When Lynn Coady delivers the 2014 Munro Beattie lecture on Oct. 23, she’ll join a prestigious club that includes literary greats like Northrop Frye, Carol Shields and Alistair MacLeod.
She was a little surprised to be in such company.
“Wow. Now I’m nervous,” was her first reaction upon hearing the names of past lecturers.
Considered one of the most acclaimed Canadian writers of her generation, Coady was awarded the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2013 for the short story collection Hellgoing. She graduated from Carleton with a degree in English and Philosophy in 1993.
Her lecture for Oct. 23 is titled: On Storytelling and Discomforts.
“I am touching upon the way the two things can coincide. I am talking about how feeling discomfort is a crucial aspect to experiencing a story,” Coady told Carleton Now in a telephone interview from Toronto, where she has been working on a TV show.
“Some people like (discomfort) more than others and it’s always difficult to gauge, as a writer, how much discomfort a reader is prepared to enjoy,” says Coady, who will be referencing her own work during the lecture.
She is pleased to be invited back to her alma mater.
“I really appreciate it. It’s a pleasant irony for me in some ways because I didn’t feel like I had a really stellar career as a student while I was at Carleton.
She struggled to get decent grades and will never forget how it all ended.
“I remember the year I thought I was graduating, I applied for graduation and I discovered with a month-and-a-half to go that I was missing a half credit. I had already planned the move, I had my apartment packed, so I ended up just doing the course by correspondence.
“It was the icing on the cake of what I felt was my academic ineptitude. That said, it’s really nice I turned out OK anyway and that Carleton is proud to have me as an alumna.”
Her story is not unlike that of many students. In her case, she was enrolled in journalism, but realized that it was the wrong fit for her and switched to English and philosophy – her real passion. Later, she went onto earn a master’s in creative writing at the University of British Columbia.
What advice would she give to aspiring writers?
“It really is important to do a humanities degree like mine. Despite all my struggles, it was invaluable to me. The courses I took and some of the texts I was exposed to it really gave me a framework … I got to do some directive reading, which I never really had in my life before, by people who were better read than me and who knew what texts a budding writer should be reading. Beyond that, the thing to do is to keep reading once you have that foundation.”
An avid reader herself, Coady notes that technology has impacted the arts in general, and how people read, specifically.
“Technology has always been with us and has always had an effect on writing, publishing and arts to varying degrees and I feel we are just in another stage … I am not an alarmist about technology. Change is happening right now, things are in flux but a lot of that change is really exciting,” she says.
“I can’t get over how cool it is that it can occur to me that I would like to read a book and a few minutes later I can actually have it my hands via a device. Despite what I just said, I really don’t like reading on electronic readers. I much prefer having a book in my hands. But I do really like (reading) journalism on a computer or other device.”
For Grant Williams, the chair of the English department, Coady was a natural choice to deliver the Munro Beattie, not only because of her Giller Prize win but her broad appeal.
“This lecture has been around for a couple of decades and we’ve had a range of speakers. The Munro Beattie lecture is one that is defined for a wide public audience. We want to go out of our way to bring to Carleton someone of great public stature – public intellectuals or writers -who address the major and timely topics in humanities and literature,” says Williams.
John Osborne, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, says that Coady is a role model for students who are working on a BA degree.
“We were all thrilled when she won the Giller because it’s a great tribute to our program. She’s been very generous in her comments about her BA at Carleton in English and philosophy. It’s been great publicity, particularly at time when some columnists in the press have been questioning the value of the BA degree,” says Osborne.
“It’s always great when our grads do well because they serve as role models for the students who are here now. It’s important for our current and past students – particularly in the BA which doesn’t lead to a specific job – to have a chance to see that you can graduate with a BA in English and you can go on to make a name for yourself.”
The Munro Beattie annual distinguished lecture was launched in 1985 to honour the English department’s founding chair and his contributions to literary studies in Canada. An important principle of the lecture series has been to invite writers and critics who can speak on issues of importance to the general public, as well as the academic world.