Cape Breton Novelist Frank Macdonald on Cultural Change, Corporatism, “Characters” and Sustainability
Frank Macdonald, of Inverness, Cape Breton, is the award-winning author of A Forest for Calum and A Possible Madness, both long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A long-time columnist, Macdonald is also an accomplished writer of short stories, drama, poetry and songs. He graciously discussed his latest novel, The Smeltdog Man (“the story of how a Cape Bretoner marshalled his accidental invention, a marijuana-induced, munchie-inspired Smeltdog, into the most successful fast food franchise in Canada”) with Chris Benjamin.
Chris Benjamin: I gather that you’ve adapted your writing style with The Smeltdog Man, compared to works like A Forest For Calum and A Possible Madness. Your former editor Mike Hunter called it (on goodreads) a “stream-of-consciousness delivery.” What made you want to work with a different style of writing for this book?
Frank Macdonald: The idea of the smeltdog itself predated any writing aspirations. It was an imaginary concoction that I raved about to friends. At least three of them went to the restaurant and ordered the smeltdogs I claimed the menu featured. The idea of the smeltdog just lingered, an idea with nowhere to go until one day, scribbling, I wrote, “If it wasn’t for drugs I never woulda become a billionaire.” The story of how the narrator became a billionaire unfolded in his own words from there. It seemed that the entire character was contained within those words, so I simply let him talk and talk and talk, relating to us a single point of view of how his life evolved in the years after his discovery of the smeltdog.
CB: The smeltdog man, the character, often refers to his Granddaddy Blue, who was a character in your last novel, Tinker and Blue, which creates a nice linearity to your work. For you, as the writer, how does Smeltdog Man fit into your body of work? (Is it but a more contemporary take on Cape Breton? Are there specific contemporary themes you wanted to explore with this work?)
In the beginning, the unnamed narrator had a granddaddy guru who guided him but very soon I thought that the narrator wasn’t that much different than Blue, from Tinker & Blue. So instead of letting myself write the same character all over again, I realized that, given the dates between Blue and The Smeltdog Man, this could very well be Blue’s grandson. So not the same character, but the same DNA. It was also interesting to imagine who Blue became 50 years later.
In my newspaper column over the past 40 years, I use a variety of voices, I suppose. Sometimes the column is a podium, sometimes a pulpit, frequently satirical, and perhaps more frequently just silly observations of life or the world. With The Smeltdog Man, this wasn’t a story about franchise foods companies or the disproportionate distribution of wealth that I wanted to tell in a ‘sober’ voice, but in a naive one that would try to puncture some of the values we currently hold in awe, such as our growing adoration of the excessive wealth of others, celebrity, the ruthless way so many corporations extract their wealth at our, and the planet’s, peril. I liked the idea of the story being told by someone of wealth who no right to be there, but who is awkwardly successful in spite of what many would perceive as shortcomings.
FM: A lot of your work, and a lot of Cape Breton writing in general I find, explores the idea of old world v. new world values and ways of life. (For example, the way an innovation changes a culture, like how the rise and fall of coal as an leading energy source shaped Cape Breton, and how different generations are impacted. You explored this theme brilliantly in your first couple novels but I think the more recent ones also look at changing cultures, from 60s idealism in Tinker and Blue up to modern-day corporate greed in Smeltdog Man.) What is it about shifts in values and ways of thinking about the world that fascinates you? (Or is my interpretation way off?!)
The exploration of change is a theme in my work that I believe is rooted in a couple of cultural experiences. The first was growing up in a place where storytelling was the most basic form of communication. They weren’t the ancient stories so much as my father and his friends telling about their own lives. These were lives that were lived through the Depression and WWII, which seemed to us as adolescents, to be ancient history. I also credit my years as a reporter with The Inverness Oran, a community newspaper that has, for forty years, recorded the ever-changing culture and history of Inverness County/Western Cape Breton.
I and others on the staff covered a considerable range of issues from municipal politics to rural education, and the perpetual economic threat that rural towns and villages live under, watching one loss after another, a school, a post office, a business. We also reported on brilliant efforts through community economic development agencies to resist and find new ways to continue to exist. It was also evident that in their efforts to find economic alternatives that could keep their young people home and the community viable, they were vulnerable to exploitation by corporations that ultimately had no interest in the community’s future, only it’s resources. Fracking was a feared issue at the time of the writing of A Possible Madness.
My later works, Tinker & Blue and Smeltdog Man, do pitch characters against corporatism. In Tinker & Blue and the era they lived in, the value clash between young idealism and corporate/government cynicism were, or appeared to be, almost equally weighted against each other, if only for a moment. So in Tinker & Blue, a commune’s success in bringing down an oil corporation seemed consistent with “the time’s they are a-changing.’”
With The Smeltdog Man, it is 50 years later and quite a different world, one dominated, if not wholly owned, by a handful of corporations. But The Smeltdog Man’s corporate success was not a victory for the underdog, but a success that proved as damaging as any other extraction operation, be that mining, fishing, forestry…
CB: I love that you use humour and satire to tackle these rather serious issues. In Tinker and Blue there was a corporation called “Fucdepor,” which is in a sense refreshingly forthright of that company. In Smeltdog Man, your goodhearted and naive protagonist happens into mass riches and a life in the corporate world. Can you talk a little about your use of a naive (in some ways) main character? What is he able to show readers about the world that the world needs to know?
FM: One aspect of Cape Breton’s culture (and many other cultures) is an appreciation of our ‘characters.’ This is still an oral tradition here, despite social media and even books. A gathering for any reason, even a formal meeting, usually finds itself telling stories because something on the agenda reminded someone of the time… It’s important to point out that most of the storytelling about local characters is rarely about ridicule, the character’s wit being the point of the parable or fable. In my writing, it is important that the reader understand that these characters don’t perceive themselves as characters, just people trying to get through their lives. Whether I succeed or not, I try to avoid making my characters cartoons. I hope they have more depth than that. At least they deserve to be seen as such.
In Tinker & Blue, Blue in his role, is certainly a ‘character,’ someone I see as a young man with the soul of a saint and the heart of a horse trader, and both serve him, and his friends in the commune, well. He is one of those people who assumes he knows everything, which makes it difficult to teach him anything, but slowly through the book I think people like Karma and Capricorn and even Tinker cause him to grow and broaden into a better version of himself. He is filled with stories ‘from back home,’ which is Cape Breton, and epitomizes aspects of the culture he comes from, because all his points of reference are people or facts about Cape Breton Island.
Blue absorbs the changes within him without acknowledging them, just adapts and goes on being who he is, which I think may also be true for Cape Breton itself, a forever-changing island that adapts and goes on being itself, its own character.
With the Smeltdog Man, the subject of change is accelerated, as are the times he lives in. The town from which he comes, and in which I live, is a rapidly changing place. I think that the Smeltdog Man’s unexpected and unprecedented success is probably a metaphor for a down-on-its-luck town whose economic fortunes have changed overnight. It is the hope for most people living in this place that while changes happen faster than many can absorb, that our generations-old love of the place will keep the core of our culture intact.
I don’t draw a direct connection between the community’s fortunes and that of the Smeltdog Man, but the novel is an exploration of success, pitfalls and all.
CB: There’s a strong ecological message in this novel as well. The smeltdog man comes hard up against ecological limits, something Atlantic Canadians should know well but too often forget. Like everyone else in the world, the facts and figures do tend to bounce off us (maybe we’d rather not know). How do you see storytelling’s and specifically literature’s role in changing the world? Can it serve as a wakeup call? Or at least elicit empathy for those affected by ecological destruction?
FM: I don’t know what literature’s general impact is on people’s or readers’ awareness, but I do know what it has been on me. There have been novels that have changed my understanding more substantially than other sources of information. Perhaps that’s because I like stories, fiction, despite being a newshound. It may be that as a writer, processing change through his writing, becomes more intimate with the change in question when a character he or she has created is the victim or benefactor of that change, or as in the case of the smeltdog man, the catalyst.
One example: I do know that although I spent several years as a reporter interviewing fishers, reading reports, talking to processors, about the groundfish closure that devastated the Atlantic industry; it was when I read Donna Morrissey’s Silvanus Now that I felt the horror of what was happening to the Atlantic fishery. Whether or not that book “changed” anything, except myself, I can’t say. Nor, I imagine, do many authors have a measure of the impact of their work on others. Ultimately I want readers to be entertained by my stories.
CB: And how do you, as a writer, avoid falling into the trap of becoming didactic? How do you keep readers engaged with big ideas while also being properly entertained?
FM: When I find myself becoming bored at the keyboard I begin to suspect that the reader will begin to yawn too. If my characters are strong enough to carry the plot, to prevent the story from becoming only about issues and not about people, I feel that I am getting the story told that I want to tell.