Interview with Amber McMillan

Amber McMillan's The Woods was released on October 1, 2016 by Nightwood Editions. She will be reading on November 25 at The Anza Club with the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series alongside Gregory Scofield, Wayne Arthurson and Sierra Skye Gemma. Keagan Perlette spoke with McMillan about her latest work, chronicled here.

It was the spring of 2014, and writer Amber McMillan had packed up her family––including a young daughter, a cat named Bernie Mac, and her partner, Nate––and moved cross country from Toronto to Protection Island, a spot of land nestled between Nanaimo and Gabriola Island on the Pacific coast. Dreaming of an idyllic escape from loud and stressful urban life, McMillan hoped to find peace and a change of pace out on the West Coast. What actually happened on Protection Island was far from the pastoral utopia McMillan and her family envisioned, and it is this experience of facing the reality of small town living that McMillan recounts in her new memoir The Woods: A Year on Protection Island. 

Keagan Perlette: Your first book is a book of poetry and, obviously, The Woods is a memoir. How was the writing process different? Why did you chose to tell this story as a memoir?

Amber McMillan: I think poetry is sort of a non-fiction first person, so in that way, first person, non-fiction memoir is not that different. Even thought it may look like two really different genres, I don’t really see it that way. And I didn’t think of it that way while I was writing, it felt like the same thing. [The book] started out as little stories about things that happened and it wasn’t until the editor at Nightwood (the publisher of The Woods) suggested that we turn this into a proper book with chronology and a plot. But in the beginning I was just sketching out stories, I was thinking about it as a collection of stories rather than a book.

KP: In memoir, there’s often this idea that the author is telling you their story because there is some grand overarching journey, or a revelation, but your book is more like a collection of snippets or vignettes. Do you want to talk about how the structure of the book came about? Did you sit down and recall things or did you write stuff down as it happened to you?  

AM: I say point blank that I didn’t necessarily learn anything. I wanted to push against that trope, especially in memoir, which is ‘I wrote this because I am a different person now that I was before and this journey has taken me to some grand place.’ Well, not necessarily, sometimes we just do things and we don’t get any further ahead, we don’t get any wiser. Maybe it’s not inspiring, but it might be true.
    The only biography I wanna read is one that has not been approved by the subject because they’re going to turn it into their own version of themselves and the one that they want the world to see. And who cares about your imaginary version of yourself? It’s hard, of course, when you’re writing your own memoir, you’re going to insert what you want your reader to take away or think of. So what I tried to do is take on a kind of objective voice, like I was reporting.
     There are a hundred more events that I could have written about, but I didn’t, so the ones that are there are the ones that had some particular impact on me. I did jot things down in real time but what I did, and this was a huge advantage, is that I had my partner with me who was there, too. So we got to remind each other of the things that happened, like, “No, it didn’t go like that, it went like this.” We had to negotiate the approximate truth, which I think is better than me having to do it myself. I think I got more out of it because he was able to tell me his version. 

KP: In the story where your partner, Nate, falls off the roof, you say that you meet your friend on the street, she’s riding a bike towards you and you say something like “Your dress will get caught in your spokes.” In that moment, you were clearly shocked and I wondered if the detail about the dress was something you put in after, or if it was a part of the memory. How did you recall the events for that story given your panicked state? 

AM: I wrote it down pretty soon after it happened. Having an emergency is such a disorienting thing, it totally disrupts your expectation of the day. So you have to quickly adapt and I have a hard time with that, it’s irrational. And I put the scene in where I say “Your dress is going to get caught in your spokes” because I have a theory that when you’re having an emergency, the brain, when it recognizes an emergency, it starts imprinting everything, because you may need it later. Your whole perception is altered by your survival mechanism, your brain is recording more detail then it normally would. 

KP: Did you find yourself making things up to fill gaps in memory? How did you deal with sticking to a narrative structure, making the story engaging, while still being as truthful as possible? 

AM: My friend Rebecca, who is the character of Rebecca in the book, told me that I’d written her coming into the library with grocery bags and she said “I would never come into the library with grocery bags, because my house is near the ferry, so I would have gone home and dropped off my groceries and then gone to the library. But you know what, I know why you did it. You did it because the spirit is: you have to carry everything around all the time. You’re constantly carrying enormous loads of stuff.” So putting groceries in her hands is an inaccurate detail, but it’s accurate in terms of the detail, which is you’re just carrying shit all the time.

KP: What I loved about the book is the honest way you dealt with the disappointments, the reveal that this experience is anything but soothing, or escapist. The neighbours seem so hostile, it’s like how a horror movie starts: everyone seems to be withholding something, like when your boat is continually vandalized.

AM: Everything was hostile and there was this real strange protection over everything: information, archives. No one wanted us to be there, and we didn’t know that, and we had to learn that. The people that are there have made quite a deliberate decision to stay there and live that way and I think they found something that really works for them, and in so doing, it must be pretty frustrating to have a couple of city slickers to show up on your front porch and think that they have the same rights as you, when you have been labouring over this for years and these two people show up and it looks like they just show up on a whim. I think that we were so naive about this, cause it isn’t like this in a city: you show up and rent an apartment and get on with it. There’s no ownership over the place. Like the guy across the street doesn’t think he belongs in Montréal more than you. I wrote the chapter about the Douglas Islands and the First Nations, I was hoping to indicate that if you’re going to talk about ownership, you need to get real: none of us belong here more than Indigenous people. The book is anti-pastoral and I think that’s the cool part. 

KP: It seems like such a struggle at all times throughout the book! It’s like Call of the Wild, like, stories about characters realizing nature is harsh and unforgiving. 

The struggle was social. I put in a lot about how much I’m crying. Falling apart, crying, and not being able to connect it to a thing, like, I’m not crying because A, B or C happened,  I’m just crying in general. You’re in a situation that just feels so hopeless, like someone asks why you’re crying and you have to say I don’t know exactly. What if you’re crying cause life is sad sometimes. 

KP: In the book itself, you don’t really talk about writing. If you have down time, you’re doing other activities or chores. What did your writing life look like while you lived on the island? 

I didn’t start out thinking that this was going to be a book, I just wrote down some stories as a way to make myself feel better. The real reason I ever published it is because I handed it to Silas White at Nightwood and he said “This is good, I wanna publish it.” I was also writing poetry on the side. It sounds like it’s just balls to the wall the whole time, which it was, but you need to be writing to feel better. You have to carve out the time or you’re just going to feel even worse. 


More information about the upcoming reading at the Anza Club can be found here, at