After 20 years, Noreen Taylor, wife of the late Charles Taylor, has decided to retire the $30,000 award for the top work of Canadian English-language literary non-fiction. This year’s RBC Taylor Prize (formerly known as the Charles Taylor Prize) will be the last. The inaugural winner, Wayne Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams novelist who won the 2000 Taylor for Baltimore’s Mansion) spoke to The Globe and Mail from Arizona.
IN HIS WORDS
When the Charles Taylor Prize was inaugurated, I saw the description of it in the newspaper. By that time, I think I had finished writing Baltimore’s Mansion. It was non-fiction, but definitely creative non-fiction. And there was never, in my knowledge, a creative non-fiction prize in Canada before. I thought to myself, and it wasn’t arrogance at all, “I think I’ve got a shot at that.” I told my publicist that. And things turned out as they did.
I’m with my wife right now in Scottsdale, Ariz. I often come down here when I’m near the end of writing a book, when I’m finishing it. When I’m in the middle of a book, I need a greater concentration level than I can summon up down here. But in the home stretch, I can cut back on my writing per day, and there are enough hours left to get out in the sunshine and load up on the Vitamin D I don’t get in Toronto.
When I’m writing the hard part of the book, I’m usually in Toronto. And when I’m in Toronto and I’m writing, I’m in my basement. I call it the bunker. It’s an office that has no windows. It’s basically soundproof, except for the door. I usually work through the night. I think it’s a holdover from having grown up in rural Newfoundland. Even on what we thought was a noisy day, there wasn’t much noise. So, I got used to the quiet and the pace of things.
I’m done writing my latest book. It’s fiction, but heavily autobiographical. It’s also inspired by wife’s side of the family, who moved from South Africa to Newfoundland.
When I won the Charles Taylor Prize, I thought I would revisit the form and write another creative non-fiction book. I still intend to. I keep on intending to, but never get to it. But there are a couple of blocks of experience that would lend itself to the form. I think the next book after the one I just completed would fall into that category. By then, though, the Taylor Prize will be no more.
Creative non-fiction books were always here in Canada. But various prize jurors were never quite sure what category to put them in. Often non-fiction was thought of as biography, or maybe memoirs. But even then people often shied away from memoirs because of the non-journalistic aspect of it – the inexactitude of it.
A kind of book like Baltimore’s Mansion dealt with family mythology. It did deal with real politics, but in a very specific and personal way. There had been books like that. If you think about something like Michael Ondaajte’s Running in the Family, that would have been a classic Taylor Prize kind of book. But it preceded the existence of the prize.
When it comes to the community of writers, it’s always sad to see a prize go. It’s one less possible source of recognition and revenue. You have to understand, that for a writer, a block of revenue is a block of time. Money buys time. A lot of writers wouldn’t get a book written without that block of time. One more prize is one more chance to write one more book.
But I completely respect the organizer’s decision to retire the Taylor Prize. It’s a Herculean effort to put a prize like that together.
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