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The Hilary Weston nominees
on writing

Tanya Talaga, James Maskalyk, Carol Off, Kyo Maclear and Ivan Coyote talk about why non-fiction is so important right now

Tanya Talaga

Author of Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, published by House of Anansi

What was your mission with the book?

This is a book about love – the love families have for their children and the love communities have for their youth – and it is a story of discrimination.

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It is 2017 and the fight for equity in education continues as we still deal with the fallout from the residential school system. It should be the right of any Indigenous child to attend a proper high school in their own communities.

What makes for a rich non-fiction subject?

Real people telling their truths and everyday struggles that are happening right before all of our eyes but seem not to get noticed.

What book's currently on your nightstand?

Carol Off's All We Leave Behind, because I admire her, how she feels and thinks as a journalist and then expresses herself in this book. I hear her voice as I read. And I just finished Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves. It is a young-adult book. I was fascinated by the premise of the story – of Indigenous people being hunted for their bone marrow so that white people could dream – so I had to read it.

If you could pick any, what era would you live in?

Fifty or 60 years from now so I could see my children with their children and so I could hopefully see a more equitable Canada that respects the rightful meanings of what was intended by "nation-to-nation" relationships.

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James Maskalyk. Frank Nagy

James Maskalyk

Author of Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine, published by Doubleday Canada

Why do you write?

Wish I didn't have to, but I'm heartbroken about the world's vicious beauty, that none of it will stay, even for a second, so I try to pin it down with words that sound sweet in my head. I also write because of the great forgetting that happens once you send off the final draft, a "that wasn't so bad" that obliterates completely the years alone staring at a blank screen, while people are living their lives.

Why is non-fiction storytelling especially important right now?

There is a relentless curiosity about our living world and the politics that inform it, even more so now, because we are on the threshold of cataclysmic change, and are searching for what might inform the revolution. Further, the number of minds in the world today, with their endless seeking, are uncovering mystery after mystery and proving reality more extravagant than any story we could dream.

What music do you usually write to?

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I don't write to music. I take Cheever's rule. During the time you've allotted yourself to write, you can do only two things: write, or stare out the window.

Which fiction writer would you say most influences your work?

If you mean that writer to which I impossibly aspire, I would choose Cormac McCarthy. I don't know how he makes such rich language so brutally unsentimental, but reading him is like jumping into an icy stream, breathless, vivid, alive.


Carol Off.

Carol Off

Author of All We Leave Behind: A Reporter's Journey into the Lives of Others, published by Random House Canada

What was your mission with the book?

I wanted readers to get a taste of what it's like for an Afghan family caught in the bureaucratic, often cruel, asylum system as they seek refuge in a safe country, in this case, Canada. I also wanted to show the failures of journalism to protect sources.

What made writing this book difficult?

I'm an old-fashioned journalist so the hardest part of writing this book was to put myself into the story in an honest and revealing way. This book is many things but it's also deeply personal.

Why do you write?

Anyone who writes does so out of passion and necessity.

Those who write to get rich are in for a big disappointment.

Why is non-fiction storytelling especially important right now?

Fiction writers create a world out of their imaginations. But it would be hard to invent many of the things that are happening right now. Non-fiction, like journalism, is trying to keep up with characters and developments that are often beyond imagination. Margaret Atwood's speculative fiction has almost become documentary.


Kyo Maclear.

Kyo Maclear

Author of Birds Art Life, published by Doubleday Canada

Why do you write?

A way of form-finding and sense-making and because making things is an existential balm. I also write to register my disobedience and to find humour and hope.

What makes for a rich non-fiction subject?

Something that moves between a personal 'I' and a broader social 'eye.' A subject that encourages creative play and an alchemy of substance and style, information and story.

Why is non-fiction storytelling especially important right now?

Because we need to get at the emotional side of larger (social and ecological) issues – remembering and observing how big 'crises' are experienced at the micro scale of the vulnerable.

What music do you usually write to?

Dumisani Maraire and Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou cast a good writing spell. When I want to take it up a notch: Cyrk by Cate Le Bon or Underground by Thelonius Monk.

If you could pick any, what era would you live in?

There aren't many times and places that were hospitable to mixed race folk, so I'd pick Black Mountain College in the late-1940s. The rural North Carolina art school was a refuge for exiles emigrating from Nazi Germany and a bellwether campus of Southern racial integration. I'd love to hang out with Ruth Asawa, Anni Albers, Bucky Fuller, John Cage, Gwendolyn and Jacob Lawrence – all rogue heroes of mine.


Ivan Coyote. Sarah Race

Ivan Coyote

Author of Tomboy Survival Guide, published by Arsenal Pulp Press

What was your mission with the book?

I wanted to write something that countered the mainstream's idea of the standard trans narrative. I wanted to write the book I would have read nine hundred times when I was a kid looking for evidence of myself.

What made writing this book difficult?

Parts of writing this book involved peeling back scars that I thought had long since healed enough to nearly disappear.

Were there any other books that were indispensable while writing your latest project?

I spent years in second-hand bookstores pawing through old manuals and how-to books. That's where the images you see in its pages were drawn from. My book is not so much an instructional manual, but I loved the build yourself by hand at home metaphor that those manuals contained.

What book's currently on your nightstand?

I'm reading Brother by David Chariandy and Niagara Motel by Ashley Little. Brother is a terrible story told with such emotional clarity and deftness that I've had to stop and write lines down so I could remember them. Niagara Motel is quirky and I love how the author writes from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy without being clunky or trying too hard with the voice.

If you could pick any, what era would you live in?

I'm a trans person. I wouldn't want to live in the past, I don't think. I'm good with living in the right now. There's enough work to be done in the right now.


The winner of the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction will be announced on Nov. 14.

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