Andrew David MacDonald, debut author of When We Were Vikings, doesn’t have the Internet at home or on his phone, so he does everything online in libraries, coffee shops, and his favorite—coffee shops in libraries. He wrote a lot of his first book in several libraries in Canada and the United States, including in New York. He says that while he was growing up, “libraries were a kind of safe haven” from a “tumultuous” upbringing. He enjoyed fantasy books, often swiping books from his older brother who had checked them out.
MacDonald’s hope for his writing is to make readers feel things for characters they care about, a goal he established after crying while reading John Irving’s The World According to Garp. He says he was also influenced by Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because he “grew up around mental illness and the world of the psych ward Kesey writes about was experienced by a family member.” He’s also a big fan of Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon.
The author’s novel began as a short story from the perspective of Gert, the brother of the novel’s main character, Zelda. After he finished the story, MacDonald was intrigued by what might be happening to the characters and began tinkering with writing from Zelda’s point of view. What emerged clearly was that Zelda was obsessed with Vikings and that the brother-sister duo merited “an entire novel’s worth of life (if not more).”
Zelda is a woman with a cognitive disability who reminds MacDonald of his mother, who was in and out of psych wards when he was a child. His father drove trucks and was often gone for weeks at a time, leaving him alone with his brother.
The novel was very personal for MacDonald: “Like Gert, Zelda’s brother, I felt a lot of resentment at having to be more adult and responsible than I was probably ready to be, but over the course of writing the novel I started to understand more clearly how bravely my mom struggled to rise above a mental illness that often impeded her ability to live her dreams. In a way, Zelda is my way of showing her I understand.”
MacDonald believes that “the more widely artists of all stripes can represent the diversity of the human experience, the better.” Jessica Grant’s novel Come Thou, Tortoise helped inspire him to create a neurodiverse character. When We Were Vikings is about a pair of siblings who try to live legendary lives, despite obstacles. “The struggle to self-actualize and live a generous, thoughtful life in pursuit of one’s dreams is the most legendary life I can think of,” the author says, and “the more we can see one another as multidimensional human beings, warts and all, and offer compassion to ourselves and others, the better.”
When We Were Vikings is available now at Queens Public Library.
Photo of Andrew David MacDonald by Lisa Rivers.