Many Torontonians will know lawyer and writer Marcus McCann from his 2016 defence of several people charged in Project Marie, an undercover sting operation where Toronto police targeted people—mostly gay men—engaging in consensual sex acts in Marie Curtis Park. Many objectors pointed to problematic classist and homophobic aspects of the project, which was largely influenced by the area's burgeoning gentrification. In an ironic twist, Project Marie took place the same year that the City finally issued an apology for its 1981 bathhouse raids and its shameful treatment of the gay community at that time.
In the following years, McCann became a sought-after speaker and essayist on subjects around public sex, consent, inclusivity, and community building. This spring for the first time, readers can engage with his work in book form with the publication of Park Cruising: What Happens When We Wander Off the Path (House of Anansi Press).
Taking a frank and informed look at the history and role of cruising—looking for consensual sex in parks and public nature settings—and its role in the queer community, Park Cruising is wise and wide-ranging, incorporating public health, urban planning, isolation and socialization in a post-pandemic world, and more. Showing the overlooked value of cruising and the role the police and governments have played in interfering with it and creating moral bogeymen, McCann's thoughtful and elegantly written essays are fascinating and at times even joyful as they examine the role of connection and pleasure in our lives.
We're speaking with McCann about his writing today for our True Story nonfiction interview series. He tells us about the writing advice from Dionne Brand that helped him tap into exactly what the book needed, the two surprising nonfiction classics that became important influences for this project, and what he loves about writing nonfiction.
Did you write this book in the order it appears for readers? If not, how did it come together during the writing process?
Oh, definitely not. The book started out as a series of talks that I gave at universities, mostly about the question of the police raids at Marie Curtis Park in 2016 and the need for sex-positive legal reform. I thought these talks would be the basis of a book, but in the end, a much pared-down version of these lectures appears only as the tenth and final essay in the book.
In the fall of 2020, I wrote an essay about the relationship between park cruising and public health, specifically addressing covid. It was at the beginning of the second wave, and there was a lot of fear, and uncertainty, and it seemed to me that many people were grappling with the idea of comparative risk for the first time, and that it might be useful for me to say something about it in that moment. A version of that essay, “Looking Out for Each Other”, is the third essay in the book.
I often think of something that Dionne Brand said at a writing workshop in 2014. A student commented that her own poems kept closing themselves off, naturally ending after a few dozen lines, and she asked for advice about how to write longer pieces. Brand’s response: find the flaw. Find the line in the poem that doesn’t quite express what you want to say, and use that to start a new section or a new stanza, expanding on the idea and giving it its own proper treatment.
Ultimately, that’s how the essays came about. Kira-Lynn Ferderber pointed out some fuzzy thinking in the covid essay, and that became the starting point of the essay “What Happens When We Wander Off the Path”, an essay about the ethical obligations cruisers owe to non-participants. That essay had its own fuzziness, which led to the writing of an essay about park cruising and sexual consent, and so on. A couple of the essays, as I was writing them, turned out to be twins, and soon enough, there were enough essays to fill a book.
What does the term creative nonfiction mean to you?
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I understand creative nonfiction to be true stories told in ways in which the author deploys non-traditional storytelling formats or techniques. I get it, some nonfiction is primarily expository or utilitarian. The craft of writing is sometimes more like UX, perhaps. But it does seem like a false binary. As long as you are writing, you can’t escape the fact that what you are producing is an aesthetic thing, and that writing can be beautiful or ugly, or, perhaps more pressingly, that it can be exciting or dull, lively or sluggish.
What do you love about writing nonfiction? What are some of the strengths of the genre, in your opinion?
Well, two things. First, I love the way a sentence can sound. I listen for rhythm, the length of phrases, repetition, variation. I like alliteration and consonant clusters. I try to pay attention to pauses, to be intentional about end emphasis. Once I have the sentences going, then I pay attention to pace, to direct the swells, to not let the text drag for too long between moments of pleasure.
At the same time, of course, I am trying to say something: to tell a story or make a point, or convince the reader of something. To get those two things working in harmony — the beauty of the composition and the message — it’s like spinning plates. It tough, but it’s a real pleasure.
In the essays in Park Cruising, my goal was to try to explain a first-level point, about the relationship between park cruising and something else — non-participants, or sexual consent, or shamelessness, or park planning — and then to allow the essay room to make secondary or tertiary points. So rather than a strict thesis and exposition for each essay, part of the fun was to try to allow them to wander a bit. Because ultimately, one of the joys of nonfiction can be that little jetty, a little tendril that extends beyond the main idea and starts to take you somewhere else.
What defines a great work of nonfiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I don’t think I can really define it. While I was writing Park Cruising, I read a lot of nonfiction about sexuality and the law: newspaper accounts, court cases, academic essays, memoirs, book-length nonfiction. But I also tried to read well-written nonfiction regardless of topic to understand how the genre works at the level of composition. Two examples of the latter kind of research — reading nonfiction for the craft — are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Roger Angell’s The Summer Game. Two very different books, but both great.
Both of them leaked into Park Cruising in strange ways. I wrote a kind of pastiche of the first paragraph of In Cold Blood, putting the garbage dump near Cherry Beach at the centre of it, and that became the start of the essay “A Thousand Luminous Threads”. I borrowed stylistically from Angell’s description of baseball fans for a passage describing the chaotic beach parties at Hanlan’s Point in my essay “Looking Out for Each Other”. Writing good nonfiction is hard, and so for me, if I can find a writer whose craft I envy, no matter what they’re writing about, whether it is James Baldwin or Annie Dillard, then I want to take that in and see if I can metabolize it in my writing.
A lot of nonfiction prizes and anthologies have expanded to welcome more personal nonfiction as well as strictly research-based nonfiction. What do you think of this shift within the genre?
I think it’s a welcome change. It’s hard not to see the dichotomy as gendered. More personal nonfiction has been viewed as feminine, unimportant, non-objective, and research-based nonfiction as important, objective, somehow more worthwhile from both a writing and reading perspective.
Today, there is an expectation that when writing more research-based nonfiction, that the author should disclose their relationship with the subject, which I think is healthy and good. If you’re writing a book about, say, marriage, and you’re a social conservative, or a hopeless romantic, or a couples therapist (or all three!), as a reader, I want to know that.
Positionality is important, that it should be stated at some point, rather than lurking unannounced.
In Park Cruising, there is a little bit of both kinds of nonfiction. On the one hand, I am talking about the history of public indecency, the importance of legal reform, and then there is another essay in the book that is straightforwardly about work I was part of, responding to a particular police raid in Toronto. I think that kaleidoscopic aspect can be helpful. It’s an opportunity to see things in different ways, from different perspectives, over the course of the book.
Marcus McCann is lawyer and writer. His book, Park Cruising: What Happens When We Wander Off the Path, is available now from House of Anansi Press.