To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Globe and Mail is throughout October convening discussions of past winners and judges. Here, Giller winners David Adams Richards (Mercy Among the Children), David Bergen (The Time In Between), Vincent Lam (Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures) and Johanna Skibsrud (The Sentimentalists) share their thoughts on reading, their relationship to it, and the challenges facing the modern reader.
What are your earliest memories as a reader?
David Bergen: I recall reading the back of the Corn Flakes box, perhaps the first words I read. I devoured everything written, and though we didn’t have a lot of literary books in our house, I did manage to find John Bunyan, the King James version of the Bible, and The Red Pony. At a young age, not being guided in any way, I read religious novels and then graduated to Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and Zane Grey. In Grade 7, I read The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence but I didn’t know who the author was or that she mattered in any way. I picked the novel up in the school library and read it because it pulled me along. This is how I read, for story.
Johanna Skibsrud:My earliest memories are of being read to by my mother. She read to my older sister, Kristin, and me every night. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, The Dark is Rising, The Hobbit, The Yearling, The Once and Future King. I think that experience was foundational for me as a writer, but also as a human being: to learn about the excitement, but also the struggle and tremendous sadness of life, through my mother’s voice – connected always, in that way, to a very real, very physical sense of well-being, to the sheer pleasure of the experience: being tucked into bed next to my mother and sister, the three of us sharing together in all those adventures. Also, because my mom is herself such a lover of and believer in literature, she never really drew the line for me between imagination and reality. When, for example, I cried half the night because Jody’s pet fawn, Flag, died in The Yearling, she would never say, “It’s only a story.” She knew what I knew – what all children know instinctively: that it wasn’t. That was the tremendous power of what had been written, after all, and why we were able to share in it.
Later, when I immersed myself in books on my own, I remember it would be like entering into a complete and separate universe. It was like science fiction, where, after a morning spent reading, say, a space of time that would feel like months, or even lifetimes, I would “wake” to find only a few hours had passed on Earth.
Vincent Lam:I remember a book that I adored, and read (or had read to me) until it fell apart into shreds. I believe the name was Big Truck. It featured a large, red truck. I’m told that my parents had to buy a replacement copy.
David Adams Richards:My earliest memory as a reader was as a listener. My mother would read old volumes of childhood stories, and we would sit and listen. She was a fine reader and it is a very fond memory.
How did your reading change when you started writing seriously?
Bergen: I lost my innocence, the pure and simple joy of reading for pleasure. My reading became more anxious and analytical. I was figuring things out. I was still reading for the story but found that I was parsing the writing, trying to understand how the author moved a character from the kitchen to the living room. Or I was looking at style, or the tone of the narrator. I became more critical, which can take a lot of the fun out of the reading It’s rather like someone who has always loved buildings, fallen in love with them simply for their beauty, and then goes on to study architecture and discovers that, though there is a greater understanding for how buildings are put together, the purity is lost.