“All of us are better when we are loved.” The film Reading Alistair MacLeod begins with this quotation. It’s a lovely way to summarize his oeuvre.

In the film, Colm Tóibín speaks of the process of discovering MacLeod’s work through editing the Modern Library’s Best 200 Writers project; he describes how frequently someone would refer to a fellow writing in Canada, someone with a truly remarkable gift, who had only written thirteen short stories (at that time—eventually sixteen).

When Tóibín travelled to Canada to meet with Ellen Seligman about his own writing, she identified that man for him and handed over MacLeod’s work. “I think if you’re Irish and maybe it covers all the world…but if you’re Irish certainly the stories give you a great shock,” he says.

The second story that MacLeod wrote was included in Best American Short Stories 1969 and his fourth story was published in the 1974 edition of the series. Even there, you have a sense of how slowly he composed his stories, and how well-written they were from the beginning. His work appeared with that of Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates.

The stories were, in his words, “well received” from the beginning: “So I was always there.” He does not elaborate to say that ‘there’ was the pinnacle.

Instead, he shares a joke in the film, often told to explain why he didn’t appear in other editions of the series afterwards: “No, I didn’t die,” he would say, “I just went back to Canada.”

Tóibín reads aloud from a MacLeod story on film, and you can see how moved he is, with only an excerpt. This is true of the others who read MacLeod’s words aloud in the film, too; they begin by simply reading and appear transformed as the words accumulate.

Sometimes the readers are so visibly moved, they must pause to collect themselves before they resume speaking. But the most moving part, for me, is watching MacLeod deliver his own words; they spill forth and the cadence swells and I am overwhelmed.

These are stories I’ve read before, some of them three times (but no more), and I know that this could be a “desert island” book for me. (The contents of his two collections As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are combined in Island.)

No matter how many times I read these tales, another reading will always invite another slant of the light, another way into the telling. It’s a challenge to explain why, but I’ll try.


Below, there is also the Ordinary, and MacLeod is superb at combining the splendor and grandeur of the natural world (the ocean, the sky and all that) with everyday life on the land. The fact that these qualities coexist, though seemingly at odds, and so comfortably, is what makes these stories outstanding for me.


Not only in the structural sense, that sentences expand to include a remarkable number of clauses and phrases (when you hear MacLeod read, other people’s shorter sentences sound pale, even rude!), so there are many ‘ands’. Also, in the sense that there is room for contradictions—say, room for conflicting emotions to inhabit the same moment.

Cape Breton

There’s an open door with Alistair MacLeod’s stories leading to this part of Nova Scotia, which could serve as an introduction to Atlantic Canadian literature (though, of course, no single author could suffice). Search online to glimpse artworks that capture the rocks and trees, the waves and horizon: simple and grand, all at once.


There is an unmistakeable quality to MacLeod’s style, quickly evident and naturally sustained. In the film, even simple sentences—like “Before I was a writer, I always wanted to be Elvis Presley”—demonstrate his cadence. But beyond his personal delivery, there’s a rhythm to the telling of the tales themselves, an archetypal pull.


It was tempting to choose Love or Longing, Loss or Life for the ‘L’, but choosing any one of those seemed wrong, because they’re all caught up in a snarl in these stories. What strikes me more than any single one of these, however, is the attempt to grasp the intangible, the desire to hold the ocean in one’s palm, even knowing it’s impossible.


Men work in the mines and women bake bread; these are stories with universal and lofty themes, but they are also filled with rubber boots and darned socks, with squabbling siblings and long drives. There is a focus on the quotidian and I can imagine many a high school student rolling their eyes, at the pace of this quiet.


Russell Banks speaks of MacLeod’s process and explains that he composed stories deliberately and methodically, word after word, sentence after sentence, all in his mind, before putting them to paper; he does not revise. A longtime professor, MacLeod honed his craft and dedicated many hours to teaching others as well.

He had a little house in which he wrote, when he was at home, where he would spend two or three hours at his work. “I just wish he’d write more,” David Adam Richards said, in interview. You can see Richards’ books in MacLeod’s office at the University of Windsor. “There are many books here,” says MacLeod. (See the still from the film, above.)

MacLeod signs Island, on camera, for Lisa Moore, who is also reading at a literary event in Nova Scotia. Describing MacLeod’s work earlier, with a view of Cape Breton behind her, she explains how he has “the tenderness and the brutality together”. At the event, while MacLeod signs, she tells him that one of his stories is her favourite story. Then, she specifies that it is not only a favourite story but the favourite story, that it is her favourite story ever. And that she cries every time.

If you choose to read along, you will likely cry too: these are beautiful and painful stories. Read them with a cup of tea or a glass of Scotch: these are remarkable tales that should not be missed.

The schedule for this project is here: the first story in two weeks time from now, then the second in another two weeks, then about one each month, with an extra to celebrate his birthday.

Note: The filmmaker’s page is here, directed by William D. MacGillivray, produced in 2005 by National Film Board and Picture Plant. (The top and bottom images are stills from that work. Watch it, if you can.)