As author of one of Canada’s most popular page-turning novels, Ann-Marie MacDonald opens STARFest at the Arden Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 24 with a bang.
At 730 plus pages, Fayne is a Gothic historical fiction that seamlessly wraps together science, medicine, magic, love, secrets and sexual identity.
“I love the period. During the 19th century, there were a lot of scientific breakthroughs. What was called 'magic' then is called 'science' today,” said MacDonald.
The setting takes place on a vast, but reclusive estate situated on the border between England and Scotland. On this remote estate, which comprises acres of moorland, young Charlotte Bell, the adored daughter of Lord Henry Bell, is growing up.
Unlike other children, Charlotte is kept away from society by a mysterious, unnamed health condition. Inquisitive, with the mind of a scientist, she begs to be sent to school. Her father compromises by hiring a tutor who doubts his feisty student’s condition and is subsequently fired.
But his arrival and swift departure prompts questions around the secrecy surrounding her mother and brother’s deaths. And as MacDonald slowly unravels each layer of mystery, Charlotte, who dreams of becoming a physician, discovers she is intersex.
“I didn’t write Charlotte as intersex to shock people. I wrote her as intersex because I’m aware of this normal part of life,” said MacDonald who identifies as queer. “People think it’s a rare occurrence. It isn’t rare. My intention was not to treat her sexuality as a spoiler. It’s not intended to be sensational or exotic. It’s normal.”
In conducting background research over a six-year period, MacDonald reached out to intersex activists.
“The point of doing due diligence is to respect individuals. Reaching out is important both legally and medically,” MacDonald said. “Having grown up as a lesbian, early on as a kid I realized I didn’t conform. It was enough to make me highly sensitive to people who are rejected by society.”
An active writer, theatre school instructor and actor who splits her time between Toronto and Montreal, she also discovered day-day tidbits about the period while poking around English and Scottish archives.
She has written three previous best sellers: Adult Onset (2014), The Way the Crow Flies (2003) and Fall On Your Knees (1996). Fall On Your Knees was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2002 and MacDonald appeared as a guest on Oprah Winfrey's talk show.
“I was very nervous. It was a big deal. With Oprah, what you see is what you get. She goes out of her way to make you feel comfortable.”
Oprah’s benediction led to financial security. Fall on Your Knees was also translated into 20 languages.
“When Oprah tells people to buy my book, people buy the book. They don’t have book festivals in the United States the way we do here, and what she says goes.”
Despite the high-powered glamour of being associated with Oprah, there’s a distinct sense MacDonald would rather be in the trenches championing rights for marginalized queer individuals.
“Touring is hard. It’s a little bit gruelling. But for me it’s worth it to be in a room with readers who read my books and come face-to-face with people immersed in my stories. As a kid I didn’t meet some of the authors I liked. It’s now a privilege to read for others.”
The event starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Visit tickets.stalbert.ca or call 780-459-1542.