News and Interviews

"It Was Time to Say It" The 2021 Weston Prize Finalists on Why and How They Wrote Their Acclaimed Books

weston authors 2021

Tomorrow, Wednesday, November 3, the Writers' Trust Awards will take place via livestream, with six of Canada's biggest and most prestigious literary awards announced. One of the most hotly anticipated announcements is that of the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the country's leading nonfiction award. 

It's a stunning shortlist this year, and Indigenous storytelling shines particularly bright with three of the five finalists sharing their experiences of and connection to the horrors of Canada's residential school system in their books.

We're proud to welcome all five 2021 Weston Prize finalists to Open Book today to talk about their nominations, their books, and the power of nonfiction as a genre. Jordan Abel is nominated for NISHGA (McClelland & Stewart); Ken Haigh for On Foot to Canterbury: A Son's Pilgrimage (University of Alberta Press); Tomson Highway for Permanent Astonishment: A Memoir (Doubleday Canada); Darrel J. McLeod for Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, A Memoir (Douglas & McIntyre); and Ian Williams for Disorientation: Being Black in the World (Random House Canada). 

In our discussion, Highway shares a cheeky quote that inspired him to write his memoir; McLeod shares how getting news of such a major nomination, while amazing, can be emotionally complex; and all five finalists share their favourite part of the writing process, from "hanging in the kitchen" with a reader to "laying track" in a first draft, and more. 

Be sure to tune into the Writers' Trust Awards, hosted by author JJ Lee, tomorrow at 2:00pm ET. The other awards to be presented include The Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life, The Latner Writers' Trust Poetry Prize, The Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People, The Writers' Trust Engel Findley Award, and the Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Open Book:

How did your nominated book first begin for you? Why was this the right time for you to share this story and knowledge with readers?

Jordan Abel:


In many ways, NISHGA has been a lifetime project. Many of the questions that are foundational to this book (what does it mean to Indigenous? what does it mean to be an intergenerational survivor of Residential Schools? what does it mean to be dispossessed from your home territory, from culture, from traditional knowledge?) were questions that I've struggled my whole life to answer (and in some cases to ask). These are the questions that have lingered with me far before I ever imagined writing this book. So to answer the second part of that question, it wasn't so much a feeling that this was the right time and/or the right moment for me to put this book out into the world as much as it felt like this was a moment where I was able to gesture towards what some of those answers might be.

Ken Haigh:

I wanted to do something with my father to celebrate his retirement, and I suggested we walk the Pilgrims' Way, from Winchester to Canterbury. I knew this would appeal to him because he was a devout Anglican, and Canterbury Cathedral is the centre for Anglicanism worldwide, and because he loved the outdoors and I knew he would enjoy a walking holiday. He liked the idea and agreed to go, but then my father died suddenly of a heart attack, so the trip was cancelled. Almost ten years later, I was feeling very depressed and my wife suggested that I take the journey alone. I did, and the book was the result. I'm not sure I was consciously thinking about the timing of the book. It was more the case that I felt compelled to write it, and I hoped that, if I did, it might find a few sympathetic readers.

Tomson Highway:

I have a very complicated life story. I've lived through interesting times. The lifestyle I was born into doesn't exist anymore so I'm the last of a breed. So if I don't record that story, no one will have heard about it. It will have disappeared. So the impulse came when I saw a celebrity on YouTube say about the memoir he'd decided to write, “I decided that people should hear my story from the horse's mouth as opposed to the horse's ass.” That's what got me going!

Darrel J. McLeod:

Initially my two memoirs, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age and Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity were one long manuscript. While working on early edits to this large manuscript with my mentor and friend Shaena Lambert, together we decided that for the structure I’d chosen – linked story-like chapters – the manuscript was too long and unwieldy. There seemed to be a very natural break after the chapter "Madonna of the Athabasca", which ended up being the last chapter of Mamaskatch. At that point in my life, there was also a major shift in my career and lifestyle: I devoted my career to indigenous education and moved from Kitsilano to a tiny First Nations community in northern BC, so that seemed a perfect place to pick up Peyakow.

During the writing and editing phases of both Mamaskatch and Peyakow, I felt this incredible drive to complete them out into the world – a compulsion, obsession, if you will, which I didn’t at all understand. Now, in retrospect, I see why the timing was right. About three years prior to the publication of Mamaskatch, the report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools was made public (with its 94 calls to action) and about a year after publication, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Commission issues its report. Indigenous issues such as youth suicide, systemic racism, access to clean drinking water, housing crises, and so on were in the media almost daily and Peyakow addresses many of these themes head on and tells the story of one man’s triumph against incredible adversity – his breakthroughs to having a truly amazing life – in spite of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Indigenous peoples in Canada (and everyone else for that matter, as a result of the pandemic) are at a point where they need messages of hope and examples of not only survival, but triumph.

Ian Williams:

Disorientation began with unrest. In the summer of 2020, there were social justice movements across the world, originating with outrage at the murders of Black people in the US. Climate change produced wildfires on the west coast, which was home at the time. And the pandemic caused a global retreat from social life. All of those had an impact on my life but the first one, the reckoning with race, made me pause work on a novel and turn my full attention and heart to race. I wanted to organize my thoughts and record them in one place. I asked myself, What, Ian, have you left unsaid in your career to this point? It was time to say it.

Open Book:

Where were you when you received news of your nomination? What was your reaction?


I was asleep! I checked my phone when I got up and I saw a text from a friend congratulating me and I had no idea what for.


I was just sitting down to breakfast and decided to check my email. There was one message in my inbox labelled "2021 Weston Nonfiction Prize Finalists", and I thought, "Hmm, I wonder who is on the shortlist this year." When I opened the email and saw my own book, my first reaction was disbelief. I thought somebody must be pranking me, but then other emails started to roll in with "congratulations" in the subject line, and I realized it must be true. It still seems a bit surreal.


I was at my beautiful home here in Gatineau, Quebec. Three people e-mailed to congratulate me, my agent, my editor, and my publicist. I was, of course, thrilled, so glad that someone liked my book.


I was in the kitchen of my little home in the forest, beside the Salish Sea in the territory of Tsouke First Nation. Early in the morning, as usual, I checked my emails on my cell phone and I saw a cluster of emails with the title “CONGRATULATIONS!” They were from my agent, my publisher, from my Canadian publicist, from writer friends living in Toronto and Ottawa who always see the news hours before we wake up in BC. My dear friend Milan was here visiting and as he observed the expression on my face, brighten then collapse, seemingly in grief – then brighten again – he said, what... what DJ, what is it? At this point I rushed to my bedroom at the back of my house and closed the door behind me. I sat on my bed and began sobbing – which frustrated and confused me – this was joyous news – so why this reaction? After about ten minutes I calmed myself and went back to the kitchen area and told Milan I was a finalist for another major prize and forwarded him media photos of the covers of the final finalist books. I proceeded to make a pot of coffee, hoping to carry on with my day. That was when the dam burst. I broke into a fit of crying – the exact opposite of belly laughs – heaving sobs with loud wailing. Milan of course, jumped out of his chair and came over to embrace me saying, you're amazing Darrel – you’re truly amazing. He held me until I was breathing normally.

I still don’t understand why I reacted so intensely to this amazing news. I suspect it has to do with the profound validation this news represents. Validation as a writer, storyteller a Nehiyaw, a shapeshifter. I took so many risks in Peyakow and I’d imagined rejection on so many levels as a result of that – disclosure of personal information that likely went way beyond what some would classify simply as TMI. I also took huge risks with my writing style and with the structure of Peyakow – but it worked. It’s harder to discuss this part – but I know I was also grieving the immensity of my loss in life – my sisters Debbie and Trina weren’t alive for me to share this life-changing news – neither was my mother, father, any aunts, uncles, or grandparents and I have no children or grandchildren.


I received the news through an ecstatic tweet. But it wasn't attached to a link so I didn't quite believe it. I tend to doubt that good news is intended for me. Then folks began texting congratulations and I was like, For what? And finally a certain Charlie, the Executive Director of The Writers' Trust, called and it was official: Twitter wasn't punking me.

Open Book:

Is there a particular element of the nonfiction writing process that you find yourself most enjoying during book projects (whether research, going over journals or memories, early drafts, editing, discussing the finished book after publication, or otherwise)?


Ah, I was going to say not so much. NISHGA was such a painful, difficult book to write that I'm not really sure I enjoyed any of it. But then I realized that there were quite a few shining moments that were really quite lovely in retrospect. I really loved having conversations about this book with my PhD committee (Sophie McCall, Steve Collis, David Chariandy, and Deanna Reder) and likewise with my agent Stephanie Sinclair and my editors Jared Bland and Warren Cariou. It was such a privilege for me to receive so much sustained attention and feedback from all of those folks, and I just felt so incredibly lucky to be surrounded with such thoughtful, generous people who all understood the thing I was trying to do and were working diligently to try to make it better.


I do enjoy the research. I think if there was a job called "professional researcher" that would be my dream job. I love writing nonfiction because it allows me to learn more about the things that interest me. Writing the first draft is very hard though. But there are days when the writing goes well, and I love those days. I also don't mind revising. I usually work until I have a clean draft of a chapter, and then I set it aside for a week or so, sometimes for more than a month, before I go back and revisit it. It's surprising how clearly the bad writing stands out if you leave a cooling off period.


I like working with my editor. She's exceptional. I like listening to her, learning from her. Even at my age, I feel I still have so much to learn about writing books and just writing in general.


I love the storytelling aspect of it, even though the stories told are stories about real life events – so this really means that I love the process of “laying track” – doing the initial draft – getting it out of me, especially when I’m in “flow” mode.


I like the direct address in nonfiction. I like writing directly to the audience without the guise of persona or character. Poetry can feel like I'm on a playground and fiction like I'm in a bustling city but nonfiction feels like I'm hanging in the kitchen with a reader but worrying a bit about whether my bathroom is clean.

Open Book:

Tell us about a favourite nonfiction book you've read and that you would love to see others discover.


My two current favourite nonfiction books are also books that I'm currently teaching for an English class on Research-Creation at the University of Alberta. I really love Mercedes Eng's book Prison Industrial Complex Explodes. It's a book that was published as a work of poetry, but it's about race and racism and the carceral system in Canada. I love this book because it's so personal. It's about Eng and it's about her father and it's about piecing together a picture that is made visible through documents, photos and found text. The other book that I really love right now is Claudia Rankine's JUST US. The way Rankine moves between essay/poetry and image/text is so profoundly inspiring to me. I'm also a huge fan of the way she writes vignettes. I think both of those books are sometimes considered works of poetry. But then I wonder what the difference is between poetry and nonfiction? Where are the boundaries there? Are they porous? Can we imagine spaces where genres overlap, coexist, and intertwine?


That's easy. My favourite book is Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, which is the first book in a trilogy that describes a walk the author took at the age of eighteen from Holland to Istanbul in 1933. What makes the journey so poignant is that the Europe he walks through and describes will vanish after the Second World War, particularly in Eastern Europe. The prose is quite baroque, so it is not everyone's cup of tea, but I love the way he is able to blend the exuberance and confidence of youth with the insight of age (the book was published in 1977). I would encourage people to read the whole trilogy, but I think the first volume is the best, partly because he lost his diary for the first part of the trip and was forced to write the whole thing from memory. This gives it a freshness that the other volumes lack. Fermor is also my yardstick for great travel writing, the writer whom I try to measure up to.


I recently enjoyed reading Margaret Atwood's Massey Lectures, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Such a smart lady. So well-read!


I learned from studying Alice Munro’s work – who often describes her characters in opposition to one another, and also from my Mexican friends who always sprinkle lime juice on their papaya fruit – to release its flavour, that it is much richer to describe two things together – aspects of one thing bring out key features of the other. In this spirit, I offer Maria Campbell’s memoir Half-Breed and Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World.
Maria Campbell is a well-respected Elder; Billy-Ray Belcourt is a young queer poet and academic. Maria Campbell was one of the first, if not the first, indigenous person in Canada to write openly about her tremendous struggle to simply survive and have a decent life (apparently key parts of her story dealing with sexual abuse were edited out). In contrast, Billy-Ray is raw and detailed in his description of sex and sexuality, including, figuratively, the impact of colonization and oppression on the present generation of indigenous youth. He shares in very potent language and inventive forms his struggle to make sense of the world he has inherited, his poetry embodies not merely his quest to survive, but rather his drive to reclaim and bask in all aspects his indigeneity and queerness. Maria and Billy-Ray figure at the top of the list of my heroes and idols.


There are the perennial favourites: Baldwin's essays, Maggie Nelson's Bluets, the essays of David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith (the recent Intimations is a quick read), Du Bois's The Soul of Black Folks, The Autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, Emerson. I'm afraid my list and reading is more omnivorous than systematic. Eat your heart out.


Jordan Abel is a Nisga'a writer from Vancouver. He is the author of The Place of Scraps (winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Un/inhabited, and Injun (winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize). Abel's work has recently been anthologized in The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (Hayward), The Next Wave: An Anthology of 21st Century Canadian Poetry (Anstruther), Best Canadian Poetry (Tightrope), Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene (Wesleyan), and The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation (ARP). Abel's work has been published in numerous journals and magazines--including Canadian LiteratureThe Capilano Review, and Poetry Is Dead--and his visual poetry has been included in exhibitions at the Polygon Gallery, UNIT/PITT Gallery, and the Oslo Pilot Project Room in Oslo, Norway. Abel recently completed a Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University, and is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta where he teaches Indigenous Literatures and Creative Writing.

Happiest when reading or hiking, Ken Haigh has written one other travel memoir, Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan (UAlberta Press). Haigh is a graduate of Queen's University and the University of Western Ontario, where he studied English literature, education, and library science. In 1987-89, he taught for two years in Khaling Valley in Eastern Bhutan. Ken has also taught in China and in the Canadian Arctic. He lives in Clarksburg, Ontario.

Tomson Highway is best-known for the plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, as well as the best-selling novel Kiss of the Fur Queen. He divides his year between Gatineau, Quebec and Naples, Italy.

Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from Treaty-8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before deciding to pursue writing, he worked as an educator, chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French literature and education from the University of British Columbia. He currently lives in Sooke, BC, and divides his time between writing and singing in a jazz band.

Ian Williams was born in Trinidad and raised in Canada. In 2019 he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his first novel, Reproduction, which was published in Canada, the US, and the UK, and translated into Italian. His poetry collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award. His short story collection, Not Anyone's Anything, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada. His first book, You Know Who You Are, was a finalist for the ReLit Poetry Prize. Williams holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Toronto and has recently returned to that university as a tenured professor, after several years as a professor of poetry in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. His third poetry collection, Word Problems, was published by Coach House Press in the fall of 2020.