canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady's website summarizes her biography this way: "Lynn Coady is mostly a fiction writer and essayist. Born in Cape Breton and now Vancouver-based, she's working on Mean Boy, her third novel and fifth book. Mean Boy is about poets, ambition, class, ego, magic mushrooms, small towns and academia. It is set in the seventies. Lynn's also been doing lots of journalism lately. She has a column that appears every other Tuesday in the Review section of the Globe and Mail." Coady is the author of Strange Heaven, Play the Monster Blind, and Saints of Big Harbour. She's also written plays and other stuff. Michael Bryson interviewed her by email in November 2004.


Here at TDR, we're currently rallying support for a genre under stress, the short story. John Updike has suggested that the short story's days as a "news-bearing medium" has diminished, and Jonathan Bennett has seen dark processes at work, claiming "the current publishing climate is hostile to the short story." What are your thoughts on the short story as a form -- and the current climate for the genre? Is it besieged? diminished? going through a dry spell? alive and kicking?

I agree the publishing climate is deeply hostile to the short story right now, and even though I am always encountering people who tell me they love short fiction, my friends in the publishing industry tell me collections just "don't sell". I don't know what to say about this except to point out that Alice Munro's latest collection is a best seller and poised to win at least one of our major literary prizes this year [editor's note: Munro won the Giller; didn't win the GG]. We have some brilliant practitioners in Canada, who have been acknowledged as such, so as a genre, I think the short story is very much alive and kicking, but I don't know how long it can stand in the face of such relentless discouragement from the industry.

Maybe part of the problem, or part of the reason popular magazines don't have as much of an interest in promoting fiction anymore, is the ubiquity of the idea of the "New Yorker short story". The work of Munro is an exemplar of this, and it's fine work, but somewhere along the line this orthodoxy seems to have sprung up that the fiction featured in magazines has to be of a certain character -- third person narration (usually), carefully crafted, with no particular surprises when it comes to language, structure or voice. It's possible this is an outmoded ideal. Maybe magazine fiction needs to change with the times, adjust itself to the new media environment. 

Maybe it's time for editors at magazines like Harpers and The New Yorker to start leading the way in this regard, to start taking some risks and making a deliberate effort to get readers excited about stories again.

Your work is quite strongly identified with a particular region of Canada, and you've also had your work translated and sold in other countries. Have you experienced a transition from being a "regional writer" to being an "international writer"? I'm most interested to know if you have  a different sense of who your audience is now, what your "project" is, and how you think about your work going forward.

I can't say I've experienced much of a transition. I think one of the aspects of my work that made it attractive, at least in Europe, was the element of the exotic, by which I mean the regionalism, weirdly. In the UK some people seemed fascinated to read about a place in Canada where people drank and swore and beat each other up and spoke in a distinctive, accented vernacular. I was surprised to note a somewhat pollyanna picture of Canadian life over there.

About my 'project': I've never given much thought to my audience, except to be grateful one exists, but recently I talked to a guy at a conference on Atlantic Canadian literature who said some very kind things to me about my writing in terms of the way it turns the spotlight on Atlantic Canadian life, and particularly the lives of AC women. He told me this after I had, in a spirit of perversity, read from a piece of speculative fiction I'd written, and said he hoped I wasn't 'giving up on this region.' That was the first time I ever felt a kind of responsibility toward my subject matter.

But the thing is, his suspicions were correct. I don't see myself as giving up on the region, but with the book I just finished (Mean Boy), I very much have the feeling I'm moving away from eastern Canadian subjects and preoccupations. It's no accident Mean Boy has the theme of betrayal woven throughout it.

When your first novel, Strange Heaven, came out, it seemed to me that the reviews broke into two camps -- those that said the book was too dark and depressing, and those that said the book was brilliant because it was dark and depressing (while also being funny). How do you react to reviews of your work? or do you? Do you think reviews in Canada have much to add to the literary debate?

With regard to those 'dark and depressing complaints' -- to me this exemplifies one problem with Canadian book culture right off the bat . . . book culture in general, probably. It's really, really middle-class. This is by necessity I suppose and therefore understandable -- but still.

The feeling I got from those who felt the darkness of Strange Heaven was gratuitous was that they simply resented the idea that people like this could exist. That communities like this existed, that lives were being played out in such a way. It's the same kind of knee-jerk resentment people have against the poor -- because they can't understand how anyone could end up in such a situation and, more importantly, they can't understand the way it shapes people. They know that poverty sucks because you can't afford to buy stuff, but they don't understand that it doesn't make you noble or strong as a result, it doesn't build character. On the contrary, it makes you petty and hostile and small-minded unless you have supernatural reserves of personal integrity, or else someone in your life who actively works to counter such influences. So that doesn't always make for a happy story, and it goes against all the societal myths with which we like to reassure ourselves.

The positive thing about the Canadian corner of the literary debate is that we seem to have an easier time talking about class in this country. We're not saturated in its influence the way Britain is, and we're not as in denial about it as the United States. Some reviewers of my books, I've noticed, have pondered the dominance of middle-class literary values, and this is something I really appreciate. (So I guess I've just admitted that I've read and reacted to my own reviews, goddamnit. I'd planned to come across all aloof on that front.)

Your website says that you're working on _Mean Boy_, a novel about  "poets, ambition, class, ego, magic mushrooms, small towns and academia." My first question: Where's the sex? My second: How's the manuscript going?

None of my books have sex in them because I'm a Cape Breton Catholic, which means if I even approach the keyboard with such thoughts, blood begins to seep from my palms. 

The first draft is finished, and stupidly long. My good editor and I are working on that.

A question about your Globe and Mail column. Is it a challenge to write  in your own voice, as "Lynn Coady," after working so diligently on some  deep-digging, big-hearted fiction books? Students of literature are told  not to mix up the author and the narrator, but there's no hiding in a  newspaper column. How have you adjusted?

That's kind of you to say, but you would be amazed how many places there are to hide in a newspaper column. The very foundation of that kind of writing, really, is a thick layer of glib.

What are you reading? What has knocked your socks off lately?

Oh man, I can't find anything lately. Ever since I read Youth, if it aint J.M. Coetzee, I aint interested -- and his books are so *short*. Let me know if you have any recommendations.


Thanks Michael, let me know if anything here doesn't quite make sense or requires clarification.


Hello again,

New photo and more on Coetzee, etc. Not sure how good the quality is on the JPEG -- let me know if it doesn't do it for you.


> Hi Lynn, > I've got three brief (I hope) requests related to the interview .... > > 1. Have you got a photograph of yourself in jpg format (that's not the one > of you with the coffee mug -- which is a nice pic, but a bit ubiquitous ....)?

No prob, I will send you the one with the Jack Daniels bottle instead.

> > 2. This sentence: "Some reviewers of my books, I've noticed, have pondered > the dominance of middle-class literary values, and this is something I > really appreciate."

> > I like the point it makes, but I had to read the sentence twice to get it. > Is there a better way of saying it?

Ahhhmm I don't know what about getting rid of "I've noticed" and then changing "pondered" to "discussed"? My brain is stalled on this one Michael, I'd welcome any editorial suggestions.

> > 3. Just to give the interview a better sense of conclusion ... could I add > a final question: "What it is about Coetzee's work that you like?" Maybe > you could suggest in your answer how Coetzee's work is related to stuff > you're trying to sort out for yourself at the moment, if it does -- or if > it doesn't, just forget I even said this ... I just think the interview > could use a better ending ....

Oh, he's just such a cold-eyed bastard. He never lets himself get sucked in by the need to warm things up, never indulges the urge to sentimentalize or to try and get you to love his characters. I admire that ruthlessness. I was re-reading Elizabeth Costello this week and was struck by the ineluctable awkwardness and unpleasantness of every scene -- it's just torture, but it feels so honest, so bitterly true to that world. There are no easy conversations, no one is every particularly comfortable in anyone else's presence -- even husbands and wives, mothers and sons. It strikes me as a very fearless, uncompromising way to write. He's crafting something beyond a good yarn and he's going to do it right, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. And it's worth it, for a reader -- the brain-feeding rewards of a Coetzee novel are some of the richest of anything I've read.

That said, I could really use a good belly laugh now and then. Vintage Richler has been known to do it for me.

Many thanks on the book suggestions. I haven't looked at Roth in a while -- would be interesting to see what he's up to these days.

your pal,

PS -- Oh did you read Jonathan Franzen's appreciation of Munro and her work in, I think, The New York Times? Bookninja posted it -- really good, really pertinent to your defense of the short story project. > >

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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