The Novelist and Her Pen: an Interview with Mackenzie Belcastro

The ironic thing about our friendship is that I really don’t remember how we started communicating. Maybe Belcastro has more clarity on this, but back then, and until now, we have been cheering on each other’s work like an ongoing football game. At some point I even had the honor of providing feedback on the early draft of Belcastro’s upcoming novel The Play HouseThat, I must tell you, was a very fun and enlightening opportunity.

I remember the day when the forty something pages had arrived in the mail. I started reading. Finally! I was able to pinpoint it. Her characters were not characters but people. Her dialogue was seldom dialogue but conversation. Her imagery was not simply some marvelous scene—the conjuring of misty metaphors and complicated word swings—but a portrait of the imagination that seemingly felt like a photograph come alive.

. . . And that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to Belcastro about not just her work but the the realm of writing itself.  What indicates first-rate intelligence? How does writer’s block impact this novelist?

Those questions and more are upcoming.

The Interview

Hughes: Tell us about yourself. What was your childhood like?

Belcastro: It’s funny, but in reading this question that I so love, a few different answers popped into my mind. Oddly, they’re all different as I changed a lot through my stages of childhood. But, of course, they do weave together in such a way that creates my fabric that exists today. So, here goes . . .

When I was really young, I had this obsession with everything bright, colourful and playful. My favourite swimsuit was this patchwork of all the colours of the rainbow, and I regularly went around with a blue faux-fur scarf wrapped around my neck—which was most often matched with a pink ruffle top. I didn’t know of Dolly Parton then, but you’d have guessed she was my style inspiration. This bubbly-ness came out in my personality too. I remember walking into buildings with my mum and reaching out my hand to strangers (adults) and saying, “Hi, I’m Mackenzie.”

As I grew up, however, I also grew more timid. It was in elementary school that I wound up swapping a lot of that flair for more . . . well, normal outfits (jeans, t-shirts, etc). I remember at this time still having my special things, but they had shifted from clothing to trinkets—crystal notebooks, gem-encrusted jars—things I could keep to myself when it no longer seemed “acceptable” to be holding onto such a childlike worldview.

Looking back, it’s a blessing those self-induced “repressed years” were filled with outlets through which I could express myself because those years made up a large chunk of my life. If I hadn’t been able to come to a stage and shake off my worries, I can only imagine the taxation my mental health would’ve endured . . .

Those outlets, by the way, were acting and dancing. Just thinking about them now makes me smile.

I loved every aspect of performing—from the costumes to the buzz you get right before, to the high during and after and, most of all, the feeling like I could, at least temporarily, become whoever I wanted to be.

Hughes: Is anyone else in your family creative?

Belcastro: I believe everyone is inherently creative, only some people have regular practices that draw it out. My older sister used to dance a lot. She and I would spend our free time when we were kids making up dances and performing them before our family. In fact, for a time she went to the National Ballet School in Toronto but ultimately left it when she decided she didn’t want to pursue dance as a career. And although she still doesn’t have any practice she draws upon, I believe her creativity exists. It’s just lying dormant.

My little sister is a wonderfully talented visual artist, and has always inspired me with her drawings and the emotion she flecks her characters’ eyes with. They’re beautiful. This she gets from my dad (who rarely draws these days). But I remember him doing this when I was a toddler, which was also when he made up stories and told them to us before bed.

These days, his creative outlet is designing homes. He’s crafted a few in his lifetime and loves sourcing the perfect materials with the architect to bring out his exact vision. It’s a lot of work, and not his full time gig, but there’s a passion there that shines through that keeps him at it.

My mum and brother don’t create things, but they’re both fairly active. Maybe athleticism is a replacement for art creation? Possibly. I certainly know athletes that gain the same pleasure in sport as artists do from making. Something to chew on.

Hughes: What’s your day job? Does it relate to the arts?

Belcastro: Like a lot of creatives in this day and age, my “day job” is a bit of a mixed bag. But yes, they are all related to the arts. To explain, I’m the co-founder of a quarterly speaking series called Saturday Social TO, which is on the mission to educate and inspire budding creators and entrepreneurs, as well as connect them with seasoned leaders. With it being a start-up, however, I have freelance gigs (writing, editing, and social media management) supporting it. And since my clients are also in the arts industry, I suppose you could say I never leave it—even if all I’m creating is an Instagram post.

Hughes: Who or what inspired you to embark on writing your upcoming novel The Play House?

Belcastro: A few factors come into play here. Basically, there’s one set of inspiration behind the act of writing a novel and then another behind the subject matter.

In terms of the former, Chase Jarvis’ The Other 50% was the first catalyst. It solidified what I’d been feeling about the necessity of community for not only happiness but artistic success. Ultimately this led me to my writing group, which, little did I know it, was a novelist heavy writing group. It sounds flippant, but entering that writing group and being asked what book I was working did something to me.

”It made me ask myself what book I would work on if only I had the guts to try. Since that first meeting, I became determined to answer this question, and thereafter give myself the curtesy of trying.”

The subject matter’s inspiration is another story, and that’s likely too long for here. What I will say though is that I wrote all about it for Kobo’s blog here.

Hughes: How would you define your relationship to writing? For example, where does it root from and how has this timeline changed since?

Belcastro: Writing is like oxygen, for me. When I don’t write the world feels too fast, too meaningless. I lose sight of my thoughts and feelings. As a result I feel like I’m slowly suffocating.

My writing roots first grew when I was a kid writing short stories about my grandma’s dogs and my own kiddish diary, detailing things like my crushes and my friends’ crushes. Then they disappeared. In middle school, they re-emerged when I began sharing chapters of stories about pre-teens and all their pre-teen worries (acne, mean girls, boys) on message boards.

Then they disappeared again.

They resurfaced for good when I realized that writing was, as I said, a sort of reliable source of oxygen. See, for a period of time, post-acting and dancing, and pre-serious-writing, I had no creative outlet and fell into a deep depression. It a few tactics to climb out of, and writing proved to be a significant one.

Hughes: The following is a quote by American author and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘’It was my first inkling that he was a writer. And while I like writers—because if you ask a writer anything you usually get an answer—still it belittled him in my eyes. Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.’’

What is your interpretation of this? Is this true?

Belcastro: Here’s how I interpret that: writers, including myself, tend to be great at watching other people, memorizing them—collecting impressions as they used to say.

Often, when we do this, we place ourselves on the periphery of the scene playing out before us, or in a broader context, on the periphery of society. It’s like we’re the audience of The Play Of Life rather than an active cast member. To me, this is what he means by we’re ”not people exactly.” People act, while writers observe the acting.

I could be totally off, but that last line seems to me to carry that same vein. Like, we spend so much time in our heads, and so we can understand life from so many viewpoints—as we demonstrate when we create characters—and what we are left with, when we’re not writing, is a tangle of threads rather than a solid viewpoint of our very own.

If this interpretation is correct, I can understand and sympathize with it. I think people of particular personalities are drawn to writing. Those that like to think deeply, philosophize, etc.

Then again, there are so many different types of writers. I think novelists fit this bill, as novelists rarely wish to embed a moral in their stories and, with character development, have to see life through so many lenses. Journalists, on the other hand, traditionally have firm opinions on issues and try hard to get a certain message out there. So maybe it’s true for some, especially storytellers, but less so for others.

[I wonder if Fitzgerald was genuinely bothered by this because he was such a character, a celebrity, which is quite different from the traditional outcast novelist. Just a thought.]

Hughes: Some novelists say that the best writers are those who commit to their craft 24/7, taking little breaks and editing sparsely until the first draft is finished. What is your opinion on this? Should one take breaks? If so, how might the results of second technique differ from the previous?

Belcastro: I don’t actually think that there’s a right answer here. I will say, I’m not keen taking breaks because I happen to think through writing. Me and my story have both been best served when I just keep at it, draft after draft, making pivots to plot or character arcs when needed.

That said, I couldn’t say that’s a better way to go about writing a novel. Especially because I happen to know of writers who do their best thinking through meditative thought or going for months not writing to sort out a plot problem before having a “eureka” moment.

This has never been my MO, however, and it gives me anxiety to spend a day away from my book, much less weeks, months, or even years. So, again, I think it’s individual and really comes down to the way in which you work through problems.

If a break feels necessary, I’d ask yourself why. Are you burnt out? Are you confused about your story? Are you bored of it? If you’re just exhausted, take a week off. If you’re confused, make some notes and get back to the basics of your plot. What is your story about? What’s extraneous? It’s likely you veered off course. This may be, too, why you’re bored.

When we veer off course, too far away from those subjects or themes we care deeply about, we’re likely to find we’ve written ourselves into a story that we don’t care about.

Finally, with regards to editing heavily while writing, I’d simply say do not unless you’re on your near-end drafts. Why? Because you’re bound to cut scenes as you work with your structure. And because you’re bound to have an editor suggest you move scenes around in the future, all of your fine-tuning and word-smithing will be lost or in need of more re-doing.

”Don’t worry about finely chiselling your sentences when there may very well be big boulders to shift first.”

Hughes: Writer’s block seems to be a global, free for all palooza (with no drinks!) How do you deal with it?

Belcastro: I’m curious about your thoughts here, M.G., because I personally don’t believe in it. I write every day, no matter what, even if it’s god awful writing and I have no idea where I’m going with it. Often times, you need to write a bit of garbage before the good stuff flows.

Here’s the good news: when you get to the gold, you only need to tap the “delete” button to sweep up the messy trail that led you there—and no one needs to see it! So in all seriousness, I think creative blocks come from high expectations and a fear of “failing” to meet them on the first try. So remove the expectations. Write crappy. Voilà! Gone.

Hughes: Describe one of the first storyline(s) you created. Do you think these scenes or characters ultimately inspired The Play House?

Belcastro: Great question. I’ve always written stories concerning inner conflicts than external ones. One I toyed with for a while was a fantasy where a girl repeatedly finds herself entering another dimension for brief moments at a time. Here she meets this world full of people that express their fear of a neighbouring town  is rife with crime (particularly kidnapping).

This story was to be weaved with scenes of the main character in her therapist’s chair, discussing her own anxieties. Near the end, she discovers that these people had it all twisted. The place they thought was safe was actually where the kidnappings were taking place. They were all the ones who had been kidnapped and made to forget about it.

In the very end, she uncovers that these people never existed and, instead, simply fragments of her own mind. The “kidnapping” was happening in her own head, as she isolated herself from the world.

When I simplified this story and brought it back to the real world, it became The Play House.

 Hughes: What should a reader expect and NOT expect in your novel?

Belcastro: I love this question. I tend to say, if you’re looking for high-speed action (car chases, hunts through the woods, fire breathing dragons, etc.) this book isn’t for you. However, if you’re looking for something character-driven, nostalgic, mysterious and, subtly magical, then perhaps I’m the author for you.

I strive to imbibe the same feeling Robert Dinsdale does so beautifully, and that Joanne Harriss does in her Chocolat Series, too.

[For Harry Potter fans, I’ll say this: I’m working to create that mood Rowling does in her “slow” scenes. That feeling we get when we’re introduced to Diagon Alley for the first time, Hogsmeade, or the Great Hall on Christmas—where readers feel wrapped in a magical world, but the focus remains on human connection or society].

Hughes: The following is a quote by African-American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurtson: ‘’I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” How might a writer relate to this?

Belcastro: My interpretation of this is that you “weep at the world” if you feel like you cannot do anything about it. When you feel helpless, your emotions are overwhelming you, and so go on to explode via tears.

However, as artists we needn’t feel helpless because helplessness comes from feeling like you have no voice. We express our voices through our art. So, to answer your question, a writer doesn’t “weep at the world” because a writer is busy writing about his view of the world.

This is why you often hear of artists saying they cannot go too long without creating. Creating isn’t something frivolous we do “for fun.” No. Creating is something we do so that we can express our thoughts and beliefs, as well as our fears and quandaries.

”When we create, we can breathe. When we don’t, we feel plugged up. This means we can be a very busy group of people, because creating takes a substantial amount of time and energy, and we balance this sacred act with the rest of our lives. So time becomes a very precious thing for artists. We don’t waste it on complaining mindlessly. We make art.”

 Hughes: Define the word ‘’artist.’’

Belcastro: Thanks for this question, because I would’ve had to clarify had you not asked this.

A lot of people, especially friends of mine that are a generation or two older than me, define “artist” as painters and illustrators. However, to me, that is the definition of a visual artist with the term ”artist” being one that is far broader.

An artist, in my opinion, is someone who makes something as a response to a feeling conjured within. The medium used is less important than the mindset. Whether you’re creating a painting, a book, a poem, a film, a piece of furniture, a dress, or a plate of food—it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to work with paint to be an artist. What you need is to create from within. If you’re drawing a circle on a piece of paper without thought, without any layers of meaning, then the fact that you’ve used a pencil crayon and a thick sheet of fancy paper means nothing with regards to being an artist. You’re someone who draws circles. On the flip side, if you’re building a company from a place deep inside yourself, as I’d say Chase Jarvis and Joanna Waterfall both are with Creative Live and Yellow Co., respectively, you are very much an artist, in my eyes.

Hughes: What’s one character in The Play House you would love to ‘’meet’’ in real life? Why?

Belcastro: Wow this is a toughie because, man, I would love to meet the whole gang. Particularly, as I feel they are all still hiding secrets from me that won’t come out until I write this book’s sequel, and if I could meet them, maybe I could coax them to reveal a bit more. (Ha!)

Having to make a choice, I will say Madame Renard because I am incredibly inspired by confident women who are unapologetically themselves at all times—and that is precisely what she is. As a richly ornamented Bohemian woman living in an ultra conservative small town, she stands out. Think: silk bandanas, strings of beads, caftans, and unkempt curls. Yet, in spite of the way this causes people to stare, gossip, and avoid her, she does nothing to hide, nor change herself. As a shop owner, you’d think she’d be concerned with being well-liked, but she is only concerned with treating the customers who do choose to enter her store with care and grace.

So, aside from wanting to meet her for these fangirl-ish reasons, I would like to meet her so I could ask her about her antique shoppe—including its genesis, secrets, and where her family got all the trinkets that currently outfit it.

I have yet to uncover all of these!

Hughes: What would you consider the most valuable learning tool for a newer writer? For example, is it other writers or books?

Belcastro: I’m all for community, but in this case I’d have to say books are the most valuable. That’s because, if you’re a newer writer, you’re likely to be focused on improving your craft, bridging what Ira Glass calls the ”Talent-Taste Gap.” That is best done, in my experience, through reading, analyzing, and writing.

So, find what you like to read first, and read voraciously. As you do, begin to ask yourself what you like about these books, what draws you in. Is it the diction choice? The pacing? The storylines? The themes presented? What has been left out? Dig in. Then, copy. No, really. Copy. It’s actually good to emulate for a while until you find your own voice. So many writers worry about finding their authentic voice, but I believe that it comes organically by writing, at first, in the voices of those you admire and then continuing to write until those voices shed (and they will). Wearing a faux voice becomes burdensome after a while. If you write a lot, you’ll naturally seek to peel the burden off your shoulders and reveal what’s underneath.

Hughes: What advice would you give someone who might be afraid to share their literary worlds to family members and strangers?

Belcastro: I suppose this depends on the writer’s goals with regards to their work. If he is writing purely for himself, with no desire to publish, I don’t know if I’d push sharing with others.

That said, if there’s any desire at all to publish, I’d remind him that he is then writing with the intention of sharing, and so he and his work would best be served if he began to put his work out there now. See, we need feedback to do the best possible job we can do and become aware of our blind spots—AKA where we aren’t being clear, where we are being verbose, and where we ought to expand.

Most importantly, we need feedback from our target market. Not enough writers think about this. So many send out their work to friends of their own age, in their own cohort, without even considering whether or not that’s the intended reader. Even worse, many send their work out to only their family and fail to get raw responses because, most often, the family sugarcoats.

Anyone serious about publishing needs honest beta and alpha readers. These days you can find them on social media. The easiest way I’ve done this is by looking for authors with a similar writing style and targeting their followers. If you’re writing YA fantasy, for instance, check out Soman Chainani’s followers.

Hughes: Now for a fun one . . . Extraterrestrials have invaded Earth! The leader approaches and demands you to recommend one person who can give them one good reason to not destroy humankind. Who would this person be?

Belcastro: Eep! What a great question. Can I just say first that this whole thing has been so fun?! M.G., you’re an amazing interviewer.

For me, the answer is shockingly easy. The one person I’d recommend is the late John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher who’s been credited with popularizing Celtic spirituality. I hope I don’t need to tell you what his one good reason would be, because I could never put words into the mouth of the most gorgeous writer of all time. I so wish he was still around to answer what this one good reason would be . . .

Without going on for too long, I will just say that I have selected him because every single interview he has ever given, and every single poem and essay from his portfolio, have spoken to me so deeply.

If you don’t mind, I’ll share my favourite of his poems here, ”Beannacht,” so your readers can see just what I mean.






1 thought on “The Novelist and Her Pen: an Interview with Mackenzie Belcastro”

  1. Brilliant interview, I enjoyed every question and wonderfully illuminating response. Both of you offer great inspiration to other writers and creators!


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