The following interview with Lynn Coady (one of the authors shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize) appears in The Feathertale Review #11, currently on sale in bookstores across Canada.
Lynn Coady, Governor General’s Award-nominated Canadian novelist and editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine, recently sat down with The Feathertale Review in a coffee shop at the Toronto Reference Library to talk about writers as thieves, and the sorrows and joys of running a magazine in Canada. A faint east-coast twang still clings to her h’s and r’s, and she sports a pair of giant purple glasses that “don’t make me look as insane as they sound.”
JUST THE FACTS
Born: Port Hawkesbury in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
Currently living in: Edmonton, Alberta
First job: Working for a movie theatre in my hometown
Reading right now: Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi
Funniest person you know: My husband makes me laugh until I pee
Favourite author: I relate to Flannery O’Connor [writer and essayist from the American South who died of lupus in 1964]. She was a hick and I’m a hick. She came from a small town with conservative values and she was Catholic. She was incredibly serious and completely hilarious and that’s something I aspire to achieve.
JUST THE ANSWERS
Feathertale: What’s the first story you ever wrote?
Lynn Coady: When I was working for social services in my hometown for a summer, we would drive all over Cape Breton into, like, the back, backwoods to check on families and see who was being abused, who was neglecting their children — it was kind of like a Flannery O’Connor story. It was grim, but there was something profound about it. That summer I became really engrossed with Cape Breton gothic, for lack of a better word.
So when I wasn’t [driving] around with social workers, I started writing a story. I wrote about a family of little girls, the kind of family that social services would be concerned about, and that was the first time I felt like I was getting somewhere.
FT: I love that you call it Cape Breton gothic.
LC: That’s very much what it was!
FT: Gothic fiction is characterized by bleak or remote settings and really macabre, violent incidents. Is that a major theme in your writing?
LC: It has been in the past. I was really compelled by it. In a lot of ways I think I was just working out my childhood. I’ve been away from Cape Breton for a long time and when it does appear in my writing it’s not quite as gothic as it used to be.
FT: I’m fascinated by the connection between two of your books, Mean Boy  and your latest novel, The Antagonist . [Mean Boy focuses on the vain, hard-drinking poetry professor Jim Arsenault and his once adoring student. In The Antagonist, the main character Rank emails an old friend who has published terrible, inaccurate details of his life in a novel.]
After you wrote Mean Boy, you gave a reading at Nova Scotia’s Mount Allison University. Can you tell me about it?
LC: It was really intense. I had lived in Sackville — where Mount A is — for about a year. Right around the time I was fascinated with the poet John Thompson. Like, completely and utterly enamoured with his work. So I read everything I possibly could about him and learned he had lived in town. There was a lot of biographical detail about his time there. It was a great story and it inspired me to write Mean Boy, basically.
I got to Mount A and I had thought there might be some kind of blowback, but I wasn’t expecting people to be gunning for me.
FT: What did they say to you?
LC: I tried to read the funniest, silliest parts of the book I could as a way of disarming the audience. To say, “It’s just a silly novel! Don’t take it seriously!” Then there had to be a Q & A. The whole time I was reading, I had been scanning the audience, looking for frowners — and I saw two of them.
The man frowner asked a really wussy question: “Say an author blatantly stole from a man’s actual life, what would that author’s moral responsibility be?” I was so keyed up on adrenalin, and he was being so passive-aggressive, that I said, “Oh, are you speaking hypothetically?” I shut him down.
Then this woman stood up and gave a speech about how great John Thompson was and I was thinking, “I know, I know he was!”
That was the moment The Antagonist took root. I was standing there thinking, She’s saying two things at once. She’s saying one, this character [Jim Arsenault] is nothing like John Thompson, and two, this character is John Thompson. She didn’t seem to know what made her angrier.
I remember one of her lines: “You know, your character Jim Arsenault, he doesn’t have the integrity or talent in his little finger that John Thompson does,” and I couldn’t argue with that because I didn’t intend for him to.
FT: Did you feel guilty about using Thompson’s life to inspire such an unlikeable character?
LC: I loved John Thompson. I cherished him and his work and his memory. I knew I was creating a deeply flawed character in Jim in Mean Boy and I knew people were going to make the connection.
So, I felt bad the whole time, and I knew — and this is another reason The Antagonist started to take shape — I knew there was nothing I could say to these people that would make them feel better. The only way anyone could understand how you absorb things that you love and things that you cherish and put them in the meat grinder of the creative process —
FT: And create something completely different.
LC: Yes. The only way they would ever understand is if they had done it themselves. I thought, Oh, that would be an interesting novel; someone gets angry about a book and writes a book themselves.
FT: Which is basically what Rank does in The Antagonist. After reading the book, a friend and I talked about how, when we write, we borrow incidents and mannerisms and personalities from our family and friends, but that we don’t want those people to think the whole character or situation is based on reality. How do you manage your relationships while using them as writing inspiration?
LC: It’s really hard. I even had an argument with a friend of mine — who was a writer — about this. I used stuff about her to make this character and there was one detail, she wore hiking boots with her sundresses, which was very specific. But that’s what you do, right? You see a vivid character trait and you’re like, Oh, I’m using that! She could not let go of this other detail that I created in the character that she thought I thought she possessed. It was some physical thing, which she thought was a defect, and basically I said, Those were imaginary facial lines, I do not see those facial lines on you!
FT: Are there places you won’t go when borrowing from other people’s lives? Individuals you won’t use or traits you won’t steal?
LC: You know, some people have really specific personalities that are just wonderful, just perfection. Like, my little brother has a really specific personality. I know all his motivations. I know exactly what causes him to open his mouth and say whatever he happens to say at the dinner table. But I can’t use my little brother’s entire personality in a story.
There are people who I’ve known in my life who I am not worried about so much, where I might’ve done that.
FT: In a National Post interview, you called writing an “amoral process.”
FT: In that interview you said, “Your ultimate responsibility is to the truth of the story you are trying to tell.” But there seems to be a limit — you wouldn’t want to write something that would hurt your brother, for example.
LC: You have to think about your own comfort in the world. If I were to caricature my husband, he might have a problem with that. He might make my day-to-day life less comfortable.
But when you first start out, I think you do have to be ruthless, because it’s hard to write and it’s hard to get good at writing. Do what you gotta do, I think. And you’re fed by the world around you.
I find, as I get older, I’m better able to make stuff up out of whole cloth than I used to be. But I still feel like, you gotta write the story that you gotta write. I had to write Mean Boy the way I did because I was inspired.
FT: You tend to create quite vivid characters — and they all seem to play hockey and drink too much.
FT: Is that from your background?
LC: Yeah, yeah, yeah — especially Cape Breton and Nova Scotia more broadly. Drinking is part of the culture. Um, I hate hockey. I really do.
I just don’t know how to get around it. Everybody plays hockey in the milieu in which I was brought up. And I wanted to make Rank a jock. What’s he going to play, lacrosse? He’s not going to grow up in Nova Scotia playing rugby.
FT: Right. Same with Saints of Big Harbour . Both books are set in similar towns populated with similar kinds of men.
LC: Hockey is the only outlet for boys that isn’t drinking or fighting, basically. Girls, you know, nobody cared what happened to them.
FT: Yeah, they don’t need extracurricular activities.
LC: [In an excited, high-pitched voice:] They can watch the games!
FT: Many — most — of your protagonists are male. You write male characters very well.
LC: Thank you.
FT: How do you get inside their heads?
LC: It’s growing up with brothers. I was talking to another writer, and she was saying that women who don’t grow up with brothers, they’re at a disadvantage because they have more of that Mars/Venus perspective. When you have older brothers like I did, they run the family. I just absorbed a lot of brotherly culture into my own thinking. For a long time I felt more comfortable around guys than I did girls. Male characters just come naturally.
FT: What about humour, does that come naturally?
LC: As a reader, I noticed early on that the books I enjoyed most were the ones that made me laugh. So when I started writing, I thought, I want to write the kind of book I want to read.
If I read a novel, it can be really well done, but if it’s humourless, I think there’s a problem, you know what I mean? You can have the grimmest perspective in the world, but there’s still going to be absurdity, there’s still going to be gallows humour. It’s an important part of literature. It gives them more profundity. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who first taught me that, reading Breakfast of Champions. That incredibly dry, sad humour that he brought to his storytelling just seemed so perfect.
FT: You co-founded the magazine Eighteen Bridges, which focuses on narrative journalism. How did you start the magazine?
LC: I moved to Edmonton in 2005. [Author/journalist] Curtis Gillespie was one of the first people I met and one of the first conversations we had was the two of us bemoaning magazine culture in Canada. We both liked long-form journalism, and there were just fewer and fewer places to write that kind of stuff. We kind of bonded over our desire for more and better magazines. Curtis started talking to people about it.
Then the recession happened. I moved to Toronto. Then I ended up moving back to Edmonton to get married. This whole time Curtis had been working the room that is Alberta and garnering support for a magazine from people with the university, people with the city, people involved in philanthropy.
Eventually we decided, Okay, we don’t have the money we wanted to have, we don’t have anything in place that we wanted to have in place, but we’ve been trying to make this happen for five years. Let’s just take the money we have, publish an issue and see what happens. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since: gathering our funding where we can, on an issue-to-issue basis, trying to put out at least two issues per year. Which, you guys, you know how it is, it’s hard!
Right now we are sort of victims of our own success. One of our big priorities is that we want to pay writers well for quality writing, and when writers hear that, they come running. Making sure we have funding to do that is a struggle. We have a professional production team, which we have to pay. As for editorial, everyone is basically working on a volunteer basis.
When you look at magazines run by media companies, those are really struggling because they are being run like businesses and it seems like you can’t run your magazine like a business if you want it to be any good.
FT: You can’t run your magazine like a business, but you want it to be successful. Is the same true for writing? When you look at Canada’s literary culture, it’s like artists are supposed to exist outside the world and the need to make a living.
FT: Is that a good thing or is it impossible?
LC: I think it’s an impossible ideal. Ultimately, you don’t write for money, but you need money to write. So it gets infuriating when people try to impose that idea on you as a writer. Especially when you are considered a professional. People still use that [argument] on professional writers to a shameful extent. Or they rely on the ambition of writers and the assumption that writers just want to be read.
Like they should be grateful. That’s what’s not viable. The thing about really great writing is, you have to reward it if you want it to continue.
FT: So what is success for a writer in Canada?
LC: [Bursts out laughing.] Wow. I don’t know. For me, it’s always been just knowing that I can write my next book.
FT: In what way?
LC: In relative comfort. Where I’m not in a constant panic about how I’m going to pay my rent and [for] my groceries. Where I don’t have a day job that takes up all my creative energy and also where I have a publisher who I know is invested. I see that as success. And I don’t always have that. But that is my ideal.