Interview with novelist Lily Iona MacKenzie


Author Lily Iona MacKenzie joins me today to talk about her new magical realism novel, Curva Peligrosa.
Welcome, Lily. Please share a little bit about yourself.
About me? A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (I was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got my legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County, CA, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in creative writing and one in the humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 155 American and Canadian venues. My novel Fling! was published in 2015. Curva Peligrosa was published in September 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2018. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011. I taught rhetoric at the University of San Francisco for over 30 years and currently teach creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning. I also blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.
Please tell us about your current release.
When Curva Peligrosa arrives in Weed, Alberta, after a twenty-year trek on the Old North Trail from southern Mexico, she stops its residents in their tracks. With a parrot on each shoulder, a glittering gold tooth, and a wicked trigger finger, she is unlike anything they have ever seen before. Curva is ready to settle down, but are the inhabitants of Weed ready for her? Possessed of an insatiable appetite for life and love, Curva’s infectious energy galvanizes the townspeople, turning their staid world upside down with her exotic elixirs and unbridled ways. Toss in an unscrupulous americano developer and a one-eyed Blackfoot chief, stir them all together in a tornado’s tempestuous tumult, and the town of Weed will never be the same again. A lyrical account of one woman’s journey and the unexpected effects it has on the people around her, Curva Peligrosa pulses with the magic at the heart and soul of life.
What inspired you to write this book?
The origin of our stories can be mysterious, as was the case with Curva. The narrative first took hold of me back in 2000. Here is what I wrote in my writer’s journal on 7/16/00, though I didn’t actually start writing the novel until 2003:
“Was taken with the image of the tornado that swept into Pine Lake, a resort near Red Deer, Alberta, yesterday, and has killed several people, flattening trailers etc. It isn’t the destruction that interests me. It’s devastating and unimaginable. It’s the image of the tornado, so innocent in itself, flattening a community, bringing with it so much sorrow. The tornado has a magical, mythical quality, reminding me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And it’s an image I can imagine using to start a book/story. There’s something in it for me, the way it gathers up so much in one swoop and then sets everything down in a new place, reconfigured. This is what interests me, and I don’t know quite what to do with it, but it has a compelling quality. It’s gripped my imagination. It’s odd how these things happen. The force they have. Novelists and writers in general are like tornados themselves in how they rearrange lives, facts, and places.”
It comes as no surprise that Curva Peligrosa opens with a tornado that sweeps through the fictional town of Weed, Alberta, and drops a purple outhouse into its center. Drowsing and dreaming inside that structure is its owner, Curva Peligrosa.
Adventurous and amorous, and over six feet tall, she possesses magical powers. She also has the greenest of thumbs, creating a tropical habitat in an arctic clime, and she possesses a wicked trigger finger. She proceeds to turn Weed upside down, like the tornado that opens the novel—upside down morally, spiritually, culturally, and sexually.
The narrative took off from there, giving me a wild ride as I tried to keep up with the irrepressible Curva.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I have another novel coming out on July 15, 2018: Freefall: A Divine Comedy. It features Tillie Bloom, a wacky installation artist, who travels to Venice for an extended reunion with three former friends, women she hung out with in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The four had reconnected a few weeks earlier during a four-day reunion in Whistler, B.C. A near-death experience with a grizzly on a mountain linked the women at a deeper level. This new intimacy prompts them to celebrate the millennium and their approaching 60th birthdays in Italy, where two thirds of the book take place. During this time, secrets surface, their stories binding them closer together. Tillie often gets lost in the maze of Venice streets, but she resurfaces sooner or later, intrigued by the various reflective surfaces and how they participate in the city’s love affair with light. These reflections counter the pull of darker forces, causing the four women to reevaluate themselves and their lives. Tillie, in particular, experiences a new understanding of herself that propels her into a new age, not unlike what she had experienced in the early ‘60s. A humorous yet serious meditation on the relationship between art and mortality, Freefall: a Divine Comedy taps into the rich underground springs that feed all of our lives, suggesting that death is more complex than we normally believe—darkness and death being the source of life and not just the end. It also celebrates the rich tapestry of the imagination.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I don’t think I had a chance to “consider myself a writer.” It chose me and is as necessary to me as eating. If I don’t write each day, I become irritable and unpleasant to live with. Ask my husband!
When I was thirteen, I started keeping a diary that I wrote in a coded language I invented so anyone who read it wouldn’t be able to enter my world. I have no idea what happened to that first attempt to keep a journal, but I’m sure it was my writing self trying to emerge. That part of me was buried though, along with the diary, until my mid-twenties when I experienced a deep depression. At that time, I started keeping a journal again. I also went into therapy, the first step in recovering my writing self.
The journal writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I wrote daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling, but I also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel that keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination. At this time, I also started exploring the craft of writing, entering an undergraduate creative writing program.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Over the years, I’ve had to support myself, both before and after I married my current husband in 1994. And since only 5% of writers can live off their writing income, I had to find other work. Luckily, I’ve been able to teach writing and literature part time at local colleges. At the moment I’m teaching creative writing to older adults at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong learning at the University of San Francisco. I’ve also had the privilege of helping my husband raise his two kids, who were 5 and 10 when we married. From so many demands on my time, I have learned to fit my writing needs into each day whenever I could, but I have always made sure that I wrote for at least an hour a day. In a year, that adds up to a lot of pages, and in addition to hundreds of poems, short stories, travel pieces, essays, and memoir, many of which I’ve published, I’ve also completed four+ novels. Of course, since publishing a poetry collection and two novels, I’ve also had to add book marketing to my list of things to do each day! But my life isn’t all work. I read voraciously. Working out daily on my stationary bike and at the gym keeps me trim and gives me energy for all of the other things I do. I love cooking, socializing with friends, and tending our garden. I also get great pleasure from dabbling in the visual arts.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
That I’m able to find humor in unexpected material.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A ballerina, another Annie Oakley, and Wonder Woman!
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I love John Cheevers quote: “I write to make sense of my life.” I feel that’s what I’m doing when I write.
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