Lynn Coady's fifth book, The Antagonist, is told through a series of angry emails from the main character, a hulking former hockey player with a sensitive side, to an old friend who has borrowed the details of his colourful life story for a book. We talk to Lynn about the thorny issue of pulling from real life for writerly inspiration, how she masters the "bro" voice, and why, after five novels, she still can't write about sex.
The Antagonist is in some way a follow-up to your previous book, Mean Boy. How did the one project lead to the other?
The initial idea came out of my experience touring with Mean Boy. I had used the life of the poet John Thomson to sort of plot my book. He is a beloved figure in Sackville and when I went to Mount Allison [University] to read, a couple of people in the audience were irate that I had used his life to shape the book in this way.
That's the writer's nightmare, you know? If the actor's is getting up on stage and not being prepared, the writer's is getting up on stage and having people attack you for what you're written. That's where the conceit of The Antagonist really came from: the intersection of fiction and reality.
How responsible do you think a writer should be to his or her subjects, if you're taking inspiration from real life?
I think as writers, our first responsibility is to writing an honest story. Tell the story you want to tell, without pulling your punches. That's a completely amoral answer. But I think that has to be your first responsibility. Once you've established that truth in your writing, you can always tone it down.
The Antagonist is overtly the story of a man with a difficult past, it ends up being very much a book about writing. Did you set out to do that?
I was very much thinking about that. When the people in Sackville attacked me, it was just a question that had obsessed me for a while. My family had the same objections and questions when my fiction started being published. When I said, "This is fiction," they didn't buy it—that was upsetting to me because it seemed to deny the entire process that goes into writing. And what a consuming process it actually is.
I remember thinking, the only way to explain what really happens in writing fiction to these people is to show someone going through it. What if someone did that not really knowing what he was getting into? Gradually, he finds himself writing.
Your main character is a novice writer responding, via a series of angry messages, to a more accomplished friend who's stolen his colourful life story for a book. Who do you think is the better writer in this scenario?
I think the professional writer, Adam, is more your garden-variety Canadian literature author. He's so careful and ambitious. When you meet him, in university, he's working very hard to learn everything he needs to know and achieve everything he needs to achieve. When he finally writes his first novel, it'll be the typical young man novel. He'll be wanting to show up all the people who are the big shots of the day.
Whereas Rank, the other character, is starting with emotion. He doesn't know what story he wants to tell or the idea of craft. He's just stating his feelings, basically, and that's what made his character exciting for me—to start with a feeling of anger, a voice that doesn't know what it wants to say.
This book is told not only from the perspective of a man, but from the perspective of a man who might intimidate many men with his manliness. Locker-room humour, bar fights, and frat house dialogue abound. How do you write from that point of view so knowingly?
I think it comes out of growing up with guys in a working-class town. My dad was a real man's man and so were my brothers, in a small town where hockey is king. It's a masculine culture. It made me really attentive to what it meant to be a guy.
I even felt like I liked guys better than women—that men were relevant and women weren't. It took me a while to realize I'd been socialized to have a slighting view of my own gender. I spent a lot of years thinking about gender and how it worked and ultimately becoming very sympathetic to men for what they enact every day.
There's a ton of drinking and swearing in the book, but very little sex. Why?
On one level, it's just something I find hard to do—not sex itself, but writing about sex. It seems like this insurmountable challenge. I said to somebody the other day, if I could just stop myself from getting the giggles whenever I'm writing about sex or death, I could be a bestselling author. I guess I'll always be mid-list.
This is your fifth book—you've mastered concepts like plot and structure that can seem impenetrable to first-time novelists. What are the technical things about writing you struggle with these days?
I still find the idea of a research-heavy or historical novel daunting. That's something I've had in mind for a while: like would you research for a year, and then start writing? I sit down and I just don't know how to write it.
Illustrator: Kyla Johnson
Lynn Coady is the winner of the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her most recent book, Hellgoing. Her novel The Antagonist was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize. Coady's first novel, Strange Heaven, was nominated for the Governor General's Award for Fiction when she was 28. This was followed by a best-selling short story collection, Play the Monster Blind, as well as the award-winning novels Saints of Big Harbour and Mean Boy. Lynn Coady grew up on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia and now lives in Edmonton, where she is senior editor and co-founder of the magazine Eighteen Bridges.
Lynn Coady's The Antagonist makes CBC Books' "100 novels that make you proud to be a Canadian" »