The Charles Taylor Prize is one of Canada’s richest non-fiction honours. On March 5, the $25,000 award will be handed out to one of five writers in Toronto. The Globe spoke with each nominated author about a theme common to their works. Today, Andrew Westoll, author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, discusses his time in the chimp house.
All of the books involve a journey be it physical or spiritual. Is there a conclusion or ‘closure’ for you as the writer in your nominated book?
I wouldn't want to ruin the ending of the book for those who haven’t read it, but one of the chimps of Fauna certainly provided a kind of “closure” for my experiences at the sanctuary, and for the story I was writing. When you start a writing project, you often have no idea if you will ever find a beginning, middle and an end; some journeys, no matter how important to the traveller, can lack the special aspects a reader needs to keep them absorbed.
As difficult as it was at the time, and as difficult as it still is to speak about, I think of the “closure” that particular chimpanzee provided me as a profound gift.
How much exploration did you do in preparation for telling a story of exploration?
As little as possible. I want my experiences to be as raw as I hope the readers’ experiences will be. Preparation can be death to a first-person narrative.
That said, I do have a certain knowledge base when it comes to chimpanzees and their behaviour, so it would be disingenuous to say I didn’t prepare at all.
But I certainly didn’t read much about chimps prior to entering the chimp house, and certainly nothing about the chimp house itself. In order for my explorations to become the reader’s explorations, I needed to embrace a certain level of ignorance going in. This is both the best and worst part of writing creative non-fiction.
Sometimes you have to bury what you think you know in order to discover what you need to know. A poor memory helps with this. So do multiple personalities.