As creative nonfiction continues to evolve as a genre and authors find themselves sharing more of their own personal stories as well as traditional research and analysis, we see nonfiction growing to offer more than ever to readers. And every fall, the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction honours the best of these new offerings with a $60,000 prize to the book judged to be the finest work of nonfiction of the previous year.
The finalists this year are Lorna Crozier for Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats), (McClelland & Stewart); Steven Heighton for Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos (Biblioasis); Jessica J. Lee for Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains & Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past (Hamish Hamilton Canada); Tessa McWatt for Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Random House Canada); and David A. Neel for The Way Home (UBC Press). They were selected by a jury composed of writers Helen Knott, Sandra Martin, and Ronald Wright.
We are thrilled to be speaking with all five 2020 finalists for the Weston Prize today. They share with us about how and when they discovered they were nominated (and how those momentous phone calls felt), why getting into the nitty gritty of deep research is a favourite aspect of the writing process for many of them, and how writing nonfiction can be a bit like writing a sonnet.
The 2020 prizewinner will be announced on Wednesday, November 18, 2020, via the Writers’ Trust Awards: Books of the Year Edition digital event, which you can catch on the Writers' Trust website.
How did your nominated book begin for you? What drew you to your subject matter?
My husband, the writer Patrick Lane, spent the last weeks of 2016 in the hospital with an undiagnosed illness. His hospital stay had been preceded by strange and debilitating symptoms that ravaged his body for almost a year. We were both beside ourselves with fear and worry. The only way I knew how to deal with it was to try to find words that would capture what we were going through. I was searching, I think, for some kind of meaning, for something that would affirm that our lives together were significant, even if only in small ways.
In 2015, while following the story of the massive Syrian refugee influx on Lesvos, it occurred to me that—being Greek on my mother’s side—I might be of use there as a volunteer. More or less overnight I decided to go. In Reaching Mithymna I write, "I’m still not sure why... beyond a wish to do something useful, involving flesh and blood people instead of invented characters and words on a screen... On the phone with my daughter I’d mentioned my impulse and then thought: Let’s see you act for a change, not just pipe-dream and make principled noises; not just write about Mediterranean refugees in a novel, as I was then doing."
I was on Lesvos for a month. I figured I would eventually write something—maybe a magazine article—to bear witness to what I saw, but at that point I wasn’t looking past the novel that I was still bogged down in. I certainly had no idea I’d write a book-length memoir, and I didn’t get down to it till almost three years later.
Jessica J. Lee:
I’d been trying to find a way to tell my grandparents’ story for over a decade when I finally began writing Two Trees Make a Forest. I was enthralled by their stories because we’d spent so little time visiting Taiwan when I was a child, so their past felt deeply unfamiliar to me. I’d tried to write about them, first, in a novel, but could never quite find my stride. About a decade later, after my grandmother died in 2016, we found a trove of letters written by my grandfather many years before, tracing the story of his life. With these in hand, I felt newly able to revisit the story, and realized I finally had a sense of the voice with which to approach it, through my work as a nature writer.
I think it is probably the book I’ve been writing my whole life, without knowing it. I have been dealing with issues of belonging since I was a child. But the political events of the last few years made my story more urgent. I had no choice but to write it.
David A. Neel:
I initially started to write a book about my unusual art practice, which includes: photography, carving, jewellery, and writing. As I began writing, it quickly became apparent that the story of how I found my way home, after 25 years away, to become a traditional Northwest coast Native artist, like several generations of my family before me. The story started in 1986, when I saw a mask in a Texas Museum that was carved by my great-great-grandfather, Charlie James, who was a Kwakiutl master carver. That encounter was like a download of knowledge, and several months later I set aside my life in Texas and moved back to Vancouver, BC. Within weeks of returning, I was apprenticing with artists from my father’s village.
It wasn’t until thirty years later, when I started to write The Way Home, that I realized how fortunate I had been. It is very difficult and few succeed in reconnecting with their family, heritage, and culture – after so many years away. The book is a story about having a sense of place, a connection to family, to heritage and how one person found their way back to reconnect and follow in his father’s footsteps.
Where were you when you received news of your nomination? What was your reaction?
I was at home in my office when I saw the email from Charlie Foran, asking if he could call me. I hadn’t been thinking of the award at all, since I’ve been mainly a poet all of my life, so I didn’t know why he wanted to talk to me. He’s a pleasant man, so I looked forward to his call, but what he had to tell me came as a surprise.
I was here at my desk, working on the lyrics of a song. The email I received from the Writers’ Trust didn’t spell out that I’d been nominated—they were saving the specifics for a phone call—but did clearly imply it. Naturally, though, I refused to let myself assume what seemed to be true (the triumph of superstition over logic).
I was standing in my kitchen, on the phone with Charlie Foran. I think I jumped up and down quite a lot—I was completely floored.
I was in my flat in London, where I’ve been for what seems forever since Covid 19, when I received the email and then the call about the nomination. I was honoured, made speechless with gratitude.
I was working in my studio when I received the phone call and I was in shock for days afterward. It took a while for it to sink in, that my book had been selected among the work of so many fine writers. Even now, I find it hard to believe that my book is a finalist.
Is there a particular element of the nonfiction writing process that you find yourself most enjoying during book projects (whether research, writing, editing, discussing the finished book after publication, or otherwise)?
The best part of writing this book was the writing itself. Although at least part of it revolved around my husband’s illness, even that writing gave me pleasure because I love the process of trying to find the right word for whatever it is that is bothering me. I especially revelled in telling the stories of how we got together, and running those by Patrick to see if he remembered the events in the same way. And what a delight it was to write about our cats.
I’ve never written a book in the memoir form. I figured I would hate having to stick to the facts—to retell what actually happened and what I actually saw, instead of making stuff up, as when writing fiction. But in the end I liked how the armature of actual events imposed a formal constraint on the work, not unlike the tight prosodic demands of a sonnet, say, or the restrictions of a modernist short story with "third-person limited" narration. As Duke Ellington said, it’s good to have limits. And somehow as an artist you find more, not less, freedom in those confines.
Aside from going on hikes in the landscape, my favourite part of writing a book is the research: I love finding exactly the right historical or scientific tidbit to weave into a personal story, and the craft involved in doing so. Those are the bits I always remember most: going through stacks of books in the library or reading through articles, magpie-like, collecting the constituent parts of a story.
I loved the research, luxuriating in the British Library for months, reading things that I would not normally read, going down rabbit holes of history, appreciating that history should always be in the room when one is writing.
I enjoy doing the research because I learn so much during the process. My previous books are about traditional Native culture, I during the course of preparing a manuscript I learn much more than what is contained in the pages of a book. That knowledge stays with me afterwards, so the process is very rewarding. This book, The Way Home, made me look back at the many people who had touched my life, their generosity and cause me to reflect on my journey.
Tell us about a favourite nonfiction book you've read and that you would love to see others discover.
Well, I have to say it’s Patrick’s There Is a Season. Many have said it’s a Canadian classic. It’s set in a garden as my book is, but the garden before this one. And our cats walk through it as well, though they are younger. The wisdom in the book continues to thrill me. And the bravery of his telling his story of recovering from alcoholism.
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In some ways it was the model for Reaching Mithymna. Volunteering on Lesvos did at times feel like being in a war zone, as Orwell actually was in Spain in 1936—the chaos, confusion, panic; the crowded medical tents; the sense that there were few or no veterans on the front lines, so rookies were leading rookies; the occasional silent boredom flecked with flashes of eruptive crisis. Of course, the key difference for the volunteers was that no one was shooting at us. Many of the refugees, on the other hand, were fleeing bullets and bombs—and now, five years later, many still are.
I recently read Mike Parker’s On the Red Hill, a queer history of place centred on a house in rural Wales. It astounded me: the most delicate interweaving of personal and social history, replete with attention to place and nature, told with incredible sensitivity to the gaps between generations, whether political or personal. I can’t stop thinking about how exquisitely crafted it is!
There are many nonfiction books I love, by writers I greatly I admire. I need to mention at least two: Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts is a hybrid, lyrical piece of life writing. Sadiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is daring, original and compassionate. Both books are unique and bring certain lives out of the shadows, offering the world alternative ways of seeing and being.
I am not a good one to ask about my favourite nonfiction books, because I have been doing research for my current writing project, so the books that I have been reading are about Native legends and were written over 100 years ago. They aren’t what most people would read for enjoyment. Recently I have been reading Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, by Andrew Lobaczewski. So you see, the books that I read probably wouldn’t be most people’s first choice.
The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction is funded by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.
Lorna Crozier is the author of 17 books of poetry, including Inventing the Hawk, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award. She has been a finalist for the same award three additional times.Crozier has received three Pat Lowther Memorial Awards, the Raymond Souster Award, and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. She is also the author of The Book of Marvels and the memoir Small Beneath the Sky. Crozier is a Professor Emerita at the University of Victoria and an Officer of the Order of Canada. She lives on Vancouver Island.
Steven Heighton is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His latest novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, has been optioned for film and his novel Afterlands was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice. In 2016, Heighton received a Governor General’s Literary Award for his poetry collection The Waking Comes Late. He has received four gold National Magazine Awards for his short fiction and poetry, which have appeared in numerous publications. Heighton has also been nominated for a Trillium Award and the W.H. Smith Award. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.
Jessica J. Lee received the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. Her first book, Turning, which chronicles her journey swimming 52 lakes in a single year, was longlisted for the Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors. Lee has a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics. Originally from London, Ontario, she now lives in the United Kingdom.
Tessa McWatt is the author of six novels and two books for young people. Her fiction has been nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award, a City of Toronto Book Award, and the OCM Bocas Prize. Research for this memoir was supported by the Eccles British Library Writer’s Award and earlier this year was shortlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize. She is the co-editor of Luminous Ink and is also in the process of adapting John Berger’s novel To the Wedding for the screen. McWatt is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia and lives in London, United Kingdom.
David A. Neel is a carver, jeweller, painter, printmaker, writer, and photographer who comes from a family of traditional Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw artists. In addition to apprenticing with carvers in Alert Bay, British Columbia, he received training in writing and photography from the University of Kansas and Mount Royal College in Calgary. Neel is also the author of Our Chiefs and Elders and The Great Canoes. He is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw traditional art and culture. Neel lives in Vancouver.