Linden MacIntyre Part 2: “You learn things about people you thought you knew”

September 2021

As a journalist, Linden MacIntyre has won 15 Geminis and one Emmy. In 1999 he published his first novel, As an author, his 2009 novel, The Bishop’s Man, was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Winter Wives is his 8th book – caution, the following conversation includes spoilers.

The Winter Wives are Peggy and her sister Annie, another duo, and somewhat enigmatic.

They were accountants. Both Byron and the two sisters are in profession in which you deal with clients in way in which you are required to suspend judgement, particularly moral judgement. As a lawyer you have a client approach you, he’s accused of something terrible, and in your mind that person has to be an innocent and is entitled to a fair shot at justice. As an accountant you have people coming to you with the proceeds of a business or personal acquisition and generally speaking you deal with what’s in front of you. You don’t start quizzing them where did you get the money? Now if it’s thrown up in your face I stole the money or I robbed a bank you kind of have to think do I want to deal with this? But if someone’s coming to you with money generated from a real estate deal or a partnership in a casino or what officially looks like legitimate business activity you just do the books. You do the books, you don’t pry.
Now Peggy as [Allan’s] wife would have had some suspicions because she travelled with him all over the continent and into South America and she knew that he was dealing with unsavory people. [But] both she and Annie, though they were different types of people, Peggy was a more passionate, emotional person, they had this objectivity that enabled them to be quite good at their work.

The book also moved through two timelines, one in the late 1970s in university, and the second in the more present time. What does that allow you to do in terms of storytelling?

It’s not what it allows me to do, it’s what it requires me to do. I wanted to deal with the consequences of developments that reveal new things about people that they think they already know everything about the people close to them in their lives.
Peggy and Byron got to know each other quite well as adolescents and students and Peggy believed she knew Byron better than he knew himself; he kind of had the same idea about her. Allan and Byron considered that they knew each other pretty intimately. But as happens in a lifetime, as you grow and the relationship grows and becomes more intimate, you learn things about people who you thought you knew well, and some of those things challenge some of the earlier impressions you had, some of them are surprising and some of them are not necessarily happy. And this could be a marital relationship or a business relationship or a close friendship. It requires a reassessment of the relationship and whether or not the relationship can survive the new discovery. And this of course is happening to these people as Allan’s work and the origins of his money become apparent.
And as dementia enters the picture. Suddenly Allan’s vulnerability requires his partners and friends to become more deeply involved in the business and the wrapping up of the business than they had intended to become. So the dementia becomes a metaphor. Dementia in my view is an accelerated breakdown in personality and in a person’s life. And it just speeds up what normally happens over a long period of time where we become forgetful, some strange things happen to us. In the case of Alzheimer’s or dementia all that is collapsed into a very short period of time, leading to a premature death in many cases.
The women and Byron realize that now that they know everything about Allan need them in a way friends frequently come to need one another, and he needs them in a way that we all think we will come to need somebody at some point in our lives. And then Byron becomes convinced that he too in slipping down into early onset Alzheimer’s, he’s going to need people.
A lot of these interpretations of a work of fiction come to you either as you’re doing it or after you do it. I could not possibly have planned all the turns and developments that this story took along the way. At a certain point, as good stories do, they take on a life of their own, a reality.

Did any of your own characters surprise you?

Byron surprised me a great deal. The ‘shocking scene’, as I call it for my own purposes, troubled me a great deal. By this time he’s a very real person to me. And I knew that Allan was going to die, Allan telegraphs that from early on, but I didn’t realize how profoundly it would affect Byron. And I didn’t realize how profoundly flawed Byron was because of his incomplete emotional development. How thoroughly he would misunderstand the kinds of signals he was getting from Peggy, who had idealized him to an extent. And how destructive it was that what he understood about her, and women in general, was what he picked up from male society and he never understood the emotional depths of what Peggy felt about it. And it blows out of control in a moment he will never get over. Nor will she.

Speaking more broadly about storytellers, you’ve said reporters are storytellers. I also liked a reference you’ve made to Charles Dickens, that Dickens was a reporter. My most obvious conclusion there is that was because he wrote so much about the social conditions of his time and that left an incredible record. Where do storytelling and reporting overlap and where do they diverge?

I think they overlap more than they diverge. Dickens is famous for having created characters and invented situations that were all rooted in the reality of his time. His fiction stands with an accuracy equal to anything he would have written in a non-fiction way. Now I’m not Dickens. I couldn’t be Dickens. But I’d like to think that, when all is said and done, the truth, and I use the word truth advisedly, but the truth in [my] stories that are fictional is as memorable and as valid as the truth, used advisedly, in the journalism that I’ve done. That some of the characters that I’ve invented will have the same kind of merit and be taken as seriously as some of the characters I’ve written about as a journalist. These characters don’t come out of the ether, they come out of my experience with real people, and they become composites. And the events become composites of various events that I’ve reported on, or witnessed.

What are you working on now?

t’s a non-fiction story, a historical story. I’m in St John’s right now researching a part of it, and if this plague ever ends I’ll travel to other countries to do more research. I don’t want to say a whole lot about it. I’m not even 100 per cent sure I can get it done. Mark me down for a future conversation.

The Winter Wives ($34.95) is published by Penguin Randomhouse.

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