Kids Actually Read: An Interview with Jake MacDonald


Jake MacDonaldJake MacDonald is a Winnipeg writer probably best-known for his successful career as a print journalist in publications such as the Walrus, the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Cottage Life, and Canadian Explorer. It’s perhaps easy to forget that MacDonald, over his twenty-five year writing career, has written some very stylish fiction, as in this description of a young teen from a short story in The Bridge Out of Town (Oberon, 1986):

He was thirteen years old, with his mother’s fair hair and his father’s reticence. Unlike either of them he tended to put on weight easily, on the arms and the legs, like a miniature wrestler, and from the way he wore his baseball cap it was apparent that he took himself quite seriously.

Several of MacDonald’s eight books have been recognized with awards, including the memoir Houseboat Chronicles, which won three awards across the country, notably the Writers Trust of Canada prize for best non-fiction book in 2002. MacDonald’s YA novel, Juliana and the Medicine Fish, won the 2010 On the Same Page prize where all Manitobans are encouraged to read the same book. His most recent book is Grizzlyville: Adventures in Bear Country (2009).

TWR: Jake, we have made the bold claim in this issue that Winnipeg is the YA (Young Adult fiction) capital of Canada. It has also been asserted, elsewhere, that we produce more than our share of army generals and hockey goalies. Speaking to the first claim, can you think of any reason other than coincidence that this region is so rich with YA authors?

You could argue that most of our YA novelists are not writing breathless adolescent page-turners, but regular grown-up novels with young adult protagonists. This may be because they are regular grown-up novelists who’ve wandered over to the YA side of the tracks. Why? Perhaps because there’s such a strong audience there for a writer. Kids actually read. Schools buy books by the truckload. Junior high school teachers push local fiction and creative writing. Trying to get an adult novel read by more than 37 people is a mammoth task.

TWR: You are best known as an author of adult fiction and non-fiction. Yet, in some ways, your most successful book is Juliana and the Medicine Fish, a teen novel first released 14 years ago. Did you find it easier or harder to write in that form?

I don’t think of it as a teen novel. It’s just a novel in which the main character happens to be a thirteen-year-old girl. I’ve also written stories in which the main character thinks he’s a fish, and another one in which the hero is incarcerated in the dog pound. A story is a story.

TWR: Going farther back, say to the celebrated Catcher in the Rye, do you believe all YA books just happen to have a teen protagonist and are intended for everyone, or that most teen novels are written to their audience?

Writing for a certain market is usually counter productive to telling a good story. Huckleberry Finn was the novel that created American literature, and it was written for all ages.

TWR: Why do you think we have seen such an explosion of interest in vampire and wizard books? Is this good for young readers or is it squeezing out other types of characters and topics that deserve attention?

Vampires come and go. When I was in university Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the sexiest book around. The undead return to popularity every generation or two.  It’s like the stock market – you should only write about vampires when no one else is buying them.

TWR: Speaking of Huck Finn, there has been a lot of discussion regarding a U.S. publisher’s decision to sanitize The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by removing the word ‘nigger’ and replacing it with ‘slave.’ As an author, do you find this defensible? In the Canadian context, should ‘Indian’ be replaced by ‘Aboriginal’ in works of fiction?

There is nothing in pop culture as offensive and monkey-stupid as the lyrics in your typical gangster rap song, and no one is arguing that those songs should be sanitized. Freedom of expression includes the freedom to offend. It can’t be any other way.

TWR: Given the success of your first attempt, Juliana fans probably want to know if you are likely to write another YA novel. Is that on the horizon?

Yes, I would like to do that. The story of Juliana came one day and perched on my desk like a bird. It was a complete story from the outset, and I just wrote it down quickly before it flew away. Maybe it will happen again sometime. I keep the window open and the bread crumbs handy.


The Winnipeg Review

"The Winnipeg Review is nothing of the kind."--a disgruntled visitor to the site.