Carrie Mac comes up with 15 possible spooky places to meet to my one.
“I googled ‘Haunted Vancouver,'” she says. I googled “Scary Vancouver.” This is the difference between a successful writer and a struggling one.
We agree on the Century Bar & Grill. “It used to be an old bank,” Mac tells me. “The vault is haunted by a bank teller who was murdered there.”
“That’s not true,” the bar manager tells us as we poke our heads in to look; the only apparition we see is the waitress talking on her cell phone. “We’ve had paranormal experts in to examine the place. It’s the bathrooms that are haunted.”
Convention dictates we chat in a booth. Not the haunted vault we had hoped for, but spooky in the Dickensian sense–Marley’s ghost would feel right at home here.
Mac insists she’s not the “edgy” and “disturbed” writer that publicists and reviewers portray her to be. Her Lisa Loeb looks would suggest that she’s right, but as she leans her elbow across the table, tattooed flames shoot out of the cuff of her blouse and lick at her wrist, like something dying to get out.
Last year, Mac’s book The Beckoners won the Arthur Ellis award for crime fiction for young adult readers. Loosely based on the murder of Reena Virk, Mac drew on her own troubled youth for her vivid depictions of high school bullying.
“I was a fat, four-eyed, queer kid with no money. If you didn’t have the money all through childhood to buy the right clothes you just sort of embraced the freakishness,” she says. “The bullies in the book are based on the bullies I had in high school.”
Raised in Bible-thumping Abbotsford, Mac dropped out of high school in Grade 11. “I was a big old druggie,” she says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world but it certainly wasn’t easy. I really do think high school is hell on earth for most kids.”
This year saw the release of two new Mac books: the queer-themed young adult novel Crush and book one of the Triskelia Trilogy, The Droughtlanders.
I ask her what impact the Surrey School Board’s decision to ban some gay books from its libraries will likely have on her career.
“I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before a) [the books are] noticed; b) they’re banned, or c) it could be that they just don’t purchase those sorts of things anymore so that it doesn’t even become an option.”
Some school districts in the US have already banned her books. “Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah–those sorts of states–would rather I didn’t write books for children,” Mac says. Granted, Kentucky is the only state I’ve been to that considers macaroni and cheese a vegetable.
With The Droughtlanders, Mac takes the speculative fiction approach to social commentary.
In her vision of the future, “livestock diseases and avian influenzas, global warming, water commodification, corporate war, overpopulation” have devastated the planet. North America is divided into the Group of Keys that controls all the wealth and the weather. The scorched earth surrounding the Keys is the Droughtland, whose diseased and dehydrated inhabitants’ sole purpose is to serve and entertain the Keylanders.
The story kicks into action when a pair of Keylander identical twins–the sensitive Eli and the war-mongering Seth–learn their mother is an undercover agent for the Droughtlander resistance after she is murdered in a government-sponsored terrorist attack. The pair set off into the Droughtland, each for his own reasons: Eli to learn about his true past, Seth to kill Eli.
Like in all of Mac’s previous books, queer characters abound.
“Benders,” she writes, “as they were called in the Keys, were executed if they were discovered. There were so few babies born to Keylanders that to not partner with the opposite sex was seen as a crime against the state.”
One theme that resonated with me personally was the Droughtlanders’ lackadaisical attitude when it comes to resistance.
“They didn’t talk about the revolution though,” Mac writes. “Now that they were here, welcomed and happy and fed, and with crushes to distract them and the circus arts to learn, Eli started to understand how complacency happened, and why no one wanted to upturn the utopia for what would be a long, brutal haul to freedom for every Droughtlander. Eli told himself it would happen, that he would make it happen. Just not yet.”
I ask Carrie if The Droughtlanders is a ‘message’ book.
“It’s not a message book. It’s pushing my ideas of what’s happening now into a fictionalized future,” she replies, searching the sconces for meaning. “I don’t know. All through my teens and 20s, I was that protest kid going to all the protests, the placards, the petitions… all the actions that we did. I’m not feeling that entirely optimistic about all the effort and energy that all my littermates put in all through the last 20 years. And worse, I see that younger kids don’t really give a shit. For the most part, there’s very few young people who really care.
“Do you see any unrest?” she asks me. “I don’t see any unrest. I just see people going into high schools and shooting all their friends.”
Ultimately, The Droughtlanders is a book about who is expendable and whether or not some deaths are more grievable than others.
The book begins with a Droughtlander circus performer (whom we come to learn is a Bender) tumbling to his death from the tightrope, due in part to Seth. “You’d think they’d all died the way they’re carrying on,” Mac writes. “That would be convenient, wouldn’t it?”
Of course, the book is not all doom and gloom. In a lighter moment, Mac actually lets Eli stop and poo; something Frodo never did.
Asked what books influenced her own formative years, Mac lists ME Watson’s Deliver Us From Evie, Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
“I would go to the library, especially the VPL [Vancouver Public Library]–only the VPL because it wasn’t in Abbotsford or Gibsons where I was living–and they had these little pamphlets on gay and lesbian fiction, and I would check out everything that was on the list,” she recalls. “But moreover I would go to the old Little Sister’s, when it was still upstairs, and pretty much take anything.”
Next spring, The Beckoners comes out in paperback; a screenwriter has already been attached to the film with Mac’s original dark ending. “Apparently it’s a very stolen book–it gets stolen from a lot of school libraries,” she tells me. “I’ve heard from several librarians that’s the ultimate compliment.”
I ask if she feels her protagonists need to be heterosexual for her to be able to be accessible.
“I don’t feel like I have to write straight characters, I feel like I write the characters as they are,” she replies. “For example, [in] The Beckoners the queer characters were secondary characters, they weren’t the main characters. Yet it’s funny because people still give that book to queer kids, especially queer young boys, because the healthiest relationship in that book is between those two boys–in high school,” she adds with a mischievous laugh.
Maybe it’s Mac’s honest portrayal of the world today’s teens live in that makes her seem so edgy in the eyes of adults.
“I mean [adults] read books to pass time on an airplane and we read books to keep ourselves entertained in the bathtub, or kill a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon,” she says. “But kids read books and it saves their lives, whether it’s a book on World War II aircraft or whether it’s a book about queer kids.”
The bill magically appears and we argue over it. “I can write it off,” we say in unison and laugh at the expense of the government.
“Don’t make me out as a zealot,” she says, school-marm like.
Mary Poppins for the new millennium? Maybe.