Saturday, June 05, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Christy Ann Conlin

Christy Ann Conlin is the author of two acclaimed novels, Heave and The Memento. She is also the author of the short fiction collection, Watermark, a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award and the Evergreen Award. Heave was a national bestseller, a finalist for the First Novel Award, the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Dartmouth Book Award and was a Globe & Mail Top 100 Book. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Best Canadian Stories, Brick, Geist, Room, and Numéro Cinq. Her short fiction has also been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the American Short Fiction Prize. Her radio broadcast work includes co-creating and hosting CBC Fear Itself, a national summer radio series. Christy Ann studied theatre at the University of Ottawa and screenplay writing at the University of British Columbia. She was born and raised in seaside Nova Scotia where she still resides.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The Speed of Mercy, my most recent work, feels like a homecoming, a coming together of all I have learned and explored, since I first fell in love with reading when I was a kid. It’s a novel which demanded a high level of skill and focus to write, so it was years in the making. It’s a literary mystery, infused with both comedy and tragedy, with despair and with big shining hope.

Heave, my first novel, changed my life as I felt compelled to write it. On good days I describe it as a calling. On a lot of days I call it The Affliction. Heave taught me that the writing of a novel, all the stages and drafts, that it’s a sublime magic accessed only through great discipline and commitment. The other lesson Heave gave me is that the publishing side of creative writing is a business, and always has been, and it’s very challenging.

The Speed of Mercy, my most recent work is different on a craft and style level – it’s very suspenseful, and has a spiraling structure. The writing process was an exploration of both internal and external voice, rhythm, memory, and how narrative structure is often shaped by a traditionally male literary legacy. The Speed of Mercy set in the same literary landscape as all my previous works and characters and places from my other books appear in this one. What feels different this time is how much more confident I am in my approach to writing.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I’m an accidental novelist.

My first writing efforts were in stage play and poetry, and screenplay writing. But I always admired the razor sharp skill of short fiction writers, and the stamina of novelists. They were like seers moving among us. I also work in radio broadcast doing documentaries because of my interest in voice and telling stories in different media, working with sound.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

The Speed of Mercy was developing in my head for years, underneath the busy of everyday life, the hustle of the sandwich generation life I live with my husband, looking after children, elders, and hustling to make a living.

The length of time to start a project is always different, always dictated by the story, and time allowed. I don’t wait for the muse. I am the muse, ha ha, so when there is time, I get down to work, before it vanishes, both the time, and the idea.

Most of the work is done in my brain, where the idea will germinate and then produce the form it will take (poem, short story, novel, drama, etc.). Once I start writing, it comes very quickly on the page. I need breaks between drafts, for my subconscious to work things out, solve plot problems.

I store my big ideas in my mind in what is called a mind palace, or the method of loci. I’ve been doing it for years. It was recommended to me by a psychiatrist. It came into the common parlance through an episode Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. But mine is no palace, ha ha, but a mental 1978 mudroom/utility room/laundry room, with lots of drawers, shelves and closets. I put them there, and they wait, alive, until I can battle time and create space to put them on the page.

My copious notes are mostly in my mind. I keep notes the way a physicist works with algorithms and equations in their minds eye. I always have a box of ephemera for every project as well.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?

The Speed of Mercy rose out of my previous books, the same literary landscape, but from a specific character, Stella, who appeared in my mind one day.

It’s always different. Sometimes an image appears in front of my mind’s eye or my minds ear will hear a character speaking. Sometimes I’ll see a house or a couple in a café, someone waiting in an line, and then story will spark.  My characters travel throughout my short pieces and long pieces, moving in and out.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love connecting with readers, people who love books and stories, who thrive on the experience of tumbling into a fictional world, and letting their imagination soar and breath and expand.

A writer is nothing without the reader, the person who is brave enough to sit quietly with the book in their hands (or on their screen, as it were) and let time sweep them into a different reality. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I don’t understand writers who have disdain for readers. They are life blood. It was reading which saved me as a young child, and was the pathway into a refuge which then brought me back into the world.

6 - 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?

Hmm. In The Speed of Mercy, I’m interested in the human condition, which for me, means how we are alive in the world, how we deal with joy and devastation, love and loss, how we find hope, and come to terms with a vast universe and world, where we are tiny players. The Speed of Mercy was influenced by Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, the work of Resmaa Menakem, the poetry of Mary Oliver, among others.

I’m very curious about how mainstream ideas allow so many people to become invisible in society, for us to underestimate them, and not see their true power and beauty.

I’m interested in the neurology and science of memory. And on a creative front, how memory has a life of its own which begins to accompany us once we get through adolescence. As a woman, I’m curious about how women remained hopeful for change, or take a dark turn into accepting thousands of years of oppression and become oppressors themselves.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I can only define the role of the writer for myself, no other writer, and for me, as a fiction writer. I’m not a scholar. Truth, courage, objectivity, a massive commitment to integrity above all else, mixed with passion, joy and hope. The courage to speak your truth in your art, to be confident in your artistic vision and methods.

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

Outside editorial was key for The Speed of Mercy – objective, brilliant editorial perspective is critical. I love working with an outside editor, when I’m at a point where I don’t have any objectivity left, when I need skilled and passionate outside eyes. Editing is a very different skill/calling than writing, and working with a talented editor, for me, is critical. I view the editorial process similar to working with a dramaturge.

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

EB White: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”

That’s on my bulletin board by my rickety writing table. I’d also like to have it as a bumper sticker. Maybe wallpaper in my kitchen. And tattooed on my arm.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel to personal essays to critical prose to postcards)? What do you see as the appeal?

The story/writing finds the form it needs. It’s not a question of hard or easy. I may have a leading, and the work may lead me elsewhere. The appeal is the variation in form. I love working in different genres, and each one teaches me respect for the other genres.

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?

I find this question is awesome for people in a MFA without financial worries or time constraints or dependants. I grew up in a world we’d call “the working poor blended with the working class”.  Writing and art were not for people like me to even consider doing. What I’ve taken with me from those harsh rural years is that focus and discipline, and knowing what you believe, not what society believes, can become a bird on whose back you can fly to a new terrain of possibility.

My writing routine is largely shaped by my big hybrid sandwich generation family, with lots of elderly people, school age children, and our sprawling extended family, plus work I do for extra income.

In an ideal world, my work is done in the mornings, and reading in the afternoon. And when I am deep into the work, I can just have a few weeks to stay in the realm of the novel, and then I work on it even in my dreams.

The reality of this is that if we can manage it, I go away for a few days, and my husband runs the show. What I try to do is set up a weekly schedule, and then follow it. It comes down to discipline and commitment, how strong the beating heart of the work inside me is. It’s incredibly strong, and as time passes, the beat of my heart, and the call of my work rings out like a bell through the creative hills and valleys, and waters of my artistic geography. It’s a call I cannot deny, a summoning I must follow.

So, back to earth -- When I read about writers who go to residencies for 6 weeks, I cry with jealousy. But I’ve always known my best writing comes from staying the course, from a set routine. Mary Oliver wrote an essay about this work and it’s almost a religious text for me. Ursula K. LeGuin said to marry the right kind of person. I did that. My partner supports me unconditionally. We do a lot of plate spinning and passing those plates back and forth, and sometimes we do it with panache and sometimes there’s a lot of breakage. But we move onward.  

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

Nature. I go to the ocean. I walk in the woods. Walking. Alone or with my family.  I do housework. I devour film, art, television, poetry, as nutrition and inspiration. I love to bake so I make muffins and cakes for my family and friends. I mail postcards and letters and care packages. Gardening. Fixing old furniture. All the while, my subconscious sculpts, shapes, sorts, arranges, develops, expands, jettisons, and evolves my work.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Sea air. The smell of a wood fire. The wholly unique scent of forest meeting the beach and ocean. The smell of fog. Fresh cut hay. Line dried laundry. Also, exhaust on a hot day on a busy downtown city street. Early morning coffee. Lilacs. Saltwater roses on a hot day.

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?

Yeah, I don’t agree with that saying. Books come from many places. It’s not just a book which begets another book, although I reverently believe in the conversation books have with each other, which transcends time and place. But for me, the natural world, the ocean and forests, the seaside and countryside. Neurology and the science of the brain. I’m fascinated by architecture, how buildings and spaces shape our consciousness, how we are in the world.

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

In The Speed of Mercy, at the back of the book, is a list of my creative influences. 

A few are: Cormac McCarthy. Zsuzsi Gartner. Lydia Davis. Werner Herzog. Rawi Hage. Toni Morrison. Shirley Jackson. Aristotle. Henry James. Alistair MacLeod, Charlotte Gill. Mary Oliver. Chekhov. Joseph Heller. George Saunders. The Fanny Farmer Cookbook. Books on natural history. Antique postcards and vintage photos. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Lawrence Hill.

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

Write a one woman stage play about my left breast. Plus, go to Hawaii with my family. 

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?

My dream was to be a dermatologist.

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

See above – a calling/affliction. I love story, language, voice. It’s in my bone marrow. The rhythm and magic of words coming from the flesh, seeing those words standing up on legs on a stage, or manifesting in a novel, in the mind and heart – that’s everyday magic which transforms an ordinary moment into something profound. And then there is laundry to be done, or a kid throwing up with the flu, or the hustle to pay the bills.

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

The Beguiling by Zsuzsi Gartner. Us, directed by Jordan Peele.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am working on a memoir, Crosstrees, about my unusual hybrid sandwich generation family. Also a novel which is a feminine, elegant pulsing homage and challenge to Fight Club and The Joker.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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