Origin Stories: Christy Ann Conlin

"...for all the travels I've done, the most exotic place in the world to me still was the mountain and the valley where I came from."
Photo by Bruce Dienes

Christy Ann Conlin, author of Heave and The Memento, grew up surrounded by story and creativity

From an early age, Christy Ann Conlin read just about anything she could get her hands on, from L.M. Montgomery’s novels and E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to Reader’s Digest and Calvin and Hobbes.

“Oral tradition was very strong in my family,” she says. “My mom and my grandmother were great storytellers. We had some hard years when I was a kid, and I found books were a great way to escape. I just fell in love with fictional worlds and realities and the way that they could enrich you and enlighten you and provide you with a freedom and lightness that might not be in your real world.”

Growing up, Conlin watched her father struggle with some mental health challenges, which gave her the empathy and interest in humanity that’s evident in her work. He also had a highly developed artistic eye and a deep love of natural beauty, which Conlin says influenced her early creative development.

“He used to create outdoor spaces, where he would go out and clear areas, and there would be trees and almost natural arbours and walkways that he would make with rocks off the beach,” she says. “And he’d use found objects, like old abandoned antique farming machinery, and repurpose it. I felt like I lived in some kind of like wild installation.”

When she was older, she did a theatre degree with a minor in classics, which exposed her to a wide range of literature and plays. When she was done, she moved to Germany with her then-partner, and there she worked, travelled and developed her photography skills. But it wasn’t until was 26 or 27 that she began to write.

Despite her deep love of story, Conlin found writing extremely difficult as a child. A learning disability called dysgraphia, which causes difficulties with written expression, combined with her non-traditional learning style actually made the writing process “agonizing” for Conlin.

But a conversation with a friend in Switzerland inspired her to try again. Conlin was sitting on her friend’s kitchen table, telling an elaborate story. Her friend was entranced, and suggested that Conlin go home and write it all down.

When she got back to Germany, she gave it a shot. “I sat down at the computer. It was my first time really writing on the computer, and I started writing the story of my life, and it was so boring.”

But when she started fictionalizing it something clicked. For years, Conlin had collected observations and experiences, whether she was watching people on the bus and trying to imagine where they were going, or inventing a story about the original owners of an antique.

She worked as a waitress, as a cleaner, and a pie factory employee. She travelled. She had a deep connection to her home in the Annapolis Valley, and a childhood steeped in story, art and creativity. Writing fiction brought all of that together.

“Instantly, I had years and years of moments that I could explore in fiction and understand and try to write through characters,” says Conlin.

She wrote plays, poetry and short stories. Before long, she’d won first place in the dramatic writing category of the Atlantic Writing Competition and third place in the poetry category. Around the same time, she started an education degree, but soon decided it wasn’t for her.

She threw herself into developing a writing career. She started sending out her work regularly and she enrolled in the MFA program at UBC so that she could learn and spend time with other writers.

feature-heave-christy-ann-conlin“When I was at UBC, pretty much everything I wrote I got published,” she says. “The first short story I ever had published was actually just a fragment, and it ended up being the first chapter of Heave.”

She revised Heave while working on a storytelling project in Northern Ireland. The book’s setting made her realize she missed home, and that’s when she decided to return to her Valley roots.  feature-the-memento-christy-ann-conlin

“I realized for all the travels I’ve done, the most exotic place in the world to me still was the mountain and the valley where I came from,” says Conlin.

In April 2016, Penguin Random House published her second novel, The Memento, which Lynn Coady describes as “a gorgeous unveiling of the relentless darkness that awaits beneath the pristine, orderly beauties we so painstakingly impose.”

Written By

Sarah Sawler is a Halifax journalist, book reviewer and author of 100 Things You Don't Know About Nova Scotia.

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