Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

On Telling Uncomfortable Stories with Lynn Coady

According to Lynn Coady, writers have two choices when it comes to storytelling: they can gloss over the real, unvarnished ugliness of reality, or they can write honest, uncomfortable stories about real people. Though it hasn’t always won her universal acclaim, Coady is dedicated to the truth.


The crowd in the Kailish Mital Theatre ranges from young to old, but there is an undeniable youthful energy in the air. Carleton’s creative writing undergrads have come out in droves to hear the 2013 Giller prizewinner deliver the annual Munro Beattie Lecture. In doing so, Coady joins a prestigious list of Canadian creative writers and literary critics who have graced the stage since the creation of the lecture in 1985, including Northrop Frye, Jeanette Armstrong, Carol Shields, Mark Kingwell, and Adam Gopnik.


Lynn Coady is an accomplished novelist and short story writer who grew up in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, and now calls Edmonton home. Hellgoing, her latest short story collection, won the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize . It was only the fourth time in the award’s history that a short story collection took home the award.


Her lecture begins with a moment of silence to honour Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. The crowd falls into a stark and respectful silence for a moment, broken only when Coady remarks that violence in Ottawa (and Canada) is so rare that in some ways she is grateful to not be numb or desensitized to it. It is fitting for an author praised for her unflinching delivery of the honest truth to acknowledge the horrific events that shook Canada this past week. Even in the warm comfort of the theatre, we readers and listeners are reminded of the realities of the world.


She introduces her lecture: “On Storytelling and Discomfort,” joking that those are the only two subjects she can speak about with any real authority. The audience is hers at once, at ease with Coady’s amiable cadence and sense of humour. Her talent for storytelling is evident immediately. In his review of Hellgoing,  Steven W. Beattie praised Coady’s “sharp sense of humour,” which “serves to humanize even the most vicious or clueless figures in the book.”


This talent has sometimes been to her detriment. Her 2006 novel Mean Boy, a story about a small town Atlantic Canadian boy obsessed with his poetry professor, was inspired partly by her own interest in deceased Canadian poet John Thompson. The events in her book are fictional; the ties to the real-life Thompson are tenuous at best. During her promotion of Mean Boy, an incident occurred in Sackville, New Brunswick, home of Mount Allison University, where John Thompson had taught. People who had known Thompson had connected the dots in Mean Boy and accused Coady of rifling through the poet’s life and stealing from it. They accused her of behaving immorally. Their complaints were twofold: Jim Arsenault (her main character based loosely on Thompson) was too much like Thompson and also so much unlike the Thompson they knew.


Coady explains that there wasn’t much she could do to convince her critics that she had never intended for ties to John Thompson to be made. In their eyes, she was a thief and a liar. But her painful experience in Sackville led to the creation of her 2011 novel, The Antagonist,  in which her main character Rank recognizes himself in the writings of an old friend and sets out to correct his false depiction. In some ways, this novel was Coady’s response to a specific critic in Sackville, and Rank’s journey of discovery is one she hoped said critic would embark on. Rank comes to realize that everyone recalls his or her own version of events and that storytelling, by its nature, is difficult.


Coady believes that our hunger for stories has nothing to do with comfort, though it may feel that way. What we are searching for is the truth. As a reader, she tells us, she responds best to troubling novels. In her question and answer period someone asks her to expand on the idea that she wanted her Sackville critic to understand the challenges of writing. Coady explains that writing a novel is a psychological ordeal. Writers, more than anyone else, need to discover sympathy for unsympathetic characters. They need to spend exorbitant amounts of time on people most of us wouldn’t want to spend any time on. Morality, she says, lies in how an author wields their power. To tell a story is to entertain, but fiction is the one place where we can be honest, whether that honesty is well received is up to the reader. In Coady’s eyes, by being honest, the writer’s job is done.