggie’s father vanishes into the silence surrounding Laos—at least for most of the novel. I probably shouldn’t say how it turns out.

How is your area of research reflected in your writing (and vice versa)?

Right now, I’m writing an academic book about Canadian literature during the Vietnam War. It emerged pretty directly from research I did for the novel.

The war era was an incredible time for Canadian writers. Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Alice Munro, and several others whom we now think of as canonical made their names then. In fact, a few years ago, Literary Review of Canada named the 100 most important Canadian books of all time and a quarter of them were published between 1964 and 1975. That’s staggering. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those years were also the years of the war. If you look back, you can see many authors engaging with the war directly or indirectly in their work. In the book I’m working on now, I’m thinking about how the war affected the conceptions of contemporary Canada that those writers helped to popularize.

If your book was turned into a movie, who would you cast as the characters?

Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) would make a great Maggie. I loved her in the HBO show In Treatment.

What is your favourite book and why?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day remains one of my favourites. The voice and temperament of the narrator are just so perfectly rendered. It feels like Ishiguro must have sat down with an actual English butler from the early 20th century and recorded the man talking for days and days.