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Books RBC Taylor Prize finalist Kathleen Winter on the most challenging part of writing Boundless

The winner of the RBC Taylor Prize will be announced on Monday, March 2. In advance of this year's ceremony, we asked each of the five finalists to answer a handful of questions about the art of non-fiction. Today, Kathleen Winter, author of Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, discusses her favourite non-fiction writers, the most challenging part of writing her book, and her dream project.

Who's your favourite non-fiction writer? Why?

George Monbiot soars when writing about his passionate relationship with rewilding the land. Gretel Ehrlich uses sword-sharp prose about her circumpolar travels and renders psyche and northern land with crystalline power.

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Are terms like "fiction" and "non-fiction" really necessary?

We like to think we know the difference between the imaginary and the real, but the minute you look closely into those concepts, the more intertwined they become. We like to feel safe by compartmentalizing fictional and non-fictional stories, and there can be such things as lies or truths, but my non-fiction books are full of dream, myth and story, and my novels and short fiction are largely incisive exactitude.

What's your favourite work of non-fiction? Why?

My latest favourite is Helen Macdonald's magnificent H is for Hawk, a memoir about grieving her father's death while training her hawk named Mabel. I love it because she is scientific and unsentimental yet searing and emotionally brilliant.

What was the most challenging part of writing your book?

The hardest thing was translating the wordless north: tundra, polar bear, geology, air and water, as well as historical artifacts strewn across the vast landscape, into language. The north spoke to me in images and sound, and in wordless messages and ideas.

If you could write a book about any topic, with unlimited financial resources to research it, what would it be?

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There's a book I've been percolating that will require a lot of walking, a lot of travel, and I'm just going to set out to begin, since it's what I want to do. I have always had a porous relationship with financial resources. I find that if I start worrying about exact figures needed before I start to research a thing, the project feels like a skewered animal. I'm not naive about the power of money, but I am more excited and motivated by the momentum of a strong idea.

An excerpt from Boundless:

All seemed tranquil through the night. The moon was nearly full, pulling us toward land that had assumed a softness and a gentle allure I hadn't known the Far North possessed. In the morning we walked onto land so welcoming, yet uninhabited, it reminded me of Boyd's Cove in the Bay of Exploits in Newfoundland, where artist Gerald Squires had a vision that led him to create his great sculpture of Beothuk woman Shanawdithit. I remember when I first visited her – alone in the light and shadow of spruce and birches – and in the rocks and water all around I felt her people: the Beothuk race destroyed in Newfoundland after white men came. There is nothing bygone about the way Boyd's Cove invites human beings to a life of joy, and this same welcome, a benevolent and nourishing lay of the land, was immediately apparent in Bathurst Inlet, though no one greeted us.

I walked with Aaju and our anthropologist, Kenneth Lister, and we stopped many times at the sheer invitation of the land, in absolute certainty that people had known and loved this place and been sheltered by it. Here rose a hill, there rested a hollow, and here stood small but sheltering trees just crowded enough to soften the wind.

A solitary tree stood over a stone half-buried like a tablet in an old graveyard. It had to be the improvised gravestone of someone – but whom?

"It looks," Aaju said, "like white men's graves. Inuit graves would have had stones piled on top, unless it was the burial of an evil person."

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"Thule people would have loved it here," said Kenneth. "But white men, whalers, they'd have come here for beluga. There are lots of lookouts and a beautiful beach."

Our itinerary said this place had been home to the Kingaunmiut people, who'd left remnants of stone tent rings and evidence of animals hunted for meat and skins. Even Franklin had come here – in the summer of 1821, during his first attempt to find the elusive passage. Again on this journey we found ourselves at a central point whose rays of influence spanned worlds and turned the so-called Old World Man of Europe into newcomer, visitor, writer of footnotes in the margins of a story begun long before his entrance. Though ancient, the land spoke to us of now, of its own immediate presence, an aliveness insistent and ongoing, and we were part of it. Much as I realized we were passing through as Franklin had done almost two centuries before, I felt the land say I shouldn't worry about not belonging. This land, as Aaju and Bernadette had tried to explain to me, did not judge people. It treated everyone with the same dignity, and it was up to us to show a reciprocal respect. The earth here in the North, as elsewhere in our world, depended on us to notice this.

This excerpt is taken from Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a Northwest Passage, copyright © 2014 by Kathleen Winter. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto.

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