Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady on ‘the weirdness’ of the writing life

‘Even after all this time, I can’t believe my luck’

Jaime Hogge

Editor’s note: Lynn Coady was named winner of the 2013 Giller Prize. This piece was first published Oct. 31: 

THE 2013 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE: Canada’s most distinguished literary prize awards $50,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the work and artistic process of the five shortlisted nominees. In this edition, Hellgoing author Lynn Coady writes about the imaginary beings she brings to life while writing. Here are the other interviews and book excerpts from Lisa Moore, Craig Davidson, Dennis Bock and Dan Vyleta.

How do actors slip into the skin of a different character? What do writers mean when they say they don’t know what their characters will do next? The mind as a creative universe is as mystifying a concept for the creators who live that reality as it is for the non-creators who can barely imagine it.

“Most don’t live inside their heads as a writer does, having conversations with her own ideas,” says Lynn Coady, whose short story collection, Hellgoing, is nominated for the Giller. Regular folk aren’t as dreamy, she says. When she was quite young and used to verbalize her stories to others, they didn’t really get it. “I would just randomly blurt out things like, ‘What if a man showed up today and was carrying an umbrella but it wasn’t raining?’ Eventually, people started to call me weird.” Soon after, Coady realized her brain didn’t seem to work as most she knew. “I now know, of course, not to tap a stranger while on the bus and just tell him a story. You become socialized and you internalize it,” she says, but you always sort of know you’re different.

When you possess a creative brain, says Coady, everyday experiences are used as ingredients for the work you hope one day to make. And, if you’re lucky, the chemistry of all that accumulated weirdness makes art.

Lynn Coady on writing

The weirdness mainly rears its head on social occasions. A party, say, where people are chatting about their jobs, their busy family lives, and it strikes you that the only thing you have (or want) to talk about are the imaginary beings who’ve been living in your head the past few months. Or past year. Or past couple of years. However long, it’s definitely the presence of other people that brings out the weirdness—that collision of your own way of being with the everyday lives of others, the abrupt awareness—always a surprise no matter how often it’s happened—that their lives are very different from your own. Then comes the alienation; the essential loneliness bound up in this awareness.

The smallest thing can call the weirdness forth, like going into a shop at two in the afternoon to pick something up and having the salesperson ask, “So, do you have the afternoon off today?” And it taking an awkward moment to dislodge a response from your brain and nudge it mouthward, because the weirdness also lies in the fact that you haven’t spoken to another human being for the last seven hours. Just those pesky people in your head again, crowding everything else out.

Do you tell the salesperson you have every afternoon off, or do you tell her you are never not at work—even here, right now, in this shop. Some days it feels like one, some days the other. That is also the weirdness.

The weirdness is people asking, when they find out what you do, if you’ve “written anything I might’ve read.” And stopping yourself from offering the most natural-seeming reply, which is, “That’s really more a question about you than me.” Sometimes the weirdness is public—there are the wildly uninformed statements public figures will occasionally make about how you live. The prime minister of your country will distinguish you and your kind from “ordinary Canadians” (not helping at all with the above-mentioned loneliness/alienation aspect) on the basis that all you do is go to galas. At this point in your life, you will have published four books and attended zero galas. And you will imagine all the galas the Prime Minister has likely attended. And oh how you will seethe, looking around at your circumscribed world of desk (littered with granola bar wrappers), computer (smeared with last week’s peanut butter) and cat (glaring at some perceived affront).

This is when the weirdness slides into resentment. It does from time to time. The only thing that snaps it back into place tends to be the presence of other people like yourself, people similarly besieged by voices in their head who want nothing more than the time and quiet required to sit and give those voices the hearing they deserve. Their desperation for it, how impossible it seems. You remember you were one of those people once and you wanted exactly what they did: the life you have now. You give yourself a mental smack upside the head, sweep the granola bar wrappers onto the cat and return to work.

Let’s not forget: sometimes the weirdness is good. A Christmas morning Facebook message from a woman who wants you to know that your novel was the first book she ever read that made her cry. A get-together at a coffee shop with a friend who lives and works as you do (“So you ladies have the afternoon off?”), where you can enjoy the rare opportunity to indulge in your own particular brand of shop talk. Deadlines, editors, agents. Writers who are more wealthy and accomplished than you and presumably jerks.

But sometimes in those conversations, once you’ve moved past the cleansing need to gripe and be a little bitchy, you burrow down into the real heart of it, acknowledging to one another the secret thrill of this life, this weirdness. Characters, faces, gestures—all those sweet, tiny details of life that tantalize you daily, that you are dying to absorb and make stories out of. It’s a craving precisely like when you stood in front of the nail polish display at Shopper’s Drug Mart as a 14-year-old, wondering if anyone would notice if you dropped that amazing shade of Pop-star Pink into your pocket. Now, as a writer, the whole world is your nail polish display, and what’s more, you can help yourself. A thrilling, colourful array of gorgeous human peculiarity revolves before your eyes and you still can’t quite believe it’s all yours for the taking. Even after all this time, you can’t believe your luck.

An interview with Lynn Coady, conducted by Julia De Laurentiis Johnson

Q: Your essay talks about the weirdness of a writer’s life in relation to others, interactions with non-writers that make you aware of how different your mind works. But you also acknowledge the “secret thrill” of the gift, this rare filter in which you experience the world. How do you reconcile the world of your writer’s mind with reality?

A: The difficulty for me is realizing that most people don’t live and think the way I do. They don’t live inside their heads in the same way, they’re not as focused on characters, or enthralled by stories or human conflicts in the same way writers are. They’re basically not as dreamy. I remember coming to realize this as a kid. I would walk around, muttering made-up stories and eventually, kids were like, “You’re weird.” And there’s a bit of that dynamic that never goes away: the sense that you are weird. The good side of it is that I do what I love, I get to indulge that dreamy side of me on a daily basis. But every once in a while, I get that alienating feeling, though now I’m socialized enough to know it’s not a good idea to tap a stranger on the bus and recite him a story.

Q: You say that, when people find out you’re a writer, they often ask if you’ve “written anything I might’ve read.” I have an actor friend who says he gets asked, “Have you been in any movies I’d know?” He says it sometimes makes him feel like a party favour, how people validate his creative career in relation to good reviews or popularity. In your experience, why do you think that kind of social attitude exists, and is it all bad?

A: People tend to access it though the most accessible form of your genre, like when they ask a musician if any of his songs have made it to the radio. But I think you can’t really be a snob about it, that’s just how people respond. I remember when I was growing up in Cape Breton and I used to tell people I wanted to be a writer, and people would kind of open their mouths to say, “Well, no, you can’t be a writer because nobody here is, and we don’t know any writers,” but then they’d think for a second and say, ‘Oh yeah, well, I guess Margaret Atwood’s a writer, isn’t she?’ So that’s the good side of that kind of fame. It gives people, like the kid I once was, these role models who actually exist in the world, and shows others what the reality of that looks like.

Q: This is your second collection of short stories, though you’ve written a few novels. How is the short story process different from the novel process in ways you didn’t expect?

A: There’s something more magical about short stories for me, in that creative sense. I mean, a novel’s a wonderful thing and I’ve written a lot of them, but writing a novel feels so much more like work. Short stories feel more like play, just by the very nature of the stakes of a short story, by which I mean page count: They’re short! So you can afford to play in terms of time; you can take that time to just noodle around with an idea and have fun and be silly. And if it doesn’t work you’re, what, 10 pages in? You can just chuck it and start something else. But if you’re going to sit down and write a novel, you better damn well be committed, because you’re going to be there for a good two years. You had better know what it is you want to do, you need it mapped out in your head before you sit down. And you have to be willing to sacrifice all those years and all those pages to the project. But with a short story, there’s none of that weightiness. You can approach every one like an experiment, if you want. It really frees you up.

Q: Really? A lot of writers think the reverse, that writing a short story is so  intimidating because you have such limited space to get it right.

A: Well, that part’s true. I think once you commit to getting a short story as good as it can possibly be and publishing it, then you do have to work your tail off.

Q: But it sounds like you find time commitment more daunting, a bigger obstacle than being perfectly pithy.

A: I would say that’s right. For a story like “Mr. Hope” [a short story from Hellgoing], I spent a year on that one. I took my time with it because it was really important to me. I felt like it was coming from a deep subconscious place and I needed the time to draw that story out. But I began in the spirit of play. I just started with this image I had of a boy with an eyeball falling out, and that was all I had. And I sat down and I thought, “I want to write about this boy. Let’s start writing and see where my mind goes and, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll stop.” Then, when it started to work, I thought, “I think I have something here.” And that’s my signal to put in the time.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.