Mini-Interview: Tanis MacDonald

Tanis MacDonald is an essayist, poet, professor and free-range literary animal. She is the host of the podcast Watershed Writers, and the author of Out of Line: Daring to Be an Artist Outside the Big City. Her essay “Mondegreen Girls” won the Open Seasons Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2021. She identifies as a bad birder, and lives near Ose’kowáhne in southwestern Ontario as a grateful guest on traditional Haudenosaunee territory.

What draws me to the writer: We have common interest in wild and urban spaces and similar sensibility.

Book: Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female (Wolsak & Wynn, June, 2022)

Book description: Tanis MacDonald walks the reader down many paths, pointing out the sights, exclaiming over birds, sharing stories and asking questions about who gets to walk freely through our cities, parks and wilderness. She walks to understand the place she now calls home in Southern Ontario, catalogues the fauna around her and walks through illness. Wry, smart, political and lyrical, these essays share the joy and danger of walking, and uncovers its promise of healing, of companionship and of understanding.

PP: What was or will your favourite moment(s) in making this book?
TM: My aha! moment for this book happened in Saskatchewan in 2019, when I was at St. Peter’s Abbey. It’s hard to explain, but a switch in my head flipped while I was getting up every morning, working with writers until about 2 and then writing until 10 at night. Suddenly and slowly, by benefit of this schedule and atmosphere, this book that I assumed I would write became the book I was writing, and I couldn’t get the words down fast enough. All the puzzle pieces of the text came flying at me and, while this was less magic and more the donning of a mantle of determination, I love that moment: its certainty, its resolve.     

I also had the pleasure of talking through this book with writers that I respect. Meeting regularly with them while I generated and edited pieces felt like such a privilege and an ongoing engagement in literary collegiality, far from the kind of isolated experience I’ve had when putting together with other books.  

PP: How did you corral what to include and exclude?
TM: Corralling the material is the right term! I knew I was entering a big arena; walking is a huge subject and the wealth of books about its various practices is nothing short of overwhelming. I didn’t want to write a straight-up scholarly text, or a heroic narrative of achievement. I’ve been working on the in-betweenness of lyric essays and prose-poems for a few years and wanted to include material that was nonfiction with an edge. I wanted to shake up genre so that it could better reflect my experiences of walking: sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, never the same thing twice. 

I also wanted to address a few open secrets, personal and social. I walk splay-footed and have nearly all my life, but most people are too polite to mention it, even though it does impede my gait and sometimes my ability. I am also a mental health advocate, with a long history of panic attacks. I also was surprised that so many books about women walking seemed to dismiss (or just assume) the kind of confidence it takes for a solo trek, no matter than length.  I was inspired by the kinds of work being done by Jenny Bruso in Unlikely Hikers, and J. Drew Lanham, in his work on whiteness in birdwatching. I wanted to join those conversations. 

In the end, I chose pieces that engaged the most fully with how moving through the world is a constant negotiation with self and surroundings. I still have plenty to say about the function of walking at work, but that’s for another book.