2016-09-07

Right side of The Tracks

by Evan Bower

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Author Alex W. MacLeod will give a reading from his novel <em>The Tracks &#8212; a refuge</em> at The Word on the Street Festival in Halifax this month.</p>

For almost 30 years, while Alex W. MacLeod's surroundings and jobs changed, an idea he carried with him stayed the same.

He had an image in his mind of people living in rail cars on the wrong side of a broken-down bridge. They weren't in Reserve Mines, the Cape Breton town where he grew up, but in a town something like it.

Now, after 15 years of full-time writing, those images have moved from his head to the page. He self-published his first novel The Tracks - a refuge this summer.

"I expected it to be like a lot of things that we plan to do in our lives and never get to," said MacLeod.

"But when I did start at it, I made up my mind that this wasn't going to be like so many other things in my life, that I just did for money or because it was there. I made a commitment to myself that I was going to do this as well as I could."

Now, the Caledonia-based writer is heading to Halifax for The Word on the Street Festival on September 17, where he's been selected to give a reading.

MacLeod says while the concept stayed true, his plans for the characters were washed away once he started writing.

"As I began to write the book the characters took shape ... they took on their own lives and they defined the book," he said. "Most of my years of editing and revising and rewriting were in order to get myself out of there and let the characters do the talking."

The book takes place in Sterling Reserve, a fictionalized version of his birthplace, and begins in 1951.

His hometown was named Reserved Mines because the land was reserved for development at a later date. Of course, those developments came and went by the time MacLeod was born.

His characters enter Sterling Reserve at a similar time. The town isn't abandoned, but the glory days feel long gone.

The stark environment, however, leaves room for the humanity to shine through. And for MacLeod, the human connections are the beating heart of the book.

MacLeod is retired now, but he spent his working days as a lawyer, musician, teacher and labourer. Putting himself in the shoes of different characters isn't such a stretch since he's worn a variety of footwear himself.

"As humans we are extremely varied in the way we think, in the way we present ourselves and the things we do. But for most of us ... we are much more the same than we are different," he said.

"I guess I wanted to present people who are very, very different, but whose whose thoughts and actions would be an electrical contact with other people."

Direct human connection, it turns out, is also the philosophy behind the book's publication. After testing the waters with local publishers, MacLeod opted to cut out the middle man and do it alone.

"I don't think in the present environment you need as many gatekeepers," he said. "It's hard to sell a lot of books like that, but I'm doing OK ... I think for a book like this, to get people to read it initially is about the best thing I can do."

Thanks to the help of his wife Marie, his book is available in stores from Shelburne to Glace Bay. They've organized a number of book launches, and to liven things up, he's begun performing original music inspired by the novel on the piano at readings.

Because he carried the idea around so long, it had time to outgrow the parameters of a single book, so on the advice from his editor he's split it into two.

He's already finished writing the next instalment of The Tracks, and he expects to release it by Christmas 2017.

It's a quicker turnaround than the 15 year lead-up to his debut novel, but no matter what time constraints you're working with, MacLeod says the important part of writing doesn't change.

"You can't allow yourself to be careful about it, the way a politician has to be careful about what he or she says, you have to put down what your actual thoughts are, what your actual feelings are," he said. "You have to try to get at that, try to dig very deeply and bring up something that will spark."

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