Photo: Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press
Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Novel “Fayne” is a Sweeping Tale About a Family Dynasty, Dark Secrets and Identity
In a Q&A, the bestselling Canadian author talks about her fascination with the 19th century, why her main character is intersex and how her writing has changed. / BY Kim Honey / September 29th, 2022
With Fayne, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s first novel in eight years, the bestselling Canadian author creates another spellbinding tale with a masterful story arc and more layers than Victorian undergarments.
The precocious Honourable Charlotte Bell of the DC (disputed county) de Fayne, 11, is being raised in seclusion, due to her “condition,” at the family’s expansive estate on the contested border between Scotland and England in the late 19th century. She is being educated by her eccentric father, Lord Henry Bell, the 17th Baron of the DC de Fayne, a bird nerd who encourages her to read through his library, from A to Z.
The plot twists and turns on the fact that female heirs cannot inherit titles or property in England, so Fayne’s fate rests on the shoulders of the ineffectual baron, who must produce a son.
MacDonald, 63, has been writing stories since she was kid, but after she graduated from the acting program at the National Theatre School in 1980, her 20s were defined by speedy writing and frenetic performances. In her 30s, she published Fall on Your Knees – which won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and was an Oprah Book Club pick in 2002 – which she calls her “mid-life, workaholic prime time,” when “things really deepen.” In her mid-40s she had two daughters with her wife, Alisa Palmer, the artistic director for the National Theatre School’s English section, and now that they are young adults, “it’s time to get playful again,” she says. “What kind of world do I want to splash around in? Where would I like to spend some time?”
Fayne is a big, bold, beautiful book set in the Victorian era – when women were chattel and valued for their fecundity – with a grand architectural frame built on themes of succession, identity, feminism, magic and environmentalism.
In a conversation from Stratford, Ont., where MacDonald and Palmer were preparing for the summer premiere of their new play, Hamlet-911, the author told Zoomer why she is fascinated by the time period, how Fayne is a bit of a mystery and why Lord Henry Bell infuriates her.
Kim Honey: When I’m talking about a new novel – and this is a 722-page book – how do I avoid giving the story away?
Ann-Marie MacDonald: There are some things you don’t need to treat as spoilers: for example, the fact that Charlotte is born with what we would now term an intersex trait – at the time, they called it pseudo-hermaphroditism; and the fact of that being why she’s been kept sequestered, and the fact that her father is determined to have her surgically “cured.” So gender, gender identity, sex, sexual identity – all of these things are obviously very much a part of the story. She doesn’t know that she’s “different.” Personally, I’m among those who think that ought to be against the law. It should be classed along with other forms of genital mutilation. That’s why I would say don’t worry about that, and I invite that. The last thing I want to do is say, “Oh, look at this exotic character. Whoa!” No, it’s like, “Hey, I’m normal. What, you think this is strange? I’m sorry. I’m just going be who I am.” For me, that is very familiar territory as somebody who’s a lesbian. I’m queer. I’m on our side. I’m on the side of inclusivity. I’m a feminist, and on we go from there. Things get simpler as we get older.”
KH: In a recent interview, you talked about seeing the music rehearsal for the stage adaptation of Fall on Your Knees, and how nostalgic it made you feel, thinking about your younger self. How has your writing changed?
AMM: I’m feeling freer. I feel I am more in charge of the subjects and themes that I am passionate about. I feel like I’m a little bit more in charge of how to express them and a little bit less in the grips of something that I will understand maybe when I’ve finished. It’s still a mystery. I still begin very much with the image, the setting, the character, and then I find out what are you doing here? Who are you? What’s going on? If I follow you back to your home, what does that look like? Who else is here? It’s very intuitive. It’s very organic. Then I start to discern the outlines of narrative, and that begins the excavation. It points me in the direction of the real research that I will do, and I do it voluminously. I do loads and loads and loads of it because I love to learn, but I also want to place the reader in an immersive experience.”
KH: Why are you returning to a time and place you explored in your 2005 play, Belle Moral, also about a 19th-century Scottish home with family secrets?
AMM: I’m going back to a terrain of abiding inspiration and interest for me. I love the period. And in delving into this, what became Fayne, I was also – this goes to your question about aging – I felt like I’m returning to my much younger self. I feel like I’m returning to a self who was, you know, eight years old and then 12 and then 14. In my twenties, writing really fast to perform it. I wrote a series with a friend, Beverly Cooper. She and I did Nancy Prew, Clue in the Fast Lane, a live late-night serial spoof on Nancy Drew at Theatre Passe Muraille [in Toronto]. At the beginning, it was just the two of us, and by the end, there were 16 people on stage. The Hardy boys were in it, Flipper was in it, Barbie was in it. And so was John Lennon, as well as the entire cast of a Nancy Drew mystery story.
KH: You have a lot of characters in Fayne, too!
AMM: I love the scope of real narrative fiction. When you’re looking at the late 19th century, you’re really looking at these disparate people, with their disparate values and lives. And yet there’s a web that connects them all, such that, touch one of them and the effects are brought to bear on lives seemingly distant from one another. And for me, that is a defining and inclusive metaphor for all of us, and what we’re doing here in this world.
KH: And is it because it was the near the turn of the century and we’re approaching modern times? Things are changing. Is that why?
AMM: It appeals to me because the era into which I was born, the mid 20th-century, was being invented then. All the conditions that would be brought to bear and lived out in my era and, of course, beyond, were seeded … Conditions [that] would give rise to the explosion that was the Great War, which would create the conditions for the Second World War, which would create the conditions for the Cold War, which would create the conditions for the time that we’re in. Now I see all these links. And I feel the late 19th century was a time where we were, in the Western world, at that glorious, optimistic peak of the industrial revolution.
KH: Why do you love to write about precocious children, like Charlotte?
AMM: It is an archetype, like Encyclopedia Brown, and there are a comic book characters of kids who can just recite everything. So there’s lots of room for humour in sending that person up, while also really valuing that gift. That is the thing that makes [Charlotte] the most different. But that is also in contrast to the fact that she draws a blank when she tries to remember her early childhood. There’s a clue in that. I love all those mysteries.
KH: Fayne reminds me of a mystery. There are crumbs to follow, and red herrings. The painting of Charlotte’s mother, Mae, and brother Charles is a clue, isn’t it?
AMM: It’s a mystery with all kinds of different layers about who knows what and when. Very few people have the whole story. For example, [the Bell family nanny] Knox thinks she has the whole truth, but she doesn’t. And then there’s always the mystery of what really happened to that beautiful young American heiress. That’s the first thing you want to know when you see a portrait of a dead mother. “Oh my God, what happened to her and that beautiful baby in the towering portrait on the stairs?” I’m always going for what I call “the shocked, but not surprised,” response.
KH: How do you juggle 700 pages in your brain? Is your office covered with sticky notes?
AMM: Sticky notes and then printed notes and then highlighted things and then collated things and things on the big bulletin board.
KH: Do you have an outline?
AMM: I do outlines after I’ve started. I do that because I want to make sure the story I’m telling is one that really wants to be told, as opposed to one that I think would be smart to tell. I let it kind of rumble and surface, and then I go, okay, I think I know the territory we’re in now.
KH: So you’re writing in little snippets?
AMM: I wrote patches for probably the first year, and then I’d think, “Oh, I hit a little vein of gold, I’m going keep going with this,” and inevitably those things don’t mesh. You have to pan it all for the gold that’s in there and get rid of the rest.
KH: What was the first patch you wrote?
AMM: A dinner with a garrulous nobleman in a lonely estate who was telling story after story, in the manner of a great, affable raconteur, to a young man at the other end of the table who was sheltered there for the night. He had come with some papers to deliver to the Lord of the manor. And of course he’s staying overnight, and of course there’s this big dinner, and then [the nobleman is] referring to his cellars. I thought, “Okay, of course there’s got to be something down there. There’s a dungeon. There’s a secret. Who is this? Who is this young man?” You can start to see where I thought, “Okay, I’ve got that house,” and then, “Where’s his wife?” Very soon and very early on came the voice of Mae, and her first letters home to [her friend] Taffy [in Boston]. And I thought, “Oh gosh, she’s just married this nice nobleman. She’s one of those American heiresses like Winston Churchill’s mother.”
KH: Who shopped for a husband in Europe?
AMM: Exactly. They could purchase them, and Mae did. She really doesn’t know what she’s in for. And I love her moxie. She’s really spoiled and she’s kind of obnoxious, but I still love her. She’s very, very traditionally feminine. She’s following all the rules. She’s going to get all the rewards.
KH: And it all goes swimmingly, until …
AMM: Until she’s not able to produce the heir in any good time, and things go south, because [society] is still about the control of women’s bodies. She’s been obtained in order to do one thing, and that is produce the heir. And all of her fortune and her lovely gowns and her personality, it’s not going get her anywhere now.
KH: I have a question about Henry’s sister, Clarissa, because I absolutely loved her. Does she want to ruin Charlotte’s life because she didn’t have much of a life, or is she just looking out for herself?
AMM: She has put her iron will in the service of her father’s wishes, to make sure Fayne [the estate and the family] continues, and that’s what she does. That also becomes an excuse for her cruelty toward her niece. And yes, she is jealous. Absolutely.
KH: Henry seems to be a good guy, but fathers are usually big, ominous characters with big secrets in your work, such as James Piper in Fall on Your Knees and Jack in The Way the Crow Flies and Big Daddy in Hamlet 911. So how does meek and mild, upper-class Lord Henry fit in?
AMM: He is not willing to part with the entitlement and power he knows has oppressed him and everyone he loves. And neither is he going to grab hold of the power with both hands and be accountable for what he’s going do with it and to be decisive. And that’s what makes him dangerous.
KH: So, he is selfish; but is he evil?
AMM: Mae says [he’s selfish] because it’s convenient. You can hate [his sister] Clarissa, but it’s very hard to hate Henry, who actually has the power and who’s done the damage here.
KH: But Clarissa plots murder, and Henry just kills by small cuts?
AMM: But why does she do that? She’s powerless otherwise, right? She’s got her agenda, which is Fayne [the estate and title] must continue. What does Henry do? Henry goes, “I just don’t want to think about those unfortunate things, and as long as I don’t think about them, they’re not really happening.” I’m so frustrated by Henry, because I love him, but I go, “Dude, it’s not good enough. You wreaked all the damage here. That’s on you.” Clarissa is the accomplice and she’s got her hands dirty. The person who does more damage and tries to keep their hands clean, that’s even worse.
KH: I really loved the book. On the Goodreads website, a reader wrote: “I’m calling it the best book of 2022. Prove me wrong.”
AMM: Oh, that’s lovely, thank you. It means so much at these vulnerable pre-publication moments, where I go, “Well, what are other people going to think?”
A version of this interview appeared in the October-November 2022 issue of Zoomer magazine, “Succession, 19th-Century Style.”
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