Ottawa Writers Fest: In the meat of the sandwich generation with Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival on Oct. 28

One of the pressing problems of today is caring for disabled or frail elderly relatives. We trust that those who help us look after our loved ones are not coming into our lives with sinister motives.

There are rare and frightening instances but fortunately there are very few Elizabeth Wettlaufers in the world and virtually all care-givers are genuinely committed to looking after our loved ones with generosity and concern.

But still…

Lynn Coady has decided in her latest novel Watching You Without Me to consider a sinister scenario. When recently divorced Karen comes home after the death of her mother Irene to settle affairs and arrange for the care of her developmentally delayed adult sister Kelli, she is plunged into all the conflicting emotions of her past life and her own present state of uncertainty.

What should she do for Kim? Is long term care in a home an option?

Into this confusing, emotionally charged situation barges Trevor, an aggressive fellow who has been looking after Kelli and insinuating himself into Karen’s mother’s life, to what end isn’t quite clear to Karen. But his actions are unsettling and become threatening as time goes on.

Coady, who won the Giller Prize in 2013 for her short story collection Hellgoing, was on the book tour in wintery Winnipeg when this interview occurred. She’ll be in Ottawa at the Writers Festival on Oct. 28 on a panel with Naben Ruthnum (Nathan Ripley) and Jessica Westhead.

“I should say I have known a lot of care-givers over the years and they have all been wonderful. But the dark cast of the story is the result of me being in the position, with my brothers, of watching my parents getting older. They were declining rapidly in this one year.

“I was facing up to that next stage of life, which is really difficult, and I started writing the book around then. In some ways I was looking for a metaphor for all the worry and anxiety I was feeling and I found Trevor.”

The protagonist Karen offers the reader a midlife perspective. She is having the classic crisis when you “get to the point where you a facing down a profound shifting of the stage of life you are in,” Coady said.

Because of her mother’s untimely death, Karen is also grappling with a lot of unfinished business, Coady said. She is a stew of guilt and regret and also insecurity.

“You are questioning every decision you have made up to that point and wondering if there wasn’t a better route you could have gone on.”

The book is set in Halifax which makes sense because Coady is from Nova Scotia. Her parents live there. Trevor himself is a real Maritime boy, but he is a dark archtype.

“I remember showing an early few pages to my agent and she asked ‘Where do you think this book is going to go?’ I said, ‘I think it’s going to be scary’.”

Coady said she was excited by that prospect because she had never written such a book before.

“Trevor was a dark force and he’s the kind of guy who wants to get his way. He starts by being manipulative and undermining and gaslighting and all those toxic masculinity techniques that he uses. But ultimately, I knew, if that didn’t work there would be a point where Trevor would step it up.”

What is both horrifying and fascinating about Trevor is that he just wants to be loved, Coady said.

In the course of the novel Karen, to survive, has to pull her head out of her butt and gradually take control of her situation.

Coady draws on her own experiences when she writes. For example, her parents looked after their parents in the family home, so care-givers were always dropping by.

“They also looked after my uncle who was developmentally disabled like Kelli is. I was inspired by him for a lot of Kelli’s speech patterns and other behaviours.”

Writing the novel helped her shed some of her own emotional baggage.

“I write books because there are certain themes, ideas or emotions that I am trying to process. I have been writing fiction for so long I sometimes think it is my therapy.”

It is also a way of putting some distance to those emotions.

The novel does resonate with readers, she said. On the book tour, she said she has spoken to people who have had older parents who have developed dementia or experienced a stroke.

“It’s so common when I meet people my age. A lot of people are dealing with this. Even if you don’t decide to take on the care of an aging parent, someone will have to figure that out and feel confident people they are to whom they are entrusting their parents are good people.”

Because it hits close to home, the book is more powerful.

“I did a radio interview in Halifax the other day and just before we went on the air the interviewer told me he had just moved back to Halifax because his mother had dementia. It is really present in people’s minds.

“I write literary novels and this is the first book that people are categorizing it as a thriller. I think I made it a thriller because I wanted there to be an element of fun.

“I like genre and I like being scared but at the same time it isn’t like me to write something superficial and not too deep. For me to spend two years working on a novel, it’s got to really be about something.” That makes the connection with readers more meaningful, she said.

“I think it is good to share those stories. It makes me feel less alone and they feel less alone. Ultimately it feels therapeutic to me.” That a novel can do that sort of thing is “wonderful,” Coady said.

In town: Lynn Coady will be on an Ottawa Writers Festival panel with Naben Ruthnum (Nathan Ripley) and Jessica Westhead on Oct. 28. For information: writersfestival.orgĀ 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.