Alistair MacLeod’s works as part of the Canadian literary canon are deceptively modest in number, but immense in their power, influence and resonance. His exquisitely crafted words, his achingly beautiful images and utterly unforgettable souls live in our hearts. “All of us are better when we’re loved” concludes his iconic, internationally acclaimed novel No Great Mischief. As revered as it and his astonishing short story collections are, so was he beloved as an academic, mentor, colleague, stalwart of many communities, and devoted friend, husband and father.
Alistair MacLeod served tirelessly as a Giller Prize juror in 2000, 2004 and 2009. His intimate understanding of writerly craft and his collegial regard for his fellow literary craftspersons distinguished his time and decisions made with fellow jurors Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart, MG Vassanji, Charlotte Gray, Russell Banks and Victoria Glendinning. Charlotte Gray offers this lovely reminiscence:
I had read everything Alistair had published when I met him, and I had also heard from his former students about the experience of being in his classes. So I was both an admirer, and also ready for quiet humour, slow decisions, steady purpose. It was eerie: you both knew where you were with Alistair, and at the same time you weren’t sure what he was thinking. When I blurted out an opinion, he always smiled … and was then silent for a few minutes. And then he would say something that was both prompted by what I had said, and at the same time, nothing to do with my opinion.
He was courteous and gentlemanly, and he gently ensured that our fellow juror Moyez Vassanji and I knew that he respected our judgments, and also that he often disagreed with us. He had no patience for glib dismissals. I recall him saying about one book: “I loved what he did on the last three pages.” (Had he read the previous 200? So many jurors never get that far … but in this case, I know he did.)
It was a wonderful experience, being on the Giller jury with Alistair MacLeod — one of the best of my literary life. And we greeted each other with such affection, like fellow veterans, in subsequent meetings. Our worlds didn’t overlap much — I don’t drink whisky or write fiction: he didn’t care much about politics or squabbles about history — but he always greeted me with that amused, warm smile and cared about what I was doing, thinking, reading. Until I read about his death, I didn’t realize how much I would miss him.
Alistair MacLeod offered this entrancing reading followed by a generous and insightful Q&A at Georgia Perimeter College in 2006: