The 11 stories in Christy Ann Conlin’s new collection Watermark (House of Anansi Press) loosely connect people living all sorts of lives in all sorts of places, but they each have roots planted deep in the rich earth of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
Composed of about two dozen communities between two mountains on the Bay of Fundy, the valley’s agricultural industries make it scenic and culturally vibrant; its rural, isolated location makes for close-knit relationships dating back generations. It’s inspiring material in many ways.
“Wherever I’ve been in the world or whatever stage of life, I always return to this mountain-and-the-valley terrain,” says Conlin, who lives there now with her “big beautiful eccentric family.” In their blended family, Conlin and her husband, Andy Brown, have three sons: Silas and Milo, both 13, and Angus, 11. “[As a teenager] I felt so oppressed by rural Nova Scotia that I went off to cities, inland, and discovered there was no place more exotic – with the best and worst of humanity – than the freakin’ Valley.”
In Watermark, those eclectic characters’ stories come with foreboding titles like “Full Bleed,” “Dead Time,” and “Beyond All Things Is the Sea.” They feature teen murderers, runaway brides, single parents, absent parents, bad kids, and good kids.
The collection, while existing in this format for the first time, is not exactly new. Some characters and threads in Watermark reach back to Conlin’s two novels, her lauded 2002 debut Heave and 2016’s The Memento, both published by Doubleday Canada. Some of these stories have previously been published, won awards, or been renamed for Watermark.
The events of Conlin’s own life in the 15 or so years she’s spent working on this book have been challenging: divorce, multiple family deaths, a bout with cancer, all while being self-employed as a fiction writer in Canada.
“I’ve seen it all,” says Conlin. “There’s nothing like seeing sick people dying of cancer or brain diseases at any age to bring you really close to that place between life and death, and that awe, and that sense that life is short even when it’s long. In the middle of all of that, I try to have a quiet landscape in mind to write, and it’s really very difficult.”
The darkness she’s experienced has informed her work with a vibe she calls “Alice Munro meets David Lynch.” “These are common themes people deal with, myself included,” says Conlin. “I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to make all these stories connect’; it was a very organic process where there were overlapping lines, in the way there always is.”
In among the small-town portent and secrets lie laugh-out-loud moments. “[It’s the] really dry humour that comes out of hardship that my grandmother was key for,” says Conlin. “At a funeral or deathbed, she’d come out with some very droll comment, and everyone would laugh and everyone suddenly felt better, like they could get through it.”
Conlin feels a healthy sense of the absurd in her own life with Brown, who runs the graphic-novel publishing house Conundrum Press in nearby Wolfville. As gig-economy workers raising growing boys, she says, “I feel like we’re both onstage in a wacky performance.” Reading and writing, which the author calls “an affliction,” are tasks slotted alongside school, sports, and errands.
“Writing short stories, I felt much more engaged and present for the work,” Conlin says. “I felt like I could get back to the stories in a way that respected the form. As opposed to, ‘Wow, it’s three months later and I haven’t even finished chapter four of a 30-chapter book.’”
She continues to work on her next project, a mystery novel set in 1980 and 2020 about what she describes as a sisterhood of mentally ill women.
“I keep being drawn back to the work – it’s a safe place to explore a lot of terrifying things. And again, there’s nowhere you’ll find the humour more,” she says. “And as much darkness as there is in my books, in all these stories are these little threads of hilarity, like little beams of sunshine those characters coast on to ultimately, I think, be triumphant in their own lives.” – Tara Thorne