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Books RBC Taylor Prize nominee Plum Johnson on the art of non-fiction

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, Plum Johnson recalls some of her earliest writing, the division between fiction and non-fiction, and what inspired her nominated memoir, They Left Us Everything.

What's the first piece of non-fiction you remember writing?

I remember writing a graphic note to my father when I was nine: I drew a large black spot with the words "INSTANT DEATH!" scrawled across the bottom. My brothers and I wrapped it around a rock and hurled it over the veranda onto Dad's vegetable garden below, where he was bent over his rake like Mr. McGregor. Then we ran like hell … down the steps … over the road … and back to the safety of Mrs. Atwood's house. She had the only TV in the neighbourhood. It's where we hid from Dad on Saturday mornings, watching swashbuckling tales about Pirate Long John Silver. Long John got rid of all his enemies by delivering "The Black Spot." When Dad caught us, we learned the difference between fact and fiction the hard way.

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What can non-fiction do that a work of fiction cannot?

Non-fiction can crouch down near the back wall in libraries and bookstores and be almost impossible to find. When Jane Christmas and I went to a bookstore together last year, we found all the latest fiction books showing off alphabetically by the front door, but non-fiction titles were hiding in corners, segregated by subject matter. Her humorous memoir (shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour) was cloistered under "Religion" and mine was buried under "Grief and Bereavement." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

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

I've always wondered why we segregate the two. Who dreamed up the term non-fiction? Why define something by what it's not? I suppose we could call them "reality books" – taking a page from smart TV producers, but why don't we get rid of the distinction and call them all "good books!"

What inspired your book?

Everyone I knew was caring for elderly parents, but nobody was writing the honest truth of it. Sweet people would say to me, "You're so lucky your mum's still alive." And I'd be thinking: Are you nuts? I was afraid I might get arrested for the thoughts going through my head. All I know is that one day I was 45 and having the time of my life, and the next minute Dad had Alzheimer's, Mum was on oxygen, twenty years of care giving had gone by, and now I was the one getting senior discounts. What happened? They Left Us Everything is about understanding and self-forgiveness. It's about gratitude and inheritance – rediscovering our parents through what they leave behind.

Is there a subject you'd never write about?

No.

An excerpt from They Left Us Everything:

It's August 12th again – Mum's birthday – and I decide to make her a homemade birthday card and place it with flowers on her memorial plaque. I take my mug of morning coffee and go out through the garden gate, lifting the fox ears on the latch and hearing their chink behind me. I associate the garden gate with so many memories. When the ears on the cast-iron fox flop down, their muted chinking sound reminds me of playing hide-and-seek with Dad. I can hear laughter, feel my heartbeat as I run, see fireflies in the dusky sky. I also associate it with afternoon tea – a neighbour's head appearing through the bushes, a wicker chair scraping across the verandah, Mum standing up: "Hello there!" Opening the gate. Chink-chink.

There's a bench by the fence but I don't sit down; I just stand by the tree and let its energy surge through me. We have such deep roots here.

I read Mum's plaque: anne armistead williams …born August 16th, 1916. Wait a minute … the 16th?

Shit! That's not her birthday – that's the date of her wedding! I race back up to the house, spilling my coffee. I call Victor.

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"There's a typo on Mum's memorial plaque! Her birthdate is wrong!"

"Don't get your knickers in a knot," he says. "It's no big deal."

"How could we have done this to her?"

"Didn't you proofread it?" he asks. "You were in charge of the wording."

"No, I wasn't!"

"Yes, you were!"

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"We have to change it!"

"It's cast in bronze! You can't just take an eraser and rub out bronze."

"We have to order a new one, then."

"Are you crazy? It's concreted in!"

"I don't care," I say, "this is important to me."

I have memories of Dad, tromping through all the family graveyards in England and Portugal, making copious notes of names and dates on ancestral headstones so that he could leave us with a genealogical trail back to the early 1700s. Mum's family did the same thing: her brother built a separate cottage on his property to house the family papers.

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"How many people are going to know – or care – when Mum's birthday is?" asks Victor. "At least we got the month right!"

When I tell Robin, he seems not surprised. "I hate to tell you, but last time I was home I noticed there's an error on Dad's as well."

"There is?"

"Yep … the dates of Dad's years with his company are wrong. Instead of 1931–1977 it should say 1933–1978."

"What should we do?"

"We could order a fourth plaque," he says, chuckling, "and title it 'Errata.' We could issue it from the Oakville Hysterical Society's Department of Corrections!"

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I will never trust information on gravestones again.

The tree that shades Mum's plaque is a sapling that we planted after Sandy died. My parents outlived the 120-year-old maple that used to stand in the same spot. It was a grand beauty with a ninety-inch girth and sweeping arms that branched out over the lake. It seemed almost human to me. I used to wonder what it had seen – who had paddled by in a canoe or stroked its bark in the 1800s? As children, we used to pitch our tent under its leafy canopy in summer and swing on one of its long, sinewy arms, propelling ourselves out over the beach like Tarzan. Sadly, despite being fitted with steel cables over the years, it hollowed out, and one day the town sprayed a bright orange X on its side. Then men came with a two-storey crane and buzz saws and cut it down, amputating its limbs one by one. My brothers saved a large chunk of its belly in the hopes of reincarnating it as a tabletop, but over time it rotted under a tarpaulin in the bushes and eventually got hauled away to the dump.

For years, the town has permitted memorial trees to be planted along the lakefront. It irked Mum that these saplings were congregating like a forest in front of her house, memorializing people she'd never met, threatening to block her view.

"They make us pay huge taxes for a lakefront view, and then they plant all these trees so we can't see a damn thing!" She wanted to sneak out at night and hack all the saplings off at the knees, but her oxygen tubing wouldn't reach that far.

From They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson. Copyright © Plum Johnson, 2014. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

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