While guests at the 20th anniversary RBC Taylor Prize ceremony enjoyed their lunch, finalist Mark Bourrie moved between tables with a stack of books in his arms, former Taylor-winners all, seeking their authors to ask for a signature. It was a momentous, celebratory yet sombre occasion. After 20 years, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards would be announcing its final winner. Before dessert, Bourrie’s own book would earn its place atop that stack, joining an illustrious list that includes Thomas King, Tim Cook, Rosemary Sullivan and Tanya Talaga.
Bourrie was announced as the winner of the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize for Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, the true-life adventure story of the 17th-century world traveller and serial double-crosser whose name adorns a chain of hotels today and whose venture as an Arctic fur trader led to the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Bourrie describes Radisson as “an eager hustler with no known scruples.” The jury described the book as being like “Jonathan Swift at his edgiest.”
The author of more than a dozen books including The Fog of War and Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, Bourrie choked up as he took the stage at Toronto’s Omni King Edward Hotel to accept his award. “This is amazing,” he said after receiving a standing ovation. “For a long time I wondered if anybody really cared about what I wrote. But you do.”
Bush Runner was rejected by numerous publishers before finding a home at Windsor, Ont., independent Biblioasis, with Bourrie calling it “the book that stayed in a bin for 14 years.” He praised his editor Janice Zawerbny from the stage and, in an interview afterward, thanked Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells for having “the guts” to publish a work of Canadian history that so many other publishers had rejected on commercial grounds.
“People read quirky, weird books,” he said. “They will read books that are driven by stories of people. If you see a review that says, ‘I thought Canadian history was boring,’ fire that reviewer because what they’re saying is people are boring.”
In an interview after the announcement, Wells – who in 2019 published the serially rejected Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,000-page, single-sentence stream of consciousness novel by American author Lucy Ellmann – said, “I have no doubt that the people at [bigger houses] care as much about books as we do, but they’re operating within different constraints and they seem to believe that Canadian history as a market is too small to warrant the investment. So part of it is just economies of scale; we can operate much more efficiently and we can make a book like this work.”
Biblioasis recently launched a list dedicated to publishing Canadian history, having noticed that it had become an underserved part of the market. And Bush Runner has already been a Canadian bestseller, thanks in part to a personal handwritten letter from Wells that secured Bourrie a spot on CBC Radio’s Ideas, a tactic Bourrie gives as an example of where a smaller press can have the edge.
Celebrating her birthday and dressed, as she was at the inaugural ceremony, in pink, prize founder Noreen Taylor was in a celebratory mood. When asked what she would miss the most she didn’t hesitate: “Oh, the writers. Not a question.”
After the ceremony, Taylor admitted to having placed her (theoretical) money on the wrong horse, but she was delighted with the result. “This is incredibly important for Mark,” she said. “He was a person who needed to have that boost by his peers. He needed to be recognized for a lifetime of work. And I don’t think anybody could have been as touched by this award – and I think he was surprised – as I believe he is touched. I think this is going to give him the courage to go onward. I don’t think he’s going to find another 12 publishers turning him down. And if that’s happened, then maybe I’ve done something right.”
Interestingly for a vehicle created with the express purpose of forwarding the cause of non-fiction books and authors, the prize’s first three winners – Wayne Johnston, Carol Shields and Isabel Huggan – were all fiction writers making a rare or lone foray into the genre.
Twenty years later, the final short list was, in contrast, replete with accessible but research-heavy investigations by journalists and historians (Bourrie is both).
Bourrie’s fellow finalists were Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle for Had it Coming: What’s Fair in the Age of #MeToo?; reporter Jessica McDiarmid for her first book, Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; broadcaster Ziya Tong for her first book, The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions that Shape Our World; and historian Timothy C. Winegard for The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator. Each finalist received $5,000 and a commemorative edition of their book. Jurors Margaret Atwood, Coral Ann Howells and Peter Theroux culled the short list from a record 155 submissions.
Initially presented every two years, the Charles Taylor Prize, as it was originally known, in honour of Noreen Taylor’s late husband, a journalist, became an annual event from 2004. From 2014 it was awarded as the RBC Taylor Prize and included a $10,000 Emerging Writer Award, which has been won by authors including Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Alicia Elliott. A mentorship component was added in 2017.
Bourrie will now be asked to choose the recipient of this year’s Emerging Writer Award, which will be announced in the coming weeks.
BY THE NUMBERS
- 13: Male writers who have won the prize
- 6: Female writers who have won the prize
- 5: Writers whose debut work won the prize
- 7: Winning books that were historical works or biographies
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