Christy Ann Conlin, the Halifax-based author of three spooky novels (Heave, Dead Time, and Listening for the Island, forthcoming from Doubleday), is pulling double duty this summer as the host of CBC Radio’s Fear Itself. The 10-part series, which airs Mondays at 7:30 p.m. and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m on Radio One, investigates the “whys, wherefores, and whathaveyous” of fear.
Q&Q spoke with the self-described “connoisseur of fear” about the relationship between her fiction and the radio show, and what it takes to delve into the freaky and frightening.
How does your writing inform the radio show?
I think they’re cousins, or direct relations, as we say in Nova Scotia.
I love talking to people and I love writing. It felt like the radio show was very much a beautiful marriage of these two things. I find people fascinating, and that’s why I became a writer.
Why do people do what they do? I think that drives writers. In radio, that’s what you’re doing, too, trying to learn through people’s stories what it means to be human.
How did you decide on themes for each episode?
We thought about these sorts of iconic fears, the big fears we all have. A lot of it also came from our own experience. The pilot episode, “An Ocean of Fear,” was on fear of water. That one came out of how odd it is that I’m an East Coaster with a fear of the ocean. For the pilot, I went for a scuba dive in the North Atlantic.
Has any particular episode stuck with you?
The episode “Fear and Death” [airs Aug. 13] really spun my whole view of these concepts. For this show I interviewed Terri da Silva, who has stage four breast cancer and is 37. She also has a three-year-old daughter. I found that interview very moving.
We also spoke to Stephen Jenkinson, who used to be the head of palliative care counselling at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He was the subject of a National Film Board documentary called Griefwalker and has witnessed over 1,000 deaths. I think it seems like such a grim topic, and both of these people are really joyous. I wasn’t prepared for that. I think I’ve always viewed death as black and white. These people talked about the other side of fear – courage.
Did any of your interviewees have any fear about sharing their stories?
I think everyone has a fear of being interviewed. It’s right up there with public speaking. For many of the guests, it was about overcoming the fear of reliving their experiences. Most people were very eager to share their stories even if they found it difficult.
I know with “An Ocean of Fear,” Jessica Franey had never spoken about her partner’s drowning in the Bay of Fundy, and the interview was just about a year after it happened. Also in that episode, Hugh Neilson talked about almost drowning off the banks of North Carolina. He was very reluctant to go into those memories.
Marina Endicott [who was interviewed along with author and paramedic Carrie Mac for the episode “Fear and First Responders”] was a little reluctant. She wanted to do the interview, she loved the idea about the show, but she’s never really talked about the fears she had while she was married to an RCMP officer. She’s just started exploring that in her writing. [The episode features Endicott’s essay “How to Talk About Mayerthorpe,” from PEN Canada's 2011 collection Finding the Words, and her poem “The Policeman’s Wife, some letters”].
You interviewed a number of authors for the series (Endicott, Mac, Andrew Pyper, and Ryan Knighton, are just some of the writers who appear on the show). Do you get the sense authors are more willing to share their fears?
I’m always curious, as a writer, about people who write for a living. In one episode we look at people who create fear for a living [“Creating Fear,” featuring Pyper and filmmaker Karen Lam], and a companion show, “Reflecting Fear” [airs July 30], looks at their creations – films and scary books.
If someone has written a book you might think they’ve processed their feelings, or they’re at a point where they have some distance and can look back a bit more objectively. We certainly didn’t want to talk to people who were in the throes of dealing with something, because I think you can damage yourself if you talk about a fearful experience before you’ve moved through it.