Gerard Elson speaks with Canadian novelist and journalist Lynn Coady about the importance of opening scenes, life on literary juries and why maintaining a healthy cynicism is important.
The epigram to Lynn Coady’s short-story collection Hellgoing (2013) comes from Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Church Going’ (1955):
For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here.
Striking though it is, one shouldn’t be thrown by the antithetical, even adversarial, relationship the two titles seem to share: this quote – from a poem so unblinkingly materialist it seems to reek of dry rot and mouse shit – contains within it the raw chromosomes of Coady’s fiction.
For starters, there’s the subject bewildered by their situation, governed by impulses which are inexplicable, often even to themselves – at least until after the fact. (Larkin’s narrator, by no means a believer, has entered the church ‘bored, uninformed’ – and yet: ‘stop I did: in fact I often do.’)
Then there’s the deadpan wit: the ‘accoutred frowsty barn’ in question – later called ‘[t]his special shell’ – is of course the eponymous house of worship. And then there’s the rug-pulling deployment of vocabulary: Coady, like her literary compatriot Margaret Atwood (and indeed, like Larkin himself) is adroit at smattering her prose with words and turns of phrase to tickle, subvert and surprise.
Finally, there’s the willingness to abide in the shadowed realms of irresolution and equivocation; Coady’s stories are marked by nothing so much as a profound ambivalence toward, well, life.
And they are very, very good.
The Canadian literary establishment would seem to agree: Coady is much decorated in her homeland. Having been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011 for her e-pistolary novel The Antagonist (note the hyphen: the book unfolds as a series of emails fired off by a hockey enforcer), she was awarded the prize in 2013 for Hellgoing. It is Canada’s most lucrative literary award.
Coady lives in Leslieville, Toronto, where she writes frequently for television. She served as story editor for Season Three of the popular science-fiction series Orphan Black (2015), has written episodes for the forthcoming season of Sensitive Skin, a black comedy series starring Kim Cattrall (‘Season One just won an International Emmy,’ she says, ‘I didn’t know there was such a thing!’) and currently has two original projects in development with various networks.
February will also see the Canadian publication of the slim tome Who Needs Books: Reading in the Digital Age (2016), a lecture delivered by Coady earlier this year at the University of Alberta as part of the establishment’s annual Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture series.
She is currently without an Australian publisher.
Coady and I met at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival, where I facilitated a discussion between her and Ellen Van Neerven about fiction’s facility to grapple with ‘the strangeness of contemporary life’. Following the festival, we exchanged emails about Coady’s approach to her craft. Her responses were so eloquent that KYD has decided to share them with you.
KYD: Your stories in Hellgoing tend to begin in extreme close-up, to use an analogy from film and TV, then gradually, sometimes startlingly, pull back or pan around to orient the reader.
LC: It’s good to begin a story at a crisis point, a moment of conflict, be it internal or external. I think I got in the habit of doing this after serving on one too many literary juries. I remember one in particular – I had to read over 200 books.
When you have to read 200 books and you keep coming across stories that begin along the lines of: ‘Jessalyn gazed out the window at the horses,’ or ‘Maurice stirred the porridge in slow meditative circles,’ you get so you just want to throw the book across the room. It felt like an insult. I remember thinking, How dare this author begin this way and expect me to continue? How dare this author put so little effort into making me care? It made me indignant as a reader, it was like showing up for a date with someone who hasn’t taken the time to comb his hair or put on clean clothes.
So that’s a long-winded, needlessly pugilistic way of saying these ‘extreme close-ups’ are my way of placing the conflict front and centre, of asking for the reader’s undivided attention. You start with someone falling down the stairs, like in An Otherworld, and all she can think as she falls is how irritated she is at her husband-to-be – the moment in itself is the heart of the story. That’s how I like to begin.
The great Canadian writer Jack Hodgins in his book A Passion for Narrative talks about how the best opening lines/paragraphs of literature feel like the seed from which the entire story quite naturally springs forth. Which is to say that everything you need to know about the story is right there, contained in that handful of sentences – the characters, the conflict and the theme. You do a good job at that and the reader is with you to the bitter end.
KYD: Your frustrations as a literary juror seem to have spilt over into some of the stories in this collection, a couple of which focus on writers and the promotional events – like media appearances and writers’ retreats – that are de rigueur for authors nowadays. There’s a healthy cynicism about the contemporary literary enterprise fizzing just below the surface of these stories.
LC: Huh. That gave me pause. I thought: Uh-oh, have I been unconsciously venting about the publishing industry this whole time? But I don’t think that’s it exactly. I think, being too lazy for research, I just write what I know. I write stories about small semi-rural communities in Nova Scotia, and you could say the same thing – that my stories reflect a ‘healthy cynicism’ about life in small-town Atlantic Canada. In fact people have said that.
KYD: Are you really ‘too lazy for research’? Your other characters in Hellgoing are a pretty varied lot. There’s the narrator of ‘Take This and Eat It’ – a nun; the steadfastly impenitent, ‘Type A’ alcoholic of ‘Wireless’; and the couple of ‘An Otherworld’ who are into hardcore BDSM. All are vividly fleshed out by your judicious arrangement of literary detail.
LC: To remain lazy, yet effective, as a fiction writer, you learn to fudge the details. The world offers you hints about certain human circumstances with which you may have no more than a passing familiarity. You just pay close attention to those hints, do a little Googling, apply some imagination and empathy and – voilà.
But there’s also that thing writers do where we turn the achingly mundane substance of our everyday lives into something with a little more narrative oomph.
So I may never have been a nun but I’ve known angry, bitter women of that character’s background and generation who felt trapped in their lives. I may never have been a Type A alcoholic, but I’ve certainly been exposed to alcoholism – and the alcoholic personality is something I’ve thought a lot about. I might not be into BDSM, but I have been known to get into accidents when I’m upset or feeling bad about myself, as the BDSMer in the story does.
That last story, ‘An Otherworld’, is probably the best example of what I’m talking about. I was toying with the idea of two people, a couple, ‘beating up on themselves’, both literally and metaphorically, for mistakes they’ve made in their pasts. Naturally the idea of them taking it to the next level and beating up on each other – not metaphorically, but literally, and eroticising the process – seemed like an interesting place to take a story. But here’s the boring real-life incident that inspired ‘An Otherworld’: I fell off my bike after getting in a fight with my ex, and he insinuated that I did it on purpose.
KYD: You lump imagination in with empathy, but in literature, as in life, the latter is far rarer and more precious than the former. Your fiction has both.
LC: You need empathy because you need characters who are interesting, and some of the most interesting characters are people who, if they existed in real life, you wouldn’t necessarily want to share a seat with on the bus.
I think the nun in ‘Take This and Eat It’ is that kind of person – just relentlessly negative and always suspecting others of mocking or despising her. We’ve all known people like that and they’re impossible to have a conversation with: you can’t say anything right, everything gets interpreted as an attack.
But it’s fascinating to put yourself in that mindset, and you need empathy if you’re ever going to figure out how she got that way. I think Flannery O’Connor is one of the great literary empathisers and that quality, paradoxically, is why some people find her fiction so ruthless and cold-eyed. She’s not afraid to go deep into the mindset of racists and narcissists and religious fanatics and twits. She pulls on her hip waders and wallows around in the muck with them.
I notice it’s the writers who empathise most completely with their difficult characters who often get accused of ‘hating’ their characters, or just getting off on their characters’ sheer despicability. I think that’s just a chickenshit reaction to a writer who is willing to take on a severely distasteful personality and explore all the sadness and fear that lies behind it.
KYD: I’m glad you mention O’Connor, as she struck me as a sort of spiritual forebear of your stories in Hellgoing. In her famous address-turned-essay ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’, she turns her mind to those people who accuse ‘the modern novelist’ of painting a picture of the world that’s ‘unbearable’, without hope. She continues: ‘I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.’
But, she ultimately concludes, such opinions miss the greater point that to write and read fiction are themselves acts of hope: ‘People without hope… don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have an experience.’
Do you agree: is all fiction necessarily predicated upon hope?
LC: Every writer gets that there are two types of readers out there. First, there are the escapists, the readers O’Connor is irritated by, and all they ask is not to be made upset.
I read something recently about O’Connor having one of her stories adapted for television, and of course the TV people made a hash of it – they completely defanged it and made it a ‘nice’ Southern story. And O’Connor talks about how one of her aunts – an aunt who had always looked askance at her fiction – saw the TV play and told her, ‘You finally wrote something I liked!’
There’s nothing more pointless than grinding your teeth about other people’s tastes, but for writers it gets tedious when such readers express disappointment and disapproval that all books aren’t written to their particular sensibility. The second type of reader, then, is the reader who does want to be upset – they want that shock to the system O’Connor describes.
I just read an essay about short fiction by Ben Marcus, who says: ‘I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world, and tossed aloft until I cannot stand it.’ And that kind of reader, if a writer, will write the kind of stories he or she would want to read.
I remember at a public-library reading once, an elderly lady told me, ‘As I get older, I find I just want stories that are easier, not so depressing, more optimistic.’ She said that in response to what I had read, you understand, she was lodging a complaint. You can’t argue with those readers. But what’s startling is how they’ll speak to you as if you’ve hurt or insulted them by writing what you have written. The subtext is: Why did you have to do that to me? Sometimes it makes me wonder if, contra O’Connor, readers like me and Ben Marcus have something wrong with us that we crave so much to be ‘ambushed’. And maybe the escapists just feel the world more deeply and keenly than we do – they don’t need that literary ‘axe to the frozen sea within us’ that Kafka talks about, because their sea isn’t as frozen-solid as ours is. Or maybe they just prefer their sea the way it is.
I’m struggling with this question because I’m trying to figure out how much the distinction between these two types of readers has to do with hope. I think it’s bound up with morality and the idea of worthiness. The idea that certain aspects of human life are worthier subjects of fiction than others. Maybe the hope resides in the idea that humanity in all its facets – savoury and unsavoury alike – is a subject worthy of all a writer’s creative energy and attention. And furthermore (and this is the real test) worthy of a reader’s expenditure of leisure time.
Original illustration by Guy Shield.