(Women's) Writer's Block: Mary Frances Coady

October 5, 2016

For Women's History Month, we've saved Wednesdays for highlighting Canadian women writers, their latest work, and their writing process. This week, we feature Mary Frances Coady, whose newest novel  Holy Rule (Inanna Publications) examines an ecosystem of almost exclusively women's interactions: the inner-workings of a convent-slash-school in the late 1950s. Between adolescent rebellion, questions of faith, and confinement, the women in Coady's novel choose to self-actualize among their circumstances – or don't – as irreversible shifts in the Catholic Church change the world around them.

Mary talks to us about her ideal writer's retreat in Iceland, the power of Solitaire in getting your creative juices flowing, and an upcoming sequel (!) to  Holy Rule.

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For Women's History Month, we've saved Wednesdays for highlighting Canadian women writers, their latest work, and their writing process. This week, we feature Mary Frances Coady, whose newest novel  Holy Rule (Inanna Publications) examines an ecosystem of almost exclusively women's interactions: the inner-workings of a convent-slash-school in the late 1950s. Between adolescent rebellion, questions of faith, and confinement, the women in Coady's novel choose to self-actualize among their circumstances – or don't – as irreversible shifts in the Catholic Church change the world around them.

Mary talks to us about her ideal writer's retreat in Iceland, the power of Solitaire in getting your creative juices flowing, and an upcoming sequel (!) to  Holy Rule.

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Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?

At university, I always took a great deal of time and effort on my term papers, and one time a professor wrote at the bottom of my paper, “Perhaps there is an author inside you.” A couple of years later, in graduate school, it occurred to me that even though my papers were written for a grade, they were a waste since each of them was being read by only one person. For that reason, I began looking for opportunities to write book reviews. That was the beginning for me of writing for publication.

 

Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?

I’m influenced by whichever writers I happen to be interested in at the moment. Right now, it’s the British historical novelist Hilary Mantel. Another novel that has had an impact on my notion of fiction writing, very different in terms of structure and content from the Mantel novels, is A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

 

Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?

Every book by J.D. Salinger. Also Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and some of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, especially “The Dead.” A number of the stories in Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories.

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Mary's writerly advice from Joseph Conrad: "The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up...The rescued fragment."

 

Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?

I like to write after coffee and breakfast, after checking my email and after a game or two of Solitaire. That routine rarely changes. If I have difficulty getting into my writing for any reason, I’ll use a kitchen timer, which is always within arm’s reach, and set it for 5 or 10 minutes, and then just write anything. This usually works at getting me started and keeping the inner critic at bay.

 

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What are you working on now? 

I’m working on a sequel to my recently published novel, Holy Rule. It has some of the same characters and the same setting. Holy Rule takes place in 1958. The novel I’m working on now takes place during the 1960s.

 

Describe your perfect writing day.

I spent the month of April of this past year at an artists’ colony in Iceland called Gullkistan, and many of the days there were pretty close to being perfect writing days. It’s located in a village on a lake in the geothermal area of Iceland. I had a room with a desk facing a big window and a view of one of the famous Icelandic tabletop mountains. My writing day was punctuated with walks to the village grocery store and swims in the local outdoor pool, where the water was bathtub-warm even though the temperature outside was still wintry. In the evenings, after my hours of writing, I watched British crime dramas. The writing periods weren’t necessarily easy, but the rhythm of my days was helped by the fact that I had a very definite, specific writing goal for my time there.    

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Mary's workspace.

 

Have you ever experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?

One of the worst things for writer’s block is the internet. To get away from the internet on some days, I go to one of the university libraries in downtown Toronto to work. This move provides a welcome change of writing space, and since internet access is available to only students, faculty and staff, I can’t check my email or look up something on Google every few minutes. At home, two other strategies also tend to work for me. One is to set my kitchen timer and then write till it rings. The other is to set a certain number of words that I’m going to write on a particular day. In both cases, I give myself full permission to write garbage. Out of both of those strategies I usually come up with some usable material.

 

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About Mary: I live in Toronto, a short distance from Lake Ontario. As a child of the prairies, I love the geographical richness of Ontario. With a group of friends, I hiked the Bruce Trail end to end over the course of about 4 years, mainly during long weekends. This trail runs almost 900 km along the Niagara escarpment from Niagara Falls to Tobermory, at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. I’ve also gone on walking tours in the UK, and a few years ago I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The spring is my favourite time to travel, and I try to include some time in a writing retreat when I’m away.  One of my favourites was Fondación Valparaíso, in Spain.              

 

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Thanks so much to Mary Frances Coady for answering our questionnaire, and to Renee at Inanna Publications for making the connection! Watch this space for a new Women's Writer's Block, every Wednesday for the month of October.  Holy Rule is available now.


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