Lily Iona Mackenzie, author of The Ripening

What inspires you to write?  

Actually, it’s the act of writing itself that inspires me. Once I’m writing, whether it’s poetry or prose, inspiration can easily appear.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

When I was twenty-five and sharing a commute with a fellow worker, I amazed myself when the words flew out of my mouth, “I want to be a writer someday.” It was in response to her fascination about my stories of leaving home at fifteen, giving birth to my son at seventeen, and being our sole support. She commented that I should write about those experiences. I’d never consciously considered being a writer, though I had kept a secret diary when I was thirteen. But I was so afraid that someone might read its contents, I created a code language. Of course, I’ve totally forgotten it. When I went through a deep depression in my late twenties, I once again turned to keeping a diary to record what I was going through, and I’ve been writing ever since.

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?

As a junior in college, I enrolled as an English major with an emphasis on creative writing. At that time, my focus was poetry. But I soon realized that poets had a more difficult time publishing than prose writers did, so I expanded my focus to include fiction and nonfiction.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer and how does that affect your writing?

I’ve always had to work, so I guess I’m a part-time writer, never having had the chance to write full-time. Nor do I think I could! Since my daily writing goal is a minimum of one hour, I’ve trained myself to immediately start writing, and I try not to stop until my time is up, unless it’s a day when I can devote more of myself to my many writing projects. I’ve discovered that by writing one hour a day, in 365 days I can complete the draft of a novel, or a combination of many short stories, poems, and other types of prose.

What are some day jobs you have held?

Since I’ve claimed my writing self, I’ve made my living from teaching, not writing (only five percent of writers can support themselves from writing). And I love teaching.

One thing I discovered when I was teaching rhetoric to college students, and it still applies to the creative writing classes I currently teach for older adults, is that my writing of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction is resembles teaching for me. Both give me an opportunity to investigate ideas, fears, interests, and obsessions—to ask and answer questions. The two roles complement each other.

What made you decide to sit down and actually start writing this book? Tell us more about your main character. What inspired you to develop this character?

The Ripening: A Canadian Girl Grows Up! is a sequel to my novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy (published in 2019). It was released on October 15, 2021. Tillie, a zany installation artist, is the main character in Freefall. I so enjoyed interacting with her while I wrote that book that I wanted to better understand her origins. In the follow-up, then, I went back to the ‘50s, to a world that flashed green and red lights at women, the era that produced Tillie. Some had begun to challenge the dead ends their futures seemed to hold, and Tillie ends up being one of those girls.

The narrative weaves together the young Tillie with herself as a teenager, moving back and forth in time so we see what shapes her personality. Tillie lives briefly in her version of paradise when May, her mother, marries a farmer, Harold, and they move to his farm, not far from Calgary, Alberta. She has animals to play with, wide-open spaces to explore, and, for the first time, a father. Curious and precocious, Tillie churns butter, gathers and cleans the eggs for market, cleans the barn, cooks, and also washes floors and dishes, all before she is eight years old.

But while the ranch and its many animals seem like heaven to Tillie, she soon discovers that life isn’t predictable or stable. Nor is her new father. While he can be a nice guy, he also harbors a Mr. Hyde who periodically slips out. She learns to be careful around him, never knowing when his anger will surface and explode.

This is her first lesson in survival as well as coping, a word her mother often throws at her. “You must learn to cope,” she says. And so Tillie does. Until it no longer works. The story that follows shows the paths that eventually lead her out of the traps she creates for herself. It includes side trips to Vancouver, Toronto, and then San Francisco. But in her late teens, she ends up back in Calgary where she has a chance for a new beginning.

Tillie’s predicament in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s isn’t new, even though women have made progress in establishing some equality in the Western world. But her grit and ability to face life’s challenges still are inspiring, the seeds for her later discovery of her artist self. 

The novel demonstrates that we have the power to turn our lives around if we’re heading in the wrong direction. But it usually involves a struggle and a certain amount of pain before we can set off on a better path. An artist in the making, Tillie also creates herself in these pages.

What is your next project?

I don’t have another novel that I want to tackle just now, but I’ve recently completed a hybrid memoir entitled Dreaming Myself into Old Age: One Woman’s Search for Meaning. It’s seeking a publisher, as is my most recent poetry collection, California Dreaming. I also am always writing poetry, short fiction, and memoir.

What new authors have grasped your interest and why?

I don’t think I’d consider these authors new, but certain novels have had a profound effect on me at different stages of my life for various reasons. When I was working on my BA in English, I took a Modern American Novel class that did exactly what Lionel Trilling said such books should do: they read me as much as I read them. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and his Light in August. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And many more. Each book made me aware of elements of myself that were also manifested in the characters inhabiting the books.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude found me at a time when I needed a model for the magical realism approach that seems natural to me and inhabits much of my work. I LOVE that book and return to it often for inspiration.

In a similar mode, Roberto Bolano, a Chilean writer, has also inspired me. He diverges from the more familiar magical realist vein and creates his own genre, his own universe! I’ve read most of his books now, and they create a world that seems parallel to ours. He also steps beyond the usual fiction boundaries, violating our expectations of how a novel should unfold or end. I’m always entranced by his work.

And I haven’t mentioned W.G. Sebald yet, another writer who died far too young. He also has invented a new genre, a hybrid novel form. Again, I’ve read all his work, and I’m stunned by it.

I’m sorry that all of these authors are men when there are so many female writers I love as well, including the Irish writer Anne Enright. I’ll read anything she writes because of her sharp wit and illuminations of contemporary life. And, of course, my fellow Canadian, Alice Munro, a master of the short story and a terrific model for any writer.

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