Meditation on Art: L'Amour Lisik in Conversation with Samantha Jade Macpherson

Samantha Macpherson

Malahat Review Publicity Manager L'Amour Lisik talks with 2018 Novella Contest winner and 2019 Jack Hodgins Founders' Award winner, Samantha Jade Macpherson, whose story "Tattoo" was chosen for the $1,500 prize. Find "Tattoo" in our Issue #203.


The contest judges Jacqueline Baker, Eliza Robertson, and Richard Van Camp had high praises for Macpherson's story: "This is an unforgettable and wounding story, told with impressive economy. It feels fresh and contemporary, but still engages with the traditional novella form."


See the original 2018 Novella Prize winner announcement page.

Read what 2019 Jack Hodgins Founders' Award judge Shashi Bhat had to say.

First of all, congratulations on winning the Novella Prize!

I’m always interested in how stories grow. Most go through several iterations before they’re finalized. What was the first idea that spurred you to write this story? Was it always intended to be written as a novella?

Thank you. This is such an incredible honour, and such a surprise.
This story has been through many versions, all of them wildly different, but I’ve always been interested in the idea of the tattoo. At first it was more a meditation on art, and how much we are willing to give for it, but the final version buries that thread in favour of the bodily act of tattooing. Tattooing makes me think of ritualized or compartmentalized pain – because it’s pain that we choose for ourselves – and I find it a pretty interesting topic for fiction.

It wasn’t always meant to be a novella. “Tattoo” started out as a 4,000 word workshop story. Two years later it had ballooned to over 20,000 words. Another two years after that, I had cut it down to about 10,000. That’s where it stands now.

It was interesting reading about my home town, Victoria, and nearby Vancouver as settings in “Tattoo.” Were these cities originially part of the story? If not, why did you choose to locate the story here?

The setting came pretty early, and fairly easily. I always knew the main action would take place in Vancouver, and I’m not sure I can explain how I was so certain. Maybe I just arbitrarily chose Vancouver and then, as the story progressed, I made more and more use of the setting until it got to the point where it would be impossible to extricate the story and set it somewhere else.

I do like writing about the West Coast though.

There’s a constant juxtaposition of cultures throughout “Tattoo.” The symbol of the dragon in Chinese culture versus the meaning behind the tattoo of St. George’s dragon; the restaurant scene with Jack’s mother (“When I eat congee now it is like reliving entire years of my life. It is me and my mother and no one else.”) versus young Jack, underage, drinking beer with his father at a dingy bar. What made you decide to make the main character half-Chinese?  And how did you pick which parts of Chinese culture to include?

This is the tricky and strange question. Now that the novella is finished, the cultural elements seem integral to the storyline, but in fact I only decided on my protagonist’s ethnicity quite late in the game. Though I include Chinese elements in a lot of my work, it’s not usually planned. It often starts out as a small detail in an early draft that ends up changing the course of the story in revision.

My main character, Jack, is a person who has two different worlds to navigate. The thing I find interesting is that he is competent in both environments, but not necessarily always comfortable. While the story isn’t really about Jack’s ethnic heritage, I did like being able to put him under a sort of undefined pressure that – I think – stems from not really fitting in anywhere and being acutely aware of that fact.

I guess the other thing is, like my character, I am also half-Chinese and half-white. And as much as I enjoy the breadth of my identity, there are times when my ethnicity is treated like a novelty, or even a fetish. It wasn’t an explicit goal to write about the mixed-race experience when I began, but it ended up being freeing to write a character who shared my ethnicity and to be able to do it on my own terms. I get quite tired of fending off peoples’ preconceived notions of who I am based on what I look like, and it was nice to get into some of that material without it having to be about me.

The family dynamics feel especially authentic. This line in particular stood out to me: “If my mother sometimes felt distant, my grandparents felt like gods.” I know you also write creative nonfiction—does your nonfiction writing inform your fiction writing and vice versa?

Yes and no. The experience of writing fiction and nonfiction feels very different. Writing nonfiction happens much more in my head, while fiction is more instinctual, like shooting from the hip. But it’s true they do inform one another. I suppose the material all comes from the same place. If I’m interested in something enough to write a story about it, I’m probably also going to write an essay. Nothing in this novella is particularly autobiographical, but in general I’m not afraid to use material from my own life. As one of my writer friends says, “Everything is copy, baby.”

Do you have any current projects you’re working on? Would you be interested in writing more novellas, or do you have a different form you prefer?

Well. I would like to write a novel. It’s not going very well right now, because 1. I don’t know what to write about, and 2. I have no idea how to start, but maybe if I write a few more novellas I’ll feel less intimidated by the form.


L'Amour Lisik

L'Amour Lisik

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