Over the past twenty years, Marcello Di Cintio has built a career as one of Canada's most insightful and incisive nonfiction authors, earning prizes along the way that include the Writers' Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the W. O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize, as well as nominations for the Taylor Prize for Nonfiction and the British Columbia National Award for Non-Fiction.
His style, both brainy and accessible, which often focuses on the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, has never been more compelling than in his newest book, Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers (Biblioasis). For the project, Di Cintio interviewed numerous taxi drivers across North American with backgrounds as diverse as former members of both the Iraqi National Guard and Westboro Baptist Church.
An exploration of the liminal space that is a taxi trip, Di Cintio teases out the paradox of intimacy and distance that binds drivers and an endless stream of diverse passengers, with all the complex interpersonal, social, and power dynamics each interaction contains. With taxis serving as a microcosm of our current social and political systems, Di Cintio creates something fascinating in these pages that is both personal and universal.
We're thrilled to welcome him to Open Book today to talk about Driven as part of our True Story nonfiction interview series. He tells us about how his previous travel narratives led him to this close-to-home project, proposes a much better name for the genre known (so strangely broadly) as "nonfiction", and tells us what he's enjoying about the "post-publication hangover stage".
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
Marcello Di Cintio:
All my previous books involved plenty of foreign travel. I usually jet off to faraway places in search of stories. I started to wonder, though, what I was missing here at home. What wasn’t I hearing? No doubt I could find as compelling stories in the taxi rides to and from the airport as I could in the distant countries I traveled to. What was behind those eyes I saw reflected in the rear-view mirror?
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
Unlike my previous books, a central question did not fuel the narrative other than, I suppose, “who are the men and women who drive us around?” I was more clear about what I wasn’t looking for. I didn’t want to find clichéd “taxi noir” tales about sex, drugs, and backseat shenanigans. We already know those stories, or at least we can imagine them.
And I wasn’t interested in the archetype of what I call the “cabbie cardiologist” – the professionally trained scholar from far away who moves to Canada and finds his credentials are not recognized. Instead of performing surgeries or working at a pharmacy, he gets stuck driving cab. Again, we’ve heard these stories before. They are something of an urban myth in all big cities.
Instead, I wanted to be surprised. I wanted to hear unexpected stories. And the drivers I met certainly delivered.
What do you love about writing nonfiction? What are some of the strengths of the genre, in your opinion?
I love being constantly reminded that the world is full of amazing characters with incredible lives – that we are always surrounded by epic tales. And I love that being a nonfiction write allows me a backstage pass into the lives of amazing strangers. This is such an incredible gift.
Great nonfiction proves to the reader that all lives have a narrative value, and that no one is truly alone.
Do you have an opinion on how the word nonfiction is set – i.e. with or without a hyphen?
No hyphen, though I dislike the term altogether as it defines the genre by what it is not. I prefer “narrative journalism” or, especially, “documentary literature.”
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I constantly feel discouraged during the writing process, especially during the first draft stage which I absolutely despise. I don’t think this is a “block,” but more of an intimidation of the blank page (or screen). The only cure for this is for me to simply write through the anxiety and constantly remind myself that the first draft will be garbage that nobody has to see.
What are you working on now?
When I am writing a book, all I want to do is write magazine stories. And when I am writing magazine stories, all I want to do is write a book. Right now, in that post-publication hangover stage, I am working on several different magazine pieces. After spending two or more years on a single project, I like the feeling of getting obsessed with a topic for a month or two, then putting it aside.
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of four books, including Walls: Travels Along the Barricades and Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense, both winners of the W. O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize. His magazine writing has appeared in appeared in publications such as The International New York Times, The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, and Afar. Di Cintio has served as a writer-in-residence at the Calgary Public Library, the University of Calgary, and the Palestine Writing Workshop, and he teaches nonfiction writing at the annual WordsWorth youth writing residency.