The Chat with Christy Ann Conlin

Christy Ann Conlin 2018

This week on The Chat, we’re in conversation with acclaimed East Coast writer Christy Ann Conlin. Her superb collection of short fiction, Watermark, is out this month with Astoria. The book is chock-full of Conlin’s trademark Gothic touch and ability to create empathy for her complicated, hard-luck characters.

Kirkus Reviews says Conlin “shows her flair for crafting mystery and suspense ... on the smaller stage of the short story” while the Winnipeg Free Press calls her stories “creepy” and “complex.”

Christy Ann Conlin is the author of two acclaimed novels, Heave and The Memento. Heave was a finalist for the First Novel Award, the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, and the Dartmouth Book Award. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary journals, longlisted for both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the American Short Fiction Prize, and appeared in the anthology Best Canadian Stories. She lives in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia.



Trevor Corkum: Watermark is a rich and compelling collection, full of Gothic spookiness, deep empathy, and dark Maritime humour. Tell us a bit about how the collection came together.

Christy Ann Conlin: Spooky? I don’t know if it’s spooky, ha ha! The stories are definitely evocative and full of shadows, twists, and unexpected moments in unexpected places, characters haunted by both past and present, haunted by the moment they find themselves in.

This is how the collection came about, reading and writing short stories at unexpected times and in odd places (funeral homes, hospitals, a whole assortment of waiting rooms, hockey arenas, libraries, track meets, ferries, in the family van, at the dining room table, airports, taekwondo tournaments, nursing homes etc.) because my “panini generation” life, along with my own health problems, suited this shorter form. I could hold stories in my head whereas the expansive solitude of the mind needed for elements of novel writing didn’t exist. House of Anansi approached me about doing a collection and in the midst of my crazy life, it seemed like a dream. But it was real. My first short story won a prize and I got to go to Toronto and meet Alistair MacLeod, who told me to always stay true to my voice. A bit of that story became the prologue to my first novel, Heave, and the full story is in Watermark.

TC: One of many powerful stories is “Late and Soon,” a heartbreaking account of twins who grow up in a family struggling with serious mental health challenges. What inspired the story?

CC: The story was inspired by the suicide of someone I knew, and also, my own lifelong mental illness. It’s fascinating to me on a style and form level, how sadness, conflict, and turmoil take place in the realm of body, both physical and geographic. This story is set in the bucolic country and seaside, young people infused with vitality and vibrancy ... and yet and yet ... depression, oppression, and barriers infect natural beauty and childhood wonder. The family faces such extreme economic challenges and a changing world, and a father who cannot cope, with too much responsibility thrust on a child, innocence lost too soon, or to quote Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us, late and soon.”

TC: In much of your fiction, rural and small town settings in and around the Annapolis Valley (in particular, the North Mountain abutting the Bay of Fundy), feature large. Why does this part of Nova Scotia hold such a powerful sway over your imagination?

CC: It’s where I’m from, and the dramatic landscape, the oceans, the intense seasons, the economic challenges, the clash of old and new ways, the intense racism, and the passionate challenge to the redneck culture—all of this shaped me as a child. When I was little and my parents were unemployed and struggling, we lived in a very small house on a cliff by the Bay of Fundy. It didn’t have a shower or hot water, just running cold water but it wasn’t fit for drinking, just bathing from a basin. This was a place we had spent some idyllic holidays, but suddenly this was where everyday life was, a stunning primal landscape with these enormous tides and mythic skies, and yet our day to day life was very challenging, and my parents were besieged by demons and despair.

The beauty and the drama of the natural land was both reassuring and terrifying, just as my family life was ... the intriguing juxtaposition which often defines life, and so lends itself to fiction and art. It’s why there’s also so much humour in my work, the juxtaposition of laughter and tears, how humour and sorrow are curiously entwined. When you can see the humour, it really is beauty in a threatening sky, the lightening which appears and reminds you of the life still within you.

When you can see the humour, it really is beauty in a threatening sky, the lightening which appears and reminds you of the life still within you.

TC: Many of your characters find themselves caught in moments of indecision, torn between staying and leaving—relationships, places, particular futures. Most dramatically, in “Beyond All Things Is The Sea,” Seraphina flees from the altar of her wedding. Leaving has often been a powerful trope in East Coast writing. Can you speak more about this push and pull of leaving in your work? 

CC: It's a classic Atlantic experience, of having to leave to find work, and of wanting to flee and escape and find your own way. Fleeing offers a beguiling, albeit often false, sense of freedom. “Go west, young thing, go west,” is the whisper in our ears. It's about the concept of  homecoming and journey both literally and figuratively, homecoming as metaphor. This idea inevitably finds its way into my work, this internal compulsion to flee on a physical and emotional level, to run from trauma and abuse and oppression, and yet the yearning to heal, for understanding and atonement, for equilibrium and peace.

Flight is a theme which runs through all the stories, as is returning.  It’s very much about making your peace with your past, and also knowing yourself, your history, your ancestry, on your own terms. Ultimately my stories find characters wanting to tell their own stories, coming to terms with truth which can either free or destroy them. It’s the desire for personal autonomy and integrity which can summon an unearthly courage. Our stages of life often determine how we respond to trauma and pain, to conflict and challenge ... sometimes we flee, and yet sometimes we return to the heart. As Seneca says in “Beyond All Things is the Sea,” “though you cross the countless oceans ... whatever your destination, you will be followed by your failings.” Or as granny likes to say, “wherever you go, there you are.”

Our stages of life often determine how we respond to trauma and pain, to conflict and challenge ... sometimes we flee, and yet sometimes we return to the heart.

TC: Finally, if you were to take a road trip with any character in your collection, dead or alive, who would it be? Where would you go and what would you talk about?

Two characters hold equal fascination for me. Adam in “Full Bleed” ... I would love to be in the car with him, and see where he would take us, which I suspect would be a road trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to Vancouver where he’s from, and that we would talk about Werner Herzog’s idea of ecstatic truth, excruciating beauty of life, about true passion, the trials and tribulations encountered when we decide to live with integrity. And we’d fish with big bowls of spicy noodles on Jericho Beach.

The other character, Ondine from “The Flying Squirrel Sermon” ... I would love go on an ocean voyage with Ondine across the water on a sailing ship, to Ireland and Scotland, and discuss the old Celtic stories of merrows and selkies, of medieval water nymphs and elemental beings, waterlilies and mermaids, stories from the old world I grew up with. I think Ondine knows that those stories live on in our DNA, that they remain with us on a cellular level, and call to us through time, through shared memory. The story itself contains fundamental honesty and by extension, a connection to powerful parts of culture and lost in settler transit and immigration. Then Ondine and I would go to a seaside spa for pedicures and vibrant sparkly blue nail polish, ha ha ha!

Excerpt from Watermark

We moved to the North Mountain the summer I was four and my mother was pregnant with my little sister, Morgaine. My father made the house himself and we lived in a tent pitched in a meadow surrounded by forest while he built it. My mother told me this. I remember the tent was green and there was a path through the meadow to the house. I loved this path, which cut through the tall grasses. In the meadow, purple vetch threaded up through the grass stems and touched my mother’s round belly. The grasses grew so high they were taller than me, but I could look up and see how they touched my mother’s breasts. I drew pictures on her stomach with icing coloured with beet and carrot juice. Then she’d let me lick it off. The acreage was mostly forest, except for the clearing around a large, rickety barn. They put a sandbox in the clearing where I played with my pail and shovel.

There was also a path through the woods. It was a twisting path my father had cut through the pines to the clifftop jutting out from the trees over the Bay of Fundy. He called the path “the labyrinth of life.” It snaked through the forest to the perilous brink of the cliff. The path was difficult and winding, with sharp turns where you had to slow down. My father said this was the main purpose of his pathway: everyone was forced to stop hurrying and consider their journey as it unfolded. People needed to be open to sudden turns and trust the way ahead. Being in the moment would take over and time would lose meaning. Before you knew it, you would arrive at your destination, and le voilà, enlightenment, or éclaircissement, as the French Acadians say, when you reached the bench of wisdom! Every age had an awakening, her father said, with those like him, who were called to be its prophets, ushering in the awakening. On a clear day you could stand at the edge of the cliff and see all the way down the bay toward Maine, which was four exhilarating hours away by boat as the crow flies or a long, boring two-day drive by car, as my father explained.

The bench at the edge of the crumbling cliff my father had made from driftwood, which the elements had cast to a silvery white. He encouraged us to sit on the bench and look for water nymphs. He insisted people had been spotting them in the bay for generations. They swam in with the tide, he proclaimed, as though he were a marine biologist with a peculiar specialization.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

August 30, 2019
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