Author explains why ‘Alice doesn’t live here’

BOOKS_coady

Set to re-launch next month after a six-year absence, Western Reads 2015 focuses on three short-story collections written by Canadian women. Western News reporter Adela Talbot sat down with Lynn Coady, author of the February selection, Hellgoing, to discuss inspirations, misconceptions and the fact she ‘is nothing like Alice Munro.’

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What set you on the path of writing?

From when I was young, I always liked stories and was always writing stories. It was this thing I did, that I found I got affirmation for. Teachers would single me out as someone who was good at writing. People seemed to respond to my stories.

It seemed to be the thing that gave me affirmation from the universe and told me I was on the right track, in what I should be doing. It provided escape, and fun, and a kind of comfort in being able to create my own world.

Where did those early stories come from?

I don’t really know. I was growing up in small-town Nova Scotia; I wasn’t really reading stories that resembled my experience at all. I was reading stories about people in England, the States, and it kind of conditions you to believe, at that age, that nobody writes stories about the kind of life that I live. So, you start off trying to write those stories.

But then, when I started to get older, 18-19-20, I started to actively seek out Canadian writers and writers from my area. And I started to realize people from my part of the world could write their stories as well. And it was kind of a turning point for me. That’s when I started focusing on my own world and mining my own life for material.

Who were you reading, then, when you started to discover your own experience in text?

I was reading Alistair MacLeod, David Adams Richards, Alden Nowlan. Dave Richards’ work, (laughs) it was sad – but had a lot of humour, too. I really appreciated that and responded to that, because Maritime literature, for whatever reason, can be grim sometimes. And that’s not really what I wanted to do. I think maybe my books have certain depressing elements, but they have humour, too.

Where does inspiration come from, for you?

Characters are what inspire me most – people, thinking about their contradictions, yearnings and failings. I’m really interested in character and fundamental human dilemmas. For whatever reason, a certain situation or some little idea about a character will get stuck in my head, and I won’t know why, and I’ll just start obsessing about that character, and they will grow in my mind until there’s a story to be born.

Tell me about something difficult you’ve encountered in writing. Is there a work that you struggled through? Why?

I guess the last story in Hellgoing – that story came from a deep, subconscious place, I think. As I was writing it, I was feeling my way in the dark because I didn’t really know – I was really interested in these characters and their relationships, but I didn’t really know why. It was through writing this story that I was going to figure this out. And it took a long time; it took about a year of writing and rewriting before I started to understand what the contours of the relationship were, and what it was that was so compelling about these two characters.

What kind of misconceptions have you run into about your work?

Oftentimes, I see reviews and stuff where people find my point of view grim or cold, or just sort of overly pessimistic, about people. And I find that kind of baffling. I think it’s got to be a taste issue. These are people who tend to read more overtly optimistic stories, I think.

The other thing that was a little bit frustrating was when I won the Giller – the year Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize – I found myself being kind of held up alongside Alice Munro a lot. And my work was.

People were saying, ‘You write short stories; Alice Munro writes short stories,’ and I think people who weren’t familiar with my work picked up Hellgoing thinking it was going to be like reading Alice Munro, and they were sorely disappointed.

There are some cranky reviews on Amazon about that saying, ‘This is nothing like Alice Munro!’

What is success for you, at the end of the day?

Success for me is just being able to write without starving to death, having that be my full-time vocation. And that’s a really difficult thing to achieve, and it means I’m not always writing fiction to achieve that. I’ve been writing television a lot lately. It’s satisfying in different ways than writing fiction. But just being creative full-time without being hungry is all I’ve wanted out of life.

What would you like to say to Western alumni and community readers who pick up Hellgoing?

Enjoy the book. Some people take issue with the ending; they find it weird, abrupt or unsatisfying. And I just ask that readers be open. The thing that frustrates me sometimes is hearing people say, ‘You did the ending wrong.’ But I meant for it to be that way.

GET YOUR READ ON. To participate in Western Reads, register online at alumni.westernu.ca/learn/western-reads/. The first 100 people to register will receive a free copy of one of this session’s books. Follow Western Reads on Twitter @westernuReads, use #purplereads and sign up for Facebook events.