23 March 2011

Interview with the Author: Christy Ann Conlin of 'Heave' and 'Dead Time'

One of the coolest things about the writing life is how so many of us make friends with other writers. They may be in other disciplines, fiction versus non-fiction; they may be starting out or experienced, neighbours nearby or friends never met face-to-face; they may be friends we’ve known for years or people we’ve gotten to know recently, through one circumstance or another.

Christy Ann Conlin is one of those fellow writers and friends. I’ve known ABOUT her for years, ever since she burst onto the scene with her brilliant and unique novel, Heave, which was a national bestseller. I didn’t actually get to KNOW her until last fall, when we found ourselves mutual friends of a friend through yes, the social chaos of Facebook. Ironically, we both live on the North Mountain, she closer to Berwick, (my mother’s hometown), and I, hanging off the hill overlooking Cape Split. So we’re neighbours, if busy ones! I’m not a fiction writer, but I am an ardent fan of reading fiction, especially good fiction, and Heave grips you, shakes you like a boat tossed out here on the wild Fundy waters, and leaves you trembling and spent when you finish its pages. It wasn’t surprising that it was in the top 40 finalists for the 2011 Canada Reads on CBC radio, and that ignited a whole new spray of attention for the book.

But before all this happened, Conlin had a conversation early last year with a friend who was editing a serious of young adult books for Annick Press. The upshot of the conversation was the launch of her new book, Dead Time, which is published together with a second story, Shelter by BC writer Jen Sookfong Lee in what is called a ‘flipbook’ format. Shelter didn’t do much for me, a jaded and cynical adult who found the lovelorn teenage protagonist somewhat predictable. But Dead Time gripped me from the first page and held me, alternating between horrified and sympathetic, until the very last page.

Dead Time is narrated by Isabella, who is in a detention centre awaiting trial for her part in killing her boyfriend Sergei’s former girlfriend. She’s innocent, of course, she tearfully tells the reader, her father, and anyone who will listen…or is she? Conlin leads us along a path and through a mind as twisted as the roads leading to her home on the North Mountain near Berwick, and it’s not until the end of the book that we’re clear on Isabella’s innocence or guilt.

Conlin says the story was inspired by the Stephanie Rengel murder case in Toronto. “I was horrified that the death of a young girl was masterminded by another teenage girl and a disturbed teenage boy,” she says in a recent interview. “It’s fascinating to look at youth and innocence, youth and violence, the juxtaposition of these two, how sacred the idea of youth equaling innocence is in our society—and how violated we feel when this taboo is broken.” The breaking of that taboo, she adds, says much about society as well as the individual, “Canary in the coal mine, so to speak.”

This is a story designed for young adults (from early teens up) but it’s a story that will fascinate and hold most readers with its compelling, deeply troubled narrator/character. The story moves quickly—I read it in under an hour the first time—but it’s so loaded with detail you must pay attention, lest you miss a pertinent detail. Even while we’re dubious of Isabella’s protestations of innocence, we’re shown that there is reason to feel compassion for her. Conlin says, “I wanted to show that she was so cut off from her own sadness, her own pain was so distorted, that she couldn’t shed authentic tears…She had to manufacture sadness in fictional situations, her feelings were so displaced.” In her biographical page on Annick’s website, she says she had to “surrender to the character and look deep into her soul to see the bits of lightness in the midst of the massive sea of dark.”

Christy Ann Conlin is doing a reading and signing of her book, Dead Time, at Box of Delights Bookstore in Wolfville on Friday, 25 March, at 7 PM.

Because this is my blog and I can, I wanted to help promote Christy Ann’s new book, so I asked her a series of questions about her view of the writing life, as well as aspects of writing this and other works. The following is our Q and A:

Your stories are very much informed by the geography around you, but they also definitely transcend ‘regional’ writing. How has your landscape so imprinted itself on you that it must be in your stories?

It's where I was born and raised, and where I came to understand the world. Or rather, where I came to realize there were many things I did not understand about the world, society, people, relationships, what it is to be human. So my questions sprang from here and it is here I return to explore and muse upon those questions. I find the world here in "the mountain and the valley", the area where I live, transcends regionalism. The issues people grapple with are universal ones, that move beyond just place and time. I think the geography here ends up being symbolic on a much bigger level, speaking to speaking to the human heart and spirit, and that language knows no regional limitations. Similar to Irish writing, I suppose, so regional and yet so far reaching. We all find ourselves under the stars, wherever we are in place and time.

As a sidebar, why the fictionalized names for the communities in Heave?

I have always had a god complex, or goddess complex I suppose I should say, but I'm a failed god. I've yet been able to create cities and lands in my name, artistically speaking, so I do it in fiction, har haar. Seriously, there is something quite freeing about being able to create a fictional world. I didn't want my towns and communities to be rooted to ones that actually exist. Inspired by actual places is fine but Foster is simply not Berwick and Lupin Cove is not Harbourville, although aspects of both places inspired my fictional settings. I wanted a typical Valley town and a bayshore village, but I need to change things in them to work with my stories. Faulkner created a whole fictional county and for sure his writing, and his approach, influences mine.

t gives both author and reader distance. Author distance to create something original and reader a bit of space so they can see with fresh eyes something that is old and familiar. Because life is about this, finding something fresh in the old and familiar. It's a process of rediscovery, I think. that's what Ecclesiastes says :-)

You are currently working on an adult novel, have recently finished a YA novel and working on a second, have a young family, teach online courses, do work for the Globe, do other workshops...how DO you do it all?

It's very challenging, I have to be honest. Every week is different and yet I do try to have a regular schedule. I'm very disciplined and view all of my work as just that, my work. And so I am very relgious about honouring my work time, as I would be if I worked for some one else. And I really love my family and so that time is sacred to me. It's about balance and juggling and it's an unending journey trying to make it work.

Are you able to make a living in this economic climate?

Yes, I make a living from writing, teaching, journalism, editing, mentoring. I consider myself to be a professional writer which means I get paid for what I do. I've been at it awhile so I'm established and this of course, leads to more opportunity. But let's be straight here: it is a constant hustle without much security and sometimes this terrifies me. I have fantasies about having a job-job with sick time and paid holidays and benefits and a pension. Being a writer is being an enteprerneur and a small business person, while at the same time, being an artist. It's a very hard marriage as one must absolutely keep writing seperate from business, while in the act of writing. It's so many hats to wear that it's a bit exhausting at times.

What sorts of feedback have you had from young adults who have read Dead Time?

Most teens who have read the book find it very compelling, very dark. I think they enjoy peering into the mind of such a distorted young person as Isabella is. They've also really enjoyed the writing, the fast pacing, her eye for bizarre detail. And they like the dark, well, black, black, black humour in it.


I hope people come out to the signing, buy the book, and maybe also buy Heave or get it from your library. I will have a copy to give away and I will be doing that in the next week or so--I have several other giveaways to announce, including a copy of Deborah Carr's Sanctuary, and the copy of my own book. I had meant to do these sooner than this, but life has been somewhat chaotic these past few weeks. Next week, I'll announce all the winners.

So...to win a copy of Dead Time, please leave a comment telling me about the scariest book you ever read as a youth or as an adult. And make sure I have some way to contact you if you win the draw, please!


  1. Jodi, I totally enjoyed your review of these books as well as your conversation with the author. I'll definitely be picking up copies of these to read soon.

  2. Oh dear, Do I have to tell you about the scariest book ? OK. But don't tell anyone that I read Stephen King. I guess the scariest so far was "The Dome". I didn't really like it but I slogged my way through it all.

    I love how Blogging can bring you new friends. Though in this case it was Facebook that made the initial contact for you.

    I think there's a frustrated wannabe writer in most Bloggers. Few have the chops to be real authors.

    Thanks for supporting a local author and bringing her to our attention.

  3. Jodi...that was a brilliant insight into so many things, the most disturbing story I have read so far is called the Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier, starting "It was three months after she died that he first noticed the apple tree...." Oooohwahhhhh! I read it about 20 years ago, the first time, and still go over and over it, but then DdM has been my mentor and I know exactly where she was at! Thanks Jodi. X

  4. I enjoyed reading about your friend. Great interview! I like good fiction, and her books sound great. I look forward to reading them!

  5. The scariest book ever... Honestly can't remember mine. But when my son was about six I started reading him "The Hobbit". All was well at first, but when we got to the bit with the goblins, it terrified the life out of him. Big mistake - twelve years on I still feel hideously guilty for not realising it would scare him. Needless to say though, when he was about ten he went back to it, and followed up with Lord of the Rings - which became his favourite book ever for a long while. One of several occasions in my life when I've realised that what you get from a book depends very, very much on the precise time you come across it.

  6. Loved the interview as I already expressed on Facebook. I am now about to tell you something that is so lame it probably shouldn't be whispered aloud. Are you ready? The scariest book I've ever read was.....

    Haven't read one yet...I know that is SO lame. What's worse is I didn't even realize I hadn't read one until you asked the question. I did read Stephen King's, "The Green Mile," but it really wasn't' scary. Still I thought a mention of King might make me eligible for this contest...

    That said it's a sure bet that "Dead Time" will be the scariest book I have ever read once I actually read it.

  7. Jodi, this was a good interview and I am betting your friend is a wonderful writer. I myself do not read much fiction, the last being Dan Brown's books, so I can not really mention a scary one. I am more a nonfiction reader and would more likely read one you would have written.

  8. Hi Jodi (and Christy) - thanks for sharing your insights and the review. I love to hear how writer minds work..in particular your connection and response to landscape.

    My scariest book of all time was a trade paperback called Wolfen...about a pack of highly evolved wolves (like Survivor, they could out-wit, out-play, out-last the most crafty human) on a murderous rampage. I remember coming home and sitting in my car in the dark, trying to garner enough courage to race for the door.


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