"I Adore Their Fortitude, Ferocity, Verve, and Heart" Christy Ann Conlin on Her Past Characters Returning in Her Gripping New Novel
Coming off the success of her 2019 short story collection (not to mention her two widely-praised novels that preceded it), Christy Ann Conlin is back this season with The Speed of Mercy (House of Anansi Press). The novel explores the ripple effects of a childhood betrayal in Conlin's signature setting, the fictional Jericho County.
Delving into memory, the nature of truth, and how the past folds forward onto the future, it's Conlin at her best, creating unforgettable, complex women characters who feel real, dark, and deeply connected to the east coast setting. When a young woman's arrival sparks the unravelling of two Nova Scotia families' secrets, readers will find themselves gripped by the atmosphere, mystery, and emotional truth that Conlin seems to effortlessly pull through every page and scene.
We're excited to welcome Christy Ann here today to talk about the fascinating people who populate the pages of The Speed of Mercy as part our of In Character interview series.
She shares her excellent tips for crafting dialogue that rings true, tells us her dream casting choices to play her three memorable main characters, and explains how and why characters from her previous books appear in The Speed of Mercy.
Tell us about the main character in your new work.
Christy Ann Conlin:
The Speed of Mercy has three significant characters—Stella, Dianne, and Malmuria (Mal). Mal, a young podcaster comes from urban California to seaside Nova Scotia on the trail of a cold case involving a secret society of men. In order to solve the ominous case, she must enlist the help of Stella and Dianne, two older women who have been institutionalized for most of their adult lives. Dianne is Stella’s unlikely protector. Stella doesn’t talk, and yet it is she who holds the secret to solving the mystery.
The structure of The Speed of Mercy is not traditional. I instead wrote a spiralling story, where the voices of three characters turn and twist together, with Stella at the centre, inward and outward, as a silken twist of rope does. Rebecca Solnit’s essay, "Grandmother Spider", was an influence. Solnit discusses the idea of spinning the web, not being caught in it, the nonlinear, the unending.
How do you choose names for your characters?
Overheard names, stage plays, tombstones, archival documents, ancestral records, immigrant lineages, Celtic mythology, pets, my mother's old world friends, and my children’s classmates!
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
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I’ll share what I tell myself!
Observe the people around you like a cultural anthropologist at the top of their game.
- Listen: Put your phone down, take your earbuds out, and hear conversations. Listen to accent and tone. How does it work correspond to the words?
- Read: Hear the voices of characters and dialogue.
- Watch: How do body language and facial expressions speak for characters? What is revealed?
How well do you "know" your characters? Is it relevant to you to know a lot of information about them that doesn't appear on the page?
What’s relevant is knowing my characters so well that I could answer without hesitation any question about them, as though I’m a psychiatrist, or that fly on the wall in their lives. Normally, characters appear in my mind’s eye as though walking out of the sea, fully formed. I don’t have to do a lot of character work as much as listen and observe.
What actor would you most love to cast to play your most recent main character?
Hands down, Lupita Nyong'o as Mal, Maggie Smith as Dianne, and Frances McDormand as Stella.
How do you feel about the characters from your earliest work now?
I adore their fortitude, ferocity, verve, and heart. That’s why they keep emerging in my new work, maturing and showing me insights, heartaches and hope. Seraphina from my first novel, Heave, appears in The Speed of Mercy. A few characters from my last novel, The Memento appear. And numerous characters from my short fiction collection, Watermark, are in The Speed of Mercy. The literary landscape of my writing is like a character, and envelops all my work. I return, like Faulkner does in Yoknapatawpha County, to the fictional Jericho County where my characters reside, and explore the intersections of their stories.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a memoir, Crosstrees, about my unusual hybrid sandwich generation family and the challenges of gender roles in family life.
Also, I’m at work on a new novel which is a feminine, elegant pulsing homage and challenge to Fight Club and The Joker.
Christy Ann Conlin is the author of two acclaimed novels, Heave and The Memento. Heave was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, and the Dartmouth Book Award. She is also the author of the short fiction collection Watermark, which was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Forest of Reading Evergreen Award. She lives in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia.