Alum makes waves with debut novel

The cover of Robert McGill’s debut novel, The Mysteries.
The cover of Robert McGill’s debut novel, The Mysteries.
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Robert McGill, author of The Mysteries

There must be something about Queen’s University and writers. From Robertson Davies, our illustrious grandfather of fiction, to contemporary aces like Russell Smith and Steven Heighton, Queen’s hovers like a proud, invisible godmother at bookstores around the world. In 2004, Robert McGill, ArtSci ’99, took up the literary torch with his stunning debut novel, The Mysteries.

A beautiful, startling story told from 12 different viewpoints, The Mysteries unfolds deliberately with the distinct sensation of controlled energy.

The characters are among the inhabitants of Sunshine, a small Ontario town. But if you’re expecting the usual tight-lipped farmers, think again. From a lesbian couple managing an energetic child, to aboriginal Canadians struggling with issues of racism, to an escaped tiger (yes, an actual tiger), McGill has created some of the most compelling narrative voices in recent years.

When asked in a recent interview with the Journal whether he was nervous about writing from so many different perspectives, McGill said, “I was more nervous about them sounding too much like me … the book triggered in me a pretty standard artistic nervousness about representing anything other than one’s own experience.”

This is an area of expertise for McGill, who this spring will defend a doctoral thesis on the ethics of autobiography in literature. He is currently studying at U of T, after completing degrees in creative writing at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and English literature at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. It seems like a long trip for the boy from Wiarton, Ontario—as in the home of Willie the groundhog—but McGill is hardly the jaded type.

“At Queen’s I was a runner first and foremost,” he says. “I really started taking [writing] more seriously when I was in Carolyn Smart’s creative writing class during my third year.” Upon graduation McGill won the Jenkins trophy for combining excellence in athletics and academics. Something of a Renaissance man, McGill also wrote on occasion for several sections of the Journal (including the now-defunct Journal Reader) and published creative writing in Ultraviolet Magazine and the Queen’s Feminist Review, where he was “proud to be one of the first two men ever published.” In light of this flurry of activity, McGill said, “I was still trying to do everything at once, even at the time I left Queen’s.” This dedication has certainly paid off for McGill’s readers as The Mysteries is one of the finest Canadian debuts in years.

The story behind the novel is deceptively simple: a woman named Alice Pederson has disappeared without a trace from the fictional town of Sunshine. As the investigation moves along, however, unimagined secrets well up as if beyond the characters’ control.

McGill said that “the novel keeps alternating between apparent transparency and realism,” a mixture that energizes the text with a hypnotic allure.

“I wanted to leave a lingering sense that there was one consciousness behind all of these different characters.” Indeed, you close The Mysteries wondering from whom exactly who you heard the story. The mystery that permeates Sunshine seems endless and there is an impression that the disappearance of Alice Pederson is only scratching the surface.

McGill said “small towns can be mysterious, paradoxically, because it feels like we know their story already … there is this expected surface and then unexpected depth.” This tension between surface and depth runs throughout the narration. Set aside some time before picking up The Mysteries; you won’t be able to put it down.

McGill’s extensive education certainly adds to his writing. “I’m lucky to have had the chance to read a lot,” he said. “Like with a lot of writers, what I write has grown out of what I read.” Trying to identify direct influences might be difficult though.

“There are favourite writers but they are not necessarily ones that sound like me … these things tend to be books I would never be able to write myself; that’s one of the reasons I admire them.” He cited J.M. Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro, but added “I tend to admire certain books more than certain writers.” For those among us with literary aspirations, McGill goes beyond the standard advice to say “read widely, write as much as you can, and share your writing with people whose opinions you trust; it’s important to establish an audience early.” McGill followed his own advice and has been published numerous times over the years in literary magazines such as Grain, Descant, and The Fiddlehead, to name a few, as well as two pieces recently published in the Journey Prize Anthology.

The quickest way to ingest some literary McGill goodness, however, is to get your hands on a copy of The Mysteries (recently released in paperback). In addition to the lucid prose and inventive format, I will bet it is the first time you will read anything written from a tiger’s perspective.

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