The winner of this year's Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction will be announced on Tuesday at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. This year's short list is as eclectic as ever, ranging from the unbelievable story of a con artist who swindled the citizens of two cities to a philosophical exploration of one of the world's leading telecommunications companies.
But how did the authors of this year's finalists get to this point? In advance of the announcement, we asked the five nominees to share the story behind the story.
Eliott Behar, author of Tell it to the World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo
I would like, at this point, to describe the grief that I saw expressed by this man as a result of revisiting these events; to try to convey the very visible weight of what it meant to have to testify about them. Not to describe this in general terms – because I imagine it comes as no surprise to most people that grief can be a part of revisiting such memories – but to describe more directly what it looked like, and to explain what it was like to deal with this as part of the process. And yet it doesn't seem right, somehow, to write these details. What happens in the courtroom is by its nature public, and intended to be so. But the specific nature of someone's sadness, outside of court and yet still within the confines of the trial process, seems a different thing.
What I can describe is what I felt: that in this moment, in a very visceral way, I felt the divide between the detachment required of my professional role and a more basic impulse to comfort someone as a human being. I know that my few words sounded hollow – too formal and too tentative. I hoped, at least, that through the interpretation they might somehow seem more meaningful. I wanted to say that telling his story was the most he could do, and all he needed to do, and that maybe it would be worth the pain of revisiting these events in such detail, so far from home, on this of all days. I didn't, however. These things weren't for me to say, nor could I know if they were true.
We took a break. When we resumed, he was eager to press on.
Excerpted from Tell it to the World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo. © 2014 by Eliott Behar. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press
The interaction I had with this witness is what made me realize I needed to write this book. When I started writing, much later, this was the first thing I sat down to write. It was also the last thing I finished. I struggled with how to convey this man's pain, and in particular with how to responsibly communicate what had happened, having been very much a part of the process myself.
This moment had come several months into an almost two-year trial, with two witnesses from the small town of Cuska, Kosovo, arriving to testify about the massacre that had devastated their village. As soon as they arrived, you could sense not just the weight and pain of the events they had experienced, but also the value of what the international criminal process could represent: the opportunity to speak this account of injustice and loss to the world.
Enabling these victims to tell their stories felt essential. But as we moved through the process, and I reflected on collective violence more broadly, I began to see that while our notions of justice could be redemptive and empowering, they could also be dangerous – the cause of the very violence we seek to prevent.
Douglas Coupland, author of Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent
[I]n the past decade we appear to have entered a universe in which all eras coexist at once. No particular style or look now dominates our culture; we inhabit a state of timelessness given to us courtesy of the Internet. Steampunk coexists with disco coexists with the 1980s coexists with everything else in the Internet universe. If you went to a 2014 nostalgia party in 2034, what could you possibly wear that says "2014"? ….The zeitgeist of the twenty-first century is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist. I'm appalled that I just wrote that sentence, but it's true; there is something emotionally sparse about the present era, and the world just keeps spinning faster and faster. Optical fibres carry forty billion phone calls at once, and soon ten terabits. And I want my Dexter, Season 4, and I want it now, and that's what's driving all of this: we want it all and we want it now.
And on top of that, it sort of feels like we're all being chased by monsters.
Excerpted from Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent. Copyright © 2014 Douglas Coupland. Published by Random House Canada, which is a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Many things surprised me in writing this book:
How quickly new technologies change our outward lives and our inner being.
The way in which the future tends to happen in the most unlikely places.
The speed with which human beings take new technologies for granted.
How the world can simultaneously be both fantastically boring yet utterly fascinating.
How much of what we enjoy as the modern world is held together by tiny glass threads.
People look at the book's title and say, "Alcatel-Lucent? Huh? That's pretty random, Doug. Did the company commission you to write it?" Nope.The book was meant to be one of 10 books in which different writers enter unexpected environments and describe what happens in them. The series was cancelled while I was finishing writing mine, hence the seeming randomness of its subject. And I admit that when I set out, I could think of nothing duller that writing about Alcatel-Lucent, the world's 483rd-largest company. (It actually no longer even exists. It was bought by Nokia a few months back.) But there was nothing dull about my experience. "Alcaloo," as it was called by stock traders, made and maintained the Internet, while it simultaneously planned its future. It spanned the globe, and for the first time in my life, as I travelled to far-flung pieces of its operations, I felt like a 19th-century explorer who by probing into the nooks and crannies of this outlying beige tech firm, accidentally saw the future.
This book refreshed my own ability to be surprised by life and the world. The world is supposed to grow more boring as you get older, but I find the opposite is happening. The world is morphing and shape-shifting, but in ways and in places you or I might never have thought of looking. And that's why the future shocks us, because it can't be predicted; it can only happen when and where it does.
Dean Jobb, author of Empire of Deception
Thomas Raddall saw him for the first time at a dance in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. In a port town awash in lumbermen, fishermen and rum runners, this man was dressed in spats, a white vest and a derby. "He was an odd sight," Raddall recalled, "obviously a city type."
Raddall was soon introduced to Lou Keyte, the New Yorker the local papers said was looking for property in the area. He was clearly a man of means, and as if to prove it, he sent out to a restaurant for sandwiches, sweets and coffee for everyone. "This," Raddall noted, "made him popular at once." Word quickly spread that the dapper, polite and generous newcomer was a millionaire who had just bought secluded Pinehurst Lodge.
"Money was nothing to him," a local man, Walter Scott, said with considerable understatement. Few people in small-town Nova Scotia had seen such displays of extravagance. According to a story told and retold in the area, Keyte once bought ice cream, tendered a $100 bill, and left without asking for change.
And he spent tens of thousands of dollars transforming Pinehurst Lodge into a backwoods mansion. The parties he hosted there were legendary affairs and a Halifax newspaper hailed him as a "prince of entertainers." Pinehurst became a northern version of the Long Island estate that F. Scott Fitzgerald imagined for Jay Gatsby, the title character of his classic novel written that year – a blaze of lights to all hours, guests filling the rooms, an endless supply of liquor, a hired orchestra providing the sound track.
People were never clear how the newcomer had made his money. Some were under the impression he was a retired New York financier. To Raddall, he was simply "the jolly millionaire."
No one suspected he was one of the most brazen and successful swindlers in American history.
Excerpt from Empire of Deception by Dean Jobb © 2015. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Posing as a retired financier-turned-literary critic, fugitive Chicago swindler Leo Koretz brought Jazz Age glamour to Nova Scotia in 1924. As I researched his Canadian sojourn, I hoped to find diary entries or recollections of people who had met or known him as the generous Lou Keyte. I could scarcely believe my luck when I happened upon a reference to the swindler in Thomas Raddall's 1976 autobiography, In My Time. Raddall was only 20, and about to embark on a writing career that would make him one of Canada's most successful and acclaimed authors, when he befriended Keyte. Raddall died in 1994, but his papers at the Dalhousie University Archives include an unpublished article recalling a booze-soaked, party-filled summer on Nova Scotia's South Shore. If Koretz was a real-life Great Gatsby, Raddall was his Nick Carraway, recording the exploits of his "jolly millionaire" and giving me an insider's view of the fabulous world of an iconic crook.
Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin's Daughter
Svetlana Alliluyeva's mother Nadezhda (Nadya) Alliluyeva, Stalin's second wife, committed suicide in 1932. Her daughter was just six-and-one-half years old.
Nadya's open coffin rested in the assembly hall at the GUM. Svetlana remembered that her mother's friend, Zina, took her by the hand and led her up to the coffin, expecting her to kiss her mother's cold face. Instead, she screamed and was rushed from the hall. The image of her mother in her coffin seared itself in her mind, never to be dislodged.
While Pravda reported Nadya's death, her suicide remained a state secret. The children, along with the public, were told Nadya had died of appendicitis. It would be ten years before Svetlana learned the truth. Though this might seem astonishing, it is entirely credible. The terror that Stalin had begun to spread around him particularly infected those closest to him. Who would dare tell Stalin's daughter that her mother had committed suicide? Many would be shot simply for knowing the truth. It soon became "bad form" even to mention Nadya's name.
Stalin was clearly shocked by Nadya's death, but he got over it. He wrote to his mother:
Greetings Mother dear,
I am well, so don't worry about me. I can endure my destiny. …
The children bow to you. After Nadya's death my private life has been very hard, but a strong man must always be valiant. Your son, Soso.
But for young children the scars caused by a parent's death are profound, in part because death is not something their young minds can grasp; they understand only abandonment. …
A childhood friend, seven-year-old Marfa Peshkova, granddaughter of the famous writer Maxim Gorky, remembered visiting Svetlana shortly after Nadya's death. Svetlana was playing with her dolls. There were scraps of black fabric all over the floor. She was trying to dress her dolls in the black fabric and told Marfa: "It's Mommy's dress. Mommy died and I want my dolls to wear Mommy's dress."
Excerpt from Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan © 2015. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
In the obituaries that appeared in November, 2011, Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, was quoted as saying: "No matter where I go – to Australia, to some island – I will always be the political prisoner of my father's name." It is hard to imagine a darker fate! The dilemma was whether I could write a biography of her that would escape Stalin's shadow. This had to be her story. The tragedies of the 20th century – her father's policies of forced collectivization that killed millions; his purges that included members of her family; the gulag where her aunts languished; World War II; the Cold War, during which she was treated like a shuttlecock batted between East and West – all this would be the background. I chose this brief extract from Stalin's Daughter because the suicide of Alliluyeva's mother was the first in the long list of tragedies she suffered. I wanted Stalin's sinister voice to be heard, but it is her childhood innocence and heartbreak that sears. Her life was extraordinary and tumultuous but, amazingly, she always found the stamina to affirm life and keep going.
Lynette Loeppky, author of Cease: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Desire
Cec closed her eyes. Morphine seemed to be numbing her pain. I watched her drift, and rouse, then drift again.
What was it I needed to say to her?
I would tell her how much I loved her, but that was such a cliché.
I knew what I wouldn't tell her: that I'd wished her gone, more than once, when I was hurt, and furious.
Like that night when all the dogs had started barking, just after midnight. We'd scrambled out of bed to find the cows grazing on the front lawn.
"Really?" Cec looked at me. "Again?"
"It wasn't me."
We hurried into chore clothes and Cec ran to get a pail of oats. She shook the pail. The cows lifted their heads. They understood the sound of oats. Cec walked slowly toward the pasture gate with a trail of cows following. I shooed from behind.
As soon as the gate was closed I said, "You were the last one out here last night."
"I closed it."
"You must not have."
"I know I did."
"This is not my fault!"
She stared at me expressionless, "What's your fault is your fault. And what's my fault is your fault."
Was she kidding?
I waited for some indication she was joking. Nothing. She turned and walked toward the house. As I watched her walk away my outrage transformed into clarity: I don't need to listen to anything she says. She could zing me with her sharpest barbs. It didn't matter. I heard her open the back door, then slam it shut. I stood staring at the corrals swiping at the tears on my cheeks with the backs of my hands. I was contemplating a possibility. It was inching closer.
Excerpted from Cease: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Desire. Copyright © 2014 by Lynette Loeppky. Published by Oolichan Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
In an early draft of the manuscript, this was the final paragraph of the scene above:
"I closed my eyes, took another deep breath, and imagined her gone. Just me, by myself, without her. No more surprise accusations. No more voice in my head. All the animals mine to feed when I wanted. All the gates mine to open, and close."
When I was looking for this scene recently, I was searching for "imagined her gone." Those were words that haunted me. I'd wished her away.
After she died, I was left with the guilt that I'd thought about leaving, and that I hadn't told her I was thinking about leaving. More than anything, though, I felt guilty that I had imagined her gone. And I couldn't shake a feeling I knew was irrational: that her absence was somehow my fault.