Christy Ann Conlin is a fiction writer based in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Her books include her debut novel Heave (Doubleday Canada, 2002), which was a national bestseller, a Globe and Mail top 100 book, and was selected as a finalist for several awards, including the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Most recently, Conlin is the author of a short story collection, Watermark (Astoria, 2019). In what follows, Conlin talks about her writing practice as a member of the “Sandwich Generation,” what she loves about writing in her part of Nova Scotia, her new projects, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?
I’ve been writing since 1995. It was not my dream to be a writer. My dream was to be a dermatologist. I have a learning disability which made learning to write very difficult so it was something I avoided, even in university. Oral presentations were much easier for me. It was through theatre, and studying stage plays, that I found my way into writing, through dialogue and voice. At first I wrote poetry, stage and screenplays. I did an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and my thesis was a screenplay. But the fiction writers fascinated me, their discipline in both long and short form. The same with poets, that commitment to something shorter but so layered and complex.
Your latest book, Watermark (Astoria, 2019), is a collection of short stories. Have you noticed any recent changes or trends in short fiction?
Yes, I find there is more experimentation in form, a challenge to the idea of a prescribed type of short story. In Canada I find a short story often has a prescribed word length, if you want to publish. Literary journals and magazines have to be conscious of length, and longer stories take more time for editorial boards to read. Many American journals take stories up to 8,000-10,000 words and consider that average length. But in Canada, 5,000 words is considered very, very long. That said, there is a resurgence in longer stories and novellas. Kris Bertin’s new collection is a good example of longer stories. And of course, Alice Munroe’s stories are considered to be long. I tend to react against the institutionalization of form. Literary art advances through innovation. My stories are both long and short, sometimes very short. Watermark has a huge range in voice, style and length.
What role does research play in your writing?
A huge role. While I don’t write historical fiction, history and the remnants of the past influence my work. I also write a lot about mental illness and health issues, about the natural world and oceans. There is more traditional research—I read an enormous amount, consult archival records, do on-the-ground research and trips. But there is also the day to day research, which consists of observing people constantly, having my ear tuned into conversation and speech, to body language, to seeing the unexpected.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
The Box of Delights. Angela Reynolds at the Annapolis Valley Regional Library. Writers Dana Mills and Ami McKay. Conundrum Press, which is located in Wolfville but booming internationally (disclosure: I’m married to the publisher!).
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
Yup, I won the B+A prize for my first short story. I got $500 and the story in print. I was over the moon. It felt unreal to see my words on a magazine page. I went to a fancy Toronto night and got to hang out with Alistair MacLeod who told me to stay true to my voice. The story became the prologue to my first novel Heave. The full short story, “Beyond All Things Is the Sea,” is a story in Watermark.
Do you have a writing group, or any trusted readers who help you with your work?
I don’t have a physical writing group. My sandwich generation life, or as I prefer to call it, the panini generation life, means it’s hard to have time to write, let alone be a part of a regular writing group. I really miss this, I have to say. But with work and writing, and spending caring for children and elderly people, life is a blur, with little time for those opportunities. I have one friend who I exchange work with, over coffee. She lives in Falmouth. And I have a tiny circle of writers I exchange work with electronically. I guess I have a virtual writers’ group. I also save my dollars, when I can, and hire freelance editors for objective feedback on my drafts.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Yup, I have two sets of rituals.
Lots of time and solitude ritual:
I use an hour glass timer and I start with singing and then I do a drawing. Then I do a journal entry in what I call a Common Place Book, a book with my thoughts, with clippings, where I keep lists etc. Sometimes I will then do a very specific writing exercise, all with a pen and pencils and markers. Then I often move to a keyboard and into the focused project at hand. The rituals are to warm up my creative brain and disconnect my analytical mind, and let the creative right brain take over. I first discovered this when I studied drawing, and then read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I did a botanical drawing course at NSACD with Carrie Allison and it dramatically improved my writing focus. I really don’t like to warm up on the project at hand, and find that generates some sloppy writing I end up deleting or heavily revising. But that’s the reality often, of little time. And so, let’s move to the…
GenX Sandwich Generation Life writing ritual:
Sit down on my butt and get to the writing as fast as possible before the time evaporates and I have to take care of people or do my day job. This means I often write in waiting rooms in hospitals and doctors’ offices, in the van in a parking lot, in the stands at an arena, in a café, in the dining room, in a hotel, in libraries, in funeral homes, wherever I have time to whip out a notebook or a laptop and make some headway. If the first few pages are stilted and sloppy, I recognize they were my warm up pages, the ritual of entering into the work on the back of the work, if this makes sense. I try not to judge those pages, and fall into that black hole of despair we writers know all too well.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I rarely have writer’s block, I am so grateful for the small blocks of time I have for writing. But when I do, I get up and for a walk or a bike ride or a run. I’ll do house work or gardening, or I’ll chop or stack wood. Or I will write a letter to a friend, anything to get a sense of flow going. I’m a big believer in writing your way into the writing. There might be some pages of drivel but those pages are the path back into the story. Writer’s block, to me, is anxiety and insecurity, which manifests in doubt, lack focus, confidence and commitment. It’s why it’s good to avoid stewing in it. We must fully believe in our vision and invest in it, and keep the judges at bay.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read & write, write, write. Protect your time. Write on a regular basis and show up for the times you set aside to write. If you don’t honour your own schedule, and don’t show up for yourself, no one else will. Most of us don’t have the luxury of writing fulltime and travelling about and going to residencies. I’m living proof that if one sets aside writing time and actually shows up, eventually the work gets done. It’s so hard, so I have total compassion for anyone struggling to write, who has a job and family demands, or writers who are isolated. It’s very hard to hold the vision. But it’s possible, with huge discipline. And also knowing, that every day is a new day, and it’s never too late, so keep going. Never give up. It’s that simple and that freaking hard.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on a novel about a sisterhood of mentally ill women, a wise old lady and several drunken mermaids who together are trying to solve the mysterious murder of a girl seventy years earlier.