News and Interviews

"I Write to Be Lifted into Life’s Largest Possibilities" The 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Finalists on Nonfiction

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This Monday, March 4, will see writers, publishers, and nonfiction lovers gathered in Toronto's historic King Edward Hotel to find out the 2019 winner of the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize for Nonfiction. This year's shortlist features a strong memoir presence and includes two writers known for their work in fiction (Bill Gaston and Elizabeth Hay), making it an interesting and unpredictable list, as well as showcasing the evolving - and expanding - nature of the nonfiction landscape. 

Bill Gaston is nominated for Just Let Me Look at You: On Fatherhood (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada) a memoir of complex love, fishing, and drinking; cellist Ian Hampton's Jan in 35 Pieces: A Memoir in Music (Porcupine’s Quill) delves into his musical life weaving in music history at the same time; Kate Harris's Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road (Knopf Canada) is a story of adventure, exploration, and reflection in an over-travelled world; All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay (McClelland & Stewart) brings to life her complicated but formidable parents and Hay's time caring for them at the end of their lives; the final shortlisted title, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age by Darrel McLeod (Douglas & MacIntyre), is a tale of Indigenous resilience, difficult questions of identity, and the legacy of trauma. 

We're incredibly excited that all five nominated authors were able to speak to us before Monday's big announcement, discussing what they love about nonfiction as a unique form and what it is like to be a finalist for one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Canada.  

They tell us about their love of beautiful language in nonfiction, their own favourite nonfiction reads, and how each of them would celebrate a big win on Monday, from bouncy new beds to parties and road trips to which you'll want to beg an invite.

Open Book:

What do you love most about reading and writing nonfiction?

Bill Gaston:

Writing it, I love that for once I don’t have to play God. A fiction writer by trade, I begin a book with a truly blank slate, and unless it’s historical fiction, I have to make everything up. Writing nonfiction I’m relieved of this burden, and am thankfully bound by what actually happened. Writing my more comic memoir, Midnight Hockey, was so freeing, and felt like writing a letter to a friend. Just Let Me Look at You is more heartfelt, and much harder to write because I wish lots of it hadn’t happened, but it still had a prearranged plot line, which, again, was freeing. And I suppose that what I most love about reading nonfiction comes from a similar place: it’s true, it actually happened, and there’s a natural gravitas because of this.

Ian Hampton: 

I love social history. As a performer who has talked and written about music for many years, I look for quirky anecdotes to shed light, if obliquely, on composers' lives, their personalities, and their compositions.

Kate Harris:

I read and write to be lifted into life’s largest possibilities, to remind myself of the world’s strangeness and beauty and humanity but also its brokenness, its extravagant incomprehensibility. Daily existence, with its deadlines and financial exigencies and other crucial but clouding demands, tends to dull our astonishment at being alive in a universe with no end. I read and write to see the stars again.

Elizabeth Hay:

I like believing that I’m getting the real, unvarnished goods, whether I’m reading nonfiction or writing it.

Darrel McLeod:

Mark Twain said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." For this very reason, I have always been attracted to reading stories about real life experiences or those based on true experiences – I don’t have to suspend my disbelief. Real life events often do surpass fiction: involve wilder characters, plots, dialogues and scenes than I could ever imagine or invent. I’m naturally curious to know how others have lived, what they’ve gone through and endured (or succumbed to). Often, when reading about the lives of others, I feel less daunted by the tragedy in my own. And at the other end of the spectrum, I love to share other people’s bliss.

To write nonfiction, in my case a memoir, was not really a choice. I was compelled to write it, and I found it difficult to delve into the traumatic events of the past – to examine – up close the actions of close family members and friends who I dearly love, and having to consider in depth the harmful and negative outcomes of their actions. The upside of doing all of this was that I got to summon or conjure those same close family members and bring them back to life – with full absolution for any harm they had caused me, and this brought tremendous healing.

I am about halfway through writing my first work of fiction and I am loving the adventure of it all, wondering what will happen each time I sit down to write a bit more.


How do you personally judge the merit of a book of nonfiction? What qualities do the nonfiction books you've loved share?


Sometimes a book of nonfiction is enthralling simply because the events are so exotic, so beyond the scope of my own experience, that the story alone is enough. But if the writing is beautiful—nuanced, poetic, funny, wise—this too can be enough to make a book compelling. Put the two together—a great story, great writing—and really there’s nothing better. The magic is that artful writing can make someone else’s exotic experience your own.


I read somewhat uncritically. If I wish to be informed on a subject, or if a topic piques my interest, then I am happy to read about it. I have read all the books on the current RBC Taylor list and enjoyed them all. Elizabeth Hay's All Things Consoled I appreciated for its beautiful portrayal of her parents' characters. Bill Gaston's Just Let Me Look at You provides a strong sense of place. Likewise, Darrel McLeod's book gives a strong sense of family and community under societal stress beyond the immediate narrative. Kate Harris's seemingly reckless cycling trip along the Silk Road is buttressed with information on the turbulent history of 'The land of lost borders'.

I want a book to provide broad background as well as relevant detail to illuminate the subject. Music, for instance, is very abstract - it needs richness of detail to be understood. I have a consequent interest in the visual arts, and for similar reasons, I enjoy the books of Ross King.


The nonfiction I love tends to blend a certain lyrical intensity with searching, existential themes and a healthy appreciation for the absurd. Whatever genre I’m reading, it’s poetry that I’m after, as well as a sense of high stakes. If a book seduces me with its language and ideas into other lives, other lands, other ways of seeing, then it has merit by my subjective measure. Of course different books speak straight to the soul of some people and say nothing intelligible to others, and this is as it should be. 


There has to be an attention to language. I don’t mean “beautiful” writing. I mean writing that is precise, energetic, interesting. Otherwise, the book doesn’t hold me.


The words of well-written nonfiction fly off of the page on their own. I don’t have to reread – retrace my steps to better understand the timeframe, plot, characters – or anything. And the writing style is artistic: scene descriptions pull me right in and implicate me, characters are well-developed and the plot line is intriguing. Simply put, I like nonfiction that reads like fiction; nonfiction writers have to use the same skillset as fiction writers to make their writing compelling. 


Tell us briefly about a favourite nonfiction book you've read.


The Abundance, a selection of Annie Dillard’s narrative essays, compiles a bunch of her old and new stuff, and it’s a joy, reminding us not only how alert, and curious, and funny, and brilliant she is, but how rewarding the world is if we pay attention.


R. Murray Schafer's The Tuning of the World, which I read years ago, has remained in my mind. It is a world history, a description of sound, which is entirely unique. Recently I read John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the Castle of Heaven, a formidably scholastic book on J. S. Bach. Gardiner's vast knowledge of Baroque music and its performance really broadened my knowledge of Bach, about whom we know comparatively little. 


John Fowles is best known as a novelist but he also wrote a brief, numinous nonfiction book that I love called The Tree. It’s a meditation on creativity and wildness and all things unmanipulated, and it's an ode to what can’t be quantified in a culture that cherishes bottom lines. Reading it is as refreshing as an aimless walk in the woods.


I’m rereading James Knowlson’s fascinating biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame. It helps me understand how and why Beckett wrote as he did. 


Les Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I read a couple of volumes of Les Confessions in a third-year French literature class at UBC and it has stuck with me to this day (three decades). I was mesmerized by the how candid and honest Rousseau was about his life, including details of sensuality and conflict. And I was enamoured with his prose.

I was astonished at how much of Rousseau’s life I related to, even though I was born centuries later, in another part of the world, and into a completely different culture. I think it was during reading of Les Confessions that it occurred to me that if I were to ever write down my own story, that I would attempt to be as candid as Rousseau was in his memoir. One day I hope to read the remaining ten volumes of Les Confessions that I haven’t yet touched. 


If you are awarded the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize, how might you decide to celebrate?


If the stars align weirdly and I win, I might rent a car, pick up my brother in Vancouver, and drive to Tabor, Iowa, where neither of us has been, and visit “The Gaston House,” and the graveyard where lies George. B. Gaston, a renowned abolitionist, and our great, great—I don’t know how many greats—grandfather. His house, with its big cellar, was a major station in the underground railroad, and he sheltered John Brown, and cache of weapons, there too. It now sits in the heart of Trump country. Our road-trip there, a couple of naïve old Canadians visiting this odd heritage, might make for a good piece of nonfiction.


Given the strength of my fellow nominees' work, I haven't really dared to entertain any celebratory thoughts. I am, however, indebted to many people who have helped this book on its way, from the support and kindness of the publishing team at Porcupine's Quill back to my family members who typed and read the manuscript. Most of all I would like to honour my wonderful editor Barbara Nickel, who reorganized the material, tested the veracity of it and battled the problem of tenses I inadvertently created for her. Moreover, it was fun working together. I would like to celebrate with Barbara and her family in any way she would let me.


I would throw a Silk Road cycling trip theme party for family and friends with a menu featuring instant noodles, instant noodles, or, if you prefer, instant noodles—only stirred with the fanciest peanut butter money can buy! And then we'd slug them down with champagne. 


Oh, I have in mind buying a new mattress and bouncing up and down. 


If I win the RBC prize I will have a feast and jazz show – not one, but several. This is the way of Cree culture – we throw feasts and stage giveaways. I will throw a summer feast and perform music for my extended family, sisters and cousins (no brothers, aunts, uncles or grand-parents are alive at this point), in Smith or Slave Lake, Alberta. In addition, I will have to throw parallel feasts in Victoria, BC, where the majority of my closest friends, who are like family, live; and in Puerto Vallarta for my Mexican friends who have become like family. All of this because these three groups have provided amazing support and love through different phases of my life, and still do (actually now more than ever). At the personal level, I will take a trip to one of the places on my wish list – Spain, Portugal, Brazil, or Argentina. Here’s hoping!


For more information on the RBC Taylor Prize, please visit their website