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Write On Ottawa: Mary Hagey’s short story collection is a solid book debut with moving characters

By Alejandro Bustos on March 24, 2014


Ottawa-based writer Mary Hagey has lived an interesting life, having worked as a personal support worker, art instructor, housepainter and English composition instructor at Concordia University.

This rich body of experience is evident in her debut book Castles in the Air, a collection of short stories published by Signature Editions that contains a wide range of characters and settings.

Despite being her first published book, however, Hagey is quick to point out that she has been writing for decades.

“I’m not the late bloomer I might seem to be,” she tells Apartment613.  “My first story was published in 1983 in Prism International while I was an undergraduate studying mainly studio art, and I’ve had fiction and non-fiction published in literary journals over the years.”

She also has been nominated for different prizes, including being short-listed for the CBC Literary Award, as well as receiving a Masters in English Literature from Concordia.  This strong writing background explains the quality in Castles in the Air, which is a solid book filled with an interesting – and at times highly moving – set of stories.

There is the personal caregiver who accidentally discovers that her dentist is an adulterer, and then is made to suffer for this discovery when she goes to get her teeth checked.  Another tale recounts how an elderly lady and young woman, who are neighbours, share an unexpected private moment.  Other stories outline the pain and confusion of marital strife, while one of the most touching (and painful) account’s describes the tragic result of an attempt by two estranged sisters to reconcile.

Amidst this wide range of characters is the repeated theme of intergenerational dialogue.  Whether it’s a mature student at university, or a daughter interacting with her parents, on several occasions we see different generations attempt to interact with each other with various levels of success.

“It’s interesting that you perceive an inter-generational element to the stories,” says Hagey, who grew up on an Ontario dairy farm near Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge. “Other people have pointed out that mother/daughter relationships seem prevalent as well. In fact, I wrote the stories as they came to me rather than setting out to write any particular type of story.

Mary Hagey

Mary Hagey

“I suppose, given that I grew up in a rural community, it’s natural that the focus isn’t on any one age group, because the generations mingle far more in the country than is usual in urban communities I think.”

In addition to blending different generations together, some of the stories use an interesting technique, namely, referring to the protagonist as “you”.  At first this was confusing, but with time this style became intriguing.

By referring to a central character with “you”, the reader can feel as if the narrator is directly addressing them, and that they are somehow in the story.  This made several of the tales more intimate than they may otherwise have been.

Hagey’s writing also echoes her approach to making art.

“I paint sporadically and pretty much for my own pleasure, but when I do, my approach is not unlike my writing in that I start with very little other than vague notions, then I investigate the possibilities until something starts to take shape,” says Hagey, who majored in studio art, with a minor in creative writing, at Concordia University.

Looking forward, Hagey says she continues to develop her material, so another collection of short stories could come out in the future.

“[B]ut the polishing process can take time,” she confesses, “especially for a chronic tinkerer.”