Today, it is my pleasure to welcome Christy Ann Conlin to my blog to talk a bit about her latest book The Memento. Since its release in April, The Memento has received a lot of publicity, and you know me, I love supporting authors–especially local authors! Christy Ann Conlin’s acclaimed first novel, Heave (2002), was a Globe and Mail “Top 100” book, a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Heave was also longlisted for the 2011 CBC Canada Reads Novels of the Decade. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals including Best Canadian Stories. Conlin also hosted the popular 2012 CBC summer radio series Fear Itself. The Memento is her first novel in fourteen years. Conlin teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies online Creative Writing program. She lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Before we talk about the book, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what the writing process is like for you? Do you spend much time in the planning stage or do you jump right in when an idea comes to you and figure things out as you go along? In other words, are you a plotter or a pantster?
A bit about me: I was born and raised in rural Nova Scotia, both in the Annapolis Valley and over on the Bay of Fundy. When I finished high school, I left, like many of us Nova Scotians do, ha ha. I traveled and worked all over the world. I did a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, and then headed to Northern Ireland, and from there made my way back to Nova Scotia where I’ve been ever since. It took all that wandering and exploring to discover there was no place more exotic than home. I think many writers have this experience, and some are smart enough to know this without having to leave!
My process: I tend to work on stories in my subconscious, while I’m actually writing another one. For example, I’m working on a novel right now, but at the same time, I have a notebook on the go for another novel. Usually it all starts with a character who appears, and if I follow them, they show me the story. When I do sit down to write, it feels like jumping in but there actually has been a huge amount of mental work done in my head. As a result, I go into a story with a very strong sense of character and plot. In the early days of writing I used to skip this mental process so I’d have really fascinating characters and great dialogue and a distinct sense of place but nothing happened. Oh, those stories which lead to…nowhere. But it was how I cut my teeth, so to speak, and learned.
When the book opens we learn about the significance of the mirrors placed outside the front door of houses which I found quite intriguing. I’d never heard of it. Was this something your writer’s mind invented for the book or was it taken from actual mountain folklore?
It’s a combination of actual folklore and my writer’s mind! My grandmother always had both a chest of drawers and a mirror in her porch. If people came by to drop something off for my grandmother, a present or something they had borrowed, or a letter) they would leave things in the drawers, if they were valuable or private. As a child I would peek and one just never knew what would be in there! And the mirror was something my grandmother told me she would check her hair in, and then she’d laugh in that dry way she had and say that it was good to see if there were any ghosts behind you.
The Memento introduces readers to some memorable characters that you certainly brought to life on the page. Were any of the characters inspired by people in real life?
All of the characters in all of my work are inspired by real people, sometimes nominally and sometimes to a very large degree. That said, it’s often not a specific person, but a specific kind of person. When you travel and live in different places you begin to see that every town has similar kinds of people. It’s one of the most amazing parts of writing, creating my own fictional characters whose origins come from observing the world around me, the heartaches, the joys, the devastations, and the triumphs, the big ones and small ones.
The embroidery element plays a significant role in The Memento. Can you explain what inspired you to add this to the book? Do you perhaps embroidery yourself?
Yes, I do embroidery and different kinds of needlework. I grew up in 4-H and spent hours and hours by woodstoves and at dining room tables with some master craftswomen and artisans, learning what I call the “lady arts”. We also had a lot of antique embroidery on the walls at home. I was fascinated with the faces, how they looked so different up close, almost grotesque or unfinished, and when you stepped back, they seemed alive. It’s the same thing in impressionistic painting. I collected framed embroideries and after years of having them surround me while writing, I began to think about how women who did needle work really channeled their experiences and spirits into these works, as any artist does. And so, then Fancy Mosher’s gift with embroidery took on a whole new meaning, of what she was able to depict in her pictorials, in these mementos.
Although Nova Scotia is not specifically mentioned, I found you totally captured the rural aspects of the book and I felt very much at home with the setting. I actually Googled Lupin Cove Road because I was sure it was an actual place! Was there a reason why you chose not to mention specific name places in the book other than the Bay of Fundy?
Well, I wanted to create the exact experience you are describing for the reader, that the sense of place and setting would be so real and familiar they would be sure it existed. I had so many readers from England tell me my first novel, Heave, reminded them of the seaside villages they grew up in England. (Heave is also set in Lupin Cove). It does, of course, exist in the story and in our minds, but it’s also one step removed, like a fairy tale. Faulkner did this, with a fictional county in Mississippi, and I really admired how this gave readers a bit of a distance, so they could see a reflection of the world, if you will. I love how the idea of a seaside village and a valley and a grand home and a path in the woods, how these locations resonate with people regardless of where they actually live. It is a way of using regionalism to create universalism.
The one setting which I really drew on specifically is the Tea House and Grampie’s art work. That was all inspired by Maude Lewis and her painted house and her artwork.
Of all the characters in The Memento who is your favourite and why?
I love Jenny, the anti-heroine. She’s so marginalized and outright dismissed, so powerless, and yet she is the only one brave enough to really acknowledge the full horror of what is happening, and to seek justice. Yes, I know, ha ha, her sense of justice is a bit warped, to put it mildly, but she wants more than anyone to restore a sense of moral order, and put the ghosts of the past to rest. But she can’t do that on her own, and she needs Fancy, with her gift, to help her understand the true nature of what is haunting them.
The book is written in first person which is a very personal point of view that brings an author very close to the character she writes about. I’m dying to know, are you hiding somewhere inside Fancy Mosher or is she somewhere hiding inside of you?
Honestly, Laura, I think I am hiding in Fancy Mosher, but I am seeing the world through her very unique eyes. It was a privilege to view the world from her unique perspective. I’m not so much like her, even though I would like to be. I always feel my characters are very brave, and I am not so brave. I’m more like Seraphina in Heave. That novel was much more autobiographical. My grandmother always told me because I had an artistic disposition, a sensitive nature, the spirits would speak to me. My understanding of this is that characters come to me and I write out their stories.
The Memento has been described as a literary ghost story. Are you intrigued by ghosts and most importantly do you believe in them?
I think it’s more magic realism, to be honest, with ghostly elements. It’s very much a genre blending, or even genre defying novel, which merges the old world novels of Jane Austen and the Brontes, L.M. Montgomery, Allistar MacLeod and Ernest Buckler with a hint of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson.
What is your favourite part of the book?
The fire on the beach, and the island scenes.
Are you currently working on a new novel and, if so, you tell us a bit about it?
Yes, I am working on two new novels and a short fiction collection. One of the novels is called The Flying Squirrel Sermon. It’s about a man who finds a bottle on the beach with a secret message in it, a clue to his sister’s disappearance many years earlier. The other two books I can’t speak about or I’ll destroy the writing magic!
Is there anything in the book that you have not been asked about but would like readers to know?
The Memento is not at all a traditional ghost story or thriller. It’s a blend of pastoral writing and horror writing, humour and heartache, the historical and the contemporary. The story is really a look at what happens when we marginalize and oppress people based on gender, physical ability and economic circumstances. It’s an exploration of how young and vulnerable women are so easily exploited. In the case of Jenny, she’s physically disabled and pretty much rendered irrelevant because of it. Fancy is discriminated against because of the circumstances of her birth, and because she’s lower class. The ghostly element was my way of looking at the anger and fury which arises from this discrimination, how eventually, those who are mercilessly exploited will rise up.
Thanks so much, Christy Ann. I enjoyed learning more about the book and your writing life. I wish you every success with this book and look forward to your future publications.