James Bernard MacKinnon, commonly bylined as J.B. MacKinnon, will be coming to the Yukon from Vancouver to be the Yukon Public Libraries’ choice as a travelling writer to visit a number of communities during the Yukon Writers’ Festival taking place May 2-7.
During his Yukon visit McKinnon will do presentations and readings in the Dawson City Community Library (Monday, May 1 at 7 p.m.); Pelly Crossing Community Library (Tuesday, May 2 at 1:30 p.m.); Faro Community Library (Tuesday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m.); and at the Teslin Community Library (Thursday, May 4 at 6:30 pm).
He will also read with the Young Authors Conference mentor writers on Wednesday, May 3 at the Live Words Reading and Reception at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, at Whitehorse, 7 p.m. and in a Saturday night event in Haines Junction at the Haines Junction Public Library.
MacKinnon has authored or co-authored four books of nonfiction, of which the latest is The Once and Future World and the best known is probably The 100 Mile Diet. He contributes regularly to the New Yorker magazine on consumer issues and ecology, and his work has also appeared in National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters and Nautilus.
Despite winning more than a dozen awards for his work as a writer, he is hesitant about the label.
“I still hesitate to call myself a writer — it sounds like such a big deal. Which, I guess, is why I tried to become a writer; it seemed to me like an important thing to be.
“Like a lot of writers, I probably got that idea from growing up in a house where books and magazines were an ever-present part of daily life.”
He feels like he has been pushed in that direction by an internal quest for answers.
“Every time I dip my toe in something else — activism, business, charity — I end up questioning, overwhelming myself with questions and grope my way toward answers. It’s almost like I am a writer by default.”
There is an existential edge to a lot of his work.
“Connection and disconnection drives a lot of my writing. The 100-Mile Diet was about reconnecting with place and people through food. The Once and Future World is about our connection, or lack of connection, to nature.
“Even more broadly, I think most of my writing asks the question, How should we live?”
Are nonfiction writers also storytellers?
Yes and no, he says.
“I would say that I don’t tell stories so much as I make arguments, with stories as one of the tools that I use.
“You’ll often hear writers justify their purpose by saying that human beings are ‘hardwired for stories.’ We are — which is why they need to be handled with care. Stories can enrich us, but they can play to the cheap seats, too. They can play us for suckers.”
Writing professionally is a job, and MacKinnon treats it as one.
“I get up at 6 a.m., write for an hour, and then have breakfast. Then I write until noon, with one 15-minute-or-so break, during which I do chores like sweeping or cleaning, just to move my body. After lunch I usually do research, or catch up on the business end of the writing life.
“Then I do something active, whether that means walking or rock climbing. I would love to fit the romantic image of the dishevelled writer with the crazy life, but it doesn’t work for me.”
MacKinnon has two brothers and their families in Whitehorse, so he has both personal and professional reasons for looking forward to this trip.
“It always comes down to the land and the people. I hope I have moments here and there to take in the land. I look forward to meeting a few Yukoners and hearing how they see the world.”
He likes teaching because he says it helps him to figure out what he is doing, as distinct from just doing it.
He has a twist on the usual advice given to young writers.
“The most common advice young writers get is to read, read, read. That’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.
“Don’t just read: ask yourself how and why the writing works. Writers are always up to something. But what?”