Busy Women on Writing Books
This is the 11th instalment in a new interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.
This month, I'm pleased to introduce you to Christy Ann Conlin, who has a new book THE SPEED OF MERCY just hot off the presses so she really knows what busy means.
CHRISTY ANN CONLIN is the author of two acclaimed novels, Heave and The Memento, and her new novel, The Speed of Mercy. She is also the author of the short fiction collection Watermark, which was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the Forest of Reading Evergreen Award and won the Miramichi Reader Best Short Fiction Prize. Heave was a national bestseller, a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, and a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, and the Dartmouth Book Award.
Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Best Canadian Stories, Brick, Geist, Room, and Numéro Cinq. Her short fiction has also been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the American Short Fiction Prize. Her radio broadcast work includes co-creating and hosting CBC Fear Itself, a national summer radio series. Christy Ann studied theatre at the University of Ottawa and screenplay writing at the University of British Columbia.
I know how amazing you are, but please let everyone else know a bit about yourself and the books you’ve written thus far. Own it and brag a bit for us!
I am a writer, broadcaster and public speaker living in seaside Nova Scotia with my family. I have three children, ages 12, 14 and 15. I’m the sandwich generation so we juggle a lot of elders as well. It’s constant plate spinning and the pandemic has made it incredibly tricky.
I was born and raised in rural Nova Scotia, into a working class family, who had risen up from what we’d call the working poor. We lived in a very small and very old house. I dreamed of living in cities and travelling the world and not being poor.
After high school, I did end up living in France and Germany, and Northern Ireland. I also did a MFA in Screenplay Writing at the University of British Columbia. I ended up back in Nova Scotia. It’s partly the enchantment of the sea and the landscape, and partly the affordability of the countryside. But the trade-off is the social isolation.
My husband runs Conundrum Press, a boutique publishing company specializing in graphic novels. We are mutually supportive of each other, and it would be much harder to be a sandwich generation plate spinning writer without him. The Speed of Mercy published on March 23, 2021. This is my third novel and my fifth book.
I also co-created and hosted a national radio show, CBC Fear Itself. We explored fear in its various manifestations. I do art photography and collaborate with a California based artist, Marie Cameron. I’ve done a public art component for The Speed of Mercy, working with vintage postcards but transforming them into postcards of the fictional settings in the novel.
What’s your current writing routine? Has it always been like this? What about it might be different for you now than in the past?
Right now, I don’t have a writing routine because my new novel, The Speed of Mercy has just published. My work time is consumed with promotions.
But soon I will impose a writing routine on my weekly schedule and I’ll get back to this: Ideally, is getting up at 5:00 and working in the morning, with a break when the kids get up, and then back at it when they go to school. I write in the morning, and then ideally (and ideally is the key word here), I do research, reading and admin work in the afternoon. I try to finish work by then time the kids roll home at 3:30.
I supplement this by stealing away for a few days and staying with my sister in law, who lives on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. When I am deep in a draft of a novel, it’s crucial to have extended writing blocks, and it’s very hard to do this juggling everything else. With the huge support of my husband, I can slip away for a few days. It’s a massive gift.
Lord love a duck, no, it has not been always been like this! I could go on and describe all the writing routines in the various stages of my life, and we’d be here for days.
I became a writer very suddenly, and it wasn’t something I had always wanted to do. I have some serious learning disabilities and it’s a miracle I learned to read. Writing was much harder. It wasn’t until I began reading stage plays, and studied theatre, that I found a back door into writing through dialogue. I was saved by Chekov, I like to say.
When I first started writing, I was quite devoted and wrote whenever the muse happened to come flitting by. Like many writers, I look back and wish I had used that time more wisely, before children, before the sandwich generation life, when my time was wholly my own, despite the many bad jobs I had. My spare time was my spare time.
I also wish my confidence level had been much higher. I was very insecure and self-doubting, like so many women are. And it affected a lot of my writing sessions. I would sit there feeling like I was a no talent loser and everything I was writing was stupid and dumb. We are often enculturated to believe this, that what we saying is inferior, especially if our work is exploring non-traditional themes or characters. I was shaped by the Western canon, the writing of men, and yet when I began to write, it was about women and in a very feminine style.
I often was told my work was “too girly.” Now I embrace all of this but for a long time, I turned my anger inward, and wished I could “write like a man.”
Many things are radically different now that I’m in a wonderful marriage, with a partner who fully understands and respects my work. When I’m sitting by the fire drooling and staring into space, he knows I’m doing deep work in my mind. What a gift this is, the emotionally support and encouragement. But it’s still very difficult, and we map out the weekly schedule together, in order to keep my writing time sacred, and also address other work, children and the elders, not to mention keeping this old ramshackle house from falling in. Ursula K. Le Guin said to marry well. I finally did.
What’s different now is that I know in my bones how precious time is, and that you cannot get it back. It’s like driving around and around looking for parking. Just go into the parking arcade. Or waiting for the muse. Writer, you must summon that muse!
But we can learn from the past, and shape a very different present and future. This is the gift of past mistakes, or choices we thought were great but proved not to be. Or not knowing there was a choice, or another way. A bit change in my mental paradigm was realizing that if I didn’t know what to do, and there seemed to be no other pass, I could just decide to not decide, and trust there would be a different choice, even if I didn’t know what it was yet.
I’m a Quaker and we say “way will open”. And it does, when we accept that we don’t know, and allow some space and silence to come into the chatter, to be open.
Tell us the story of when you first got published. What was special about that experience for you?
The first story I wrote won the b&a prize in Blood & Aphorisms. Susan Swann was the judge. I got $500 and a publication, and went to an event where I got to meet Alistair MacLeod. It was a very quick start to my publishing career. The story became the opening pages to my first novel, Heave.
It was special seeing my words in print, in a magazine. But what was significant was the opportunities this opened up for me. I took myself seriously as well. Not only did I want to write, but I wanted a readership, which meant having my work published.
I know some people who like writing and show their family and friends. That’s hobby writing to me, if the push to send the work out into the arms and imaginations of the readers in the world isn’t there. And that push and drive has to be there to sustain us through the demanding and exhilarating work of writing, and the other side which is the challenging publishing experience, the business side.
Before that story, the first thing I ever wrote and completed was a stage play called Alone With a Head of Lettuce. Yup, all I had in the fridge was a head of lettuce. It won a prize and was produced multiple times. It gave me a lot of confidence in my intuitive sense for dialogue, character and story, for dramatic tension, and the magnificence of human voice and speech. At the time I would not have said this. It is the gift of retrospective to see that both the short story and the play infused my subconsciousness with possibility and confidence.
When did you start “getting serious” about writing and what did that look like for you?
The first publication was a turning point, but for me, the moment I started writing, I became serious about it, because it was such a compulsion in me, to get the stories and voices out of my head and down on the page. As soon as I started doing this, the stories just kept coming to life in my mind even when I was doing other things.
The need to create on the page was overwhelming. For me, it was a sudden calling, like a voice inside which had whispered for years, but I didn’t understand the words. It was a foreign language singing to me, and it got louder and louder. And then I understood the words, and began to write.
I was living in Germany with my boyfriend of that particular time, and went o visit a friend in Switzerland. I was telling her some big long story about my life. I was standing on her kitchen table (I don’t remember why). She told me to write it down. And I went back to our apartment in Germany and began to write. And here I am, all these years later, still writing out the voices and stories in my mind.
What have you had going on in your life over the years that wasn’t writing and may have made finding time to write challenging? What strategies did you use to overcome those obstacles and get the writing done?
I’ve had a very long journey with Major Depressive Disorder, an anxiety disorder, and a host of other mental health challenges, since I was very young, and a big involvement with mental health professionals. Throw in poverty, and god, I can’t believe I’m alive. I was homeless at one point in my early twenties, and that’s when my life really was bottoming out. I was institutionalized, and somehow, eventually, after a lot of hard work and time, came out the other side.
Writing and photography were key healing elements for me, as it was a safe and private way to explore what I had witnessed and experiences in life. For me, it was about creating and making something out of nothing. There is nothing more ethereal than writing a story, a world coming to life in words, before our eyes.
Other challenges throughout the years have been the time gobbling work of caregiving and parenting, and working at jobs for income. Even professional writers, with the exception of very few like Margaret Atwood, can’t live off of royalties. It’s an endless patchwork of teaching, editing, manuscript review, public speaking, corporate work, etc. This is the hardest part for me, the gig life. It’s easier now I’m not a single parent, and we have two incomes.
The strategy when I was a gig economy, chronically ill single parent, was to prioritize writing and reading above all else except my child. When I teach writing, so often my students will say they were going to write but they got together with friends and went to a move. Or watched Netflix. Sure, on the rare occasion, but when time is so scarce, and we want to write, we simply have to show up for ourselves.
If two hours is too much, then make the writing block fifteen minutes. Show up for fifteen minutes, not including the time it takes you to set up, and wrap up. Use a timer. Take care of yourself. Go to bed early and get up early. Take in nature, even if it’s a potted plant, seeds you sprouted.
Did you ever think about giving up on writing? Why didn’t you? How did you move past that point and recommit?
I used to often think about giving up on writing. I had no money, no time, no confidence, and moving back to rural Nova Scotia met I didn’t have a writing community. Social media made me feel even more isolated, and it felt like everyone was successful with active careers, and I was a no talent loser. I felt like that, on a deep level, and it was as though I was moving through a forest in perpetual twilight, that I could hear the sea but I could never make my way through the forest to the beach at dawn. I was full of fear, and felt that my writing life was over.
Simply put, I had a family and a new born and had to go back to my job-job when my baby was six weeks old. My writing life began to die. That’s how it felt, like a slow and drawn out death as I was exhausted all the time. And I had no time. Pregnancy, traumatic labour, lots of little children, working for money, and domestic work in the home, it slayed me.
Then I had a catastrophic relationship breakdown and became a single parent just as my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and my mother was going blind. I live with a serious autoimmune disease and it came full on out of remission. I was living below the poverty line with my five year old in a 1970s rental house on a dead end street in a bland inland town, and it felt like my writing life was in the death throes. I remember my son having a horrible stomach flu and vomiting everywhere in the middle of the night. I got him cleaned up and back in bed. Then I had to clean up the vomit from his carpet. Oh my. The cat kept trying to eat the vomit. I was so tired. Then I cleaned myself up and went to bed.
In the dark quiet of the house, I knew that no one was coming to help. It was just me. There was not going to be any relief. No one to make me a cup of tea. I would have to get up in the morning. It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had, and the most lonely. I will never forget that. But I lurched through the next few days, and finally got some sleep. We have deep inner strength, and reserves we don’t know about. And during that time, being able to sit quietly, when I was tired, and write my favourite words in a list in a notepad, that was heaven. No one could take that from me.
And then in the midst of this, I had an epiphany: On a good day, writing was a calling. On most days, writing felt like an affliction. Even if I tried to “give it up” it always came back, an idea for a story, for a novel, the creative landscape of my mind unfurling in spectacular glory. I knew that I just had to start writing, come what may, in any small blocks of time I could clear in the midst of my “gig economy” hustle where I barely made enough money to cover monthly expenses.
I deactivated all my social media accounts, and I lived like it was the time period our house was built in. I also gave up socializing with people I never enjoyed being with, including extended family and such. I began to purge all the toxic elements out of my life.
Instead of wasting hours on social media, I began to read again, voraciously. I reread classics, and new books, and books in translation. I read short stories and poetry. I read novels. I went for walks. I biked. I went for runs. I sat in morning sunbeams with my cup of coffee and made notes in a real paper notebook. I wrote letters and emails, not social media posts.
I cannot stress how restorative this was, just stepping away from that raging river which sweeps through our neural pathways. And I began to write again, every morning. And in the evening. “Every day is a new day” became my mantra. I made a weekly writing schedule, with small blocks of time cleared based on my “job” schedule. Sometimes my kid was vomiting all night, and I’d be too exhausted to write.
But I still showed up at that time, even if I just sat there thinking about my writing.
I didn’t go back to social media for almost three years but in that time, I wrote a novel, and also mapped out The Speed of Mercy, wrote many of the stories for Watermark, and began the initial work on the two books I’m working on now. That was how much mental and creative vitality surged back into my being, when I wrote every day, even for a short period of time, and showed up for myself.
I went from feeling lonely to understanding the magic of solitude. And prioritizing myself, in what little time I had.
How are you feeling about your writing practice right now?
Very good, even though I’m not writing now. I’ve been through this enough, having to adapt and be flexible, that I know my approach works.
I’m confident I’ll get back at it, and I’m patient and gentle with myself.
Once I get through the next week, I will do up a regular writing schedule, based on what’s happening that week, and I’ll get down to the business of writing.
I will summon the muse. She always comes. But when I sit and wait for her to do the scheduling, she rarely shows up.
What’s been your favourite part of finishing and publishing your books?
It’s early days so I don’t have many readerly stories yet as The Speed of Mercy is only five days old! I love the cover! It’s a negative image of a tussy-mussy, a Victorian floral bouquet.
It’s amazing to hold the book in my hands, this creation, which came to be in such a busy life. She feels like a miracle, this book, born out of so much faith and conviction and focus. I surprised myself, being able to write a novel in the vice grip of the sandwich generation life, along with having to finish it in the lock down of March-June 2020.
I was also deeply moved by the generous advance praise I got from other writers. Lawrence Hill wrote a beautiful endorsement and also sent me a deeply moving letter about the novel. I cried.
One thing which caught me off guard was that the people who had pre-ordered the book got it almost three weeks early, and started putting photos up on Instagram. It was so exciting to see The Speed of Mercy sailing in to the world. Also, the book was included in a Chatelaine roundup, written by Casey Plett. She wrote me a letter congratulating me and I cried. What most writers want, is to connect to the heart of readers. When that happens, it’s freaking magic. There is an air of celebration about The Speed of Mercy I’ve never experienced before.
Publishing in a pandemic is very isolating but it’s also opened up new channels of friendship and gestures. I received so many flower deliveries on my pub date, and cards in the mail, and some special gifts including a box of preserves from Prince Edward Island.
There’s some magical cooking in The Speed of Mercy, and some downhome food, and these themed gifts which arrived have me glowing still. Plus, my friend, Emily at Hen of the Woods, made a Bar of Mercy, a glorious salt water soap, to capture the fragrance of the world of the book. We worked on the label together. When she dropped the soap off, I cried.
My mother was hospitalized a few months before my publication date and so I was in the hospital with her almost non-stop for weeks. She was transferred to a hospital two hours away, and so the driving time was crazy. My publication date sort of crept up on me and shouted, “boo!”
I’ve also enjoyed returning to Instagram, just after I finished up copy edits. I love image, text and video. It feels very creative.
Most of my posts come from the same part of me where my writing flows from. It’s been wonderful to share my research there such as water and beach and postcards, shells and other seaside ephemera, and to connect with readers and writers. That’s lots of fun, and so social, so celebratory.
Do you ever get “stuck” or find yourself avoiding writing? If/when that happens, how do you get yourself unstuck?
This is back to summoning the muse, and not waiting to be inspired. I have an E.B. White quote on my bulletin board that says: A writer who wait for ideal conditions under which to write will die without putting a word to paper.
I believe this with all my heart. Life is not ideal. There are constant wildcards and unknowns, factors beyond our control which change the nature of our days and time. Being adaptable, and adjusting is key. We can learn to adapt.
And looking at the people in our lives, and determining if they support us, this is critical as well. And every day is a new day. If I am really stuck, I go for a walk, into nature, if I can, or a walk along the beach. Exercise is also helpful for getting out of the mind. I do yoga and I do a bit of meditation. These things help.
What’s your favourite book about writing or writing craft?
On Writing, by Stephen King, is my perennial favourite. The only caution I offer with this book, is it is very much based on having a lot of time. But if you read his earlier essays on what it was like for him and his wife, Tabitha King, living in a trailer with young children, working at a teaching job he hated, his wife working in a gas station, but still writing, you see he didn’t have time back then, but still found the time.
Who do you consider your mentor(s)?
Zsuzsi Gartner. She’s a brilliant writer and editor. I’ve had the good fortune to have her read my work and give copious notes. Notes that elevate the work from good to sparkling and original.
She’s a task master, oh my! I’ve always admired her writing, and also her tenacity. She keeps at the writing and reading, through the heaves and swells of life. My admiration for her is as wide and deep as the ocean.
What are you working on now? How are you feeling about it right at this moment?
I am working on two projects—a memoir, Crosstrees, about my unusual hybrid sandwich generation family and the challenges of gender roles in family life.
Also, I’m writing a new novel which is a feminine, elegant pulsing homage and challenge to Fight Club and The Joker.
What advice would you have for writers who do really want to finish a book but just haven’t been able to get there yet?
Make a weekly writing schedule.
Know that every day is a new day, and if the schedule isn’t working, revise it.
Don’t cancel your writing times so you can hang out with friends. I mean, if you view this as your calling, and your true work, then you must respect it. If we don’t take our writing seriously, no one else will.
Know that even fifteen minutes a day of writing is very meaningful. It is establishing and maintaining a writing ritual that is critical, a ritual you can return to, over and over again.
If you want to write, then you have to actually sit on your butt and do the hard work. For me, it’s getting in the chair and commencing.
Showing up for ourselves is the hard part, but the critical part. You are worth this. Show up. Bring your best self to the writing, not the tired, worn out self. This is why I get up so early, because I can then give the best part of my brain to my writing life. If night time is your best time, then try to work then.
And yeah, give up social media when you are writing a novel. Social media can wait. It does wait. It’s like a river, and you can slip right back in.
When you have a draft finished, you can pop back there and no one will really know you were away. It’s very easy to resume social media and be engaged there. Social media and deep writing are healthy companions. There is a place for being public and social, and that is for when the work is done, not while we are doing the work. Own your own brain and neural pathways.
Mostly, be kind to yourself. Know that a little bit every day is enough, and you will eventually finish that chapter, and then the next chapter, and then the next. And then you’ll have a draft. It might be big and messy, but that first draft is everything, friends. It really is. And then you embark on the next draft, which is a totally different journey. But it’s a day at a time, a sentence at a time.
Please, when you have a writing time set aside, honour it. Show up. Call the muse. Let your wholly original voice and story flow forward on that page.
Even when you are alone with your notebook or at your laptop, you are sparkling. I see you. Keep the faith.