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Mary MacDonald mines the dark places for debut collection of short stories

The Crooked Thing officially launches at the Whistler Writers Festival on Oct. 15
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Mary MacDonald is launching her debut short story collection. Photo by Alyssa Noel

Picture this: it’s 4 a.m. on a blustery winter Whistler morning. 

Mary MacDonald is just waking up. She pours herself a cup of coffee and flips open her laptop. Her goal is to write before the world wakes up—all while she’s in the murky middle between night and morning. 

“I write between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m.,” she says. “I have a job, so when are you going to do it? I think, in a way, it influences the story because it’s dark at 4 a.m. In Whistler it can be -19 C and the wind could be howling. I love that time of day … It’s kind of dreamlike, too. What I try to do is not fully wake up.”

Instead, she dives into that semi-wakefulness to see where the story goes.

That was how, short story by short story, she wrote her debut collection The Crooked Thing, set to mark its official release at the Whistler Writers Festival on Thursday, Oct. 15. 

The stories vary wildly in time, setting, and characters, but they possess a poetic undercurrent that hints at MacDonald’s background as a poet. 

“My default position is poetry,” she says. “I’m a poet at heart, so I wander all over the place. For me, I have to wrestle the story and give it enough grounding, [so] the reader is going to go, ‘I get what she’s trying to say here.’” 

Their inspiration is also gleaned from the same place. “I come back to this Robert Frost quote. He said, ‘Poetry begins with a lump in the throat; a sense of wrong or homesickness or a love sickness.’ And all of my stories are like that. I call it a stone in my boot because I’m a walker—something you can’t ignore. Something that keeps harping at your brain,” she says.

One example was a quick CBC radio story MacDonald heard one day while driving on the Sea to Sky highway. A man who piloted the aquaferry between Granville Island and False Creek had stolen the boat with the aim of making it to Kauai. He made it to Tofino. 

“I thought, ‘Who does that?’” she recalls. “It stuck with me for weeks.”

Eventually, she decided to explore that idea and came up with a sympathetic, but troubled character named Chester.

“You love Chester,” she says. “You’re rooting for him. And all my stories feel like that to me. There’s, of course, a dark sadness because a lot of them are sad and thematically about death and loss and regret. I really feel like, for whatever reason, I’m a glass-half-full person. I’m the person who gets up every morning and I’m happy, whatever lands on my plate. I feel like I’m capable of going into dark places. I call it excavating.”

And, she adds, if you’re able to go into that dark place, mine it for a deeper understanding and emerge mostly unscathed. 

“I have a responsibility, if I can write about it, I should write about it.” 

Fittingly, MacDonald will be celebrating the launch of her book at the Whistler Writers Festival. It was thanks to festival founder Stella Harvey’s writing group, The Vicious Circle, that she (a child psychologist by day) started to write fiction back in 2006.

“I wanted to have the first launch at Whistler at the festival,” she says. “That felt right to me.” 

RSVP for the free book launch event, which runs from 6 to 6:30 p.m., as part of the festival at