The Giller man

Linden MacIntyre on his Catholic roots and why he doesn’t use Twitter

2009 Giller Prize winner Linden MacIntyre has won eight Gemini awards as well as an International Emmy for his journalistic work.
2009 Giller Prize winner Linden MacIntyre has won eight Gemini awards as well as an International Emmy for his journalistic work.

Despite currently outselling DaVinci Code author Dan Brown in Canada, Giller Prize-winning author Linden MacIntyre has bigger concerns about the implications of his novel The Bishop’s Man—namely, eternal damnation.

“It comes as a relief to me that I haven’t been burned in effigy yet,” he jokingly told an audience of more than 60 professors, students and fans in Chernoff auditorium on Friday.

“I have a lot of friends and relatives who are devout practicing Catholics. At a certain point of writing this book I thought they would never speak to me again.”

MacIntyre was in Kingston to read from and discuss The Bishop’s Man, a tale of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church told through the eyes of Father Duncan MacAskill, a middle-aged priest ordered to suppress potentially scandalous evidence of sexual misconduct by priests.

Perhaps the best-known of this year’s Giller Prize nominees, MacIntyre is also a co-host of CBC’s the fifth estate, and has won eight Gemini awards and one International Emmy amongst several other awards for investigative reporting. While at Queen’s he also participated in a roundtable discussion on the future of journalism.

MacIntyre is the third Giller Prize-winning author to take part in the English department’s annual lecture. The department hosted 2008’s winner Joseph Boyden last February and Elizabeth Hay in 2007.

MacIntyre told the Journal it didn’t immediately click when Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch read out his name at the award ceremony in November.

“My wife was sitting where you are and looked me in the eye and said, ‘Now you have to go up there.’ It just didn’t quite register. As I’m walking up there I’m saying, ‘I guess I have to say something.’ What do you say? So I said, ‘Thank you.’ It’s all a blur.”

So much of a blur, in fact, that MacIntyre lost the $50,000 cheque Rabinovitch handed to him on stage.

“Somebody later in the evening said, ‘Show us the $50,000 cheque,’ and I said, ‘What $50,000?’ They said, ‘Well, you won $50,000 with this prize,’ and I said, ‘Well, surely it comes in the mail.’ They said, ‘No he handed it to you. Where is it?’ My wife eventually found it all balled up underneath a pile of Kleenex.”

Originally from the rural community of Port Hastings, Nova Scotia, MacIntyre was raised in a devout Catholic family. He said he first got the idea for The Bishop’s Man about 12 years ago after hearing about the suicide of a young fisherman in a small community in Nova Scotia that might have been caused by sexual abuse.

“I started to mull over the possibility of exploring sexual abuse through community reactions and through the perspective of a priest who had firsthand knowledge of the subject from having helped to cover it up and mitigate the already serious damage by calming people down, keeping the police out of it, keeping lawyers away from it.”

In 1964, MacIntyre completed his undergraduate degree at St. Francis Xavier University, a school with a Roman Catholic influence where most of his professors were priests.

“Looking back on it I don’t know how much religious doctrine I really believed, but I was culturally shaped by it and part of the culture; going to church, serving, and all the sacramental things,” he said. “It was a cultural thing and was part of my history. I just kept on doing it until I really started to think about it and then I started to transition away from it and became more or less agnostic.”

MacIntyre, who’s published four books in the last 10 years, said he isn’t the type of person who has to be sequestered in order to write.

“I can write in the back seat of a taxi or an airplane. I just make notes and I write stuff down and I let stuff germinate in my head and maybe spend a few hours early one morning and get it all down,” he said. “That’s the way the book got written over a long period of time. Probably when I really got serious it took about a year to get a first draft and took another year and a half to polish it.”

MacIntyre said he approaches fiction with a journalistic impulse, and made his novel as realistic as possible.

“I spent a lot of time making sure that I had an authentic voice for a priest that I understood fine points of Cannon law and Church history and that I understood the point of view of people who have been sexually abused,” he said. “I’ve done journalism in Central America and there’s a lot of politics of Central America in that book. I double-checked all of that stuff. You go through the fact checking and sorting things out for a work of fiction as you do for journalism. While fiction is mostly made up, it also is mostly true. The situations, the characters, the implications of what happens in the book are truthful.”

Despite the novel’s disturbing subject matter, MacIntyre said The Bishop’s Man received a positive review from the weekly Catholic newspaper the Catholic Register and a few priests from Nova Scotia.

“I’ve heard the archbishop of Halifax likes the book. … I don’t know why.”

MacIntyre said the transition from journalist to novelist wasn’t much of a transition at all, as both rely primarily on the ability to effectively tell a story.

“Whether you tell stories in a newspaper column or a block of time on TV or radio or in the rather long process of producing a novel, it’s all storytelling,” he said. “I approach the writing of fiction with the same kind of commitment that I have to writing journalism. I want it to be fundamentally true, I want it to be very real.”

Since joining the fifth estate in 1990, MacIntyre has found himself telling stories stranger than fiction—sometimes in close proximity to his subjects.

“Every so often you get dragged across the line into the story, and that’s when life gets more complicated, interesting, painful and sometimes actually dangerous, but it happens,” he said.

MacIntyre said he had to confront a number of ethical issues covering the execution of Stan Faulder, the first Canadian citizen to be executed in the United States since 1952.

After talking to Faulder extensively, Faulder asked MacIntyre to witness the execution.

“I went down and I got into a terrific wrangle with the authorities in Texas—Bush was the governor at the time—and they weren’t going to let me witness the execution. As it turned out his execution was stayed at the last minute—like out of the movies—15 minutes before. He and I had a couple of meetings after that, but then he had a new execution date and that time they did it.”

MacIntyre also developed a relationship with Canadian bank robber Ty Conn, whom he interviewed for a story on the effects of child abuse several years before Conn made his notorious escape from Kingston Penitentiary in 1999. After being cornered by police two weeks later, Conn shot and killed himself while on the phone with Theresa Burke, another journalist with the fifth estate.

“I never expected to do another [piece on Conn] because he had more or less promised me he was going to be a good boy and get out of prison and have a life,” MacIntyre said. “The system jerked him around a lot and he eventually ran out of patience.”

Soon after, MacIntyre found himself part of the story when the fifth estate put together a documentary about Conn’s life and death.

“What we finally decided to do—rather than me write a script in the conventional way—was that I would be interviewed, so I’d speak spontaneously and kind of subjectively.”

Despite being a well-known Canadian journalist in the golden age of the Internet, MacIntyre keeps a relatively low profile online, shunning social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. He said he makes an exception for YouTube, though.

“I think that’s fun. It’s ironic, it’s funny, and it scares the hell out of people. It is a medium for accountability. You mess up, you could be on YouTube. I like that aspect of it,” he said. “But Facebook scares me because of the privacy issues. Twittering is too spontaneous. E-mail is the same problem. There’s not enough thought that goes into this stuff. Many of the people who Twitter and e-mail find themselves regretting some of the tweets and e-mails later.”

MacIntyre said the constant “chatter” of social networking can’t replace established media’s objective monitoring of society.

“It’ll never be a substitute for the accountability that is demanded by an organized medium, whether it’s an electronic online thing or whether it’s an old-fashioned newspaper. It has to be organized and it has to be mediated and directed and it has to be motivated by a social mandate of some kind.”

Despite losing some of its edge as an influential and well-paying profession, MacIntyre said aspiring journalists needn’t despair.

“Don’t ask me what it is, but it’s got to happen. Information is like food and fluid—we’ve got to have it. Objective critical information that allows us to keep control of our lives and the institutions that drive our lives is absolutely crucial as it’s always been,” he said. “We’re now in that limbo period where people are going to come up with the new models and the new formats. It will happen; there’s no question about it. You’re in the right place at the right time.”

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