Giller Prize winner comes to campus

Acclaimed author Lynn Coady speaks to the Journal about her plans for a future in television

Coady's public speaking skills are catching up to her writing.
Coady's public speaking skills are catching up to her writing.

For the past seven years, the English department has sent off graduating students with the help of a great Canadian author.

This year, it’s Lynn Coady.

Coady’s collection of short stories Hellgoing won the 2013 Giller Prize. Her 2011 book The Antagonist was shortlisted for the award. She is also the Senior Editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine.

The Giller Prize is awarded each year to a Canadian author for a novel or short story collection published in English. Past winners include Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler.

Coady recently spoke to the Journal about her interest in TV writing and her literary interests as an undergrad.

You recently completed a writing for TV program at the Canadian Film Centre. What led you to that?

I was feeling like it was time to branch out creatively. I wanted to be working with people and collaborating, meeting people with lots of new and different skills.

It was a tonic because it was all about collaborating, not just collaborating with one other person, but with maybe seven other people. We worked in the ‘TV mode’ of creativity, which is a way I haven’t worked before, where you talk about a story together as a group: building the story, creating the characters and the whole world where the story takes place. It’s kind of an amazing process.

Coming from a fiction background, does the lack of creative control in TV writing bother you?

No, not if you understand going in that this is not your baby. I’ve worked on my own labours of love for many years and nobody messes with those because that’s my project and I have the final say. But in the TV world there’s not that preciousness. It’s more about doing a job. I guess it’s the difference between art and craft. You’re working together to get a job done and you want to do it as well as you can, but at the same time you understand that you don’t necessarily have creative ownership of that story.

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi after winning the Giller Prize you mentioned how nervous you were about speaking live onstage. Has this changed in the last few months with all the publicity you’ve been getting?

It has actually because I’ve been doing so much speaking — a lot of off-the-cuff pitching of shows and pitching of myself to a certain extent.

I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to digest information, go off and think about it — and then I come up with something to say about it.

The TV writing room does not allow for that mode of creativity. I’ve had to get used to speaking off-the-cuff and trusting my instinctual judgments to speak up before I’ve really had the chance to go off and think.

It’s been really interesting that way and I do feel like I’ve developed a whole new skillset.

You called short fiction the red-headed stepchild of publishing because it doesn’t sell well. Do you see this changing any time soon?

To be honest, no, I don’t think it will. There’s always going to be superstars of short fiction like Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore and those books will sell because people know who those authors are and they have a certain brand. People just know they are going to get incredible writing when they buy those books.

But for the most part, if you look at books simply as a product, I think that anyone who works in publishing will tell you that short story collections just don’t sell in the same way that novels do. And that’s kind of an economic fact that we can’t do anything about, unfortunately.

You work in publishing. Did the economic realities of the industry initially dishearten you?

It is hard at first because everyone who wants to be a writer and esteems literature, capital L, starts out thinking that it’s the most important thing and it’s a shame the market doesn’t bear that out.

It’s a shame that some of the greatest talent you know is a neglected writer.

It’s hard to reconcile that with your own literary values. But I think it’s also good for writers to be pragmatic and have these understandings of the marketplace.

When you do put out the book you’ve worked on for two or three years — that you adore and think is the greatest thing you’ve ever done — and it doesn’t sell very well, as long as you understand how the market works then you won’t take that personally. Then you can think back to all the genius writers you know who have published books, and their books aren’t international sensations either so you can tell yourself, “Okay, I’m actually in good company, and I’m not in the company of Dan Brown or another writer who I don’t actually respect very much.”

Your reading is being put on for the graduating English class. Do you remember what you were reading at that time?

When I was an undergrad my favourite course in literature was Shakespeare, and my other favourite [focused on] the literature of existentialism, because it was a lot of really fun, contemporary authors like Milan Kundera and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea — which is not a fun book necessarily but it was interesting and it wasn’t what I was seeing on my standard English department reading list.

Lynn Coady will be reading and signing books this afternoon, 3-5 p.m. at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

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