From love to war, survival to creation, the five books nominated for this year’s RBC Taylor Prize depict the range of human experience. The prize, established in memory of author and Globe and Mail correspondent Charles Taylor, celebrates the best literary non-fiction produced in Canada. In advance of Monday’s awards ceremony, this year’s nominees reflected on the origins of their books, the craft of writing, and the importance of non-fiction in an era where the validity of facts is constantly being questioned.
At what point did you know your book was going to be a book?
Max Eisen, author of By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz: I had a couple false starts. It wasn’t until my wife suggested I take a pencil and paper and start writing on a sheet of paper folded in half that I finally found my voice. When I submitted the first couple of chapters to my mentor, her comments were: “My jaw dropped, keep on writing.” I knew at that point I had to finish the story.
Ross King, author of Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of Water Lilies: About 10 years ago, I read a letter that Monet wrote on Sept. 1, 1914, in which he vowed to keep painting in his studio in Giverny despite the German invasion of France. The image of an old man defiantly painting his garden while the rest of the country was fleeing the onrushing army left a strong impression on me. I knew I wanted to tell the story of how Monet painted the water lilies – images that today we associate with beauty and tranquillity – during this time of tragedy and suffering.
Matti Friedman, author of Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier’s Story: When I was discharged from the army in 2000, I thought the story of Outpost Pumpkin should be a book, and tried to write it back then. But I was too young and lacked any perspective on the events, so the result was predictably bad. I went back to it again four or five years ago, with a different book already under my belt, and this time it worked. So I guess I thought this would be a book long before I really knew how one would actually go about writing a book.
Marc Raboy, author of Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World: I had been fascinated by Marconi for some time and when I discovered that new archival information about his life had just become available I started to look at it. There had been several more-or-less incomplete attempts at biographies of this important historical figure and I wondered why they were all unsatisfying. When I discovered the answer – that his relationship to fascism had never been explored – I knew that I had a book.
Did you ever despair and think you wouldn’t be able to finish? What kept you going?
Diane Schoemperlen, author of This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications: When I began writing this memoir, I had the foolish idea that, because I’d already written a dozen books of fiction, surely this wouldn’t be too difficult. I was so wrong. I despaired frequently, packed up everything in a banker’s box and shoved it under the bed. But I always dragged it out again after a few days, mostly because I am stubborn and I am not a quitter. I knew I had an important story to tell. I also had already signed the contract so there was no turning back.
Eisen: Writing the book brought a flood of memories and caused nightmares and many sleepless nights. It was extremely unpleasant, but I was not going to give up. I had a goal and was determined to complete the work no matter what. Getting started and hitting on a method was the hardest part. The more I wrote, the clearer the images became in my mind and I was able to transcribe them onto paper.
Friedman: Being trained as a journalist is helpful in this regard. When you’re producing articles for an editor under a tight deadline you have to finish them no matter what. It’s not about you, or your idea of perfection. With books the deadline is looser, but I still have the idea that my editor is waiting for the thing and I can’t let her down.
Where was your book written? Why there?
Raboy: Basically in my home study, which has been my principal creative workplace for the past 15 or 20 years. It’s where I am the most comfortable and have the least distractions. Especially since the research had me spending long periods in places like Rome and Oxford – places with lots of distractions to say the least – it was good to hunker down at home when it came time to write.
Eisen: To a large extent the book was written in the quiet and serene environment of my summer residence. Looking at the shimmering waters of the lake I found peace and a retrospective frame of mind.
Friedman: I write in a little office in the apartment building where I live. It’s close enough to home to be convenient but not actually at home, which is useful for getting anything done if you have rowdy kids.
Schoemperlen: I wrote the book at my kitchen table, the only hard horizontal surface in the house large enough to accommodate all the notebooks, files and paperwork I had accumulated. My kitchen table sits in front of two large windows overlooking the street. Being able to look outside and keep in touch with the present moment proved to be important while writing about the painful past.
King: I wrote Mad Enchantment where I’ve done all of my work for the past dozen years – in a small shed in my back garden. It’s quite small, only eight-by-10, and crammed with books and probably too much furniture, but it’s very peaceful. As I work I hear virtually nothing but the chirping of birds and, after dark, the snuffling of the occasional hedgehog.
What book has taught you the most about the craft of writing?
Raboy: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It has a braided structure, woven together in three strands, covering the biography of the central character, the history of its subject, and the story of the writing of the book. I hoped to emulate that structure in Marconi but it was impossible, partly because the power of his life-narrative was so overwhelming.
Friedman: I have a heavy tome of George Orwell’s essays from the Everyman’s Library. When I’m lagging, I open it and read a few pages. Orwell has this plain but lively style which I love, along with a keen eye on his times, an appreciation of regular people, and the ability to write in the first person in a way that isn’t egotistical. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him.
How does serious, literary non-fiction survive in an age of fake news?
King: By challenging shallow, deliberately dishonest reportage and staying true to hard work, honest research, and reliable sources. Post-truth Internet provocateurs with their muddles of “alternative facts” simply create a stronger demand than ever for authorial integrity and principled, fact-checked writing. Witness the huge recent increase in subscriptions to certain reputable newspapers.
Raboy: The challenge is to attract new generations of readers. The traditional readership is still there but the demography of aging is a time-bomb. I don’t think the problem is fake news; if anything, readers wary of fake news will be attracted to well-documented non-fiction. But will they continue to read books? I’ve calculated that I could have told Marconi’s story in around 15,000 tweets. That may be the way to go.
Friedman: Serious literary non-fiction might be the great hope. With more and more newspapers either gutted or playing politics, or both, smart people seeking a deeper understanding of the world will turn to books written by knowledgeable and independent writers. Or at least I hope so. Why not be optimistic?
Answers have been condensed and edited.