After spotting an unusual obituary in the newspaper one day in late November, several years ago, the Toronto poet, academic and biographer Rosemary Sullivan called Claire Wachtel, at the time an editor at HarperCollins in New York. Wachtel had read the same obituary and encouraged Sullivan, with whom she'd worked on the Second World War-era history Villa Air-Bel, gave her 10 days to write a book proposal, a process that usually requires weeks if not months of work. "Ten days later I submitted the proposal and, being Claire, she sold the proposal to eight different publishers around the world," Sullivan said.
The obituary was for a woman named Lana Peters, who died in a small Wisconsin town on Nov. 22, 2011, at the age of 85. She was a woman who had gone by several names during the course of her remarkable life, none of which could hide the fact she was the daughter of notorious Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.
The resulting book, Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, which was published last June and became one of the most honoured works of Canada non-fiction in recent years, captured yet another award – the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize – on Monday.
The exhaustively researched book, which tells of Alliluveya's Russian childhood, high-stakes defection to the United States and life-long struggle to escape from her father's shadow, also won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction last October and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction earlier this year.
"To have done what's she done this year, this is some kind of achievement," said RBC Taylor Prize founder Noreen Taylor. "You just don't win all three. … It is a triple crown."
The other finalists, who receive $2,000 each, were Ian Brown for his diaristic examination of mortality, Sixty: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?; Camilla Gibb for her family memoir, This Is Happy; David Halton for his biography of his father, Dispatches from the Front: Matthew Halton, Canada's Voice at War; and Wab Kinew for The Reason You Walk, which is both a memoir and a biography of his father.
"This year I was so tempted to say, 'Oh, heck, let's give everybody a prize,'" said Taylor.
"I couldn't have made a decision," said Sullivan."I don't know how the jury did."
The winner was chosen by a jury of novelist Joseph Kertes, television executive Susanne Boyce and Stephen J. Toope, the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
As winner, Sullivan will also choose the recipient of this year's RBC Prize Emerging Writer's Award, which provides an up-and-coming author with $10,000.
"I want to thank Svetlana Alliluyeva," said Sullivan at the close of her acceptance speech. "She reminds us never to accept the projections of cliches that people impose on us, none more powerful than being Stalin's daughter. She refused it, she was angry all of her life because of that projection, but by the end of her life she said 'I've done it. I've become and am my own person."