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Three of this year’s nominees wrote on pioneering artists. Celia Franca, pictured, founded the country’s national ballet company. (The Globe and Mail)
Three of this year’s nominees wrote on pioneering artists. Celia Franca, pictured, founded the country’s national ballet company. (The Globe and Mail)

A matter of facts: The Charles Taylor Prize finalists on truth, history and writing Add to ...

On Monday, March 4, the winner of the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced, and one happy author will walk away $25,000 richer. Since its inception in 2000, the prize for Canadian non-fiction writing has gone to books on topics as wide-ranging as the lives of primates (Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary), the spirit world of Melanesia (Charles Montgomery’s The Last Heathen) and the experience of parenting a severely disabled child (Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon).

The Globe and Mail spoke to the five writers on this year’s short list on the trials of crafting non-fiction, and whether the truth can ever be told.

TIM COOK
Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada’s World Wars

What is the one thing you want readers to take away from your book?

There are no easy choices in war. And at the level of national war leaders, in this case, Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King, they faced agonizing choices, from how to pay for the wars to conscripting young men to fight against their will. During the total wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, both war leaders welded power effectively, but struggled mightily to hold back the passions of some Canadians who were pursing victory with crusade-like zeal, while others were not fully committed to the conflict.

What is the biggest challenge of writing your style of non-fiction?

Every book has its own challenges, but Warlords covers two of the most complex figures in Canadian history and is set against the backdrop of two events – the world wars – that impacted on every aspect of Canadian society. I enjoyed drawing out key narratives and stories to make sense of these two leaders.

This challenge was set against my own health problems. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer a few months after handing in my manuscript. Six months of chemotherapy left me much reduced in health, but I was anxious to see the manuscript through to publication.

What’s the difference (if any) between accuracy and truth in non-fiction?

King’s voluminous diary is an interesting example. He lied to himself frequently in his diary, often skewing events of the day to assuage his hurt ego or soften some of the harsh political blows he delivered. I read the diary – which spans about 5,000 pages for the war years – and compared it to other sources to determine where and when King strayed from the truth. But King’s whitewashing or restructuring of events told me something of the man, and how he was desperate to order his life and convince himself he was something that he was not.

What’s your next project?

I am writing a two volume history of Canadians fighting the Second World War. Based on hundreds of interviews, archival sources, and veterans’ memoirs, I hope to present the story of Canadians in battle, on land, at sea, and in the air, and how the war forever changed Canada.

SANDRA DJWA
Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page

What is the one thing you want readers to take away from your book?P.K. Page was a fine poet and artist and a courageous modern woman who influenced Canadian culture for over 50 years. Her life was multifaceted, deeply felt, and inspiring.

What is the most surprising response (positive, negative, general insight) to your book?

What surprises me is the broad positive interest in the book and the informed reviews that it has generated. This response has sent me back to look at the book again, especially with reference to Page’s early life. I have a sense that some younger women, reading her story for the first time, recognize her as a role model.

What is the biggest challenge of writing your style of non-fiction?

The biggest challenge in writing this biography was the huge scope of the work. P.K. Page was a fine poet, a fiction writer and an original visual artist. She wrote nearly 40 books, drew or painted over 300 works and lived in five countries and six provinces over the course of 93 years. Unfortunately the Page family papers were lost during World War II, and P.K. herself didn't remember dates nor did she date her early letters. With the help of British census reports and Canadian military and archival records, it took several years just to establish a skeleton chronology.

What non-fiction book do you wish you had written and why?

I admire P.N. Furbank’s biography E.M. Forster: A Life. It’s a big book, published in the seventies and contains a very satisfying discussion of Forster the man and his work in the context of his time.

What’s your next project?

The Collected Letters of P.K. Page, which I am co-editing with Dean Irvine.

ROSS KING
Leonardo and the Last Supper

What is the one thing you want readers to take away from your book?Besides readers having a rattling good read,I hope they will to be able to understand Leonardo not as a projection of our obsessions but in the context of his own historical period, which was very different from our own.

What’s the difference (if any) between accuracy and truth in non-fiction?

The truth must be based on historical accuracy. That’s not to say that the facts always tell the truth. There is a lot of disinformation about, even in 15th-century documents. But the “truth” is highly dubious if it’s detached from the known historical facts. I’m suspicious of those, especially in the film industry, who claim they can tell a “higher truth” by ditching historical accuracy and plunging into the terrain of the imagination. The facts, at the very least, help us approach the truth.

What non-fiction book do you wish you had written and why?

I would be extremely happy if A Distant Mirror had my name on the title page instead of Barbara W. Tuchman’s. She found a wonderful way to give a grand and dramatic panorama of the Middle Ages that also delves deeply into personal histories. Among hundreds of other delightful excursions, she explains why the invention of the chimney was so important to society. Every page is fascinating, and it’s beautifully written besides.

What’s your next project?

I’m afraid I’ll have to get back to you on that. Leonardo has kept me so busy that I haven’t had time to get started on the next one. I have a few ideas of what I might tackle, but it’s a bit early to talk about them.

ANDREW PRESTON
Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy

What is the one thing you want readers to take away from your book?

That religion matters in the conduct of American foreign policy – always has, and probably always will – and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Religion is an endlessly complex phenomenon and can be a force for good as well as harm.

What is the most surprising response to your book?

I’ve been amazed at how many people assume I’m personally religious or have a religious axe to grind simply because I wrote this book. No writer is objective, especially on something as emotionally and politically fraught as religion, but I’ve tried to be as neutral as possible.

What’s the difference (if any) between accuracy and truth in non-fiction?

No historian should go searching for The Truth – it’s too elusive, if it actually exists. We should leave that to novelists and poets, who are much more adept at finding it. All historical writing is a form of argumentation, and all works of history should revise, in some way, the accounts that have come before. Otherwise what’s the point? No historical interpretation is definitive, or “true,” aside from the obvious and the banal. But it is important to be accurate with the facts – inaccurate facts lead to seriously misguided interpretations.

What non-fiction book do you wish you had written and why?

David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is still my all-time favourite work of history and still the most compelling explanation of how and why America got sucked into the Vietnam War.

CAROL BISHOP-GWYN
The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca

What is one thing you want readers to take away from your book?

The incredible contribution that Celia Franca made to Canada’s cultural life with her persistent goal to create for Canada a national ballet company which would compete with the best of the world.

What is the most surprising response to your book?

That a book about a ballet dancer and artistic director, a rather niche topic, has attracted a larger audience. I think my love of research and the addition of lots of contextual tidbits helps it appeal to a broader readership.

What current non-fiction do you most admire and why?

I probably have read more biographies than any other genre of book during my life. I’m fascinated with the stories of people’s lives. And having lived in Russia, I am a great fan of the biographies by Robert K. Massie, his latest being Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. Coincidentally, one of my Taylor Prize co-finalists, Ross King, is a writer I greatly respect. In particular, I found The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism a masterful study of an art movement which presaged modernism.

What non-fiction do you wish you had written and why?

Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, by a wide margin. It is a tour de force work of rigorous scholarship tackling a vast subject while at the same time a compelling page-turner.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

 

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