I dreamed of ghosts while reading this book.
But not in a bad way.
There are, after all, different kinds of ghosts out there and in The Memento Christy Ann Conlin introduces us to at least a few possibilities. Those that follow you home from a funeral, for example. Which is why you have mirrors placed beside your front door. On the outside. An old Maritime tradition.
The book has plenty of Maritime vibe, and tradition too. It takes place on the Fundy shore, in a house—correction—a grand old estate, called Petal’s End, one of those places you dreamed of being able to explore as a child… with a garden named ‘Evermore’ (a nod to the macabre?), several outbuildings, a carriage house, even a room for nothing but arranging flowers. That kind of place.
It’s the summer Fancy Mosher turns twelve (a not insignificant number) and is given a letter from her beloved and deceased grandfather in which he explains that a family ‘gift’ has been passed along to her: the ability to see the dead.
The story that unfolds is one of small town written even smaller. A place with very little privacy yet chock full of secrets because gossip isn’t the same as truth. And memories, well, they can be adjusted to suit any purpose.
Fancy lives from age three to nine with her grandfather, a gardener at Petal’s End. It’s a good life if you don’t mind that your mother’s bit of a case and rarely around. And anyway, there’s Loretta, the housekeeper, practically a surrogate mother, the kind of woman who “…didn’t get annoyed—she got concerned.”
The family who own the estate, the Parkers, for whom Fancy and her grandfather and Loretta and others work… are rarely home anymore. (There’s a reason for that.) The staff are kept on regardless. The staff know things. The Parkers and the house and teacups know things. Especially the teacups. (In Maritime lore it’s said old teacups carry spirits within them, and I don’t mean gin.)
Everybody, it seems, knows ‘something’. But no one’s talking.
Or at least they haven’t been. Until now.
It was my pleasure to chat with Christy Ann Conlin about this genre-bending mystery cum ghostly folk tale cum literary work.
So without further ado, may I welcome the sparkling Christy Ann Conlin:
1. What literary character did you identify with as a child?
CAC–Harriet, from Harriet the Spy, and Charlotte, from Charlotte Sometimes. As a teenager, with David, from The Mountain and The Valley, and Anne of Green Gables. All of these characters are outsiders, who either create fantasy worlds to retreat into, or as in Charlotte Sometimes, get lost in an alternate world. These are books which deal with identity and belonging and finding a sense of place. The characters are all outsiders and have to find a deep internal strength to navigate the world and community they are in, some successfully, and some not so successfully. I think these early identifications have really shaped my own fiction writing, my understanding of how we negotiate and map out our journey in life guiding and forming the journey of characters in my stories.
2. Can you recall your first piece of writing? A poem, short story, essay in finger paints?? What was it about?
CAC–I wrote a story in grade six and the teacher told me it was terrible. I was devastated as it was my first attempt. I have learning disabilities and writing was so hard for me. I failed printing in grade four and it is one of my most humiliating memories. The messiness seemed to be a part of my hand, the death clutch on the pencil, and grinding it into the paper. So my effort in grade 7 felt heroic to me. Then I gave up but the next year had a grade eight poetry assignment I had to do. I didn’t understand what was being asked and I didn’t like the poems we were supposed to dissect. My mother had always read poetry to me, as well as my grandmother, so I got out the poetry books and I copied these poems into what we could now call a scrap book. I did a drawing inspired by each poem, and decorated each page to reflect the mood, voice and imagistic world of the poems. And I also wrote a poetic response to each poem, and did a word list for each one. By word list I mean I extracted words which I felt were significant. My teacher gave me 100 %. It was the first time I had ever done well in school and now looking back, I see it was the first time I not only found my writing voice, but found the creative confidence which is mandatory for a writer.
But the years that followed were all about formal essay writing and I really struggled and finally gave up on writing. I fell into it by accident, when a friend suggested I write the story of my life because I liked writing letters so much. My own story was a cure for insomnia and I was soon drooling at the keyboard. Fictionalizing elements of my life, and then sheer abandonment of reality and entry into the realm of the imagination was what brought me to writing.
My school years were very difficult ones, and I found the public school system, certainly in a very rural area, marginalized those who were a bit different, creative or unusual. There was not much respect for eccentricity in the school halls and playgrounds. Imagination and fantasy can be lifeboats for those of us who are outside the mainstream.
3. What were you reading at age fifteen?
CAC–Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. Flowers for Algernon. To the Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf. Doonesbury. Jane Austen. The Brontes. H.P. Lovecraft. Poe. Emily Dickinson. Charlie Brown. Ray Bradbury. Stephen King. Wordsworth. T.S. Eliot. S.E. Hinton and many, many more.
4. Do you have a favourite passage (from any book)?
CAC–Many, but one that I’ve loved since high school is the final paragraph of Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe.
“Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s
porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I
should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town
he has left, yet does not say “The town is near,” but turns his
eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.”
I find this so heartbreaking, that we really can never come home again, even though we can see it, but there is also that sense of yearning for something bigger than what we have come from.
5. Are there recurring themes in your work that surprise you?
CAC–No, not really. I am a bit surprised by what is now my life long rumination on our relationship with memory and the idea of sensory detail as portals into the past. I love that scent and sound, for example, can carry us through time. What does surprise me about my work is the ever present thread of humour, sometimes dark and sometimes whimsical and often pure hilarity. I think tragedy and comedy are twins.
6. We think of a memento as being an object, usually received as a gift to remind us of someone, some experience, some thing, time or place. We assume it’s connected to a good memory—but it needn’t be. In the book, the gift is the ability to see the dead, passed down from a grandfather to his twelfth grandchild, Fancy Mosher, on her twelfth birthday… and much of the story’s tension comes from how this will manifest in Fancy and whether or not it’s an especially welcomed ‘memento’. Two questions: how did the title come to you? And, what is the significance of twelves?
CAC–The title seemed obvious as the book revolves around this inheritance of a gift the Moshers call the “family memento”, a euphemism for a dark ability. Also, the book really is a memento mori, a piece of art which explores the concept of mortality, and our obsession with immortality. My novel is an exploration of memory and loss, of both embracing and letting go, but always a reminder that life and time pass with every breath.
The twelves come from a few things. Fancy’s mother says that twelve is a special number because Jesus has twelve disciples. This plays into the strange mountain religion mentioned in the book, the Holy Mother Mercy sect which is hinted at.
Also, The superstitions surrounding the red cardinal. The bird trills at dawn and dusk, twelve hours apart, a herald of day and night. Cardinal eggs have a twelve day incubation period. Cardinals don’t migrate, present for twelve months of the year, representing the cycle of seasons. There is a folk belief that if you see or hear a cardinal it carries a message for you. It was irresistible symbolism for a writer, creating a mythology around this. I love the day being broken into two twelve hour pieces, the time of light arriving and fading, and the time of darkness arriving and fading.
7. The play of children is cleverly mirrored in the way adults and families ‘play normal’ (and it’s the kids who are dealing with reality so much better, or at least trying to). Also, Fancy knows and senses so much more than she gives herself credit for but she has yet to develop the confidence to believe her own instincts. Is this something you were exploring… i.e. how much of Fancy’s ‘insecurity’ is a normal part of growing up and how much is imposed by family shame (her mother, especially), mythology and (other) dysfunctions?
CAC–I think most of the insecurity is imposed by her mother, her family, society, the Parkers. She inherits her family memento, secrets, and the legacy of shame and fear which accompanies it. I think these forces are what make her so close to the edge, to the mystery, to use a Flannery O’Connor term.
8. The Moshers have been employed for many years at Petal’s End, a large estate owned by a family rarely in residence. The estate serves as an idyllic backdrop to the carefree aspects of Fancy’s childhood. It’s also the site of much weirdness. This juxtaposition of horror and normal runs through the book in different ways. (I’m thinking of the scene where they’re discussing ‘the Annex’ on the day of Fancy’s birthday, the tacit horror of it… then the scene shifts to Loretta bringing out the cake, singing Happy Birthday.) I can’t imagine the same story unfolding in a ‘normal’ house. Something about the space people need to hide from each other… I’m curious of course: what inspired the setting? (I’m in love with the flower arranging room, btw.)
CAC–Yes, juxtaposing beauty and horror, innocence and wisdom, trust and betrayal, youth and old age, life and death, love and hate…and on and on, these contrasts define this book. We cannot have one without the other.
I also love the idea of something simple, like fragrant air full of the smell of flowers, being more than that, the air being literally embodied by flowers which are alive. We have a saying where I am from, that hot humid summer air is “close”. I love that, how the air is alive, so intimate and engaging with our very being, in our personal space. The book is full of these sorts of normal and yet fantastical elements.
The estate and seaside, the setting of The Memento is a classic gothic element — a grand sweeping home of beauty and decay, from the outside almost a castle, and inside, a labyrinth of stairs and hallways, rooms and chambers, secret passageways, a mansion set in a parkland, with forest, gardens and statues and flowers. It’s a fairytale setting and we all know how the magical world of fairytales holds such an uncanny blend of innocence, beauty, horror and intrigue.
The actual manor home in the book was inspired by several grand estates, here and abroad. I had a remarkable experience in Ireland, in Drogheda, where I was with some friends and we found an abandoned mansion on a river, and behind the mansion, a sprawling parkland with a massive walled garden. There was a hole in the high stone wall and I climbed through and found a sprawling and intricate garden which brought to my mind The Secret Garden, except creepier in how long it had been let go. That moment stayed with me and was the genesis of Petals’ End, the haunted garden in The Memento.
I was also inspired closer to home by Prescott House, a Georgian Manor home at Starr’s Point, Nova Scotia, very close to where I live. I have taught creative writing workshops there in the sunroom, and have had students who remember when the elderly Prescott descendants would serve tea in one of the formal rooms. It feels inhabited by a living history. It’s now a provincial museum, close to the water and complete with restored gardens. There is another grand home, The Queen Anne Inn in Annapolis Royal. It is a house which calls to you from the roadside, which implores you to enter and discover her secrets. Fortunately, it’s an inn, so you can come in and be enveloped by the stories and history of the mansion!
9. While paranormal events figure into the story, there is another kind of creepiness in all the secrets, especially those children are asked/expected/forced or threatened in some way to keep. You play off this alternate ‘fear’ nicely with the mystery and secrets of ‘the dead’. I’m wondering at what point they conflate in the minds of families over generations… Is it possible that people tend to hide family truths behind family legends? And might that be one reason for those legends?
CAC–Sure, I think reality, when recounted inevitably takes on a life of its own, and becomes a story merely for the act of telling. And then when it’s passed along again, it takes on more shape and form. Each teller imbues the story with a sense of voice and detail. It’s an organic process and one which keeps evolving, based on the personality and time of the teller. I love this about the oral tradition.
And sure, family stories become a way of entombing the past, with clues and hints and maps that lead back to the past, if a bit of care and attention is paid. I think it’s part a hiding of a truth in a family legend, a part of a family truth which gets lost in the story. We can search for what is hidden, and we can stumble upon that which was lost. And often, what we lose or secret away, is really hiding in plain sight – it is but for us to put the story in the right order, the words in the right tone, and the truth tumbles out.
10. What is the one thing you’d like to be asked about the book?
CAC–That’s a great question, ha ha! This is what I have been hoping someone would ask and no one has yet: “Why did you take risks with narrative traditions and bypassed trendy and write a book that defies description—a genre-bending literary ghost story for adults for solitary silent read or by contrast, a story for reading aloud by fireside?
The simple answer is I’ve always loved books that read as a page turner and have a complex web of a plot which unfolds seamlessly, and transport the reader right into the story. I really wanted to do this in The Memento. As I wrote, elements from different traditions came together, and rather than picking one and dropping another, they began to merge. This was the only way to capture the bridge and the co-existance of the past and the present and the future. This idea fascinates me and I wanted a story which embodied this in the actual narrative so the reader would experience this.
Have you ever walked into an old house and then walked out and thought, wow, that was like being back in the 1940s or the 1970s, or even earlier? And yet as you get in the car and Tweet a photo, you are back in your time. This captivates me. The same way that we travel in time with a scent or a sensory trigger.
I love Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, James’s Turn of the Screw, those old world books. Kazuo Ishiguro captures that world in Remains of the Day, the old and a newer world, and their collision. In Jane Austen novels are very much concerned with finding a place in the word, and navigating rigid social parameters, especially for women. I find it interesting how this still continues in society, and wanted to create a thread from the old days to the new, the continuity and persistence of class and gender restrictions. In The Memento, the Parkers are aristocrats with the power of their upper class and the Moshers are in the serving class, and limited in that way. But both have freedoms which also come with their class.
I wanted that old style novel with exquisite language and setting and sense of place, where the world of the book is like a character itself, and yet a contemporary element, which threads through to reflect how old ideas persist and permeate reality.
There is a lot of play with sense of time, and timelessness, in The Memento, how the old world exists within modern society, and you can step in and out of it.
So, this is why some readers and critics have said The Memento reads like Jane Austen or Edith Wharton but as though David Lynch had a hand in the story!
Canoe or bike? These days, canoe, because of the contrast of silence and sound, movement and stillness. The thrill of the glide and being on water. There is a sleek elegance in canoeing. And on a lake or a pond there is only bird song, the splash of water, rustle of wind, and the sound of your own breathing if you are paddling hard. And you can stop and sit there in the canoe and feel the rhythm of the body of water as it moves whether on a pond or a river or a lake. We have a small canoe for our pond and paddling in the waterlilies is extraordinary. In The Memento Fancy recalls being in a canoe on a lake with her mother, collecting waterlilies. This was drawn from my own experience of sunrise canoes.
Song or poetry? They are one and the same to me right now, as I’ve been working with lyrics in The Memento, the fragments and lines of from ballads and lullabies uses as text in the novel. They become wisps of poetry in her mind.
A ballad used in The Memento which is poetry-to-song: Down By the Salley Gardens – a poem by William Butler Yeats published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889. The poem is really a reconstruction and restoration of an old song Yeats had heard. It was which was later put to the traditional music of The Moorlough. I love the blending of song and poetry as they are one in the same in many ways…poetry is not always words or just words…
Afloat or ashore? At the edge of the shore looking out over the water, watching the reflection of the sky in the water, the sun and the moon, watching the wind ripple through the lily pads and wondering then about the forest behind me as I sit at the water’s edge.
Picnic or fine dining? The antique picnic wicker basket with linens and table cloth and carefully packed lunch carried to a special secret spot in a meadow or on a beach.
Fat book or skinny? A book size which suits the nature of the story.
Ice cream or cheese? Neither. Lime or cherry sorbet served in an antique depression glass bowl.
Food and books. Is there anything better?
For that reason I like to offer my version of the menu inspired by the book.
Matilda’s Menu for The Memento:
freshly baked rolls
(no tea, thankyouverymuch)
CHRISTY ANN CONLIN’s acclaimed first novel, Heave (2002), was a Globe and Mail “Top 100” book, a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Heave was also longlisted for the 2011 CBC Canada Reads Novels of the Decade. Her novella, Dead Time, was published by Annick Press 2011 and received a starred review in Quill & Quire. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals including Best Canadian Stories, Room Magazine, Blood + Aphorisms, and Numéro Cinq. Conlin also hosted the popular 2012 CBC summer radio series Fear Itself. The Memento is her first novel in fourteen years. Conlin teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies online Creative Writing program. She lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in a big yellow century house at the edge of a lily pond with three little boys named Winken, Blinken and Nod, and her loving husband, Andy Brown, publisher at Conundrum Press.
She can be found at http://www.christyannconlin.com/
*Author photo: Bruce Dienes