Monday, January 28, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady is the author of Strange Heaven, Play the Monster Blind, Saints of Big Harbour and Mean Boy, as well as the forthcoming Hyperborea. She lives in Toronto.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

A whole lot. To a head-spinning degree actually, because of the GG nomination. I went from being this kind of grungy post-grad student with all the usual issues of insecurity and self-loathing to being invited to literary festivals, interviewed on the CBC, meetings with people I perceived as "big shots" in Toronto, and so forth. This was totally beyond my experience up until that point. My experience of 'being a writer' then was, you know, poetry readings in basement cafes and all-but-empty university classrooms in the afternoons. Sending out countless submissions to countless, tiny, literary magazines and never hearing a word back from them, and so forth. But in the late 90s when Strange Heaven came out, it was a heady time for Canlit in general and if you were young and new onto the publishing scene, you got a lot of attention. It raised some kind of crazy expectations among writers of that generation, but it had an overall positive effect on me because after being told my whole life that it was impractical and foolhardy to devote yourself to writing, I began to perceive it as a real possibility. It was what I had planned on doing anyway, but itwas nice to know it wasn't as much of an interminable hunger strike as it had been portrayed. I was meeting people who were doing it--full-time artists and such like. That was important. I started to realize there were artistic communities out there that weren't subsets of the academy. My horizons broadened and my expectations started to shift.

2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've been here not quite a year. I arrived March 1, 2007. It takes time for a physical environment to have an impact on my work. When I was in New Brunswick, I wrote about Cape Breton. When I was in Vancouver, I wrote about New Brunswick. When I was in Edmonton, I wrote about--not Vancouver exactly, but I fashioned a kind of fictional world that I think was very much influenced by my years in Vancouver and that futuristic 'city of glass' element it has to it.

Race and gender come into play in that I'm often preoccupied with the idea of losers and winners, social hierarchies. The blurry line between the idea of community and that of conformity--how something that is meant to be welcoming and comforting can so quickly turn exclusionary and oppressive if an individual fails to live up to certain standards, or perform the role that's expected of him or her.

3 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Usually the first one. Saints of Big Harbour started as a short story and Mean Boy started as a short story, and, come to think of it, so did my most recent MS. When I begin a short story I'm often suffused with a kind of euphoric creative energy that is addictive. So when the story is finished, I inevitably ask myself: Is that it? Couldn't I take this further? In an effort to recapture that feeling I suppose. But any writer will tell you that first-blush love affair with a piece of writing usually dwindles at around page 150.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I think neither. Well, they're part of it in the same way anything I experience on a given day ends up being part of it. It's an experience I file away, just like grocery shopping or a given conversation with someone.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I realized just yesterday that any time anything makes me feel outraged and confused (it has to be that combination--it can't be just one or the other), I write a book about it. That is, whenever I find myself feeling something very strongly, but am not entirely sure what it is that's upsetting me so much--or even if I have a right to feel that way (that's a big part of it too), I start writing to try and figure it out. For example, that thing about community and conformity I mention above is something I've grappled with a long time--it comes from being a small town girl and coming of age and finding yourself thinking things like: Jesus! Small towns are fucking awful! When all the commonly accepted wisdom tells you they are not awful at all, they are warm, endearing places with a slower pace of life and a generally more humane atmosphere than, say, big cities. And so you get confused, because no one seems to agree with you, even though every braincell you have to rub together is telling you the opposite. So I write a book to figure out where I stand on the matter, and usually the conclusion I come to, no matter what the issue at hand happens to be, is: 'It's complicated.' And that conclusion satisfies me very much.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?


7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Harder. I'm not as arrogant as I was in my youth, and insecurity is thefount of bad writing. So I take a lot more care, and taking care is of course essential, but then you're in danger of being overly self-aware, and over self-awareness is also a fount of bad writing. So then you sit there in front of your computer thinking: Oh no! Am I being too self aware? Thereby becoming even more self-aware. Etc. The upshot: harder.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

This past summer, I bought a couple one day instead of buying apples, on a whim. I'm crazy that way. I couldn't believe how good and non-appley it was.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

"Don't become the thing you hated." (I don't know if it's the best necessarily, but it's what comes to mind.)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I haven't written any book-length non-fiction. I've written some personal essays, and they've been pretty easy, and fun, but I have to say deep down there is something about the form that I despise. All the 'I, me, I, me'. Even doing this interview, all the I-me kind of makes me cringe. I feel on some level that I am capitulating to the reader's voyeuristic impulse with respect to the author, and, while I understand that impulse (I'm a reader, so I have it too), it doesn't quite sit well with me to be indulging it. Also, you know those people who, in conversation, just sit and talk about themselves, and it never occurs to them to ask anyone else any questions because they are so enamored with their own being and experience, and how they make you sick? It feels a bit like I'm doing that, too. So it's hard to imagine ever sitting down to write, say, a book-length memoir.

That said, I love first-person narrative journalism, like Jon Ronson's Them. That kind of work where someone or something else is your focus, but you're still present as narrator, as the reader's way into the story. That I would like to do.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Oh rob. I drink coffee, I read. Feed the cat. Then I check email. Then I force myself to stop with the email. Then if I'm lucky, I write. Zz.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When I'm not writing, I wait. I just get other stuff done and don't worry about it. It's like that Buddhist saying about when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I've learned to trust the rhythms of my creative process--that sound airy fairy, but it's just what you do if you're like me and you dislike stress. I know so many writers who walk around completely freaked out if they're not writing anything. And people who force themselves to write even if there's no particular story they want to tell at the moment--just because they feel they should always be writing if they want to call themselves writers. And then they worry because they find the stuff they've forced themselves to write is shit.

Books and music. I wash the dishes while listening to music that inspires me and that usually puts me into a meditative state. I have all my best ideas washing dishes.

(I mentioned this once during a talk I gave with another writer for the Alberta Writer's Guild. There was this woman there who'd been asking really pointed questions about our respective financial situations the whole time, and so when I made this point about washing dishes, she stated, as if to herself, "So you don't have a dishwasher"--looking very perturbed.)

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It is not realism, it is not set in Atlantic Canada and it is not particularly comic. I've been calling it my "right brain" book, as opposed to Mean Boy and Saints, which are both left brain books. Strange Heaven was right brain too. For some reason, my right brain books are the books with female protagonists.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Conversation is a big one. Human interaction, human moments.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Oh, lots. Anything I can get my hands on.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Learn another language.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I don't like to think about the latter part of that question, and I can't think of anything else I'd like to be. Part of what I do to make a living is editing, and I love editing, but it feels part and parcel with my life as a writer.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I'm not good at anything else in particular.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen. Flick: No Country for Old Men

20 - What are you currently working on?

A ghostwriting project, purely for eating and rent-paying purposes (to put it another way: I don't own a dishwasher). But I hope to be doing revisions on my new MS shortly.

12 or 20 questions archive

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