The Ekphrastic Review in Conversation with Cyndi MacMillan About Her Art-Inspired Suspense Novel, A Cruel Light
A Cruel Light
Crooked Lane Books, 2023
Click here to view or order on Amazon.
The Ekphrastic Review: Tell us a little bit about you and ekphrasis, whether in poetry, stories, or mystery novels.
Cyndi MacMillan: I wrote ekphrastic poetry before I understood what it was. Several years ago, a fellow poet and friend sent me a link to The Ekphrastic Review’s Twenty Poem Challenge. The rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to this journal, I discovered that other writers also felt a strong connection to visual art—an almost indescribable art-inspiring-art bond that is far more kinetic and synergizing than a reaction to a prompt. It’s as if the artwork has more to say, and I have been entrusted with its backstory.
The Ekphrastic Review: Why is art history important for you? Tell us about some pivotal, meaningful moments in your relationship with visual art.
Cyndi MacMillan: I really thought on this question, and I’ve decided to talk about wallpaper. When I was fifteen, we moved from Quebec to Ontario. My sister and I were each budgeted a hundred dollars to decorate our rooms in our new home. She stretched her amount to buy a bedding set, matching curtains, a can of paint, and a few posters. Meanwhile, I fell head over heels for a wallpaper pattern. The pattern showed a mill with a stream, bulrushes and reeds—rather like a Dutch masterpiece. I spent every penny on that wallpaper. I didn’t care! I’d lose myself in that print, stepping into that scene like Alice through the looking glass. I never regretted my choice, and even now if I close my eyes I can still see that mill and stream.
I’ve dabbled in art since I was a child—mostly drawing and painting. At seventeen, I had to choose between a career in the arts or teaching—I chose to study Early Childhood Education. I have to say that encouraging preschoolers to be creative was a joy to me; helping little ones explore colour, texture and shape was fulfilling.
I feel that visual art brings history to life, and it provides it with dimension. We not only catch a glimpse of the way life was—the values and views of that era—but the way the artist saw the world or wished it could be.
The Ekphrastic Review: How did you get interested in mysteries and thrillers? What led to your decision to write a mystery novel?
This year I finally donated my collection of Nancy Drew books to a thrift shop—forty of those iconic yellow hardcovers. I have enjoyed mysteries since I was a girl. At fourteen, I used to read four romantic gothic books a week—those pulp fiction classics with women fleeing a coastal mansion. Why write a mystery novel? I enjoy challenges. A mystery is penned backwards. Because motives, crimes and consequences span time, mystery novelists must also bridge the past to the present. Also, I like puzzles, and I like seeding my work with enough clues to merit a second read. Writing a mystery is rather like juggling lit torches. On a unicycle.
The Ekphrastic Review: Tell us how your thriller became entwined with a mysterious painting.
Cyndi MacMillan: My book is such a hodgepodge of genres I’m not even sure it is ‘technically’ a thriller. Early reviewers have enjoyed it, regardless of how it’s been classified. I’m not uncomfortable with the classification, but I’d say A Cruel Light is more a gothic mystery with plenty of suspense.
In the terms of the chicken and the egg, first came the idea of a painting holding cryptic clues that could solve a cold case, and then as I worked on the outline, the story became darker, grew to include more harrowing scenes. The more that Annora cleaned the painting and exposed the clues hiding within it, the more the antagonist urged me to make it harder for her, placing her in more and more jeopardy.
I strongly recommend that readers watch the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas. It is one of the most accurate portrayals of writing fiction I’ve ever seen. The way a book comes together, the merging of its elements, is wholly character related, and sometimes it feels like the author is just taking notes as our main character dictates to us what happens next!
The Ekphrastic Review: Why did you choose to use an art conservator as a detective? What was the process like for you, getting to know Annora?
Cyndi MacMillan: Art conservators often think and act like detectives. They need to research the artist. They run sample tests to analyze compounds—what mediums were used. They may need to find old photos if a painting is so damaged that parts of it are completely missing. They dig below the surface, investigate cause, and a commission could be compared to a ‘case.’
Annora is an intelligent, caring, passionate woman with her own set of flaws. I give her the freedom to change the plotline, to take me in a direction that I hadn’t expected the story to go. She can frustrate me , as she’s brave when it comes to risks, but more timid around establishing relationships.
The Ekphrastic Review: An important part of your story depends on Annora’s ability to integrate with the art she is working on or looking at. What does that mean to you, to integrate with an artwork? How does said integration impact our engagement with art as ekphrastic writers?
Cyndi MacMillan: Integrating with a work of art is about immersion! Recently, art immersion has come to mean that the artist’s oeuvre has been given the 3D treatment; through the magic of technology, projections, holographs and virtual reality, viewers ‘enter’ the artwork physically, thereby becoming one with it.
However, viewers can experience artwork in a metaphysical way by using imagination and hyper-concentration. This type of dream-state focus requires time and attention. As ekphrastic writers, our responses incorporate both gut-reactions with a visualizing process that closes the gap between the creation and the viewer.
Ekphrasis removes the distance—we become the medium, the texture, the light, and the message. It’s an embodied experience that blends intuition with interpretation, enabling us to zoom in and out, feeling the impact of each detail and being wholly present in both the forefront and background. Ekphrasis is more than analysis—it’s willfully being swallowed by the whale so you can feel the vibration of its heartbeat.
The Ekphrastic Review: One of the themes of your book is light, something woven into the murder mystery itself and the strange events that unfold throughout the narrative. What drew you to this theme?
Cyndi MacMillan: Ooh goody, one of my favourite topics is chiaroscuro—the artistic treatment of light and shadow to produce a sharp contrast. Both light and darkness are two of the underlying themes in my mystery. Chiaroscuro can be used within fiction to highlight what is revealed and what is kept secret. It can also add nuances to characters—highlight the good, add heft to the bad. We all have a dark side, and most of us have fond moments where we were given a chance to shine. Writing a mystery that revolves around hidden art that has been shadowed by time and neglect allowed me an ‘in’ to explore the festering nature of secrets.
The Ekphrastic Review: Your plot depends on the conviction that art speaks across years and centuries, and that giving respect and space to art allows us to see and hear important truths. This is shown in the mural Annora is hired to restore, with key symbols as clues planted by the artist helping folks in the future understand the town’s past. It is also shown when vandalism takes place of much older indigenous rock art. Clearly you hold strong beliefs on this subject. Tell us.
Cyndi MacMillan: I believe in authenticity within fiction. I’m also mindful of the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Having chosen Northeastern Ontario as my setting, I looked at the geography, population statistics and the locations of First Nation reserves. I refused to exclude the Mississauga peoples from my story.
While researching the area and Mississaugi traditions, I found an article about pictographs being vandalized at Matinenda Provincial Park in Ontario (2017). My character, Annora, has a strong emotional response to the destruction of that art—and to anyone intentionally damaging any art. Conservators have a code of ethics not unlike the Hippocratic Oath. So, I as I wrote from her point of view, I shared what I learnt. Fiction has long relayed messages about recognizing wrongs and truths. That being said, everything within a novel should be related to character and plot—no preaching on the page. I came close to crossing that line, but as characters became friends and the bonds became stronger, it also made sense for Annora to get involved. She could no longer remain a bystander.
The Ekphrastic Review: It's wonderful to have a story set in Canada, specifically in small town Ontario. You live in Ontario (as does The Ekphrastic Review!) but could have chosen any part of the world for your setting. Why was it important to you to set your story close to home?
Cyndi MacMillan: I love Canada and being Canadian. I love its multiculturalism, peoples, landscapes and seasons. I am grateful to authors Louise Penny and Giles Blunt; their books proved Canada makes an ideal setting for mysteries and thrillers. I would say that the North—its wilderness, smaller towns and vistas—made the perfect backdrop for my gothic, not unlike the moorlands so vividly described in the Bronte sisters’ works. (Aside here, I pitched my novel as Jane Eyre meets The Da Vinci Code.) My husband said I should have applied for a grant from ‘Destination Ontario’ as A Cruel Light is so chockfull of Canadiana that it could second as a tourist guide.
The Ekphrastic Review: What’s next for Cyndi MacMillan?
Cyndi MacMillan: I am nearing the completion of the second Annora Garde novel. I have also started to outline a stand-alone gothic horror set in a former logging town in Northern Ontario. Ekphrastic writing will continue to motivate and delight me--if a poem wants to be written, I will write it. I plan to make appearances at bookstores for signings, submit articles to magazines, and take a much-needed vacation with my family.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my writing journey with your readers, Lorette.
Cyndi MacMillan's "When Alice Became the Rabbit" was nominated by TER for the Best Microfictions Anthology and was chosen to be included!
Read Cyndi's poem, "Swallows," after Canadian painter Benjamin Chee Chee.
Read Cyndi's poem, "Bathsheba," after a painting by Jean Leon Gerome.
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