canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Maggie MacDonald

Maggie MacDonald is an award-winning playwright, visual artist and musician with the critically acclaimed bands The Hidden Cameras and The Republic of Safety. MacDonald is also an accomplished playwright. Growing up in Cornwall, Ontario, she was dubbed the "punk rock valedictorian." At the tender age of 20, MacDonald was a candidate for the New Democratic Party in the 1999 federal election.

Ibi Kaslik talked to Maggie MacDonald about the pill, nuclear war and MacDonald’s debut novel, Kill the Robot (McGilligan Books, 2005).

(March 2006)


IK: In Kill the Robot, the emphasis on the Cold War is compelling. As children of the 70s and 80s, many of us were raised within an environment of remote and abstract threat. Do you see our generation coming out of the Cold war unscathed or, as in Kill The Robot, nihilistic to the core?

MM: I do not think of our generation as nihilistic. We lack hope, and we do not have the same faith in technology that our parents did. The Chernobyl Meltdown and the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster are two of my most vivid childhood memories.

As a result I don't think of the future as a Fritz Lang type Metropolis with flying cars and a sky plugged with towers of glass and steel. Big technology is ailing. But there is a beautiful Belle and Sebastian song that says, 'Do Something pretty while you can, don't fall asleep' and that's how I think of my generation. We are compelled to make hopeful gestures towards the future, even if our optimism is thinning.

In Toronto today, everyone has a band, everyone is making some kind of art; young people are making castles out of matchsticks, and when the wind blows them down, we build them up again.

IK: As a Playwright, did you find the transition from Playwrighting to fiction writing difficult?

MM: I have always enjoyed writing both plays and fiction. When I try to remember which came first it's unclear. In my childhood I spent a lot of time writing picture stories for my parents, and little plays and skits for my friends at school. The Rat King is both a script for a stage musical and a soon-to-be-completed graphic novel. I worked on the project as a picture story for a couple of years before turning some of the dialogue into a script for the stage because I felt staging it would bring it to an audience sooner than publishing it as a book would.

Publishing is a slow, mysterious process, while performing a piece is something that is much easier to do when you live in a collaboration-happy city like Toronto.

IK: Who are your favourite Sci-Fi writers and why?

MM: I am most influenced by non-fiction writers like Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway, Slavoj Zizek and Katherine Hayles. As for science fiction, Philip K. Dick is my favourite. His imaginary worlds are often close to our own, which touch on the paranoia and despair that are familiar to many people. Rather than amusing us with portraits of foreign planets, Dick's work causes the reader to doubt her own perceptions, rather than merely doubting outer 'societal' norms. It's not that I don't see the value of interplanetary fiction, I simply prefer the psychological and political material in Dick's work.

The greatest example of Dick’s combination of politics and paranoia are the intertwined novels Valis and Radio Free Albemuth. In Valis, Dick tells a story based on his own life, and predicts his own death (he died of a stroke in 1982). While most of the main character’s friends’ think he is crazy after a pink laser hits him in his bedroom, one friend steps forward to describe an obscure film about a similar laser. Together the friends see the film, and his sanity is no longer questioned.

Radio Free Albemuth –- which was published posthumously –- is the story of the film Dick and his friend watch in Valis. In RFA the evil American president, Ferris Freemount, is challenged by folk musicians who plant subliminal messages in their albums. In Valis, Freemount is a thinly veiled Richard Nixon. The interplay between the books is beautiful, especially because it is unclear whether Dick intended RFA to be published.

IK: In Kill the Robot there is a very explicit connection between sex and/or sexual orientation and being controlled by a male-dominated consumer force. Can you comment on the ways in which you see women robotized in our culture?

MM: Being robotized is a metaphor for alienation from the body. I disagree with the 'mind over matter' attitude we live with in this culture. For instance, let's consider the recent fascination with the idea that periods can be suppressed with special birth control pills. (There is a discussion of this matter at

Having a period can be painful and inconvenient, but a lot of natural processes are. Birth, illness, exercise, bowel movements, sex, work, all of these things can be inconvenient, and sometimes involve a little suffering. But they are what life itself consists of. More common than chemical suppression is anorexia which is an old fashioned and still prevalent cause of amenorrhea (no period), a disease often linked to mind-body alienation and the sense that the physical body can and must be controlled via restriction. The goal of Kill the Robot is to make the mind-over-matter attitude seem like a disease.

IK: There are echoes of Logan's Run, 1984 and even Bradbury in your book. Can you comment on the reasons why you think dystopic art is so important in our society, especially now?

MM: Technologies that assist tyranny are spreading, but they are useless without complicit human participants who are willing to work the buttons and sift through the data. As the twentieth century closed with America as the dominant global superpower, the American ideology of money-over-matter began to look natural. The role of dystopian fiction is to denaturalize the dominant ideology.

Ibi Kaslik is the author of Skinny (Harper Collins Canada, May 2004). Read her TDR interview.







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