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HomeArts & CultureLeo McKay Jr. takes hard topics head on

Leo McKay Jr. takes hard topics head on

The author talks latest novel, What Comes Echoing Back

Millions of books are published each year, ranging from sci-fi to romance to history. But there’s one topic that many authors seem hesitant to incorporate into their novels: social media. 

Despite these hesitations, social media is a subject author Leo McKay Jr. didn’t want to shy away from in his latest novel, What Comes Echoing Back. 

The novel, set in various parts of Nova Scotia, follows high school students Robot and Sam as they take their first steps forward after traumatic experiences, both experiences that were caused in part by social media. What Comes Echoing Back, which draws on McKay’s own experiences as a high school teacher, was longlisted for Canada Reads 2024.

Why is social media shied away from?

“I think my specific career as a high school teacher has coincided pretty well with the rise of the internet and the rise of social media,” says McKay. 

When he started teaching in the mid-1990s, the internet was still relatively obscure. Thirty years later, nearly all teenagers have cell phones in the classroom, and McKay has witnessed firsthand the way this can impact concentration and presence in the classroom. 

In the novel, the consequences of social media go beyond concentration: it results in two traumatic experiences; what McKay describes as the characters “having their lives ripped apart.”

However, McKay recognizes that social media is a nuanced thing. He wrote the book so that Robot and Sam have the most overwhelmingly negative thing in their lives happen because of social media and the most positive thing happen because of social media. 

“The challenge of writing fiction that depicts social media is such a huge problem,” says McKay.

The rapid rate that technology changes, juxtaposed with the long amount of time that it takes most authors to write books, creates a situation where it’s wildly easy for details to quickly become inaccurate. In the process of writing What Comes Echoing Back, McKay was still making changes in the proofs—the very end of the revision process—because social media was changing just that fast. 

Though it poses difficulties, McKay thinks social media is an important subject for people to think about. 

“I think it’s important for our culture, our books, our movies, our music to reflect that in some way.” 

Ukulele’s Nova Scotian roots

In the novel, Robot and Sam connect over their shared interest in music, and do so, in part, by playing the ukulele at school. 

When McKay first started working on the manuscript, the title was Ukulele Lessons. Though the story grew and evolved from there, the ukulele remained the principal instrument in the book. 

Though McKay is not a ukulele player himself, he came to know it through personal experience. He previously lived in Maitland, N.S. with his family, where his kids attended school and were taught music through the ukulele by Jean and Chalmers Doane.

Chalmers Doane is a Nova Scotian musician, educator and recipient of the Order of Canada, largely known for leading the way in using ukuleles in Canadian music education, starting in Nova Scotia itself. This made the incorporation of the ukulele in the novel an especially fitting choice considering the setting. 

“Some people call him the grandfather of Canadian ukulele,” says McKay.

But in the novel, the ukulele goes even beyond that; it’s a symbol of what the characters are going through. 

“In the character of Robot, ukulele originally represents a loss for him,” says McKay. “He doesn’t have enough money to buy the electric guitar that he lost. And he has to make do with this smaller, cheaper, quieter instrument. And for Sam, it’s kind of the opposite. She’s struggling to learn guitar. And so ukulele becomes this thing that is easier than guitar.” 

Writing about young people

The book, though about teenagers, is largely aimed at adults, according to McKay. Teenagers, he thinks, are a group of people largely misunderstood. 

“It’s easy for people who don’t have regular contact with young people to develop misconceptions,” says McKay.

He hopes that his book helps people recognize that teenagers are real people who experience both real struggles and real joy. 

“This book is about people going through very hard things and figuring out a way to keep going,” says McKay. 

What Comes Echoing Back can be found in any bookstore, including the King’s Co-op Bookstore and Bookmark on Spring Garden Road. 

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