Writers on writing: Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady is an award-winning writer from Cape Breton living in Toronto. In 2013, her short story collection, Hellgoing, beat out four full-length novels to win the Scotiabank Giller prize. The collection deals with themes of personal hell, sin, vice, and blasphemy.

In a second round of far less welcome publicity for Hellgoing, Coady was mentioned in a now-infamous Facebook post by Jian Ghomeshi last fall, who attempted to downplay his allegations of sexual abuse by likening them to a particular Hellgoing story entitled Otherworld, in which a married couple consensually practices extreme BDSM.

Last October, in response to Ghomeshi’s Otherworld mention and the questions she has received about it since, Coady tweeted, “I knew Jesus was going to punish me for that story.”

When did you start writing fiction?

There was a magazine for kids called Highlights Magazine, and it would publish these stories and then it would say, ‘This story was written by Tommy, who’s 8,’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I’m 8!’ I could write a story and have it published. That was the first kind of awareness.

I just kept doing it after that, and it just felt like, to me, it was the one thing I was doing in my life that I was always getting something back from. I would put something out there and I would get something back, you know what I mean? A sort of pat on the back or validation or something, and so I decided to take that as a sign that it was what I should pursue, to the exclusion of everything else, basically.

In your short stories, the themes are often obscured or buried, making them into a kind of puzzle. Is that done consciously?

I mean, it’s both conscious and unconscious. On the conscious side, I’m really attracted to the mysterious element of short stories, and I like murky short stories where you feel like there’s something floating around in the character’s subconscious that’s making itself felt in the story and in the world, but hasn’t been articulated or maybe even acknowledged by the character. I like that, and that’s satisfying to me — it’s not satisfying to everybody.

A lot of male writers complain that they can’t write women, and female writers complain that they can’t write men — but you seem to write about both naturally, and the relationships between them. How do you approach writing gendered characters?

I keep in mind that gender in a construct, for the most part. It’s something that’s inflicted on all of us. People basically all want the same thing. So, when I think about male characters, for example, I know that women get a lot of bullshit projected onto them, so I think about the kind of bullshit men get projected onto them, and how it hinders them in their day-to-day lives.

Incorporating modernity into literature, and writing seriously about things like email and texting and Facebook is something not many writers are doing, or doing well. Why do you think this is?

I think writers feel this pressure — the writer of prose is almost an archaic figure these days, and so, when writers are coming up and thinking about what it is to be a writer, they’re looking to the generation before them. And they see people who would throw up at the idea of going on Twitter, don’t know how to text and, in some cases, actively disdain digital culture.

So I think we all come up with this bias that tells us, whether it’s conscious or not, that we’re not supposed to be engaging that wholeheartedly in pop culture. And, if we are, we’re not supposed to bring it into our writing. Our work is supposed to be this kind of strangely pure realm. And that doesn’t make sense to me. TV, for example, influences people. It’s been a huge part of people’s lives — having a box in your house that everybody gathers around and uses to either ignore one and other or come together. That all shapes an entire generation’s psyche.

So I’m really engaged, maybe more than some of my peers, in technology. And I find a lot of — and this is going to sound lame — but I find a lot of pathos in it, and in the way we use it, and beauty, in some cases, and poetry.

What are you working on now?

I’m not even sure I have another novel in me, but I recently just started writing something, and I thought it was a short story, but it just kept going and going and going, and after 25 single-spaced pages, I thought maybe it’s more than just a short story.

When you say you’re not sure if you have another novel in you, you make it sound so taxing.

Oh it is. Well, on the one hand, I’m not really happy if I’m not writing creatively. It’s very mentally and psychologically cleansing — it’s like a mental massage. And if you get into the kind of life where you’re doing pure creative work for three or four hours a day, you come to really crave that, and you get cranky and miserable if you’re not doing it.

But, on the other hand, writing a novel is a huge investment in time and energy, and you get halfway through and you get so sick of it, because you’ve been working on it and working on it, and maybe that’s a year, that’s a year of your life, and you realize I’m only halfway through. I’ve got another year to deal with this world and these people. And my relationships are going to suffer, and I’m not going to see my friends. You just start to feel like you’re missing out on life because you’re in your room typing all day.

So, after you write and publish a few novels, you start to know what you’re in for when you get those little sparks of ideas. You think, ‘Oh, this could be a good novel,’ but then, ‘Oh, Jesus, now I have to do it all again.’”

Photo courtesy of Lynn Coady