If Alice Munro hadn’t thought of it first, an alternative title to Lynn Coady’s first novel, Strange Heaven, could have been Open Secrets. The Governor General’s Award nominee for fiction offers a story that deals in private “shames” – mental illness, teenage pregnancy, giving up a child for adoption – that are far more public than we tend to lead ourselves to believe. In a place like Cape Breton, it’s hard to keep a secret. And Coady, much like Bridget Murphy, Strange Heaven’s by turns hilarious and painfully honest protagonist, knows it better than anyone.
“In every protagonist I think there’s always something of the author as well,” she says over the phone from her apartment in Vancouver. “In writing, you’re always drawing from your own psychic life, and the events in the book are metaphors for the events in your mind.”
Coady, 28, has been explaining this point a lot lately. It’s because the wave of interviewers cast upon her since the GG nomination have commented on the number of events – metaphorical and otherwise – that the fictional Bridget and the real-life author share. But Coady’s not denying the connection between herself and her creation.
“Yes, I did have the experience of being a pregnant teen and everything that went with that, and yes, the event obsessed me for a long time. I think it awakened in me a number of philosophical questions about what it is to be female. It also made me see a lot of hypocrisy in society, in the way we deal with ‘illegitimate’ pregnancy. And yes, I structured the novel around that event in my life.”
At times, the close links between the author’s life and that of her fictional creation have caused confusion and even consternation among some of her family and friends from back home. Coady tells me that the problem even came up at her first public reading of the novel in Calgary when, looking out into the audience, she spotted the old childhood friend on whom she had based the novel’s character Heidi.
“Afterwards, she came up to me and we started to talk about the book, how she could read only a few pages at a time because she felt close to it, and how freaky it was for her. She could remember stories that I used to tell that I used in the book that I couldn’t even remember myself anymore. Then she kind of changed her tone.”
There’s a nervous laugh down the long distance line, then a cleared throat before she goes on.
“She asked me how I could have written it, and what kind of friend was I to put all of this out in the world. It was okay, though. It was good of her not to be hostile. But it made me feel bad that I’d caused her discomfort.”
When I suggest that maybe her friend didn’t fully appreciate the subtle but fundamental difference between fiction and real life, no matter how similar they may appear, Coady offers another knowing laugh.
“Oh no, she always read books. She was no dummy. I tried to tell her that the events are based on reality but have been put together in a new way to create something new, but she didn’t buy it. They never buy it.”
Despite the attention focused on the traces of autobiography in her novel, what makes Strange Heaven so special isn’t the element of personal exposure, but the quality of the writing. Coady has the gift shared by all superior storytellers: she makes it look easy. And what’s more, she’s an even rarer bird in the flock of earnest but all-too-often dreary “serious” Canadian novelists in that, amidst all the drama, there is always humour. Not dry, literary giggles, either. We’re talking about the kind of laughs where you’ve got to put the book down for a moment because your hands are shaking.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humour to get through a Cape Breton adolescence,” Coady explains when I ask where it comes from. “You’ve got to see the absurdity in it all.”
Part of the capacity to see the absurd for what it is, of course, is a distance. After high school, Coady attended Carleton University in Ottawa, and, after graduation, spent a few years working odd jobs and moving from town to town in New Brunswick. During this time she was writing, and finding success in her stage plays. Sufficient success, in fact, that she was offered a fellowship to the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia.
“I went because all I really wanted was time to write,” she explains. “Workshops were a thorn in my side. I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t gotten full funding.”
During these past four years of moving about Coady was working on Strange Heaven. Then the good stuff started to happen. The Air Canada Award given to the best writer in the country under the age of 30. Rave reviews. A call from the Canada Council informing her that she’d been shortlisted for the most prestigious literary prize in the land.
“I’m not the sort of person who’s much into emotional displays,” Coady confesses. “But when I heard I was nominated, I did a little dance.”
That dance was performed in the one-bedroom apartment over a main street in Kitsilano, the artsy neighbourhood adjacent to downtown Vancouver. Although she’s graduated from UBC, she plans to stay on the West Coast for at least the next couple of years, the period of time she expects her partner, Chuck, will require to finish his PhD.
When I ask her what she makes of the cultural difference between dirty old Cape Breton and Lotusland, Coady pauses to think.
“You know, I really like both places. But the one problem about Vancouver is that everybody is married to their cars. I get scared every time I have to cross the street.”
Despite all the recent attention (“I’m almost as busy these days as I was when I was working in a daycare”), Coady prefers to keep things simple in her life. Wake up late, make a pot of tea, write for three hours, four on a good day. By the sounds of it, there are no all-night parties or schmoozing at literary gatherings.
“I’m not really a very social person to begin with,” she states simply. “I’ve got one friend out here from the Annapolis Valley, though, which is great because the two of us can share hick stories.”
It’s probably a good thing that Coady isn’t a night owl, as she’s got a lot of work ahead of her now. After Strange Heaven became the breakthrough novel of the year, Doubleday Canada signed her up to a two-book deal involving a collection of short stories and a non-fiction account of Coady’s search for her own birth mother. The book, tentatively titled Are You My Mother?, will document the process of Coady’s search from beginning to its unknown end. When asked whether she anticipates being troubled by making such a personal journey a public text, she answers with convincing confidence.
“I think there’s something freeing about the honesty of writing and the breaking of private taboos. I mean, Strange Heaven is a book about family life that a lot of people would have preferred I’d never done. But now that it’s turned out to be a success, I can see that it’s been worthwhile.”
And slowly, the folks back home are coming around to agree. After years of having people in her life thinking she was the “biggest idiot to walk the Earth” for pursuing a career in writing, they’re beginning to see Coady’s vocation as a reasonable way to make a living.
“Since the publishing deal, my father’s much more comfortable with it all because he can see it as a job,” Coady says with affection. “In fact, just the other day he was on the phone and asked me, ‘So, are you writin’?’ He’d never asked me that before, so I guess he must be finally accepting it.”