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Women's History Month: Lynn Coady

Goose Lane alumna and Giller Prize-winning author Lynn Coady has returned with Watching You Without Me.

Coady’s first novel, Strange Heaven, explores the life of Bridget Murphy, who, just before turning eighteen, moves to Halifax from Cape Breton to have her baby. She is then transferred to a children’s psych ward after giving birth and putting it up for adoption. The doctors believe she is too apathetic.

Bridget comes to find peace and happiness once again when she returns home to her dysfunctional family in Cape Breton. “I'd read stories set in Cape Breton, but I never related to them because they were set in olden times and rural and from a male perspective,” Coady stated in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

The novel is fiction but, as is inevitable for most great novels, is partly based on Coady’s own life. Like her protagonist, Coady was pregnant at 18 and needed to give her child up for adoption. “I tend to build stories around things that obsess me and what obsessed me then was teenage pregnancy and all the community politics that surround it.” Coady’s fictional novel creates very real characters in a very real place with very real problems.

The first few pages introduce readers to lively and relatable characters. Everyone knows an Uncle Albert, whose “language [is] a pastiche of curses modified into their less offensive versions alongside other curses that he either [forgets] to modify or [considers] too common-place to bother with.” Coady drops readers in a small-town environment where everyone is concerned with everyone else’s business — something many (myself included) can relate to all too well. After a shooting, the whole town is speculating on “what’s happening to the young people?” Blaming it on pop culture, television, music, and violence in schools — even though the shooting occurred outside of a donut shop. In the first fifteen pages alone, Coady places readers in a familiar yet entertaining town with entertaining characters; We know this story, but we want to know more.

As the novel progresses, three-dimensional characters emerge. Bridget spends the first half of the novel in the psychiatric ward in Halifax, then goes home for Christmas. At the ward, she responds to all questions about her health with a toneless, “I dunno.” At home, Bridget interacts with her dysfunctional family — characters just as flawed as her friends at the ward. Her grandmother, Margaret, raves and prays from her bed, banging the wall with her bedpan; Bridget’s ex-boyfriend and father of her child won’t stop whining; and her father, Robert, communicates in wild profanity. These dynamic characters together form the “strange heaven” that Bridget needs to get out of her rut.

Coady’s new book, Watching You Without Me, is about Karen, who, after her mother’s death, finds herself back in her childhood home in Nova Scotia for the first time in a decade, acting as a full-time caregiver to Kelli, her older sister. Overwhelmed with grief and the daily needs of Kelli, who was born with a developmental disability, Karen feels consumed by the isolation of her new role. On top of that, she’s weighed down with guilt over her years spent keeping Kelli and their independent-to-a-fault mother, Irene, at arm’s length. So, when Trevor — one of Kelli’s support workers — oversteps his role and offers friendly advice and a shoulder to cry on, Karen gratefully accepts his somewhat overbearing friendship. When she discovers how close Trevor was to Irene, she comes to trust him all the more. But as Trevor slowly insinuates himself into Karen and Kelli’s lives, Karen starts to grasp the true aspect of his relationship with her mother — and to experience for herself the suffocating nature of Trevor’s “care.”

The novel has been acclaimed as the Book of the Year by both Quill & Quire and Now Magazine, receiving such praise as:

“A taut, intense story about love and manipulation from one of Canada’s best writers.” — Now Magazine

“[Lynn Coady’s] readers will be accustomed to the violent, addicted, narcissistic men in her past work and find fresh and unnerving explorations of the subject in Watching You Without Me.” — Atlantic Books Today

In honour of her new novel, we at Goose Lane would like to look back at two decades of Coady’s career as well as those “violent, addicted, narcissistic men” and other characters from her first novel, Strange Heaven.

Lynn Coady grew up on Cape Breton Island and lived in New Brunswick before moving to Vancouver. Her short story, "Batter My Heart," first appeared in the Fiddlehead and was included in her later story collection, Play the Monster Blind.

Strange Heaven (1998) was the winner of the Dartmouth Book Award, the Atlantic Canadian Independent Bookseller’s Choice Award, Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award, the Thomas Head Raddall Award, and was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction! That’s a lot of success for her first novel, and we expect no less from her upcoming title, Watching You Without Me.

However, despite Strange Heaven’s incredible success in her early years as an author, Lynn Coady was so poor that she could not pay her phone bill. Coady states that the novel’s nomination for the Governor General’s Award was “weird” because it didn’t seem to fit with her real life: “It was frustrating because I couldn't rise to the occasion[.] They wanted me to go places and do readings and they wanted me to pay and reimburse me later, but I couldn't because I didn't have any money. It was a relief not to have won. What was I going to do — fly to Ottawa and stay in a hostel?” Coady said in Globe and Mail interview. The hardship readers witness in Coady’s characters are not distant or abstract, they feel like real people because Coady understands on an intimate level what it is like to struggle. She understands what it is like to have to work hard for success, and to continue to have to work hard even after that success. Coady writes about what she knows.

Coady knows the Maritimes. As an aspiring writer she would read one of those canonical authors who academia obsesses over: Hemingway. The writer who makes us believe that that’s what it means to be a writer. As a result, Coady felt like she lacked the quintessential travel and life experience that being a writer demanded.  But, not to be deterred, inspiration struck her as she began to read local Maritime authors like David Adams Richards and Alden Nowlan; authors who helped her realize that “anyone who’s had a childhood has the material to write.” All she needed for her stories was to set them in the Maritimes and, more specifically, in her home of Cape Breton. Coady knew that local stories about small-town Canada could be, if not more so, just as rich and electrifying as the seafaring, savannah-venturing, and bull-fighting stories of Hemingway. Watch Lynn Coady speak with the CBC on why she writes Maritime stories.

After the success of Strange Heaven, she contacted a literary agent (after having to get her phone working again because it had been disconnected) and said, “I need to be able to make a living off my writing. Can you do that for me?” The agent said, “Do you have a book?”

Today, Coady boasts six books of fiction: five novels and a Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning collection of short stories titled Hellgoing and the aforementioned Play the Monster Blind. She also writes for television, for shows like Orphan Black and Diggstown. From the very beginning of her career as a fiction novelist, Coady’s stories were getting nominated for, and winning, numerous awards, and her stories were reeling in rave reviews. People like what she shares! Let’s look at some of those rave reviews for the book that started it all, Strange Heaven:

“The audacity of the writing is brave and astonishing as it is real, honest, and from an author’s general inclination, risky. But, that’s what makes this book so revealing, empathetic, and true.” — The Bibliotaphe Closet

Strange Heaven deserves to meet with similar success [as Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden]. Maybe this is the dawn of a vigorous new movement in Maritime arts and letters. If it means more novels like this, let’s hope so.” — Quill and Quire

Twenty-two years ago, Lynn Coady was in her rookie year, publishing a novel that proved so full of energy, love, and honest life, why, we wonder what its reception would be like if it were published today. Have a memory about Strange Heaven? Let us know about it on our social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. #StrangeHeaven

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